“Thy Godlike crime was to be kind…And strengthen Man with his own mind”

In America, the spiritual seekers and do-it-yourselfers can claim as ancestors American transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman. But there is also a distinctively English analogue of the late Victorian period. That is the subject of this new book, The New Prometheans: Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian fin de siècle (University of Chicago Press), by Courtenay Raia. [For the lines in the title of this post, and much more in the same high Romantic vein, see Lord Byron, “Prometheus”]

“The Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882 to further the scientific study of consciousness, but it arose in the surf of a larger cultural need. Victorians were on the hunt for self-understanding. Mesmerists, spiritualists, and other romantic seekers roamed sunken landscapes of entrancement, and when psychology was finally ready to confront these altered states, psychical research was adopted as an experimental vanguard. Far from a rejected science, it was a necessary heterodoxy, probing mysteries as diverse as telepathy, hypnosis, and even séance phenomena. Its investigators sought facts far afield of physical laws: evidence of a transcendent, irreducible mind.

The New Prometheans traces the evolution of psychical research through the intertwining biographies of four men: chemist Sir William Crookes, depth psychologist Frederic Myers, ether physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and anthropologist Andrew Lang. All past presidents of the society, these men brought psychical research beyond academic circles and into the public square, making it part of a shared, far-reaching examination of science and society. By layering their papers, textbooks, and lectures with more intimate texts like diaries, letters, and literary compositions, Courtenay Raia returns us to a critical juncture in the history of secularization, the last great gesture of reconciliation between science and sacred truths.”

A New Defense of Religious Freedom Drawing on Maimonides, Ibn Rushd, and Tertullian

Several years ago, Professor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote an influential book titled, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Sullivan’s core thesis was that protecting “religious” freedom was impossible in contemporary America because nobody can agree, for purposes of the law, about what religion is.

Here is a new book that represents at least an implicit critique of the Sullivan thesis, drawing on very ancient sources to define religious freedom today: The Possibility of Religious Freedom: Early Natural Law and the Abrahamic Faiths (Cambridge University Press), by Karen Taliaferro.

“Religious freedom is one of the most debated and controversial human rights in contemporary public discourse. At once a universally held human right and a flash point in the political sphere, religious freedom has resisted scholarly efforts to define its parameters. Taliaferro explores a different way of examining the tensions between the aims of religion and the needs of political communities, arguing that religious freedom is a uniquely difficult human right to uphold because it rests on two competing conceptions, human and divine. Drawing on classical natural law, Taliaferro expounds a new, practical theory of religious freedom for the modern world. By examining conceptions of law such as Sophocles’ Antigone, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, Ibn Rushd’s Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Tertullian’s writings, The Possibility of Religious Freedom explains how expanding our notion of law to incorporate such theories can mediate conflicts of human and divine law and provide a solid foundation for religious liberty in modernity’s pluralism.”

La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes

The enduring quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is about which group has the greater wisdom. Here is a posthumous book of essays by the great writer, Umberto Eco, that tackles that question through the themes of beauty, ugliness, the absolute and the relative, the sacred, and many others: On the Shoulders of Giants (Harvard University Press).

“In Umberto Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, Nicholas of Morimondo laments, “We no longer have the learning of the ancients, the age of giants is past!” To which the protagonist, William of Baskerville, replies: “We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of those giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.”

On the Shoulders of Giants is a collection of essays based on lectures Eco famously delivered at the Milanesiana Festival in Milan over the last fifteen years of his life. Previously unpublished, the essays explore themes he returned to again and again in his writing: the roots of Western culture and the origin of language, the nature of beauty and ugliness, the potency of conspiracies, the lure of mysteries, and the imperfections of art. Eco examines the dynamics of creativity and considers how every act of innovation occurs in conversation with a superior ancestor.

