After its triumphant return last year, the CRB Christmas list is back again, with reading recommendations from friends and contributors around the country and the world. It’s not too late to ask for—or to give—one or two of these under the tree. Enjoy!
James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding
For the Church it was irresistible: an accomplished scholar, a serious Catholic, sprung from a small town in western Massachusetts, drawn in time to the law school at Harvard. She was a pro-life woman, commanding the respect and affection of colleagues who did not exactly share her perspectives on the moral issues of the day. She would be drawn in then to those committees and institutes dealing with the issues that challenged and vexed the Church. Eventually she would do a short stint as the American ambassador to the Holy See. In her forthcoming In the Courts of Three Popes, Mary Ann Glendon recounts the highs and the lows: two popes with vast spiritual reach, but also a highly-placed cardinal, Angelo Becciu, indicted for embezzlement, money laundering, and fraud. This is a memoir from a savvy woman and fine writer, committed to the teachings of the Faith, and not unhinged in her worldly dealings with a Church composed, as her friend Michael Novak put it, “of the sinners, by the sinners, and for the sinners.”
Marvin Olasky brings his deft touch as a journalist and historian to The Story of Abortion in America (2022). He and his collaborator, Leah Savas, bring us an account filled with real news, beginning in Maryland in the 1650s. The narrative unfolds with rich detail—about the persons and the villainies, with scenes both grisly and moving. Somehow even without modern embryology, people understood what many moderns affect not to understand: that abortion destroys small human life.
Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War (2021) is a remarkable book which brings news on every page even to those of us who think we’ve come to know a lot about the Second World War. It starts with an account of Stalin’s incalculable success, bringing about this war through his diplomacy and then expanding his territory, his acquisitions, and his booty on a scale difficult to imagine. After December 31, 1941, the Russians were told that monthly shipments to the USSR would include 50,000 tons of “metals, chemicals, and other heavy materials,” 20,000 tons of “petroleum products,” 10,000 trucks, 550 tanks, 144 pursuit planes, and ten cargo ships filled with American wheat, flour, and sugar. The revelations proceed from there. This was one of those cases where the story was so compelling, and so crammed with things I didn’t know, that I didn’t want the book to end.
Andrew Roberts has made another fine contribution to history and biography with The Last King of America (2021), drawing us to a man who was highly civilized and cultured: a patron of music, science and the arts, a trained horseman, a good husband and father. Yes, there was that unpleasantness in America, with bad advice abounding. But apart from all of that, as we say, here is the man who surprised Dr. Johnson in the Royal Library to compare notes on the journals and writers worth reading.
Michael D. Breidenbach’s Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (2021) is an extraordinary work. America’s regime of religious freedom can be seen now in large measure as the achievement of Catholic statecraft and courage. Before the revolution, Catholics were not allowed to bear arms in Maryland, and when George Washington took the military oath in Virginia in 1755, that oath reflected the British practice of requiring militia men to attest that “there is no Transubstantiation of in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.” But there would be no such oath in Washington’s Continental Army. The increasing willingness to accept Catholics as fellow citizens, both in fighting the war and in shaping this new regime, went hand in hand with efforts to remove barriers erected against Catholics in Britain. In a curious flow of mutual enrichment, the advances in Britain would inspire and then draw in turn from the emerging religious freedom in America.
Forty years ago the New York Times posed the question of what book you would take to the moon if you could take only one. (I thought that the question should be amended for writers: what one book would you take apart from one of your own?) I praised again Harry Jaffa’s beautiful book, The Crisis of the House Divided (1959), which made such a difference in my own life and work when I first read it in my 20s. The book shows how the vast tradition of Western political philosophy came to bear in the gravest crisis in the history of this American regime, the crisis of our “house divided.” I give it to young people in their 20s these days, and to older people as well, trusting that the combination of lovely prose and riveting analysis just has to have an effect. And it still does.
Finally, it is never out of season to return to Dan Mahoney’s Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (2010), a collection of sparkling essays on Tocqueville and Churchill; Nihilism, Solzhenitsyn, and the totalitarian subversion of modernity; and one of my own favorites: his classic piece on 1968, that year of political upheaval in America and France. I remember it too well: my son Jeremy was born on March 30 of that year; a day later Lyndon Johnson took himself out of the running for another term. Four days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, followed by Bobby Kennedy in June. Richard Nixon was elected in November. A turbulent year, indeed.
Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy
Claremont McKenna College
For those in search of a clear summary of Israel’s modern history, let me recommend Daniel Gordis’s Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016), which will impress upon its readers the dignity and nobility of the people and faith that Hamas terrorists seek to destroy. Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Klara and the Sun (2021) is a characteristically subtle presentation of love and friendship, here in the light of artificial intelligence. And Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the least studied of his works on practical philosophy, is a deep tutorial on the power and pitfalls of everyday speech and understanding.
Claremont Review of Books
I spent the COVID epidemic in Italy…in my dreams. Shortly before the portcullis clanged down on the Western world, I acquired a stack of Italian books—histories, poetry, novels—and just kept reading them.
In retrospect, and without necessarily wishing to repeat it, I treasure the experience. It offered the maximum of intellectual freedom consistent with living at close quarters with the people you depend on and love best. That is the situation most people are in when they encounter books for the first time. Edmund Waller writes of old age:
The soul, with nobler resolutions deck’d,
The body stooping, doth herself erect.
But during COVID these same consolations came to me dressed up like a second adolescence. To say I enjoyed the books I read in the sequestered days of 2020 would be an understatement. They thrilled me. And it thrills me now to give them as Christmas gifts.
