On the Hospital

Here is an extremely interesting book on the rise of the hospital in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and how it owes its origins to Christian commitments and medieval political economy. The book is The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Hospital (Cornell University Press), by Adam J. Davis.

“In The Medieval Economy of Salvation, Adam J. Davis shows how the burgeoning commercial economy of western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, alongside an emerging culture of Christian charity, led to the establishment of hundreds of hospitals and leper houses. Focusing on the county of Champagne, he looks at the ways in which charitable organizations and individuals—townspeople, merchants, aristocrats, and ecclesiastics—saw in these new institutions a means of infusing charitable giving and service with new social significance and heightened expectations of spiritual rewards.

Hospitals served as visible symbols of piety and, as a result, were popular objects of benefaction. They also presented lay women and men with new penitential opportunities to personally perform the works of mercy, which many embraced as a way to earn salvation. At the same time, these establishments served a variety of functions beyond caring for the sick and the poor; as benefactors donated lands and money to them, hospitals became increasingly central to local economies, supplying loans, distributing food, and acting as landlords. In tracing the rise of the medieval hospital during a period of intense urbanization and the transition from a gift economy to a commercial one, Davis makes clear how embedded this charitable institution was in the wider social, cultural, religious, and economic fabric of medieval life.”

Against Federalism

Federalism, the enduring political and legal arrangement that government in the United States is an affair divided between the states and the nation–and, indeed, the broader idea that decentralization, diffusion of power, and local experimentation are positive political goods–sometimes seems to come and go into and out of favor depending upon the political trade-winds. It is invoked as an instrument of resistance by states when the national policy is for some substantive reason thought objectionable; it is decried as an instrument of obstruction when the national policy is for some substantive reason thought attractive. These pragmatic considerations in favor of and against federalism often rear their heads in the law and religion context (think, e.g., sanctuary cities now, decisions about religious displays and legislative prayer, and so many others, at other times). Of course there are some committed theoretical types that champion federalism systematically, one reason for which is to lower the national blood pressure on very contentious issues in the face of increasing political polarization.

But some people seem to want to go the other way for the sake of various substantive objectives, and it is not too surprising to see “equality” as one of these. This new book against federalism is The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work (Princeton University Press), by Donald F. Kettl.

“Federalism was James Madison’s great invention. An innovative system of power sharing that balanced national and state interests, federalism was the pragmatic compromise that brought the colonies together to form the United States. Yet, even beyond the question of slavery, inequality was built into the system because federalism by its very nature meant that many aspects of an American’s life depended on where they lived. Over time, these inequalities have created vast divisions between the states and made federalism fundamentally unstable. In The Divided States of America, Donald Kettl chronicles the history of a political system that once united the nation—and now threatens to break it apart.

Exploring the full sweep of federalism from the founding to today, Kettl focuses on pivotal moments when power has shifted between state and national governments—from the violent rebalancing of the Civil War, when the nation almost split in two, to the era of civil rights a century later, when there was apparent agreement that inequality was a threat to liberty and the federal government should set policies for states to enact. Despite this consensus, inequality between states has only deepened since that moment. From health care and infrastructure to education and the environment, the quality of public services is ever more uneven. Having revealed the shortcomings of Madison’s marvel, Kettl points to possible solutions in the writings of another founder: Alexander Hamilton.

Making an urgent case for reforming federalism, The Divided States of America shows why we must—and how we can—address the crisis of American inequality.”

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him

So spoke Voltaire, and Maximilien Robespierre agreed, for he recognized the need that the new world brought on by the French Revolution would have for an alternative godhead now that Catholicism had been deposed. From that insight sprang the “Cult of the Supreme Being” whose principal tenets concerned a kind of rationalist faith and republican civil religion. The Cult itself did not last too long before Napoleon did away with it. But its effects have been…long-lasting.

Here is a new history of the French Revolution that is sure to touch on these and many other matters concerning religion in the 18th century French world order: A New World Begins: A History of the French Revolution (Basic Books), by Jeremy Popkin.

“The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society — even if, after more than two hundred years, they are more contested than ever before. In A New World Begins, Jeremy D. Popkin offers a riveting account of the revolution that puts the reader in the thick of the debates and the violence that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new society. We meet Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton, in all of their brilliance and vengefulness; we witness the failed escape and execution of Louis XVI; we see women demanding equal rights and black slaves wresting freedom from revolutionaries who hesitated to act on their own principles; and we follow the rise of Napoleon out of the ashes of the Reign of Terror.

Based on decades of scholarship, A New World Begins will stand as the definitive treatment of the French Revolution.”

“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.”

%d bloggers like this: