Associate Professor of Philosophy, Pasadena City College
Philosophy is difficult to make accessible to the general reader. This is especially true of the philosophical ideas of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and other classical and Scholastic thinkers. More's the pity, because few subjects are as important as philosophy in general and classical and Scholastic philosophy in particular. (Or so we Neo-Scholastics would argue.)
Fortunately, 2012 has seen the release of several books tailor-made to help the non-specialist ease his way into these forbidding traditions of thought. Those with a special interest in ethics and politics will welcome Peter Karl Koritansky's Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment, which provides a lucid exposition of Aquinas's conception of retributive justice and contrasts it with both Kantian retributivist theories and the utilitarianism of thinkers like Bentham. Anyone who thinks retributivism in general or Aquinas's version in particular are no longer defensible or relevant ought to read Koritansky's fine book.
The technical terminology used by Aristotelian and Scholastic writers is a necessity, for it makes possible the conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor that is characteristic of their work. But it can also make things difficult for the non-specialist. A ready-to-hand lexicon is a must, and yet none has been in print for decades. With his welcome new book Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition, John W. Carlson has at last filled this gap. (And as it happens, Bernard Wuellner's 1956 Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy: Scholastic Editions has just this year come back into print as well.)
For an accessible introduction to the key ideas of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, you cannot do better than Peter Kreeft's lucid and enjoyable Summa Philosophica. From free will and final causality to sex and time travel, there's something in it for everyone, and the book is neatly organized by topic and sub-topic in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into. Now absolutely no one has any excuse for not learning some philosophy.
Finally, for those looking for a relatively painless guide to the state of the art in academic work on the classical and Scholastic traditions—and also, frankly, those with some spare cash (these books ain't cheap)—there are three new entries in Oxford's Handbook series: The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, edited by Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump; The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon; and The Oxford Handbook of Aristotle, edited by Christopher Shields.
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Matthew J. Franck
Director, the Witherspoon Institute's William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution
In many ways the most impressive book I read in the past year was Michael Burleigh's Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II. Avoiding the rigid categories of the lawyer or philosopher, Burleigh says, he "tried to make this book as detached as possible; it is not a work of moralising enthusiasm." Perfect detachment, of course, was not possible, and Burleigh's own judgments come through-judicious, balanced, but no less pointed when they need to be. No moral equivalence between Allies and Axis is to be found here. Still, so complete is his mastery of his sources, so comprehensive is his field of view, that he invariably gives readers all the information necessary to draw their own conclusions. It is hard to imagine a better guide through the treacherous moral swamps of the last century's greatest war.
Two superb guides toward clearer thinking at the intersection of philosophy and science appeared in 2012. The first is Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, a short book with a long title that delivers a short, sharp, devastating blow to the view that materialist scientific thinking can adequately account for the origins of life, the emergence of mind and consciousness, and reasons we have for our moral norms. A professed atheist who says he simply lacks the sensus divinitatis, Nagel embraces teleology as an explanatory framework, but seems to resist going where this inexorably points. The second book is Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who patiently explains that the dispensations of modern science provide no defeaters for religious conviction. Conflicts between science and faith are imaginary; conflicts between faith and anti-religious metaphysical commitments masquerading as science are very real.
Eva Brann's latest collection of essays, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, is a meal for the "slow food" set in intellectual life. Brann's extended discussions of such subjects as James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance," Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," and the conquest of Mexico by Cortés are worth digesting at leisure. And James W. Ceaser's Designing a Polity: America's Constitution in Theory and Practice proves once again that he is our country's best political scientist, equally able in the study of political philosophy, in the analysis of institutions and political processes, and in understanding how Americans understand themselves. From The Federalist to Tocqueville to Leo Strauss; from presidential politics and the separation of powers to the meaning of both modern American conservatism and modern anti-Americanism, Ceaser is unfailingly instructive, witty, and wise.
I was really hoping that I would not have to read Charles Kesler's I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism—that the recent election would obviate the necessity. Alas, it was not to be, and this is now the indispensable book on a presidency that will fail the country the more it succeeds in its aims. The other indispensable book for our times is What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George. Whatever it is that the advocates of same-sex "marriage" want, it is decidedly not marriage. To understand why, and to understand what trouble we will be in if this battle is lost, just read this brief and compelling book.
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Alonzo L. Hamby
Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University
The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North, by Allan R. Millett
This second volume of what will be the definitive history of the Korean war takes us through the North Korean invasion of the South in June, 1950, to the relief of General Douglas MacArthur in April, 1951.
From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War; and The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, by Wilson D. Miscamble
The first book, masterly and intensively researched, is the best one-volume study of the origins of the Cold War. The second, examines the perennial controversy over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan with the thoroughness and balance one expects of a premier historian while exhibiting the sensibility of a theologian attuned to the tragic in human history.
The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949, by Jim Baggott
A fine narrative, this account begins with the early stirrings of awareness about the destructive power of nuclear energy and takes us through the competition-first between the United States and the Third Reich, then between America and the Soviet Union-to develop the ultimate weapon. The strength of this book is less its contribution to knowledge than its accessibility to a wide readership.
Roosevelt's Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, by Frank Costigliola
One need not buy into the author's Cold War revisionism to appreciate the deft and thorough way in which he handles the web of relationships that enabled his wartime leadership.
The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, by David L. Roll
A useful and very well constructed updating of Robert E. Sherwood's classic Roosevelt and Hopkins (1948), Role's account sheds new light on Hopkins' personal life and his key role as FDR's indispensible partner in the shaping of American diplomacy during World War II
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Steven F. Hayward
Thomas Smith Distinguished Fellow, John M. Ashbrook Center, Ashland University
Amity Shlaes's book on the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, is perhaps the best book ever written puncturing the pretentions of FDR and the New Deal (said me in National Review), and one sign of its strength is that the Left went to DefCon 1 to attack it. I expect her next book, a new biography of Coolidge, will be equally fine, and although it isn't coming out until February, you can and should give yourself an early Christmas present by pre-ordering a copy.
Jean Yarbrough's Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition is simply the best scholarly study of the bully on the "bully pulpit." Her unequaled depth is matched with an accessible writing style that non-scholars will find engaging.
Let's do two "crisis" books. The first is the 25th anniversary edition of Robert Higgs's Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. This book laid out the "ratchet effect," whereby government enlarges to deal with a crisis (depression, war, and so forth), but somehow never shrinks back to pre-crisis size or scope after the crisis is over. We're going through another such ratchet right now with Obama's post-stimulus lunge to make government permanently larger.
The second crisis title is Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West. It is impossible to give a one-sentence summary or description, beyond saying that anyone who wishes to grasp the essence of the most important issues of modern political philosophy needs to get this book. Plus, some essays offer an inside, personal look at one of the greatest minds of our time.
The virtues and defects of William Manchester's first volume of his Churchill biography, The Last Lion, were reviewed in the old "vintage" CRB, but the third volume, completed by Paul Reid, is a solid narrative: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. In an odd way Reid was a great choice, as he came to Churchill with fresh eyes.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union are fast receding into the rear-view mirror of history, but it's such a remarkable event that we shouldn't have moved on so quickly. Leon Aron's Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 walks through the dramatic story, with important lessons for today for understanding events beyond the borders of Russia.
C.S. Lewis used to say that for every two new books you read, you should read one old one. So why not one of his? I suggest his great novel That Hideous Strength, which holds up the best of all the mid-century anti-utopian novels with which it is usually grouped chiefly because, unlike Orwell's 1984, it isn't about Communism. It holds up because it's about the bureaucratic-therapeutic state that looks a lot like what we have today.
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