The Leopard (1958) is a 300-page novel about a fat, awkward, willful Sicilian prince during the 1860s, dashed off by the fat, awkward, willful Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa as he died of cigarettes in the 1950s. The plot follows the fading of a family and of a way of life – it has more profundities than twists. The writing is witty and sharp: a sinister Sicilian village is full of “peasants stuck to their houses like caryatids.” It is wise and aphoristic: the prince refuses a seat in the new Italian senate because he has no “capacity for self-deception, that prerequisite for anyone who aspires to lead others.” It may be the greatest novel ever written outside of Russia.
The superb Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia, who died in 1989, has written a variety of short, profound, paradoxical novels good for giving to sons: His great mafia novel is The Day of the Owl (1960). My favorite is his short story collection Sicilian Uncles (1958), which contains a beautiful account of a boy making contact with exotic (but Italian-speaking!) American soldiers in the summer of 1943, who tell him how Americans live and introduce him to Wrigley’s chewing gum, which he calls ciunga.
Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, written in the 1820s, is a historical picaresque set between Milan and Lake Como. Two fiancés are separated from one another by corrupt Spanish authorities during the plague of 1628. Romantic without being racy (and actually rather stirringly religious), it’s the sort of book you can safely give to your mother-in-law for Christmas (as I did last year).
John J. DiIulio, Jr.
Professor of Political Science
University of Pennsylvania
In 1980, I began my graduate studies in political science at Harvard University. The late, great James Q. Wilson became my main mentor. During my second meeting with Wilson, I asked whether he ever taught his courses on government bureaucracy or co-advised dissertations on the topic with his Harvard colleague, Professor Harvey C. Mansfield. “No,” he replied, looking puzzled. “Why would I?”
Now I was looking puzzled. Why wouldn’t he? After all, Mansfield had co-authored a 1978 National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) report detailing the administrative history of the United States Railway Association, the bankruptcy of the Penn Central railroad company in 1970 (then the largest bankruptcy in American history), and its aftermath.
As an undergraduate, I had written a little paper on that topic. I had also read Mansfield’s classic, The Comptroller General. Published in 1939 by Yale University Press, in the late 1970s, that book was still the go-to text on how federal government finances actually worked, and on the role played by the comptroller general, which Mansfield described as “the most influential, if least well understood, administrative position in the national government.”
“Oh,” said Wilson, “that’s his father. He is Sr. Our Mansfield is Jr.”
Even after I got to know and love Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., the eminent conservative political philosopher and manly man for all seasons who is well-known to this publication’s readers, I never shared that mistaken identity story with him. Over the last several decades, whenever I have had the joy of seeing him in person, he has typically greeted me by semi-whispering, “John, you big bear!”
Earlier this year, Harvey, Jr., who joined the Harvard faculty in 1962, became an emeritus professor. His father, who passed away in 1988, began his teaching career in 1929. He taught at Yale, Stanford, and Ohio State before concluding his academic career at Columbia as a distinguished emeritus professor of public law and government.
Harvey, Sr. was a New Deal Democrat and public administration scholar-practitioner. He worked in government, most notably as a director of the federal Office of Price Administration, known as the OPA. He was also a stalwart member of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and an editor of its flagship journal. Harvey, Jr. is a conservative Republican, political philosopher, and public intellectual who could be counted upon to give today’s APSA a grade of C- or less.
But those differences are all entirely superficial. The Harvey, Jr. apple fell barely an inch away from the Harvey, Sr. tree. With respect to American democracy, both men can be credited with having understood and advanced the art and science of politics as a prudential effort to protect liberty through the practice of self-government.
Let me recommend a couple of books by each Harvey. Start with Harvey, Jr.’s Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction. Published in 2010 by Oxford University Press, the book highlights Alexis de Tocqueville’s warnings about substituting theories and abstractions for actual, in-depth knowledge concerning what we actually do in our politics, the means by which democratically enacted laws get translated into administrative action, and what happens as a result.
Next, read Harvey, Jr.’s Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (1989), but read it as a preface to Harvey, Sr.’s aforementioned classic, The Comptroller General, as well as his edited volume, Congress against the President.
Published in 1989 by Free Press, Harvey, Jr.’s Taming the Prince meditates on how Machiavelli’s brutish prince was liberalized by Locke and transformed by our Founding Fathers’ constitutional framework into the American president.
Published in 1975 by the Academy of Political Science, Harvey, Sr.’s opening essay in Congress against the President, “The Dispersion of Authority in Congress,” assesses that constitutional body’s condition and future in a way that seems exceptionally profound and prescient today.
In 2004, I was invited by to write an article responding to an APSA Task Force report on American democracy. I began my article by defining “political science in America” as “an excuse, concocted by college professors, for avoiding actual political engagement while not actually achieving science.” Since then, not much has changed except for the worse.
As Harvey, Jr. retires, here’s a Christmas hope that the academic field to which he and his father each dedicated so much of their respective lives will bear their mark more, not less, in the decades to come.
Salvatori Research Fellow
The Claremont Institute
To adapt a line from the Roman poet Horace, the Enlightenment attempted to throw politics out with a pitchfork by solving the human problem. But politics, like nature, will always return. If we want to understand the militant, religious tribalism that characterized premodern life—which also seems to be making a dramatic comeback in our own time—there is no better introduction than Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’s The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. First published in 1864 in French, the standard English translation is by Willard Small. A new translation by Faith Bottum, with an introduction by David O’Connor, has been in the works at St. Augustine Press since 2022 but has suffered several delays. Let us hope it appears soon and is worth the wait.
A less systematic but considerably deeper examination of ancient politics is Thucydides’ history of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C. Because of what the two cities represented and the profundity of the issues at stake, Thucydides describes the Peloponnesian War, as “the greatest motion” possible in political life, and his account as “a possession for all time.” I would encourage readers to use the Robert B. Strassler edition, which is part of the terrific Random House Landmark series, and includes helpful notes, chronologies, and abundant maps.
