Book Review: The Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ed.)

Don’t be thrown off by the title. What is contained in this book is not merely four “slave narratives,” a phrase that implies the contents would only be of interest to those who want to learn more about African American history or literature. On the contrary, what is herein contained are four of the best pieces of literature in the English language that I have ever had the great privilege of reading. Each of them is an exhibition of excellent writing, skillful storytelling, and the resiliency of the human desires for respect and freedom. This is particularly true of the last two narratives in this collection, those of Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent.

Douglass’s narrative is the most well-known and widely read of slave narratives. In addition to being a masterpiece of American literature, it also contains a number of the most memorable and interesting stories of any of the slave narratives. Douglass’s insights and observations, in addition to his story, are brilliant and place Douglass among the greatest thinkers of the last several centuries.

Brent’s narrative has only been rediscovered as the excellent work it is in the last few decades and restored to its proper place as a masterwork of English literature. For her narrative, she recounts her story in the manner of a romance, which culminates not in a marriage, as most romances do, but rather in the moment at which her freedom and the freedom of her children is at least ascertained. Like Douglass, the depth of her insight into the mind of the slave and the depraved psychology of the slave owner are always fascinating and illuminating.

One one gains by reading these narratives is not merely historical knowledge about the institution of slavery nor is it merely background for the later, fuller blossoming of the African American literary tradition. It is, instead, an insider’s look at one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind and the effect it had on both sides, on slave and on slave owner as the former was treated as a beast and the latter behaved in a manner fit for one. To paraphrase one of Douglass’s many stirring sentences, you will see how a man becomes an animal and how an animal becomes a man.

Book Review: Bede’s History of the English Church and People

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People is an interesting read, though not one I’d recommend for those who do not have a relatively intense interest in the subject matter contained in the title. Bede’s history often reads as a record of English folktales about monks and various holy man more than it reads like history in the sense most modern people attach to that word. In fact, it might make better religious reading than it does historical or literary reading. Unless you have a real interest in the primary sources for medieval English religious thought, it would be best to stick to more modern academic writing on the subject of English history.

What I found most interesting about the book is the tension it exhibits between an incipient nationalism on the British Isles and the Christianity notion of catholicity as the universality of faith in the Church. The question of the legitimacy of practices native to or at least antecedent of the Roman practice in Britain frequently arises. Bede is fairly charitable, especially given the climate of the Church at that time, but always sides with the Roman practice as evincing a catholic nature over the more local, even if older, practices.

It was this tension between nation and Catholic Church, of course, that eventually led the English Church to schism from the Roman Church in the 16th century. That such a tension existed at even this early point, albeit in quite different forms, makes for some often fascinating reading, for one so intellectually inclined.

Tocqueville’s commentary on the Constitution

Our most recent reading for the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or at least a few chapters of it. Here, after having read the Constitution and several of the Federalist Papers last month, we are treated to a commentary upon the Constitution by one of the great thinkers and observers of the early 19th century.

While it is difficult to choose just one aspect of Tocqueville’s observations and thoughts to comment upon, what stood out to me the most is Tocqueville’s assertion, near the end of the selection we read, that the sort of government the United States has, in particular the limited powers of its executive, is only possible in a country that, like the United States, is granted a certain degree of security by its geography. (Also, I want to commend myself for the excellence of that run-on sentence.) Tocqueville posits that if a European country were to adopt a constitution which so severely curtailed the privileges and prerogatives of its executive it could not last long.

There seems to me to be a great amount of truth to Tocqueville’s observations here. The United States has only been in a position in which it was forced to defend its very existence twice in its history (or thrice, if we count the Revolution as well, though I omit that from consideration here as this predates the Constitution). While the United States has fought several wars, only the Civil War and World War II could be accurately understood as wars for survival. In both instances, the government has found it necessary to vastly expand the powers of the executive and temporarily suspend the limits typically imposed upon the executive and legislative by law. Lincoln was the president who came closest to the powers of a monarch and Roosevelt the president who came closest to the length of a monarch’s reign.

All of this raises important questions for the future of democratic government in the United States. In the face of the ever-present threat of terrorism and the ever-decreasing size (so to speak) of the world, the geographic isolation of the United States seems less important now than at any previous time and will, undoubtedly, continue to lose significance. Is it, then, inevitable that the United States must change its system of government and social life through a reduction in the liberties of the people and an increase in the powers of the executive in order to ensure its very survival? The advocates of, for example, the Patriot Act would seem to say that this is the case. Yet, the United States has a very firmly entrenched culture of individual freedom and limited government. Will this culture survive? Can it? Should it?

Short book review: Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis

Given that this encyclical is now fairly old news, as far as news goes these days, I will keep my comments on it brief. As most are already aware, this is Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on the environment which generated some controversy when it was first released. Having now finally read it in full, I have to express my surprise at the controversy. Far from being anything altogether innovative as I was expecting Francis instead recapitulates 2000 years of Christian thought on the relationship between wealth, cosmos, and man. The conclusion that he reaches is, essentially, that it is best for each of us to choose to live a simpler life and that rich nations should help poor nations and rich individuals help poor individuals. Throughout, the text is sprinkled with citations from some of the great Fathers of the Church as well as various medieval and modern Christian thinkers. The result is a sound synthesis of Christian thought on what it means to be simultaneously a spiritual/rational being in a material/animal existence. It is, in short, Christianity. Anyone who was shocked and/or appalled by this had best keep away from such controversial writings as those of Ss. Francis or Basil. In fact, anyone offended by this encyclical might want to stay away from one of the most shocking and subversive thinkers of all time: Jesus.

