Sarah Ruden’s New Translation of Augustine’s Confessions

I’ve greatly enjoyed classicist Sarah Ruden’s work, ever since reading her Paul Among the People (2010), which situates St. Paul in the classical world and corrects the image of him as a repressed killjoy. Her 2012 translation of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass is readable and a lot of fun. So I very much look forward to her latest work, a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Here’s the description from the Penguin Random House website:

9780812996562One of the great works of Western literature, from perhaps the most important thinker of Christian antiquity, in a revolutionary new translation by one of today’s leading classicists

Sarah Ruden’s fresh, dynamic translation of Confessions brings us closer to Augustine’s intent than any previous version. It puts a glaring spotlight on the life of one individual to show how all lives have meaning that is universal and eternal.

In this intensely personal narrative, Augustine tells the story of his sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. He describes his ascent from a humble farm in North Africa to a prestigious post in the Roman Imperial capital of Milan, his struggle against his own overpowering sexuality, his renunciation of secular ambition and marriage, and the recovery of the faith his mother had taught him during his earliest years. Augustine’s concerns are often strikingly contemporary, and the confessional mode he invented can be seen everywhere in writing today.

Grounded in her command of Latin as it was written and spoken in the ancient world, Sarah Ruden’s translation is a bold departure from its predecessors—and the most historically accurate translation ever. Stylistically beautiful, with no concessions made to suit later theology and ritual, Ruden’s rendition will give readers a startling and illuminating new perspective on one of the central texts of Christianity.

Himmelfarb, “Past and Present”

Tradition’s continuing role in law, politics, and culture is the main focus of our Center’s ongoing Tradition Project, a multi-year research initiative. It’s also one of the central themes of a new book from Encounter Books, a collection of essays by the famous American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists (Encounter). Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:

Past-and-Present-310x460“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. In Past and Present, an eminent American historian and cultural critic shows the truth of that statement. The common theme of the twenty essays gathered here is the intriguing, often unexpected ways in which the past continues to illuminate the present.

Gertrude Himmelfarb helps us find a new perspective on contemporary issues through a trenchant analysis of debates and thinkers from earlier times.

The topics of the essays vary widely, from the disorders of modern democracy to the challenges of postmodernism, from the Victorian ethos to the Jewish question. The thinkers examined range from Edmund Burke to Leo Strauss, from Cardinal Newman to Lionel Trilling. The political figures who appear here are also diverse, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, from the American founders to Queen Elizabeth II.

Running through all the essays as a first premise is the conviction that the pursuit of knowledge and truth, however difficult or discomfiting, matters immensely in the “practical life,” to use Trilling’s terms, as it does in the “moral life.” Past and Present is a notable contribution to this endeavor—to understanding where we have been, where we are today, and where we may be (or should be) going.

 

Gonzalez, “A Brief History of Sunday”

Strict Sunday observance is less and less common among Christians in the West, and Sunday closing laws–although the US Supreme Court famously upheld their constitutionality in McGowan v. Maryland (1961)–have fallen into disuse, in those jurisdictions where they haven’t been repealed. As Robert Louis Wilken once said, the only thing that currently distinguishes Sunday from other days of the week is that the malls open a little later. At one time, though, Sundays were a day of observance, and the laws reflected that fact.

A new book from Eerdmans, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, by Justo González, offers a history of Christians’ Sunday observance and of laws that date back to Constantine, and reflects on current practice in the West and beyond. Here’s the description from the Eerdmans website:

9780802874719In this accessible historical overview of Sunday, noted scholar Justo González tells the story of how and why Christians have worshiped on Sunday from the earliest days of the church to the present.

After discussing the views and practices relating to Sunday in the ancient church, González turns to Constantine and how his policies affected Sunday observances. He then recounts the long process, beginning in the Middle Ages and culminating with Puritanism, whereby Christians came to think of and strictly observe Sunday as the Sabbath. Finally, González looks at the current state of things, exploring especially how the explosive growth of the church in the Majority World has affected the observance of Sunday worldwide.

Readers of this book will rediscover the joy and excitement of Sunday as early Christians celebrated it and will find fresh, inspiring perspectives on Sunday amid our current culture of indifference and even hostility to Christianity.

Sangiovanni, “Humanity without Dignity”

Human dignity is the fundamental principle of international human rights law. Dignity has also begun to make inroads into American constitutional law. And yet, no one has yet come up with a definition of dignity that commands a consensus. This lack of agreement causes increasing problems for human rights law, especially with regard to issues like religious liberty and same-sex marriage.

Andrea Sangiovanni, a Reader in Philosophy at King’s College London, has written a new book, Humanity without Dignity: Moral Equality, Respect, and Human Rights (Harvard) that argues against grounding human rights in human dignity. Instead, Sangiovanni argues, human rights can be justified on the grounds of avoiding cruelty. I’m not sure how well a non-cruelty principle would work as a justification for human rights, myself. Most people believe there is a duty not to be cruel to animals; but that would not entail “animal rights,” it seems to me. Anyway, here is the description of the book, from the Harvard website:

9780674049215-lgName any valued human trait—intelligence, wit, charm, grace, strength—and you will find an inexhaustible variety and complexity in its expression among individuals. Yet we insist that such diversity does not provide grounds for differential treatment at the most basic level. Whatever merit, blame, praise, love, or hate we receive as beings with a particular past and a particular constitution, we are always and everywhere due equal respect merely as persons.

