At the height of his career and celebrity, the ancient poet Ovid was abruptly banished from Rome by the personal decree of emperor Caesar Augustus on account of his “carmen et error”—a salacious poem and a still unknown “mistake.” From his place of exile on the Black Sea, the very limit of the civilized Roman Empire, Ovid composed two books of elegies, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, in the midst of his lugubrious final decade. McGowan vigorously argues that in these poems Ovid transformed his exile into a “metaphorical motif” from which he contrasted the limits of temporal and political power against “the power of poetry to immortalize its subject.”

At the center of the poems lies the personal conflict between Augustus and Ovid, who maintained that his mild “mistake” did not warrant the severity of his punishment. McGowan identifies Ovid’s laments as indicative of wider transformations in Rome’s political, cultural, and religious spheres during the reign of her first emperor, who in four decades of rule inserted himself “in nearly every facet of the Roman state.” For example, in Rome Augustus avoided direct references to his divinity, and the earlier poets Vergil and Horace followed his suggestive model. By contrast, Ovid, writing a generation later, repeatedly referred to the emperor as “not simply a god among other gods but quite clearly the most powerful and pervasive divinity” who, like Jupiter, had power over all men as their symbolic father.

For McGowan Ovid is not only exile but also vates, poetic prophet whose ultimate audience was not the emperor, but posterity. Invoking myth and history Ovid presented himself as a composite of Homer and Ulysses because of his deep sufferings and poetic genius, a talent even the emperor could not take from him. McGowan successfully illustrates that for Ovid political power was transient when compared with “the art of poetry that provides the exile with the power to speak after death and always gives him the last word.”

book cover imageThe Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment
by Carl J. Richard (Harvard University Press, 296 pp.)

Students of America’s founding fathers, seeking to understand and analyze their innovative and pragmatic genius, tend to classify the icons’ thought with sharply drawn labels: Whig or liberal, Christian or rationalist, classical or modern. Richard argues that the founders themselves knew of no such dichotomies; rather they saw “these traditions as one, the ‘tradition of liberty.’” But because of their “direct connection to the works of antiquity” through their school system and cultural discourse, the classics “exerted a formative influence upon the founders” and served as “the means by which they mediated between these diverse perspectives.”

The Latin and Greek classics dominated the academic curriculum of the eighteenth century, and they were especially valued as the primary means of inculcating virtue in the young. This knowledge, in addition to providing the founders lifelong inspiration and solace, provided critical cultural and political foundations: it served as “a badge denoting class, taste, wisdom, and virtue” and it also “facilitated discourse by supplying a common set of symbols, knowledge, and ideas.” Richard mines the vast corpus of the founders’ writings to provide primary evidence of the ancients’ symbols, models, “antimodels,” and philosophy to which the founders referred time and again in opposing the British and in directing the new government. Despite their deference to antiquity, Richard insists that “the founders resisted slavishness,” a fact best exemplified by the “shrewdness” with which they adapted mixed government theory to form and later interpret the Constitution. In this and other endeavors the “founders were like the son who idolizes his father, though striving to surpass him.”

Richard concludes his illuminating book by refuting the notion that the classics declined immediately after the Constitution was ratified: the effort of education reformers such as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Paine not only failed amidst a furious defense of the classics, but also demonstrated that “even they could not completely escape socialization in the cult of the classics.” Readers interested in the founders andin classical education will profit from Richard’s thorough account of how the latter indelibly shaped the former.

book cover imageLight of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation with Peter Seewald
by Benedict XVI. Translated by Michael J. Miller and Adrian J. Walker. (Ignatius Press, 226 pp.)

For six years the secular media have misinterpreted the pontificate of Benedict XVI, choosing to focus only on their own interests rather than cover the pope’s more significant deeds and deeper message. The press coverage surrounding the release of this book—the first ever book-length interview with a reigning pontiff—was further evidence of this situation. In choosing to take some of the pope’s words out of context, they overlooked the heart of the text: the profound analysis of the states of the Catholic Church and the global village by a deeply religious man who sees his role on the world stage as primarily spiritual, not political.

The pope candidly—and even defensively at times—discusses the public controversies of his pontificate: the abuse scandal, his relationship with Islam, the Holocaust-denying bishop, and the fight against AIDS. He labels his international journeys among his great successes because they exuded “the awareness that the Catholic Church is alive and full of energy,” and he expresses his disappointment at “thefact that secularity continues to assert its independence and to develop in forms that increasingly lead people away from the faith.” Benedict’s thoughtful cultural analysis dissects the existential underpinnings of modern secularism and the “dictatorship of relativism,” noting that a false conception of tolerance has distorted reason to claim “that it has now really recognized what is right and thus makes a claim to totality that is inimical to freedom.” As concrete examples of true tolerance, Benedict asserts that crucifixes should be allowed in public buildings and mosques are permitted to be built in western countries.

Underlying the pope’s responses is his lifelong conviction that “man strives for eternal joy” and “the eternity man needs can come only from God, the first thing necessary in order to be able to withstand the afflictions of this time.” It is only with this perspective, evident throughout the book, that Benedict’s pontificate can be truly understood.

book cover imageGod and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens
by John Haught (Westminister John Knox Press, 128 pp.)

Best selling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have defined evolution as the new dogma that has officially consigned the idea of God to the dustbin of history. Haught’s evenhanded examination of their dogma argues that today’s so-called “new atheism” is not all that different from its classical predecessor, save that the earlier thinkers gave the idea of God a bit more courtesy than their contemporary counterparts.

Haught asserts that the trio’s chief flaw is their presupposed epistemological hermeneutic of “scientific naturalism,” whose “central dogma is that only nature, including humans and our creations, is real; that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality.” For the new atheists faith is “belief without evidence,” and religious ideas are not just irrational, but unethical as well, forthey deem these ideas the cause of the world’s sufferings and evils. But Haught points out that the new atheists’ own perspective hinges on their faith in the superiority of scientific knowledge, an assertion that cannot be proved empirically. He further notes that many of their criticisms stem from their scant knowledge of theology, including their literal interpretations of the Bible, reduction of religion to morality, and assimilation of religious explanations with those of science.

Haught uses the new atheists’ faith in science as the catalyst for his own discussion of faith, which has a distinctly modern cast. Justifying the reality of faith on existential grounds, he argues that “in the validation of every truth claim or hypothesis, a leap of faith is an inescapable ingredient.” Human nature, morality, and Christian theology all attest to the implicit necessity of this leap in which we surrender ourselves freely to “the inexhaustibly deep dimension of Being, Meaning, Truth, and Goodness” that theists call God. This leap is “an essentially religious act, one in which even the atheist is an unwitting participant.” Readers seeking the essence of the new atheism and how to answer it on its own terms will profit from Haught’s thoughtful analysis.  

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman.

Short reviews of books from Matthew McGowan, Carl J. Richard, Benedict XVI, and John Haught.