Marx and originality

I am finally all caught up in the Great Books of the Western World reading project! My goal now is to stay on time with the reading and post twice each month with updates. Thank you for your patience to all who have been following this project. The first year is now nearly complete and it has been tremendously fruitful so far. I am looking forward to the rest of this year’s readings, none of which I have read in the past, and beginning a 2016 that, I hope, will be at least as fruitful as this year has been.

Marx, whose Communist Manifesto is our most recent read for the project, is another thinker who, along with Smith and others, I have had the opportunity to spend a great amount of time with during my PhD seminar on Wealth as a Great Idea this semester. Our readings for the seminar were all from the much longer and more in depth Das Kapital, so it was a delight to read this Manifesto, which is essentially a simplified and abbreviated treatment of Marx’s philosophy. So far as I can tell, Marx’s point in the Manifesto was to present his philosophy to a popular audience in a way that any fairly educated person could understand. If this was indeed his goal, as it seems to me to have been, I think he did a great deal to accomplish it, though I think he might have spared us some of the rhetoric.

Like Smith, I believe Marx is another great economic thinker who is frequently misunderstood and so unappreciated. When reading and interpreting Marx, we tend to view him through the lens of the atrocities committed in his name in the 20th century. While it is beyond the scope of this blog post to offer an assessment of whether those atrocities were the inevitable result of Marx’s philosophy, I am willing to aver that Marx himself would not have approved of a Stalin, a Mao, or Pol Pot, nor probably even of a Lenin. Ultimately, what motivates Marx’s philosophy, however different it may be from Smith’s, is identical to what motivated Adam Smith, namely, a concern for the suffering of the poor. If viewed in this light, I think it is possible to have an authentic appreciation for Marx and for his ideas, no matter how much one might disagree with him.

With that said, one of the things that strikes me most when reading Marx is his lack of originality. While Marx’s is a unique formulation of the ideas to which he subscribes, remarkably few of Marx’s ideas are original to him. The only idea that I am able to identify in Marx’s philosophy which is, as far as I know, unique to Marx is the idea of the alienation produced by industrial society. It is notable that I also find this idea the most interesting, compelling, and accurately descriptive in Marx’s works.

The mind of the Founding Fathers

Our most recent readings for the Great Books of the Western World reading project are, I believe, among the most interesting that we have read this year as well as the most truly essential. Included in September’s readings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few of the Federalist Papers, the editorials published by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in defense of the Constitution.

Each of these readings is essential reading for an American and each is an exhibition of a belief that I have come over the past several years to hold: namely, that the United States is, while not the exclusive representative of Western Civilization, its most pure and significant representative. The work of the Founding Fathers is, in its essence, a distillation of all of the previous history and thought of Western Civilization. They drew, through their own classical educations, upon the history of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans of the ancient world as well as the Christians of the Middle Ages and later who brought these previous cultures into a great synthesis within their new ideological context.

In so doing, the Founders of the United States drew out of each of these aspects of the heritage of Western Civilization the best elements and avoided the worst errors. The subsequent history of the United States has, in large part, been the sorting out of what all of this means. The Civil War, the various social movements of the last 150 years, and so on each have at their heart the question of what it all of this heritage means and how it is to be lived out. Because of this, these works are essential readings for all Americans as well as the other denizens of Western Civilization.

Adam Smith and economic freedom

As I finally catch up on the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I come now, somewhat out of order, to Smith. The introduction and first nine chapters of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations technically follow the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers in the Great Books of the Western World reading list, but I have been reading October’s readings side-by-side and finished Smith first. I have actually had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time reading, contemplating, and discussing Smith over the past few months as I have been engaged in a PhD seminar on “Wealth” as one of the great ideas.

One of the aspects of Smith’s thought that strikes me most each time I read him is what it is that is motivating him. One frequently hears the name of Smith abused in contemporary debates about economic systems. He is often referred to, by those who no doubt have never actually read his work but only seen him mentioned in textbooks, as the father of cold, hard laissez-faire capitalism. He seems most commonly to be seen as a sort of Ayn Rand figure who believed in the virtue of greed.

The reality, as we see in this selection from his most important work, however, is that Smith was motivated essentially by his compassion for the poor. Smith believed that through economic freedom a superabundance of goods and luxuries could be produced which would make a society richer in a general sense, thereby raising the standard of living for even the poorest members of that society. And while Smith may have erred in some of the details of his ideas, the wealth of those nations that have more or less followed his road map today is sufficient evidence in favor of the soundness of his thesis. With but few exceptions, even the poorest Americans and Western Europeans enjoy a lifestyle that far surpasses that of the poor in many other places in the world and that surpasses by a long shot nearly all of the poor anywhere in the world before the modern era. Smith is certainly a thinker with whom we should be more familiar and whose ideas deserve more respect and consideration than they currently receive.