A review of The American Founding: Its Intellectual and Moral Framework, edited by Daniel N. Robinson and Richard N. Williams

Claremont Institute senior fellows Thomas West and Hadley Arkes have the central and concluding chapters of the seven chapters in this instructive book, West on “The Universal Principles of the American Founding,” and Arkes on “Constitutionalism and its Presuppositions.” Princeton University’s Robert George sets the tone with his opening chapter on “Natural-Law, God, and Human Dignity.” All the chapters offer intelligent, learned, and soberly urgent reflection on “the intellectual and moral foundations of civic life” in America. Citizens and politicians cogitating about how to strengthen and restore the conditions for self-government in our democracy will find in this book some excellent examples of how to think and talk about that important endeavor. It is a book that could be assigned with good effect to undergraduates in American Government courses, too. Carroll William Westfall of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture expands the conversation in pleasantly surprising ways with an engaging chapter on the “City as Teacher,” in which we learn through analysis of several vivid examples, ancient and modern, how the architecture of “The good city…teaches about the best possible proportionate balance between tradition and innovation.”

* * *

A review of Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition, by Justin Buckley Dyer

Justin Dyer is the intellectual heir of some of the arguments in the Robinson-Williams book, and Dyer’s book is a kind of logical sequel to it. An assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Dyer “seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate about the meaning and place of natural law in the American constitutional regime,” and in this respect his study is concerned with the whole ancient, medieval, and modern natural law and natural rights tradition. Dyer is not focusing on philosophers, however, but on the “natural-law arguments made by judges and statesmen” in America in the mid-19th century. His book attempts “to distinguish between better and worse formulations of the natural-law arguments that were made during the course of the debate on American slavery,” when the language of natural law was idiomatic in American political discourse. Interest in the subject is whetted by the thought that abolitionists, antislavery constitutionalists, and advocates of slavery all at one time or another argued from the natural law.

* * *

A review of On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski

Eventually, everything seems to get around to sex, and the American Founding and natural law are no exceptions. Allan Bloom lamented amusingly that the founding might have been more appealing had there been more sex in it. And if there were, and if it wanted to be meaningful, J. Budziszewski would recommend that it be natural law sex, with a Christian consummation. His lament is that contemporary American culture has largely forgotten the Christian natural law tradition that can make sex meaningful. Budziszewski, a professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, tries to write about sex with the art of love, but admits he’s a bit clumsy at it. He writes, with apologies, about “erotic charity,” but judges that writing about “romantic charity” would be going too far. He does not think it goes too far to write about “polaric complementarity” of the sexes, a pivotal idea and oft-repeated phrase in the book (it even rates an entry in the index). So this is not a book that will put most young lovers in the mood. But after you have listened to some Cole Porter tunes and danced a little cheek to cheek, with the lights down low, and you’re wondering how in the world that wonderful feeling can be so wonderful, you might pick up this slim volume to find out. Just don’t imagine all you need is love.

* * *

A review of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 years of Poetry Magazine, edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman

If you’re not careful, sex often turns to love, and love before you know it inspires poetry. But probably not Modernist poetry. Modernist poetry doesn’t know much about love’s delights. It is almost by definition conceived, written, and read in pain. The history of modern poetry in America is inseparable from the history of Modernist and post-Modernist poetry, and for the last 100 years this history is inseparable from the history of Poetry magazine. The Open Door takes the occasion of Poetry‘s centennial year to offer, as advertised, 100 poems from the first 100 years of the magazine-not the best poems, or even the most famous of the many thousands of poems published in its first century, but poems the current editors for different reasons think reflect well on the “open door” policy the magazine has boasted of from its founding. It would take a zealous lover of poetry to love most of these poems. In fact, the editors take pains to suggest to their readers that there’s something contemptible about “liking” a poem. So don’t look here for sweetness and light.

* * *

A review of Essays in Biography, by Joseph Epstein

If sweetness and light are not exactly the bread and butter of Modernist poetry, they seem to be the guiding stars of Joseph Epstein’s prose. His personal mission statement, apparently, is to instruct and delight. His essays here are essays in the old-fashioned sense—attempts—as well as in the more familiar sense. The essays are gathered idiosyncratically and casually, as seems suited to the genre, into four categories: Americans, Englishmen, Popular Culture, and And Others (that’s a category). The Americans include, surprisingly, George Washington and Xenophon appears, even more surprisingly, among the And Others. Most of the rest of the subjects are of the 20th-century intellectual writerly sort, including the Americans George Santayana, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Gore Vidal, Irving Kristol, and A.J. Liebling; the Englishmen Max Beerbohm, T.S Eliot, and Isaiah Berlin; in popular culture—departing from the norm—Michael Jordan (reflecting Epstein’s Chicago connection that shows up in several essays), W.C. Fields, George Gershwin, and Joe DiMaggio. This is a book you can pick up and skip around in with pleasure and profit.

—Christopher Flannery