Something a little different today–a new translation of François-René de Chateaubriand’s “Mémoires d’Outre-Tomb” (“Memoirs from Beyond the Grave”), translated by Alex Andriesse and published by New York Review of Books Classics. Chateaubriand was a French aristocrat and an enormous talent representative of France’s high Romantic style. Another of his earlier works, Les Martyrs, Ou Le Triomphe de la Religion Chrétienne, is a kind of extended poem on the early Christian martyrs. In this late work, he writes very critically about the French Revolution relatively late in his life. Here is a helpful review of the book and the new translation.
Written over the course of four decades, François-René de Chateaubriand’s epic autobiography has drawn the admiration of Baudelaire, Flaubert, Proust, Barthes, and Sebald. Here, in the first books of his massive Memoirs, spanning the years 1768 to 1800, Chateaubriand looks back on the already bygone world of his youth. He recounts the history of his aristocratic family and the first rumblings of the French Revolution. He recalls playing games on the beaches of Saint-Malo, wandering in the woods near his father’s castle in Combourg, hunting with King Louis XVI at Versailles, witnessing the first heads carried on pikes through the streets of Paris, meeting with George Washington in Philadelphia, and falling hopelessly in love with a young woman named Charlotte in the small Suffolk town of Bungay. The volume ends with Chateaubriand’s return to France after seven years of exile in England.
In this new edition (the first unabridged English translation of any portion of the Memoirs to be published in more than a century), Chateaubriand emerges as a writer of great wit and clarity, a self deprecating egotist whose meditations on the meaning of history, memory, and morality are leavened with a mixture of high whimsy and memorable gloom.
Here is a new book describing–it appears in negative terms (though this is speculation at this point)–the practice of originalism in constitutional interpretation as an exercise of “faith”: Originalism as Faith (CUP) by law professor and self-declared anti-originalist Eric Segall. Segall follows in the path of other law professors, like Sandy Levinson, who have described ways of believing in the Constitution in religious terms. For an effort of my own a few years ago along these lines, see this paper on the rule of law. It will be interesting to see how Segall describes “faith” as distinct from other epistemological ways of believing and/or knowing.
Originalism as Faith presents a comprehensive history of the originalism debates. It shows how the doctrine is rarely used by the Supreme Court, but is employed by academics, pundits and judges to maintain the mistaken faith that the Court decides cases under the law instead of the Justices’ personal values. Tracing the development of the doctrine from the founding to present day, Eric Segall shows how originalism is used by judges as a pretext for reaching politically desirable results. The book also presents an accurate description and evaluation of the late Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence and shows how he failed to practice the originalism method that he preached. This illuminating work will be of interest to lawyers, law students, undergraduates studying the Court, law professors and anyone else interested in an honest discussion and evaluation of Originalism as a theory of constitutional interpretation, a political weapon, and an article of faith.
Listed more because of its reference to “tradition” than for anything directly related to religion, but this one looks to have in intriguing thesis: Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness (Penguin Random House) by Joseph Kennedy. The thesis, which seems to draw inspiration primarily from British politics but perhaps also American politics, seems to come from a radical leftist direction–that liberals have contributed to the present fragmentation of politics by being insufficiently left wing, and by adopting and promoting the rhetoric of traditionalism and populism (described by the author as an amalgam of “authenticity” coopted by the managerial and bureaucratic classes for their own ends) from the right.
Here is a book we are late to notice, but that I am reading and enjoying now: The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (CUP), by Thomas G. West, published last year. The core claim of the book is that the natural rights framework of the early republic can explain, in a comprehensive way–that is, without too much recurrence to other cultural and historical factors including Protestantism as well as European enlightenment thought–the founders’ shared assumptions about the interplay of rights and duties. Liberalism and republicanism, in West’s treatment, do not coexist in an uneasy tension, but are entirely consistent and mutually reinforcing. I am finding it a useful treatment of the conception of natural rights as it existed at the founding, and helpful also in identifying competing claims about the relationship of rights and duties.