Other titles in the Landmark series—and highly recommended as well—are Xenophon’s Hellenika, (also edited by Strassler), which continues the story of relations between Athens and Sparta into the middle of the 4th century B.C., and Xenophon’s Anabasis (edited by Shane Brennan and David Thomas), relaying the gripping tale of the philosopher-general’s march through Persia at the head of 10,000 Greek soldiers.
The closest thing we’ve had to a modern American Xenophon may have been the late Angelo Codevilla, who similarly combined philosophic insight with military acumen to reveal the nature of war and peace. His last book, America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams (Encounter), published posthumously in 2022, will stand as a fitting capstone to his remarkable career.
Claremont Review of Books
This year being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s historic First Folio, you might want to take a look at The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile, second edition (1996), or ask a favorite (very generous) aunt to get you one for Christmas. An original would cost some $10 million, if you could find one. And this beautiful Facsimile is actually better than the originals! For 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, the First Folio contains the only existing text.
When one of the generous aunt’s favorite nephews gets out of stir and is resolved to reform, she would be well advised to send him a copy of H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Going wrong in language, as Pliny warns, is usually the first step to going wrong in morals—today a run-on sentence; tomorrow you’re bumping off the liquor store. When she has reached the point of turning to “Fowler,” the good aunt will naturally wonder, to which Fowler should I turn—or which Fowler should I turn to? The Classic First Edition, edited with a new introduction and notes by David Crystal (2009) is the way to go. If the nephew is a particularly hard case, she might throw in Garner’s Modern American Usage, third edition, by Bryan A Garner (2009). It is more or less the American Fowler.
Our own Mark Helprin knows his Shakespeare and cares as much as Fowler about the miracle of the right word in the right place at the right time (by the way, look up mot juste in Fowler and you will be on an entertaining Fowlerian adventure, which will lead you to “French Words” and “Literary Critics’ Words”).
Helprin’s latest—The Oceans and the Stars: The Seven Battles and the Mutiny of Athena, Patrol Coastal Ship 15 (2023)—is “a war story, a sea story, and a love story” set in, and very much suited to, our times. It is dedicated to the United States Navy. Its epigraph sets the high epic tone:
They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters; These men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
P.G. Wodehouse (for whom aunts were serious business) took Shakespeare’s complete works with him when dragged off with no warning to a German prisoner of war camp in 1940. I don’t know if Fowler ever said anything about Wodehouse, but in his time, at least one informed critic opined that Wodehouse was “the best writer of English now alive.” With unparalleled art, he shelters the sacred joy of innocence.
Wodehouse fell in love with America on his first visit to New York as a 22-year-old in 1904. The love affair lasted his whole life. He expressed his passion characteristically, in his memoir, America, I Like You. In the Flannery household, P.G. Wodehouse Day is celebrated every December 16. That’s the date on which he became an American citizen in 1955. As he wrote his friend William Townend: “Thank God for being an American (I don’t mean God is, I mean I am).”
Almost any Wodehouse will do at any time. I am currently re-reading Leave it to Psmith (1923). But if Wodehouse is new to you, I would say start with a Jeeves story, featuring Jeeves the infallible and infinitely resourceful gentleman’s gentleman and his employer, the loveable and clueless young Bertie Wooster. Experienced fans often recommend The Code of the Woosters (1938) as the best starter.
Because he, too, loves America and the civilization that gives us Shakespeare and P.G. Wodehouse, our friend and colleague Glenn Ellmers has written The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy (2023), a concise classic thinking through the crisis that America and Western Civilization are going through right now. He concludes on the Churchillian-Socratic note that in this all-important fight, ‘“manliness and wisdom belong together.’”
Allen C. Guelzo
Distinguished Research Scholar
This year has been full of surprises, old and new, in books. Among the old is Stephen Budiansky’s Mad Music: Charles Ives, The Nostalgic Rebel (2014). As I’m prepping for the Ives sesquicentennial in 2024, I caught up with Budiansky’s biography of Ives substantially behind schedule. But late or early, it is a superb treatment of Ives in the context of 19th-century culture. Budiansky deflates the common assumption that Ives was an alienated proto-Modernist: instead, this is Ives, the Romantic nationalist, and Budiansky’s attention to detail and willingness to peer beyond even the smokescreens Ives emitted around himself is a model of cultural and intellectual biography.
Some new books about subjects of old interest include Richard Harris’s flamingly delightful Act of Oblivion: A Novel (2022), about the two regicides, Goffe and Whalley, who fled the Restoration to America. Finding myself vividly reconnected with my misspent youth reading 17th-century English history, I added to Harris’s novel Matthew Jenkinson’s more sober historical account of the regicides’ flight, Charles I’s Killers in America (2019). By far, the best new new reading was Rachel Chrastil’s Bismarck’s War and Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring, on the revolutions of 1848. Despite the title, Chrastil’s book is not about Bismarck; it is a wide-angle account of the devastating impact of the Franco-Prussian War on ordinary French life and the “face of battle” in 1870-71. Clark’s even-more wide-angle view of the bourgeois promise and heartbreaking collapse of the 1848 revolutions puts paid to Marx’s dismissal of 1848 as the farce that repeated the tragedy of 1789.
Professor of History
The most important book about the history of Western civilization published this year—and for many years—is Anthony Kaldellis’ magnum opus, The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium. Kaldellis’ first task was to convince his readers that the Byzantines were part of Western history at all, since for many years now courses and books on Western civ have slighted the eastern Roman empire, consciously or unconsciously following the verdict of Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon took the fate of the Latin-speaking parts of the classical empire as the main focus of his famous work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, passing all too quickly over the later history of Rome’s eastern empire as “a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery” that would not provide his readers with “an adequate reward of instruction or amusement.” Hegel, relying on Gibbon, averted his eyes from the whole civilization of New Rome as presenting “a disgusting picture of imbecility.” Kaldellis, America’s foremost Byzantinist, has now triumphantly redeemed the empire of New Rome as a central chapter in the story of the West and the defense of Christendom. He describes in detail (he appears to have read every surviving word of Byzantine Greek) the history of the Christian empire from the conversion of Constantine in 312 to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For all his immense learning, however, Kaldellis knows how to tell a story with wit and verve. Pace Gibbon, his massive tome is full of both instruction and amusement.
