The last year or so has been a most propitious time for thoughtful studies of social and political life. In an age when fewer and fewer people read serious books, a gift of a weighty tome serves as a statement and challenge to one’s family and friends. Here are some gifts of permanence that may help us recover some of what has been lost:
1. Birzer, Bradley. Russell Kirk (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).
No other major figure in twentieth-century American life more deserved an exemplary biographical study than Russell Amos Kirk. Thanks to Bradley J. Birzer, we have such a grand tome, and Prof. Birzer’s accomplishment surpasses all previous efforts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. More importantly, Prof. Birzer has a command of the primary sources associated with Kirk that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. In other words, Prof. Birzer corrects the litany of inadequacies contained in previous articles and essays on Kirk. Prof. Birzer’s encyclopedic critique of the Duke of Mecosta is a masterwork.
2. Lim, Elvin T. The Lovers’ Quarrel: The Two Foundings and American Political Development (Oxford University Press).
In this engaging and innovative approach to American political development and thought, Prof. Lim affirms the “inner logic” of American politics. Accordingly, the greatest disputes occur over the nature of the union. The book is an explication of the two “loves,” the interconnected tension and viability of the two foundings of the American republic: 1776 and 1787-89. The ensuing political tensions are closely associated with the two loves and whether the constitution is a restrictive or empowering document. The two sources of tension are critiqued in the course of a historical survey that includes the generation after the founders, Jefferson, Jackson, Calhoun, the sectional crisis, the Progressives, the New Deal, and the “New Federalism.” In depicting Washington as a proponent of an energetic presidency and Thomas Jefferson as the original anti-federalist, the book’s theme is imaginatively affirmed, yet the author’s suggestion that Antifederalists were “presidentialists” is misleading. The connection of Jefferson and Jackson is more convincing and advances existing knowledge, but the attempt to diminish the theoretical symmetry between Madison and Calhoun is problematic. The fifth chapter unconvincingly links the Antifederalists to the Progressives, although subsequent chapters and the overall volume constitute an exemplary contribution to the scholarship of the American regime.
3. Schlosser, Joel Alden. What Would Socrates Do?: Self-Examination, Civic Engagement, and the Politics of Philosophy (Cambridge University Press).
In this thoughtful and careful study, Prof. Schlosser (Bryn Mawr College) revisits the vitality of Socrates as a political thinker who encouraged “contesting” democracy through “questioning and dialogue.” Instead of accepting the well-established depictions of Socrates as harming Athenian political culture (e.g., I. F. Stone) or functioning in an essentially apolitical manner (e.g., Sheldon Wolin), the author provides an integrative defense of Socrates and the continued relevance of his thought to the study of politics. Socrates the ironic or esoteric thinker is rejected in favor of Socrates as an advocate of “strangeness,” challenging previous analyses by Gregory Vlastos and Leo Strauss. Socrates becomes an advocate of “enduring dissonance” for living the “examined life.” Other important issues raised in the book include new insights regarding the nature of Socratic citizenship and the Socratic model of free speech. Socratic citizenship, as defined by the accountability of the citizenry, can provide a more prudent basis for a regime. With a deeper appreciation of the Socratic understanding of free speech, a more inclusive and collective representation of the citizenry can also be envisioned.
One can never go wrong with a fountain pen as a gift of permanence. I prefer vintage pens, especially the old American varieties: Sheaffer, Waterman, and Parker among many others.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.