This book provides a complete overview of the American Founders’ political theory, covering natural rights, natural law, state of nature, social compact, consent, and the policy implications of these ideas. The book is intended as a response to the current scholarly consensus, which holds that the Founders’ political thought is best understood as an amalgam of liberalism, republicanism, and perhaps other traditions. West argues that, on the contrary, the foundational documents overwhelmingly point to natural rights as the lens through which all politics is understood. The book explores in depth how the Founders’ supposedly republican policies on citizen character formation do not contradict but instead complement their liberal policies on property and economics. Additionally, the book shows how the Founders’ embraced other traditions in their politics, such as common law and Protestantism.
In the past few years, a number of commentators have begun to question the continuing viability of liberal democracy. If, in fact, liberalism is reaching its end–which is not at all clear–it’s useful to wonder why this has happened, to figure out where things began to come apart. A new book by University of Oklahoma historian Steven Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Keener Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism (Basic Books), argues that a turning point was a 1968 government report on race riots. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
In Separate and Unequal, historian Steven M. Gillon offers a revelatory new history of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders–popularly known as the Kerner Commission. Convened by President Lyndon Johnson after riots in Newark and Detroit left dozens dead and thousands injured, the commission issued a report in 1968 that attributed the unrest to “white racism” and called for aggressive new programs to end discrimination and poverty. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” it warned, “one black, and one white–separate and unequal.”
Johnson refused to accept the Kerner Report, and as his political coalition unraveled, its proposals went nowhere. For the right, the report became a symbol of liberal excess, and for the left, one of opportunities lost. Separate and Unequal is essential for anyone seeking to understand the fraught politics of race in America.
This forthcoming book from Encounter looks fun: The Lives of the Constitution: Ten Exceptional Minds That Shaped America’s Supreme Law, by Joseph Tartakovsky (Claremont Institute). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
In a fascinating blend of biography and history, Joseph Tartakovsky tells the epic and unexpected story of our Constitution through the eyes of ten extraordinary individuals—some renowned, like Alexander Hamilton and Woodrow Wilson, and some forgotten, like James Wilson and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Tartakovsky brings to life their struggles over our supreme law from its origins in revolutionary America to the era of Obama and Trump. Sweeping from settings as diverse as Gold Rush California to the halls of Congress, and crowded with a vivid Dickensian cast, Tartakovsky shows how America’s unique constitutional culture grapples with questions like democracy, racial and sexual equality, free speech, economic liberty, and the role of government.
Joining the ranks of other great American storytellers, Tartakovsky chronicles how Daniel Webster sought to avert the Civil War; how Alexis de Tocqueville misunderstood America; how Robert Jackson balanced liberty and order in the battle against Nazism and Communism; and how Antonin Scalia died warning Americans about the ever-growing reach of the Supreme Court.
From the 1787 Philadelphia Convention to the clash over gay marriage, this is a grand tour through two centuries of constitutional history as never told before, and an education in the principles that sustain America in the most astonishing experiment in government ever undertaken.
Classical Islam allows certain non-Muslim communities to maintain a permanent residence within the umma, subject to restrictions meant to keep the communities in a state of dependence and submission. Conventionally, the restrictions were thought to derive from the so-called Pact of Umar, a notional treaty an early caliph made with the Christians of Syria. Most scholars dismiss this pact as spurious, however, and some argue that the restrictions were actually modeled on pre-existing Byzantine and Persian rules. An interesting-looking new book from Cambridge, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Co-existence, by Hebrew University historian Milka Levy-Rubin, takes this latter view. Here’s the description from the Cambridge website:
The Muslim conquest of the East in the seventh century entailed the subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. Although much has been written about the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic empire, no previous works have examined how the rules applying to minorities were formulated. Milka Levy-Rubin’s remarkable book traces the emergence of these regulations from the first surrender agreements in the immediate aftermath of conquest to the formation of the canonic document called the Pact of ‘Umar, which was formalized under the early ‘Abbasids, in the first half of the ninth century. What the study reveals is that the conquered peoples themselves played a major role in the creation of these policies, and that these were based on long-standing traditions, customs, and institutions from earlier pre-Islamic cultures that originated in the worlds of both the conquerors and the conquered. In its connections to Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian traditions, the book will appeal to historians of Europe as well as Arabia and Persia.