In these playful, witty, and breathtakingly erudite essays, we encounter an intellectual who reads comic strips, reflects on Heraclitus, Dante, and Rimbaud, listens to Carla Bruni, and watches Casablanca while thinking about Proust. On the Shoulders of Giants reveals both the humor and the colossal knowledge of a contemporary giant.”

Human Rights as Holdover

We’ve noted the work of Pierre Manent on the site before, and here is a new translation of a book by Manent that should be of great interest: Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (Notre Dame Press).

“Pierre Manent is one of France’s leading political philosophers. This first English translation of his profound and strikingly original book La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme is a reflection on the central question of the Western political tradition. In six chapters, developed from the prestigious Étienne Gilson lectures at the Institut Catholique de Paris, and in a related appendix, Manent contemplates the steady displacement of the natural law by the modern conception of human rights. He aims to restore the grammar of moral and political action, and thus the possibility of an authentically political order that is fully compatible with liberty rightly understood. Manent boldly confronts the prejudices and dogmas of those who have repudiated the classical and (especially) Christian notion of “liberty under law” and in the process shows how groundless many contemporary appeals to human rights turn out to be. Manent denies that we can generate obligations from a condition of what Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau call the “state of nature,” where human beings are absolutely free, with no obligations to others. In his view, our ever-more-imperial affirmation of human rights needs to be reintegrated into what he calls an “archic” understanding of human and political existence, where law and obligation are inherent in liberty and meaningful human action. Otherwise we are bound to act thoughtlessly in an increasingly arbitrary or willful manner.

Natural Law and Human Rights will engage students and scholars of politics, philosophy, and religion, and will captivate sophisticated readers who are interested in the question of how we might reconfigure our knowledge of, and talk with one another about, politics.”

Cor ad Cor Loquitur

“[A university] is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.”

This is not a new law and religion book. But in honor of Saint John Henry Newman’s canonization this weekend, here is one of the greatest treatments of the nature of a university ever written, Newman’s The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated ([The title of this post, “Heart speaks to heart” was the motto Newman selected as Cardinal.]

Fish on the First

I first became acquainted with Stanley Fish in college. Literary theory was then the rage, and as a classical languages major, literary theory was making its primary disciplinary impact in the area of translation. Questions like– what does it mean to translate a work in one language into another? Is it possible to do so? What is lost and gained in the process? Are there such things as “better” and “worse” translations?–these dominated the intellectual scene, and they were the sorts of questions, mutatis mutandis and adapted to a much larger scale, that were being asked by Fish in English and Literature departments. Such questions radically changed the nature of the study of literature. For myself, at the time, I was mostly concerned with ensuring that my translation of Vergil or Cicero or Caesar was right, not whether it was possible.

I still recall that one had a choice in those days: take your Milton with Fish, or take it with Reynolds Price. To give some sense of the difference: Price had us memorize several stanzas of Lycidas (“Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more // Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear, // I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude…”).

Since the 1990s, Fish has become much more involved in the work of law and interpretation, adapting his core ideas to, for example, target textualism and originalism (they say that law always lags other academic disciplines). He has several interesting pieces on intentionalism in interpretation. And my own last experience in the classroom with Fish is his book on the nature of the academic enterprise, Save the World on Your Own Time, portions of which I have assigned in seminars ranging from Catholic Social Thought to the Religion Clauses.

Any Fish publication is therefore cause to perk up and take notice, and this new book is no exception: The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump (Atria). Covers a lot of ground; as is Fish’s wont.

“How does the First Amendment really work? Is it a principle or a value? What is hate speech and should it always be banned? Are we free to declare our religious beliefs in the public square? What role, if any, should companies like Facebook play in policing the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and opinions?

With clarity and power, Stanley Fish, “America’s most famous professor” (BookPage), explores these complex questions in The First. From the rise of fake news, to the role of tech companies in monitoring content (including the President’s tweets), to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, First Amendment controversies continue to dominate the news cycle. Across America, college campus administrators are being forced to balance free speech against demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Ultimately, Fish argues, freedom of speech is a double-edged concept; it frees us from constraints, but it also frees us to say and do terrible things. Urgent and controversial, The First is sure to ruffle feathers, spark dialogue, and shine new light on one of America’s most cherished—and debated—constitutional rights.”