But why? Most who attempt to answer this question appeal to the idea that all human beings possess an intrinsic dignity and worth—grounded in our capacities, for example, to reason, reflect, or love—that raises us up in the order of nature. Andrea Sangiovanni rejects this predominant view and offers a radical alternative.

To understand our commitment to basic equality, Humanity without Dignity argues that we must begin with a consideration not of equality but of inequality. Rather than search for a chimerical value-bestowing capacity possessed to an equal extent by each one of us, we ought to ask: Why and when is it wrong to treat others as inferior? Sangiovanni comes to the conclusion that our commitment to moral equality is best explained by a rejection of cruelty rather than a celebration of rational capacity. He traces the impact of this fundamental shift for our understanding of human rights and the norms of anti-discrimination that underlie it.

 

“Liberalism in Neoliberal Times: Dimensions, Contradictions, Limits” (Abraham-Hamanoiel et al. eds)

Pity the poor neoliberal. He is today besieged by both right and left, as fissures in the Bad Neoliberalismfusionist and “liberal-tarian” camps are all too visible. Neoliberalism has become one of those near-dog-whistle-level epithets for those of more traditional progressive or conservative outlooks. Here is a volume whose authors’ aim clearly is to distinguish a progressive liberalism from a libertarian-infused liberalism–that is, a classical liberalism. Not too much explicitly about religion in the description; indeed, usually religion makes its appearance in the ‘defusionist’ literature, rather than this type of book. But still of interest to readers of this blog. The publisher is MIT. The description is below.

What does it mean to be a liberal in neoliberal times? This collection of short essays attempts to show how liberals and the wider concept of liberalism remain relevant in what many perceive to be a highly illiberal age. Liberalism in the broader sense revolves around tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, reason, democracy, and human rights. Liberalism’s emphasis on individual rights opened a theoretical pathway to neoliberalism, through private property, a classically minimal liberal state, and the efficiency of “free markets.” In practice, neoliberalism is associated less with the economic deregulation championed by its advocates than the re-regulation of the economy to protect financial capital. Liberalism in Neoliberal Times engages with the theories, histories, practices, and contradictions of liberalism, viewing it in relation to four central areas of public life: human rights, ethnicity and gender, education, and the media. The contributors explore the transformations in as well as the transformative aspects of liberalism and highlight both its liberating and limiting capacities.

The book contends that liberalism—in all its forms— continues to underpin specific institutions such as the university, the free press, the courts, and, of course, parliamentary democracy. Liberal ideas are regularly mobilized in areas such as counterterrorism, minority rights, privacy, and the pursuit of knowledge. This book contends that while we may not agree on much, we can certainly agree that an understanding of liberalism and its emancipatory capacity is simply too important to be left to the liberals.

H.G. Wells, “The Rights of Man”

I’ve never much cared for H.G. Wells’s science fiction–a combination of preachy and Wells.jpegperiod-piece utopian. As to his religious views, there is a credible argument that he was a proto-None (see his “God the Invisible King”). But while I did know that his contributions spanned nonfiction as well as fiction, I was not aware that he had written a tract on human rights. In this book, first published in 1940 and recently reissued by Penguin Random House, Wells is said to have previewed many of the ideas that made their way into the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here is the description.

H. G. Wells’s passionate and influential manifesto—never before available in the United States—was first published in England in 1940 in response to World War II. The progressive ideas Wells set out were instrumental in the creation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the UK’s Human Rights Act. In the face of a global miscarriage of justice, The Rights of Man made a clear statement of mankind’s responsibilities to itself.

Seventy-five years later we are again witnessing a humanitarian crisis, with human rights in developed nations under threat and millions of refugees displaced. A new introduction to Wells’s work by award-winning novelist Ali Smith underlines the continuing urgency and relevance of one of the most important humanitarian texts of the twentieth century.

Falkeid, “The Avignon Papacy Contested: An Intellectual History from Dante to Catherine of Siena”

One can find historical discussion of the separation of church and state in the most Avignon Papacy.jpgwonderfully unexpected of places. Here’s a very interesting looking treatment of it by Professor Unn Falkeid in the context of the Avignon Papacy–that fascinating period of Franco-Roman conflict during the 14th century, denominated “the Babylonian Captivity,” when the popes resided in Avignon, not Rome. The publisher is Harvard University Press, and the description is below.

The Avignon papacy (1309–1377) represented the zenith of papal power in Europe. The Roman curia’s move to southern France enlarged its bureaucracy, centralized its authority, and initiated closer contact with secular institutions. The pope’s presence also attracted leading minds to Avignon, transforming a modest city into a cosmopolitan center of learning. But a crisis of legitimacy was brewing among leading thinkers of the day. The Avignon Papacy Contested considers the work of six fourteenth-century writers who waged literary war against the Catholic Church’s increasing claims of supremacy over secular rulers—a conflict that engaged contemporary critics from every corner of Europe.

