A sentence from the first paragraph of Federalist 1 occurs to me on the oddest occasions: “But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.” In its original context, Alexander Hamilton, writing under a pseudonym, explains how unlikely it would be if everyone engaged in forming the new Constitution of the United States could do so “unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.” Out of context, the sentence can be deployed to good effect in many circumstances. Suppose, for example, that I am reading one of the books described below, and my wife, seeing this apparent idleness, asks me to fix the large holes pecked in the wood siding of our garage wall by Northern flickers. I can look up and quote directly from her beloved Publius: “Honey, this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”
The sentence also applies to the prospect of reading everything that follows, at least during the summer. I’ll be lucky if I finish even a quarter of it. Some of these books I’ve already read, some I am currently reading, and some I hope to read. First up come those books most related to Wyoming Catholic College’s mission of remaking culture by drawing upon the great Western tradition. In junior and senior years, our students encounter the thinkers who have been so instrumental in making the modern world what it is—Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and others. Two recent, accessible books analyze the effects of the “modern project” (now almost half a millennium) on the current state of culture.
In Why Liberalism Failed Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, shows how an early modern redefinition of liberty has led to the erosion of communities, traditional morals, and traditional education in the arts of self-government. In Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, focuses on the ways that this redefined understanding of individual freedom undercuts the beliefs of the working classes with devastating effects. Reno and Deneen draw upon some of the same sources—for example, Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart—in analyzing the increasing polarization of America. Both books show that government overreach into private affairs results from the wrong understanding of individual liberties. The longer and more substantial book on these matters that I anticipate reading soon is the great French scholar Remi Brague’s The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and the Failure of the Modern Project. I look forward to spending some time—perhaps time with the faculty—thinking through some of his chapters.
Parents, prospective students, and donors always want to know what can be done with a degree in liberal arts, and many answers are available. The education at Wyoming Catholic differs greatly from mere vocational training, but it would be difficult to defend if it were in fact “useless.” Also in my stack, then, are books that address the practicality of a liberal arts education. I’ve started A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees by Randall Stross, who shows that liberal arts graduates have a flexibility and openness often absent in students who choose an education to get a particular kind of job. Two more in this vein are David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and George Anders’ You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education.
With the recent anniversary, I remembered Rick Atkinson’s excellent World War II trilogy about the U.S. military presence in Europe. Several years ago, I read An Army at Dawn about the campaign in Northern Africa, and I’m going to continue with The Day of Battle (the war in Sicily and Italy) and The Guns at Last Light, which includes his account of D-Day. Atkinson also has a new trilogy underway, this time about the Revolutionary War. The first volume, The British Are Coming, has been out for less than a month.
Literature is my first and deepest love, so I’m always reading novels and poetry—more novels than poems of late. Recently I’ve read two by contemporary Catholic writers, Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin and Lee Oser’s Oregon Confetti. Both are comic and lively, though I could wish in both for a little more of the tragic strain to make the Christian comedy feel more consequential. I’d welcome a discussion on these if others have read them. I’m also listening to this year’s Pulitzer winner, Richard Powers The Overstory, which would be an extraordinary book if only for what it teaches its readers about trees. At Joseph Pearce’s suggestion, I’ve read Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, and I’m reading Maurice Baring’s Cat’s Cradle. In poetry, I will continue reading and rereading Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems: New and Selected, which he gave me on a memorable afternoon at his home last summer, and I anticipate with pleasure my friend Frederick Turner’s Apocalypse: An Epic Poem. James Matthew Wilson’s The Hanging God is on my list, and the late poems of Wallace Stevens have become favorite bedtime reading.
In spiritual reading, I am working through Fr. Wojciech Giertych’s wonderful book, The Spark of Faith, and I anticipate Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Day is Now Far Spent, due out in September. Suggestions are always welcome—in fact, they’re seriously to be expected.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter (June 2019).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Reading woman on a couch” (c. 1880-1934) by Isaac Israels (1865-1934), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.