Speaking of instruction, Paul Rahe this year added a fifth volume to his original “trilogy” devoted to the grand strategy of ancient Sparta. The previous volumes were published by Yale between 2015 and 2020; the current volume, entitled Spartan’s Sicilian Proxy War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 418–413 BC (2023), appears under the imprint of Encounter Books. Lest you think the book was opportunistically thrown together as a comment on our proxy war in Ukraine, Rahe explains that the book has been gestating since he first became interested in Sparta while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1970s. The Ukraine war is mentioned just once, and only in passing. Rahe’s earlier books on Sparta have sometimes been faulted by academic reviewers for their “uncritical” reliance on literary sources (meaning his naïve belief that the ancients knew more about antiquity than modern professors) and their failure to fuss over the latest archeological finds or engage with the latest scholarly fads. Readers from the broader educated public will be grateful for that. What Rahe does offer is wisdom: the practical wisdom, or prudence, that comes from the consideration of past events, their causes, and their outcomes—wisdom, that is, meant for statesmen and citizens rather than academic specialists. In the case of proxy wars, he is notably positive, seeing them, at least sometimes, as wars that can benefit both their sponsor and the proxy at relatively little cost. Proxy wars, he argues, can be defended in normative as well as in realist terms.
Those of us who teach in history departments are aware, at least from the dwindling numbers of students in our classes (for which, of course, we bear no responsibility whatsoever), that the ability to think historically is rapidly disappearing. As in late antiquity, sacred history, written by believers in today’s dogmas, is replacing humanistic history, written by believers in the value of truth. But if someone wished to learn how to think historically, they could hardly do better than to read the new autobiography of the greatest living historian of late antiquity, Peter Brown. His Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (2023) is an immensely charming and vivid account of his pathway as a Protestant from Catholic Ireland to Shrewsbury public school, then to Oxford (where he was bowled over by C. S. Lewis), Berkeley, and Princeton. Brown explains how his encounters with books, historians, and students taught him to think ever more deeply about history, and how his experience of life opened up new problems and approaches to understanding the past. He describes how his study of ancient texts in the original languages forced him, when reading Augustine for example, “to stretch my heart in order to read Augustine’s heart.” I can’t imagine a finer ten-word summation of the effects of reading great books.
History, since it gives us a standard of comparison and an appreciation for unintended consequences, is the best prophylactic against political fanaticism. There is no one who understood this better than Machiavelli, who preferred history to philosophy as a guide to politics. Yet it sometimes happens that young readers of the great Florentine end up swinging all too easily from fanaticism to cynicism. One way of preventing them from going full Machiavelli is to have them consider the man’s own political commitments (or lack of them), the effectiveness (or not) of his political advice, and the legacy (for good or ill) of Machiavellian thought in modern times. A book that does just that is Gabriele Pedullà’s On Niccolò Machiavelli: The Bonds of Politics. Appearing this year in Columbia University Press’s “Core Knowledge” series, the work is intended as an introduction for new recruits to the army of Machiavelli’s admirers, but even grizzled veterans will find interest in Pedullà’s portrait of the Secretary as a political animal who was also a non-conformist and a critic of conventional wisdom.
Steven F. Hayward
Gaylord Visiting Professor
Pepperdine University, School of Public Policy
It goes without saying that everyone should acquire Harvey C. Mansfield’s latest meditations on Machiavelli, Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth: Creating the Modern World, just out recently from Cambridge University Press. In addition to elucidating afresh the famous Machiavellian phrase “effectual truth,” Mansfield wants to expand the horizon of these freighted words by connecting them to the problem of succession—in this case not the perennial practical problem of the succession of princes, but that of thinkers and thought. Mansfield argues that, perhaps more than any other political philosopher, Machiavelli established the necessity of his succession as the re-definer of our political horizons. Alert always to the paradoxes and ironies of Machiavelli’s rich teaching, Mansfield pierces the veil of his subject’s stunning imagination, clothed as it is in the famous attack on imaginary politics.
With Hungary much in the news, and a primary target of our news media and political establishment, Balázs Orbán’s The Hungarian Way of Strategy (2021) stands out as one of the very best books by a practicing elected politician ever. (Balázs Orbán—no relation to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—is a member of the Hungarian Parliament and chief strategist for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party.) In a superbly written and compact 182 pages, The Hungarian Way of Strategy is rich with ideas and data, making a powerful case for Hungary’s resistance to the centralizing progressivism of the European Union, and in favor of the national identity and integrity of Hungary. Orbán displays wide command of scholarly and serious popular literature, producing a rich synthesis that remains grounded in classic principles. He is not afraid of direct attacks on the ruling classes of our time. For example:
Around the world, we can observe commonalities showing that ever fewer political decisions are taken from a common-sense perspective, and are instead aimed at the attainment of some abstract utopia. We used to believe that our civilization had, in the final analysis, a firmly rooted faith in liberty. We never imagined that progressive, left-wing, liberal thinkers would demand exclusive adherence to their views, even at the cost of restricting freedom…. The words honor, courage, and responsibility have vanished from our lexicons, while everywhere people speak only of their rights and self-esteem.
One is tempted to call young Orbán the Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Hungarian politics (though with a better voting record in the legislature).
And one old title to suggest because of its relevance to the current campus controversies over whether the principle of free speech must allow free play for anti-Semitism: Francis Canavan’s Freedom of Expression: Purpose as Limit, published by the Claremont Institute in 1984. Canavan was chiefly interested in the defects of the juridical view that changed “speech” into “expression,” making it difficult to restrict pornography and obscenity. He hardly contemplated the appearance of current travesties like “hate speech” and worse. His rigorous and deep understanding of applied reason exposed the nihilism of the ruling First Amendment jurisprudence. But he also offered this in his concluding chapter:
[Harold] Laski recognized in 1932 that, confronted with Hitler’s propaganda, “if the Jews trusted to reason only for the defense of their lives their chance of survival would be relatively small. For the temper in which they are attacked is inherently unamenable to rational discussion.”
Canavan’s book can be seen as a companion to Harry Jaffa’s indispensable 1964 essay, “On the Nature of Civil and Religious Liberty,” which can be found in his collection Equality and Liberty. Unfortunately, Canavan’s book is long out of print and difficult to find. But worth the search.
Senior Fellow, The Claremont Institute
First, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2008) by Daniel Mark Epstein: When one feels so deeply about a historical figure, one cannot get enough about what I would call his real life. That dimension is beautifully covered here. Which led me to:
Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries (2009), also by Daniel Mark Epstein. A revelatory portrait of the inner workings of the White House during the Civil War, and the Lincoln confidants not the targets of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s radar. Which led me in turn to:
All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (2013) by John Taliaferro. A fascinating portrait of Hay and his times. As Lincoln’s private secretary and Roosevelt’s secretary of state, he makes our responsables look like the midgets and idiots they are.
It was another bad year for the Leviathan that is America’s poetry establishment, mostly controlled by English departments and MFA programs. Insiders cranked out “prose poetry” and prosy poetry in huge quantities, as well as unreadable experimental poetry. These quickly forgotten efforts, usually driven by far-left ideology or self-pitying descriptions of the frustrations of young academics, crammed the pages of largely unread literary journals.
This year’s star of the literary resistance was again Emily Wilson, who followed up on her best-selling translation of Homer’s The Odyssey (2018) with her equally impressive translation of The Iliad (2023). The literary establishment initially embraced Wilson’s work, in part because she was the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English. Now, however, their enthusiasm has cooled a bit because they have realized: 1) Wilson translates Homer into the powerful iambic pentameter of Shakespeare and Milton, an approach that academics have been teaching students is antiquated and otherwise problematic; and 2) she rejects the deconstructionist view that authorial intent is irrelevant, and strives for traditional accuracy in her translations, even when it undoes more than a century of classicist claptrap. Read these books—and make sure young people around you do the same.
Dominican-American poet Rhina P. Espaillat is still going strong at 91, and this year the upstart Wiseblood Press published her exquisitely beautiful translations of Sor Juana and Saint John of the Cross. Wiseblood also published this year Alfred Nicol’s masterful translation of Julian Vocance’s One Hundred Visions of War and Dana’s Gioia’s translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules, with Gioia’s long and insightful essay on classical tragedy.
Established formal poets released many strong books, including David Middleton’s Outside the Gates of Eden (2023), Daniel Tobin’s The Mansions (2023), Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s In Praise of Limes (2022), Jennifer Reeser’s Strong Feather (2023), and Sydney Lea’s What Shines (2023). One of my favorite debuts was David Galef’s Imaginary Sonnets (2023), an admirable attempt to bring humor back into poetry.
As college and universities fretting about their bottom lines have shut down such venerable journals as The Gettysburg Review, The Hollins Critic, and Green Mountains Review, religious literary journals and organizations are sprouting everywhere. New religious poets are also making their mark, as evidenced by Renee Emerson’s Church Ladies (2023) and Maya Clubine’s chapbook Life Cycle of a Mayfly (2023).
Finally, it was a halcyon year for fans of the late U.S. Poet Laureate Anthony Hecht. Philip Hoy edited Collected Poems of Anthony Hecht (2023) and David Yezzi has produced a thorough, balanced, and beautifully written biography of Hecht called Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life (2023).
John B. Kienker
Claremont Review of Books
Marcus Cunliffe’s George Washington: Man and Monument (1958) is a model of scholarly brevity, tracing the life and character of this towering figure of gentlemanly rectitude and ambition in what amounts to a long essay that never seems to skimp on detail or insight. It is well complemented by Glenn A. Phelps’s George Washington and American Constitutionalism (1993), which gives the “indispensable man” his due as more than just a unifying symbol: Washington appears here as someone who gave serious thought, born from the hard experience of the government’s inadequacies during the Revolutionary War and after, to the kind of strong constitutional republic the United States would need to be.
The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (2010), by the late, great Angelo Codevilla, began as a magazine article in 2010, was expanded into a book, and has been reissued with a new introduction by Claremont fellow Michael Anton (whose own books, 2019’s After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose and 2021’s The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, you should also read). It succinctly and forcefully describes the corrupt, credentialed bipartisan elite who perpetuate their own dominance by amassing power, eroding habits of self-government, and brooking no dissent.
If The Ruling Class is the original blunt diagnosis of how the United States is now run, Kevin Slack’s War on the Republic: How Liberalism Became Despotism (2023) presents how we got here, surveying in rich, detail-packed chapters the different dominant phases of American political thought, from republicanism to progressivism to liberalism to radicalism, and on through neoliberalism and identity politics, with a final scathing—even jolting—chapter on despotism (for those who find Codevilla too mild!) and a concluding hope in the emergence of the (newest) New Right.
Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right After a Generation of Decay (2023), edited by my Claremont colleague Arthur Milikh, features 20 essays that pick up and expand from where Kevin Slack leaves off, featuring a murderers’ row of contributors, all of whom will be familiar to CRB readers. They offer bracingly defiant analyses on a host of subjects, including race (David Azerrad), motherhood (Helen Andrews), education (Milikh and Scott Yenor), economics (David Goldman), foreign policy (Michael Anton), and even art (Roger Kimball). As in any collection, one may not agree with every word of every author, but the overall challenge to conventional wisdom is welcome. Glenn Phelps characterizes George Washington as a “conservative revolutionary”—these are the conservative revolutionaries of today.
And finally, turning to the higher things, Scott Hahn’s Holy Is His Name: The Transforming Power of God’s Holiness in Scripture (2022) is a meditation on “holiness” as the unique attribute of God and at the same time something to which He calls us all. After the term’s near-total absence in Genesis, there is an explosion of “holy” and its derivatives in Exodus with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. Whereas the word is attached to a wide array of items which are set apart for the Lord and deemed holy by their proximity to Him (including holy place, holy garments, holy altar, holy tent, holy vessels, and eventually, under King Solomon, the holy Temple), “holy” is never used to refer to individual persons (not the righteous man, the ministering priest, nor the servant king). Yet, the prophet Daniel foresees a time—a time which will be fulfilled in the new covenant promised by God—when there will be “holy ones,” or “saints,” who are even closer to God than the holy items of the Sinai covenant because God will dwell in them. A highlight of the book is Hahn’s exposition (though he readily acknowledges his debt to other scholars) of what exactly the prophet Isaiah saw in his famous vision of the glory of the Lord enthroned, high and lifted up, while the angels sang “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Spencer A. Klavan
Claremont Review of Books
You won’t find another book like When We Cease to Understand the World (2020), by Chilean essayist and short story writer Benjamín Labatut. The book’s Spanish title is Un Verdor Terrible, “A Terrible Verdure,” referring to the last gasp of certain lemon trees that burst into overwhelming fecundity right before they choke to death on their own abundance. “It is a strange sight,” says a recovering mathematician working as a night gardener, “to see such exuberance before death.”
The implicit comparison is with the human race, which has been pouring forth scientific discoveries like overripe fruit, our manic productivity teetering perilously on the edge of madness…until, perhaps, we collapse under the weight of our own teeming brains. That hint of menace snakes across every taut page of this short book, which is a collection of stories drawn from some of the wildest and most destabilizing moments in the recent history of science.
The first and finest chapter, an extended meditation on the moral ambiguity of technological achievement, is almost entirely factual. After that Labatut mixes in more and more fictional elements, with the unfortunate consequence that if anything he mentions strikes you as interesting, you’ll have to look it up to see if it’s real before you start trotting it out as an interesting factoid at cocktail parties. But the flights of fancy are part of the book’s hypnotic allure. Translated into pyrotechnical English by Adrian Nathan West, it’s bound to enthrall.
I first went wild for Owen Barfield, the forgotten Inkling, when his Poetic Diction (1928) glued me to my library seat in grad school. But unlike his dear friend C.S. Lewis, Barfield was not the most fluent writer. His sentences have all the sparkling clarity of a 19th-century German philosopher. That is, they do when he’s writing in the usual monograph format. Which is why I was delighted to discover this year that his philosophical dialogues are actually limpid and readable. For those interested in Barfield’s crucial insights into the creative power of imagination and human perception, but wary of plodding through unnecesary neologisms, these are just the ticket. Start with Worlds Apart (1963) and then, if that appeals, check out the slightly more mystical and daring Unancestral Voice (1965).
Finally, in the Christmas spirit, two hymns of praise for two religious works. For this Protestant, the late Rodney Stark’s defense of the Catholic Church in Bearing False Witness (2017) was a revelation. Himself a devoted Baptist, Stark patiently marshals enormous scholarly acumen to dispel the clouds of dishonesty and bad faith that hang around everything from the Inquisition to the popes of the 20th century, who were supposedly sweet on fascism. And since this year I have been reading Paradise Lost aloud to my Substack subscribers, I’ve been rediscovering the molten glory of Milton’s luminous verse. Every line is a revelation, shining down on “this pendent world” between the powers of heaven and hell.
Daniel J. Mahoney
Professor Emeritus of Politics
Let me begin by recommending new books out this year by old friends and teachers of mine (direct or indirect) who proffer wisdom as much as scholarship, however indispensable the latter contribution might be. Mary P. Nichols’s Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human: Piety and Politics in the “Nicomachean Ethics” restores dignity and grace to the understanding of Aristotle’s philosophizing about human affairs. Like Aristotle himself, Nichols allows contemplative reflection, high prudence, and moral virtue to coexist in a spirit of friendship without conflating or collapsing them. In her own apt words, she examines “how Aristotle deepens our view of human virtue by presenting human strength in light of humanity’s spirited resistance to bestiality” (what is beneath us and corrupts our souls), “and in light of humanity’s awareness of a divinity beyond itself” (divine wisdom and heroic virtue that are in important respects “beyond us”). Philosophy, as Nichols understands it, ennobles and is ennobled by friendship, prudence, and moral virtue, and a wisdom that humanizes because it is truly open to that which is above us.
In his early 90s, Harvey C. Mansfield continues to write with admirable élan and with the rarest insight. In Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth: Creating the Modern World, Mansfield deepens his reflections on the Machiavellian character of philosophical and political modernity. With readings that make the most of both Machiavelli’s intrepid philosophizing and his alluring hints and allusions, Mansfield demonstrates how Machiavelli’s “world” remains to a remarkable extent our world (and the other way around). Yet we should not simply confuse Machiavelli’s “effectual truth” with realism or the “real” world since, as Mansfield shows in a brilliant chapter on “Leo Strauss on The Prince,” Machiavelli forgets three crucial realities: Socrates, whose dialectical inquiry into the nature of things nobly transcends “acquisition”; tragedy, a human phenomenon that is unthinkable without “sacred honor”; and, most of all, the soul itself. These experiences—these realities—”help explain nobility,” rather than explaining it away. In a 98-page chapter on “Montesquieu and Machiavelli” that is a veritable tour de force, Mansfield explores the French political philosopher’s vital debts to the Florentine (debts that are often expressed esoterically) while making clear why the always-humane author of The Spirit of the Laws refused to jettison the soul or to accept consistently all the premises of Machiavellian modernity.
