A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics. Edited by Francis J. Beckwith, Robert P. George, and Susan McWilliams.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2013. Paperback, 400 pages.
Hadley P. Arkes must indeed feel vindicated by this work. An intelligent collection of conservative articles and essays, A Second Look at First Things serves a dual purpose. The first is to enlighten the minds of conservative students, since young conservatives are often passionate in advocacy but not well grounded. Few conservative students are aware of the rich intellectual patrimony from which their views have grown, and this work seeks to fill such a void. The book’s second purpose is to honor Arkes, long a professor at Amherst College, as not only a great conservative scholar but a remarkable teacher. It is in this spirit that Francis Beckwith says in the introduction that the editors aimed to make A Second Look at First Things “an organic whole that serves its second purpose by serving its first: it attempts to teach and to teach well.”
The book is thus structured in a format conducive to learning, with each section building on the concepts established in the previous section. Part One (Conservatism, Statecraft, and Soulcraft) begins with basic principles of conservatism. It focuses on the meaning of conservatism, especially with regards to morality. Part Two (Jurisprudence) turns to legal thought, including the relationship between natural law, government, and public policy. Part Three (Religion, Liberal Democracy, and the American Project) addresses the relationship between church and state. It focuses on religious liberty as a paramount aspect of a flourishing theism. Part Four (Communities, Persons, and Institutions) culminates with a discussion of the implications of conservatism for both individual and society, arguing that an authentic conservatism is inseparable from the duty to uphold the dignity of the human person.
A Second Look at First Things certainly accomplishes the dual purpose for which it was compiled (and I say this as a member of the book’s target audience). The contributions are intellectually sound, and—all too rare in such collections—also very readable and conducive to learning.
Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations. By Eva Brann. Paul Dry Books, 2010. Paperback, 260 pages.
It is rare that we encounter a scholarly text not solely of criticism, but of genuine appreciation. Eva Brann’s collection of essays in Homage to Americans offers a contemplative tribute to “American ways.” Yet Brann is not striving for nostalgia. Through her reflections, she reminds us of the past to incite action in the present.
Brann begins her meditative journey with “Mile High Expectations.” Waiting for a flight to depart, she observes the ways in which travelers pass time and finds herself reflecting on the nature of being. She contemplates the intricacies of intrapersonal and interpersonal existence and cannot help but notice diversity. How are we to exercise tolerance in the midst of diversity? Searching for insight, Brann moves nimbly among different philosophers. Her task is daring, yet she accomplishes it with grace. She brings us back to the essence of tolerance. Tolerance cannot be a standard that is mindlessly followed but is rather an act of willful engagement and appreciation.
Brann continues her reflections on characteristically American subject matter: James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. She dissects these documents seemingly casually, but yet carefully and reverently, aware of their impact on American politics and society. Through the “Memorial” Brann discusses the interplay between religion and politics. How would Madison react to the current state of religious liberty (or lack thereof)? She ties these themes back to tolerance, drawing significantly from the Gettysburg Address. Brann notes the beauty of Lincoln’s language of preservation: a language that unites the competing interests of the North and South in order to preserve the union.
Her journey resumes with “Paradox of Obedience” and culminates with “The Empire of the Sun and the West.” The former is an address delivered to students at the Air Force Academy, while the latter examines the Spanish conquest in Mexico. Brann is particularly concerned with the interplay of freedom and obedience. True liberty demands obedience, but not blind obedience. But what about conquest? Can it coexist with freedom? Brann’s later essays reflect on Western expansion through the lens of human nature, showing us an America in need of a cultural renewal—a task she sets for today’s generation.
How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. By Rodney Stark. ISI Books, 2014. 432 pages, $28.
Amid the congestion of historical revisionism, Rodney Stark’s latest work is a breath of fresh air. In How the West Won, Stark surveys Western civilization and provides the West with a much-needed vindication. Stark presents his book not as a standard summary from “the old Western Civilization classes” but as a careful analysis of why, despite the merits of other cultures, modernity developed only in the West. He argues that even though the West adopted a few technologies from Asia, “modernity isentirely the product of Western civilization.” What is perhaps most striking is the way Stark gives primacy to ideas, as opposed to material factors, when explaining “how the West won.”
Stark divides his work into five parts. In the first, “Classical Beginnings,” he emphasizes the ideas of ancient Greek philosophy that became foundational to Western politics, governments, arts, and technology. He then incorporates Judeo-Christian ideas into the mix with the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In the next section—“The Not-So-Dark Ages”—Stark presents a period that embraced Christian concepts of free will and virtuousness of work and was, in turn, marked by great innovations, especially in agriculture, manufacturing, and trade. From this point, Stark moves on to “Medieval Transformations” and discusses the pursuit of knowledge, characterized by advances in many academic disciples, perhaps best seen in the creation of the university model. In “The Dawn of Modernity,” Stark focuses on the intellectual basis of modernity, including the various religious reformations and the “coming of age” of science. The culmination of the project is his section on modernity. For the most part, this is our current age of industrialization and globalization. Yet Stark stresses an interesting distinction. Although modernity has spread throughout the world, not all societies are modern, especially in the Western sense of the term.
Stark admits to Western modernity’s limitations but presents it as the best of the available alternatives because it is synonymous with the “fundamental commitment to freedom, reason, and human dignity.”
Alexis Carra is an assistant editor for the University Bookman.
Brief reviews of the Hadley Arkes Festschrift, A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics; Eva Brann’s Homage to Americans; and Rodney Stark’s How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity.