book cover imageThomas E. Woods, Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 289 pp.)

Most standard surveys of Western civilization tend to treat superficially, if they treat at all, the period of history stretching from the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century to the beginning of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century. This epoch has been pedantically labeled the “Middle Ages,” or more pejoratively the “Dark Ages,” because it is seen as interfering between the progress begun by the ancient world and then resumed with the dawn of modernity. Woods corrects this misappropriated view for the popular reader, demonstrating that in the Middle Ages “the Church made an indelible imprint on the very heart of European civilization and was a profoundly significant force for good.”

Beginning with the “Dark Ages,” which consumed only the sixth and seventh centuries due to “the barbarian invasions of late antiquity,” Woods examines how the Catholic Church helped inspire innovation and development in education, law, science, architecture, economics, and morality. For instance, emphasis on rational inquiry led in the late twelfth century to the formation of the first universities, which the Church fostered and “the papacy played a central role in establishing and encouraging.” Additionally, international law grew from the reflection of Spanish theologians on the treatment of Native Americans by Spanish colonists, and scholastic thinkers contributed to the development of monetary theory and of subjective value theory.

Woods devotes his longest chapter to the interplay of the Church and science. Far from stifling inquiry, the Church promoted research and experimentation as a complement to her understanding of creation, and many leading scientists in the fields of astronomy, geology, optics, and seismology were Catholic clerics. Regarding Galileo, Woods labels the Church’s censure as “unwise,” but he explains that Galileo himself bears much of the burden for what happened. Readers interested in Medieval Europe and in the origins of the modern world will learn a great deal from Woods’s accessible research.

The political and cultural ideologies of Hollywood’s directors, writers, and actors are well known. Nevertheless, “films that challenge the conventional wisdom and values of Hollywood are made every year.” Winchell has chosen 118 such films spanning nine decades, labeling them with “the convenient shorthand ‘politically incorrect’” because they “do not fit the dreary conformist mold of left-wing groupthink.”

Winchell’s perspicacious analysis details 18 films, several from each of three Hollywood epochs: its golden age, its early culture wars, and its straddling of the third millennium. He frames his account of each film around the ideologically charged criticisms that accompanied a release, or, as in the case of The Birth of a Nation, surfaced in the decades that followed. Winchell follows with a detailed summary, a keen examination of the film’s cultural impact, and its reception by critics. For example, he concludes that Scarlett and Rhett of Gone With the Wind “were really conservatives at heart” because of their longing for home, a characteristic of which “a critic from the adversary culture” would disprove. Additionally, he surveys the career of John Ford through the lens of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, concluding that in “his final, and in some ways definitive, Western film,” Ford rejects “Rousseau’s view that society is a corrupting force,” a position his early Westerns embodied. More recently, he defends The Passion of the Christ from charges of gratuitous violence and anti-Semitism; the former was “both aesthetically and theologically justified” and the latter the result of “those who had decided ahead of time that that was the case.”

The book concludes with brief summaries of 100 “politically incorrect” films that identify how each one challenges typical Hollywood partiality. Both movie-goers and cultural critics will enjoy Winchell’s engaging and wide-ranging analyses.

book cover imageJeremy Black, George III: America’s Last King (Yale University Press, 475 pp.)

The Declaration of Independence called King George III “[a] Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant.” Black’s impressively researched biography examines countless letters written by the king and his contemporaries to paint a much different portrait: Through “a life of duty and conviction” George III, who reigned from 1760-1820, tirelessly guided Great Britain and its empire through tumultuous historical events, in a manner “[n]either grand nor great, but good.”

Black offers a thorough and honest analysis of George’s character, beliefs, religion, and culture, as well as his actions in response to the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the empire, and Parliament. While he assesses George with an even amount of praise and criticism, Black, through his use of concrete primary evidence, exposes false caricatures of the king, such as his philistine nature and the “Whig myth” that exaggerated his pretensions for power. To the contrary, Black notes that the industriousness and pertinacity that marked George’s entire active reign “owed much to an inner conviction that drew on a strong personal piety and a clear sense of morality.” The king’s deep faith caused an equally strong commitment to his duty to uphold order and authority, as he saw himself doing in the war with America. Black, however, chides George’s refusal of conciliation with America, which resulted from his “lack of understanding of American colonial society and aspirations on the part of the imperial government.”

Despite his failure in America, George’s long reign was largely admired by contemporaries, and it contributed to making the British monarchy “a popular and potent symbol of national identity and continuity.” Ironically, however, his reign coincided with “the perceived decline in the crown’s political authority.” Black provides a comprehensive insight into a provocative ruler for readers interested in King George, the British monarchy, and this transformative period of world history.

book cover imageAdrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale University Press, 583 pp.)

The dramatic life of Gaius Julius Caesar as general, statesman, lover, and de facto monarch has captured the imagination of historians and writers for two thousand years. Such an intriguing and cogent character has given rise to polarized interpretations of his career: hero or villain, visionary or self-aggrandizer, brilliant or opportunist. Goldsworthy’s balanced portrayal sees Caesar as all of these in his impressive narrative that carefully seeks “not to allow hindsight to impose a sense of inevitability on events.” By adhering closely to the ancient historians, Goldsworthy describes and analyzes “the essential ambiguity of Caesar,” ultimately concluding, “For all his faults, Caesar was undoubtedly a patriot and a very able man.”

Goldsworthy traces Caesar’s life from his early career, which “had been conventional in most important respects,” to his consulship and victories in Gaul, to his triumph over the Roman world and his subsequent assassination. A military historian at heart, Goldsworthy significantly details Caesar’s campaigns in both the Gallic and Civil Wars with maps, vivid descriptions, and thorough analyses. In addition to his retelling of Caesar’s life, Goldsworthy complements his narrative with explanations of Roman life and customs in the final decades of the Republic, including the workings of politics and the Roman army, marriage and funeral rituals, and the nature of the relationships between men and women.

The book features considerable analysis of Caesar’s actions and decisions. Although he often sides with Caesar, Goldsworthy considers both the positive and negative perspectives; he leaves unsure questions open-ended, and he seeks conciliation where possible; for instance, in the sentencing of Catiline, he opines, “Winning fame and doing what he believed to be right were not mutually exclusive.” Readers interested in Caesar and ancient Rome will enjoy Goldsworthy’s flowing narrative and thoughtful analysis.

—David G. Bonagura, Jr.