book cover imageAd Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler (Walker & Company, 382 pp., 2007)

Writing in the seventh century, St. Isidore of Seville observed that “peoples have arisen from languages, not languages from peoples.” The history of the Latin language, as Ostler compellingly chronicles, affirms this thesis: Latin provided “the soul of Europe’s civilization,” the substance for Latin’s claim to universality for over two millennia.

Ostler’s engaging narrative, while illustrating how Latin grew from the language of a small Italian tribe to that of the orbis terrarum, returns often to the universal character of the language and how this character influenced its speakers. Beginning humbly as the unifier of the Roman army, Latin “became the vehicle of Roman law, of literature and the school curriculum, of state administration, of the Christian religion, of monasteries, universities, and chanceries in Europe, and (for a time) even in the New World.” But in addition, Latin speakers, whether Roman, Christian, or Humanist, “have tended to see their world as all the world that counts.” The Latin world “remained a closed world,” not because it rejected the world beyond its limits, but rather “because it looked resolutely inward, to Rome” for its causa essendi. This “persistent focus on the homeland, on the eternal center,” made the Latin language and culture seem boundless, giving it “faith in what we could call the Ad Infinitum, the sense that the culture that it represented would prevail and prove universal.” When this universal claim collapsed in the modern age, so too did Latin.

Ostler’s erudition as a linguist well-versed in the classics provides fantastic scope for the narrative: His history includes the nature of the Latin language itself, as well as its cousins and vernacular descendants, and he adds many interesting tidbits, such as the origins of the terms “classic” and “Latin America.” This book will delight enthusiasts of Latin in particular and Western Civilization in general.

book cover imageSanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, Bradley J. Birzer (Christendom Press, 2007, 322 pp.)

Towering above the early twentieth century Catholic literary revival stands Christopher Dawson, the English historian and man of letters who identified culture as the animating principle of history. Since religion is the heart of culture, Dawson wrote, then “religion is the key to history;” therefore “[w]e cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion.” To understand Europe and the West, then, one must see Christianity at its center, a central theme of Dawson’s voluminous writings for decades.

In this thoroughly researched book, Birzer analyzes Dawson’s work in light of the venerable thinker’s own philosophy of history: To understand Dawson is to recognize the Catholic faith that shaped his life and work. As the subtitle suggests, Birzer stresses the Augustinian element of Dawson’s Catholicism; following St. Augustine, Dawson saw the world as created by God, and history “as the vehicle for the Divine to interact with humanity.” Moreover, he shared St. Augustine’s view of human beings as created in God’s image, and while each individual has his own unique purpose, he requires “God’s grace to fill the vacuum and remake” himself. As a result Dawson saw his writing as a vocation “to sanctify the world, through grace.” Whether explaining the relationship of history and culture, or critiquing the troubled ideologies of his day, Dawson tirelessly labored to inspire the present through his study of the past.

In addition to expounding Dawson’s thought, Birzer paints an honest picture of the man behind the writings: brilliant yet shy, hopeful yet depressed, prolific yet often unable to set his best ideas to paper. But above all, like St. Augustine, Dawson was a man of the imagination, a gift of the Holy Spirit that he deemed the critical component for restoring Christian culture in the West. Such insightful exposition of the mind of this great historian will aid those seeking a deeper understanding of Dawson’s work and influence.

book cover imageDemocracy Without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. By Pierre Manent; Trans. by Paul Seaton (ISI Books, 2007, 113 pp.)

Since 1945, the supranational government entities of the UN and the EU have grown in size and power in pursuit of a vaguely defined universal humanitarian mission. In this provocatively written and elegantly translated book, Manent impugns this “universalism ‘without any borders or limits’” as a danger to both Europe and to democracy itself. Manent, whom translator Paul Seaton describes as a “latter-day Tocqueville,” defends the nation-state as the original and proper framework for democracy in light of this new threat to self-governing nations.

The three brief essays of this volume support the importance of the nation-state as a political body from three distinctive angles that complement each other without repetition. The nation-state provided unity for Europe, and as democracy developed it fostered “the intimate union of civilization and liberty.” For Manent, “the principle of consent” gives legitimacy to democracy, and consent merges with a communion of citizens to provide ultimate political fulfillment. By contrast, he describes the vision of democracy of those who support the ideology of “Europe” as “pure democracy,” which “is democracy without a people.” Pure democracy focuses centrally on human rights while rendering consent irrelevant. As the ideology of “Europe” seeks to bury the nation-state as a political body, it jeopardizes the principle of consent since it threatens the very framework in which democracy operates. As a result “the European citizen finds himself able to accomplish less and less” since his will has been left “politically impotent.”

Manent also argues that Christianity plays a political role in the proper understanding of democracy and the nation-state; he advocates a “neutral state” and a “Christian nation” not embarrassed of its true “political genesis and substance.” Readers interested in the principle of democracy and its precarious future will profit from this thoughtfully argued book.

book cover imageUncrowned Emperor: The Life and Times of Otto von Habsburg. By Gordon Brook-Shepherd (Hambledon and London, 257 pp.)

Archduke Otto von Habsburg has witnessed firsthand the transformation of Europe in the 20th century and the calamities that brought it about. Born in 1912 as the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Otto witnessed the crowning of his father, Karl, as King of Hungary, at age four; at age nine he became head of the Habsburg household upon his father’s death; at age eighteen he became “The Pretender” to the throne while he endured his family’s exile from Austria; in the 1930s he led opposition to Hitler’s domination of Austria; after World War II he began private life as awriter and speaker; in 1979 he was elected to the European Parliament, where he served until his retirement in 1999. Despite the misfortunes and hostilities his family suffered, Otto throughout his life has remained selfless and forward thinking; his dignified conduct has earned him the nickname “Mr. Europe,” one that even his opponents respect.

The late Brook-Shepherd, a personal friend of Otto, evocatively chronicles all these events in this eloquent biography of the now 95-year-old head of Europe’s oldest house. Using testimonials written by Otto himself, Brook-Shepherd vividly and candidly narrates the tumultuous political events that enveloped Otto and his family. He honestly assesses Otto’s own political contributions as “one long series of pleas and nudges for the conservative and European cause,” which were “impossible to write off but equally impossible to quantify.” For Otto the independence of Austria and later his causes in Parliament were always “an even greater priority . . . than a restoration bid.”

This brilliant narrative of “a completely political royal,” while omitting the role that Otto’s Catholic faith played in shaping his family and his political goals, illuminates the life of a most compelling and magnetic figure. Readers interested in the Habsburgs and the political history of the two Great Wars will benefit from Brook-Shepherd’s account.