When Do International Mores Defeat Local Ones?

So many of the most prominent law and religion cases–Lautsi, Kokkinakis, Eweida, and on and on–represent conflicts between the views and mores of particular European and sometimes Asian states, on the one hand, and those of the international European community, on the other. Here is a new book that looks like it will discuss some of these issues: International Judicial Review: When Should International Courts Intervene? (Cambridge University Press), by Shai Dothan.

“This book is motivated by a question: when should international courts intervene in domestic affairs? To answer this question thoroughly, the book is broken down into a series of separate inquiries: when is intervention legitimate? When can international courts identify good legal solutions? When will intervention initiate useful processes? When will it lead to good outcomes? These inquiries are answered based on reviewing judgments of international courts, strategic analysis, and empirical findings. The book outlines under which conditions intervention by international courts is recommended and evaluates the implications that international courts have on society.”

Neoliberalism’s Theology

Here is a new book confronting the frequently pilloried term, “neoliberalism,” and offering an interesting theory about its underlying causes and ends: Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Oxford University Press), by Carl Raschke.

“Neoliberalism in recent years has become the operative buzzword among pundits and academics to characterise an increasingly dysfunctional global political economy. It is often–wrongly–identified exclusively with free market fundamentalism and illiberal types of cultural conservatism. Combining penetrating argument and broad-ranging scholarship, Carl Raschke shows what the term really means, how it evolved and why it has been so misunderstood.

Raschke lays out how the present new world disorder, signalled by the election of Trump and Brexit, derives less from the ascendancy of reactionary forces and more from the implosion of the post-Cold War effort to establish a progressive international moral and political order for the cynical benefit of a new cosmopolitan knowledge class, mimicking the so-called civilising mission of 19th-century European colonialists.”

How To Make Hard Decisions

It is some sign of law and religion’s salience today that Professor Peter Schuck of Yale Law School decided to include a conundrum of the field as one of his “Top 5” tough choices in his new book, One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking About Five Hard Issues That Divide Us (Princeton University Press). The others are poverty, immigration, affirmative action, and campaign finance. All of the rest–concerning the certitude that “we’ve all” expressed views on these matters “without thinking them through”–well…I suppose Professor Schuck will tell us in the book just how he comes to that conclusion.

“We’ve all expressed opinions about difficult hot-button issues without thinking them through. With so much media spin, political polarization, and mistrust of institutions, it’s hard to know how to think about these tough challenges, much less what to do about them. One Nation Undecided takes on some of today’s thorniest issues and walks you through each one step-by-step, explaining what makes it so difficult to grapple with and enabling you to think smartly about it. In this unique what-to-do book, Peter Schuck tackles poverty, immigration, affirmative action, campaign finance, and religious objections to gay marriage and transgender rights. No other book provides such a comprehensive, balanced, and accessible analysis of these urgent social controversies. One Nation Undecided gives you the facts and competing values, makes your thinking about them more sophisticated, and encourages you to draw your own conclusions.

Sixsmith reviews Holland’s “Dominion”

Here’s something of a new feature for our book-related posts. On occasion, we’ll have an interesting review of a book that we have previously posted. I thought this review at the University Bookman by Ben Sixsmith of Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, was very worthwhile and gave a good account of the book’s themes, strengths, and weaknesses. A bit:

“Holland’s stylistic talents add a great deal to the book. His portraits of Boniface, Luther, and Calvin are vivid, evocative, and free of romanticization or its opposite. Some of his accounts of episodes in religious history are a little superficial—he could have read Helen Andrews for a more complicated portrait of Bartolomé de las Casas, for example—but a sweeping historical narrative without superficial aspects would be like an orchard with no bruising on the fruit. It is only natural.”

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