Another Strauss-influenced writer and scholar, Hadley Arkes, utilizes his eloquent pen and his razor-sharp reasoning to defend age-old moral truths (rooted in common sense and elementary experience) against sophisticates who try to explain away what every alert eight-year-old knows: the non-arbitrary character of the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. In Mere Natural Law, Arkes draws on the insights of C.S. Lewis, Thomas Reid, Thomas Aquinas, and Abraham Lincoln, among others, to illumine the “first principles of practical reasoning” and the fact that moral judgments are nothing without anchoring truths available to reason and experience. While taking on a constitutional originalism that veers toward mere textualism and (in some cases) a barely concealed positivism, Arkes makes mincemeat of a moral relativism that is as dogmatic as it is incoherent.
For the 70th anniversary of its publication, I recommend a careful, leisurely reengagement with Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953), his most elegant and accessible book, one that has freed several generations of scholars from a distinctively modern form of dogmatism that gives rise to both nihilism and fanaticism. With Strauss’s book, classical political philosophy became a live option again for thinking and acting human beings.
And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973), available in an authorized abridgment for busy modern men and women, remains as powerful as ever on this, the 50th anniversary of its publication. At once a fierce indictment of ideological despotism, an epic poem about the sempiternal drama of good and evil in the human soul, and a work of masterful literary art, it is a book guaranteed to transform the souls of those who are open to its insights.
As I did last year, I recommend two books—one long, the other comparatively short with lots of pictures. Both lead us to reconsider two key elements of the American regime—its greatest flaw and its greatest statesmen—and both celebrate the freedom that flourishes in this country at its best.
The first is the post-Civil War book to read about slavery, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (2022). Its author is the estimable David Hackett Fischer, whom some may know as author of the astounding Albion’s Seed (1989), on how English regional traits embedded themselves in the American colonies, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing (2004). African Founders combines the strengths of both books by focusing on the character traits of the slaves who populated the colonies and how they affected their masters. While other scholars had noted before how slaves were chosen based on their likelihood of being useful, no other study has documented the extent to which slave traits influenced their masters and the regions of the new nation. The book’s 900+ pages fly past; Fischer deploys anecdote after anecdote, rather like a pointillist painter. The result is a story that will surely alter every reader’s conception of slavery. I suspect the book’s power in that regard has led to its being ignored. But both Professor Diana Schaub and I have reviewed the book, and we are in agreement that it is a paean to American liberty.
So is the second book, which is another in the series I recommended last Christmas. Author Tim Seibel continues with a third volume in his series of Freedom Voyages through small-town America—its courthouses, churches, residences, restaurants, and commercial centers. Seibel’s third volume retells the rise of Lincoln through the small towns that he and Stephen Douglas visited. His photographs and narrative entice us to think more deeply about how American life shaped Lincoln’s character. When the administrative state political philosopher John Marini retired from the University of Nevada, Reno this year, he graciously accepted my gift of a copy of Volume II. The book traced U.S. Route 50, which begins in Maryland, but focused on its western part, ending near Reno. Seibel’s books are an encomium to the freedom that the automobile affords to ordinary Americans to see and admire the goodness that still abides in our national character. Both books are essential to helping us understand the perils that threaten American liberty today and the resources that have inspired liberty in the past.
Good luck locating a theme traceable across these five books other than the fact that they all more than repay the time spent in companionship with them.
The Goddodin, an elegiac poem that commemorates the men who lost their lives in a brutal skirmish circa 600 A.D., is a classic of Welsh literature. Gillian Clarke’s marvelous new translation (2021) brings to life the bard Aneirin’s portraits of the slaughtered. Her introduction equips readers with the necessary context to appreciate the world into which this poem was born. The sections are short, which makes this book ideal company for your nightstand. Provided, of course, you can stomach a stiff sip of lament before bed.
Chicago: City on the Make (1951) is a prose poem written for the Windy City by Nelson Algren, the mid-century poet laureate of the “nobodies nobody knows.” Algren won the first National Book Award for his grim novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), also set in Chicago. Hemingway was one of his biggest fans, and this paean reveals why: Algren gives readers the gift of a hardboiled, street-level view without caving to despair. But as a Chicagoan, I may be biased. As Algren wrote, “[O]nce you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
Wilfred McKay’s stirring review of Jon K. Lauck’s The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest, 1800-1900 (2021) moved me to buy it. I tore through it. As a Midwesterner—I grew up in Elmhurst, IL, once a small farm town, now a suburb still fastidiously governed by its founding Dutch Reform community—I found that Lauck’s portrait of “the Midwest that was” cast brilliant light onto the social world that reared me. More than that, his work recovers the history of the “other North,” which has been shockingly neglected despite its vital contributions to our fair republic.
All those concerned with the nature of our digitized lives should avail themselves of Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), which reveals that the true victory of the 1960s was not the “long march” through our institutions, but the erection of the Great Ephemeralizer we call the internet. Read this and reckon with the ideological underpinnings that have guided American culture to this moment via technological innovation. You’ll find it hasn’t been Marxism, the New Left, or some exogenous force that has repatterned our lives, but something homegrown and deeply rooted in the American ethos itself.
Every couple of years, every American should sit down and crack open a work by the man who invented our vernacular: Mark Twain. Life on the Mississippi (1883) serves, in part, as an introduction to America for the rest of the Europe and, surprisingly, for the nation itself. All of Twain’s gifts for tall tales, amusing reverie, and tragic twists are on full display. But this travelogue also captures our country ante- and postbellum—a divide Twain himself marks in a single chapter comprised of a single paragraph—giving the reader insight into the scarred peace we sutured painfully together. Also contained herein are some of Twain’s meditations on the nature of man’s soul in relation to techne that match Galileo in depth and outshine him in beauty.
There have been plenty of important and enduring books published recently. Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (2023) takes an objective and scholarly look at the whole concept of empire, weighing up its pros and cons. Needless to say, the Left refuses to accept that there were any of the former, but Professor Biggar of Oxford University comprehensively demolishes this argument, in what must rate as one of the most refreshingly brave books of the past decade. (Indeed, its own publishers sought to bury it!)
Richard Davenport-Hines’ excellent Conservative Thinkers From All Souls College, Oxford (2022) reminds us how important Oxford has been in the development of conservative thought of both the small and large ‘c’ variety. Not everyone will be familiar with the names of Llewellyn Woodward, Keith Feiling, Cyril Falls, Cyril Radcliffe, or Herbert Hensley Henson, although others such as Churchill’s foreign secretary Lord Halifax and Margaret Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor Quintin Hailsham might ring louder bells.
Richard Hurowitz’s In the Garden of the Righteous (2023)is about those heroic figures who risked their lives saving Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Well-researched, well-written, and moving, it is a must-read in these foul times of rising anti-Semitism.
Andrew Doyle is the best writer today poking fun at the Woke, exposing their contradictions and ludicrous posturing, and pricking their pomposity. The New Puritans (2022) has plenty of serious and important points to make about this new religion, and employs ridicule as effectively as any 18th-century satirist.
The Enduring Crown Commonwealth (2023), by Michael Smith and Stephen Klimczuk-Massion, is a spirited and wholly convincing defense of the CANZUK idea that every American ought to applaud and support. It argues eloquently for a much closer integration of the lands over which King Charles III reigns—principally Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. and their dependencies (hence CANZUK)—so that we can attain a critical mass in world affairs. The U.S. would therefore acquire a powerful ally on whom she could rely much better than she can on the European Union.
Brian A. Smith
Law & Liberty
About two years ago, I picked up Law & Liberty regular Helen Dale’s two-part Kingdom of the Wicked (2017-18). I did so with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. How could a novel that imagines Rome captured Archimedes in the bloody siege of Syracuse, and over the course of a mere 200 or so years accomplished its own Industrial Revolution, actually work? Surely, I thought, such a book, set in Jerusalem in 784 ab urbe condita, couldn’t possibly manage to depict the trial of one Yeshua Ben Yusuf without falling into caricature. Dale manages to present both her imaginary Rome and the world of Jesus in a compelling way. Fair warning: the result is not for the faint of heart, as the Romans are truly Romans in all their lusty cruelty, and some readers may find the depiction of Jesus and Mary, well, heretical. The journey, though, is both surprising and thought-provoking, perhaps especially for readers of Christian faith.
In May 1941, a young American philosopher named J. Glenn Gray checked his mail one day to discover his doctoral diploma had arrived from Columbia University along with his draft notice. He would go on to serve Army intelligence just behind the lines from Tunisia to Sicily, and from there to Italy, France, and Germany, keeping a journal grappling with his experiences. After the war, he married a German woman and spent most of his career teaching at Colorado College. Fourteen years after his discharge, Gray reread his journals and produced The Warriors, an existential reflection on war’s meaning, horrors, and even its appeals to man. The book remains one of the few that squarely attempt to understand our complex relations to battle.
The idea that trade naturally produces peace—also called the McDonalds theory of international relations—is one of the most lasting illusions of international politics. This illusion, in part, probably explains so much of the world’s shock at Hamas’s depredations on October 7th. Students of the wisest Anglo-American thinkers of the 18th century—Hamilton, Madison, Hume, and Smith—would have known better. Indeed, conservatives and classical liberals in general have often noticed the ways that familiarity from trade often breeds contempt as much as it does comity. They also know that politics trumps economics every day. Edwin van de Haar’s Human Nature & World Affairs (2023) helps us escape the illusion of commercial peace and makes a compelling case for international restraint from a distinctively classical liberal tradition of international thought. Van de Haar argues that to foster real statecraft, scholarship on international relations needs political philosophy.
Allen Mendenhall’s debut novel A Glooming Peace This Morning (2023) takes us to the American South in the 1970s. More than once, philosopher and novelist Walker Percy railed against the pigeonholing of novels as “Southern,” but Mendenhall offers readers the best of that tradition through a coming-of-age story filled with legal intrigue, innocence lost, unrequited love, and laughter—narrated by a man reflecting on the central tragedies of his life.
Speaking of Percy, his Lost in the Cosmos (1983) turned 40 this year. Anyone who is looking for an unusual journey into the human heart should take a chance on it. Satirically billed as “the last self-help book,” this genre-bending masterpiece remains a fantastic aid to grappling with the ways in which we all remain mysteries to ourselves. Those of a more conventional philosophical inclination should also pick up Percy’s posthumously published Symbol & Existence (2019). Written in the 1950s and long unnoticed in his papers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill archives, the book was the result of Percy’s attempts to develop an account of language that escaped the biological reductionism so prevalent in linguistics and neuroscience. The effort aims at reaching scientists where they live—in the empirical world—reminding us that language invites us to wonder, and to give voice to our intuition that there is something more to reality than what we can access with our senses. Both books are an invitation to joy. And who doesn’t need that in this discouraging winter?