Unn Falkeid uncovers the dispute’s origins in Dante’s Paradiso and Monarchia, where she identifies a sophisticated argument for the separation of church and state. In Petrarch’s writings she traces growing concern about papal authority, precipitated by the curia’s exile from Rome. Marsilius of Padua’s theory of citizen agency indicates a resistance to the pope’s encroaching power, which finds richer expression in William of Ockham’s philosophy of individual liberty. Both men were branded as heretics. The mystical writings of Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, in Falkeid’s reading, contain cloaked confrontations over papal ethics and church governance even though these women were later canonized.

While each of the six writers responded creatively to the implications of the Avignon papacy, they shared a concern for the breakdown of secular order implied by the expansion of papal power and a willingness to speak their minds.

“The War on Sex” (Halperin & Hoppe, eds.)

It is an interesting feature of the culture wars that frequently partisans on both sidesSex book.jpg believe that it is only those on the other side who are doing the warring. But this new book of essays, “The War on Sex,” edited by David M. Halperin and Trevor Hoppe, puts me in mind of a line by Philip Rieff: culture is the form of fighting before the firing begins. The authors of these essays do not in the least believe that the culture wars are over. Not, at any rate, if the book’s description generally reflects their views. The publisher’s description is below.

The past fifty years are conventionally understood to have witnessed an uninterrupted expansion of sexual rights and liberties in the United States. This state-of-the-art collection tells a different story: while progress has been made in marriage equality, reproductive rights, access to birth control, and other areas, government and civil society are waging a war on stigmatized sex by means of law, surveillance, and social control. The contributors document the history and operation of sex offender registries and the criminalization of HIV, as well as highly punitive measures against sex work that do more to harm women than to combat human trafficking. They reveal that sex crimes are punished more harshly than other crimes, while new legal and administrative regulations drastically restrict who is permitted to have sex. By examining how the ever-intensifying war on sex affects both privileged and marginalized communities, the essays collected here show why sexual liberation is indispensable to social justice and human rights.

“The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Jurisprudence” (Duke & George eds.)

Natural law jurisprudence, which spans back more than a thousand years, is one of the Natural Lawcentral philosophical/jurisprudential traditions. This new volume from Cambridge, edited by Professors George Duke and Robert George (one of the preeminent exponents of the so-called “new” natural law), treats many important subjects, including the foundations of natural law; practical reason, normativity, and ethics; and law and politics. The contributors are a virtual who’s who of leading thinkers about natural law. A very helpful contribution for the law student who is interested in learning about this important jurisprudential school. Here is the description.

This collection provides an intellectually rigorous and accessible overview of key topics in contemporary natural law jurisprudence, an influential yet frequently misunderstood branch of legal philosophy. It fills a gap in the existing literature by bringing together leading international experts on natural law theory to provide perspectives on some of the most pressing issues pertaining to the nature and moral foundations of law. Themes covered include the history of the natural law tradition, the natural law account of practical reason, normativity and ethics, natural law approaches to legal obligation and authority and constitutional law. Creating a dialogue between leading figures in natural law thought, the Companion is an ideal introduction to the main commitments of natural law jurisprudence, whilst also offering a concise summary of developments in current scholarship for more advanced readers.

Slaboch, “A Road to Nowhere”

We began this week with a history of the reform impulse in American society. We close with a forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press that casts doubt on the whole progressive project, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics, by political scientist Matthew Slaboch (Denison University). Seems pleasantly pessimistic. The publisher’s description follows:

PennPressBlueLogoSince the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has spanned right- and left-wing politics, secular and spiritual philosophy, and most every school of art or culture. The belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements—intellectual, scientific, material, moral, and cultural—continues to be a commonplace of our age. However, events of the preceding century, including but not limited to two world wars, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the spread of communism across Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, violent nationalism in the Balkans, and genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, have called into question this faith in the continued advancement of humankind.

In A Road to Nowhere, Matthew W. Slaboch argues that political theorists should entertain the possibility that long-term, continued progress may be more fiction than reality. He examines the work of German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Oswald Spengler, Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and American historians Henry Adams and Christopher Lasch—rare skeptics of the idea of progress who have much to engage political theory, a field dominated by historical optimists. Looking at the figures of Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Adams, Slaboch considers the ways in which they defined progress and their reasons for doubting that their cultures, or the world, were progressing. He compares Germany, Russia, and the United States to illustrate how these nineteenth-century critics of the idea of progress contributed to or helped forestall the emergence of forms of government that came to be associated with each country: fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism, respectively.

Turning to Spengler, Solzhenitsyn, and Lasch, Slaboch explores the contemporary relevance of the critique of progress and the arguments for and against political engagement in the face of uncertain improvement, one-way inevitable decline, or unending cycles of advancement and decay. A Road to Nowhere concludes that these notable naysayers were not mere defeatists and presents their varied prescriptions for individual and social action.

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