Museum as Metaphor for the Troubled Institution

I recently had occasion to speak with the curator of an art museum at a university, who told me that her job has become a good deal more complicated by fundamental questions about the nature and function of museums in our world. Should museums exist any longer? By what right do museums continue to hold the artifacts that they do, seeing as many now argue that they hoard ill-gotten gains–the products of unjust exchanges, exploitative deals, or worse. Should museums divest themselves of their collections and send their inventory back to the rightful possessors. But who are the rightful possessors? How does one distinguish between situations like the Elgin Marbles, which many say should be returned to Greece, and other art that is now housed at The British Museum, most of which has no connection at all with Great Britain? Selling off these holdings won’t help, since the art will then sit in a private collector’s property. Don’t the people have a right to see and enjoy the great glories of civilization? But why the people of privileged nations that had the political and power and wherewithal to create institutions for that purpose, and the military and cultural power to take what they wanted? Would it solve things to turn museums into centers for perpetual temporary displays, as artwork moves nomadically here and there, from place to place, so that more of humanity can see it than now does?

There is an obvious relationship with the various problems of the legitimacy of property more generally, but I was thinking about the institution of the museum as a metaphor for the new questions that now confront other institutions. Institutions like museums are custodians of traditions of excellence, beauty, knowledge, and truth. Other institutions (including the institutions of law) have a similar custodial role. What happens when the fundamental premises of those institutions comes into question–when their very existence is attacked as illegitimate? How should they respond–and in particular, what should they aim to be the steward of (i.e., what should they want to conserve for posterity), and for whom? For what sort of shared culture do they continue to be institutions?

Here is a new book making what looks like an elegant pitch for the continuing relevance of the museum as institutional marker of a shared culture: Why the Museum Matters (Yale University Press) by Daniel H. Weiss, the President and CEO of the Met.

A powerful reflection on the universal art museum, considering the values critical to its history and anticipating its evolving place in our cultural future

Art museums have played a vital role in our culture, drawing on Enlightenment ideals in shaping ideas, advancing learning, fostering community, and providing spaces of beauty and permanence. In this thoughtful and often personal volume, Daniel H. Weiss contemplates the idea of the universal art museum alongside broad considerations about the role of art in society and what defines a cultural experience. The future of art museums is far from secure, and Weiss reflects on many of the difficulties these institutions face, from their financial health to their collecting practices to the audiences they engage to ensuring freedom of expression on the part of artists and curators.

In grappling with these challenges, Weiss sees a solution in shared governance. His tone is one of optimism as he looks to a future where the museum will serve a greater public while continuing to be a steward of culture and a place of discovery, discourse, inspiration, and pleasure. This poignant questioning and affirmation of the museum explores our enduring values while embracing the need for change in a rapidly evolving world.

A New Work on the Ministerial Exception

Ten years ago, in Hosanna-Tabor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses prohibit the state from interfering with the decisions of religious organizations with respect to the employment of “ministers.” In two more recent cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School and Biel, the Court returned to the question of which employees, exactly, qualify as ministers, but did not announce a clear test. The debate about how far the exception extends thus seems certain to continue. A forthcoming book from Routledge, The Church and Employment Law, by John Duddington (Cardiff), considers the question and takes a comparative approach to the subject. The book is the latest in the valuable ICLARS Series on Law and Religion. Here is the description from Routledge:

This book examines the current law on the employment status of ministers of religion and suggests reforms in this area of the law to meet the need for ministers to be given a degree of employment protection. The work considers the constant theme in Christian history that the clergy should not be subject to the ordinary courts and asks whether this is justified with the growth of areas such as employment law. The work questions whether it is possible to arrive at a satisfactory definition of who is a minister of religion and, along with this, who would be the employer of the minister if there was a contract of employment. Taking a comparative perspective, it evaluates the case law on the employment status of Christian and non-Christian clergy and assesses whether this shows any coherent theme or line of development. The work also considers the issue of ministerial employment status against the background of the autonomy of churches and other religious bodies from the State, together with their ecclesiology.  The book will be of interest to academics and researchers working in the areas of law and religion, employment law and religious studies, together with both legal practitioners and human resources practitioners in these areas.

A New Account of Tradition, its Erosion, and its Retrieval

The idea of tradition and traditions has been a major and ongoing scholarly interest of our Center over the years, particularly in our Tradition Project, its conferences, and its scholarly output. And we have some new projects cooking that will extend the Project in new directions. Here is a new book that appears to involve some of the themes we also have considered: Confusion in the West: Retrieving Tradition in the Modern and Post-Modern World (Cambridge UP) by historians Anna Rist and John Rist.

In their trenchant panoramic overview – ranging from antiquity to the present-day – John and Anna Rist write with authority and ennui about nothing less than the loss of the foundational culture of the West. The authors characterize this culture as the ‘original tradition’, viewing its erosion as one which has led to anxiety about the entire value of Western thought. The causes of the disintegration are discussed with an intensity rare in academe. Critics of modernity ordinarily concentrate on the Enlightenment and the book certainly offers deep analysis of Enlightenment thought. But it goes further. Thus the cruelty of modern totalitarianism is now depicted as in the spirit of the French Revolution and its implacable hostility to a vanished primordial heritage, while scientism, bureaucracy and consumerism appear as the only rivals to a threatening nihilism. The book argues that Western thought has created a set of conflicting moral and spiritual customs: to the detriment of coherence, in individual minds as in society and culture.

A New Book on Roger Scruton

Back in 2017, we were fortunate enough to host Sir Roger Scruton here at the Center, when he delivered the keynote address and participated in workshops at the second meeting of the Tradition Project, on culture and citizenship. (A video of Sir Roger’s remarks is available here). Later this year, Palgrave Macmillan will release Politics and Art in Roger Scruton’s Conservative Philosophy, a new study of Sir Roger’s philosophical legacy, covering subjects as diverse as politics, art, music, and religion–all of which Sir Roger discussed that night in 2017, as I remember. The author is philosopher Ferenc Horcher (Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Here’s the publisher’s description:

This book covers the field of and points to the intersections between politics, art and philosophy. Its hero, the late Sir Roger Scruton had a longstanding interested in all fields, acquiring professional knowledge in both the practice and theory of politics, art and philosophy. The claim of the book is, therefore, that contrary to a superficial prejudice, it is possible to address the philosophical issues of art and politics in the same oeuvre, as the example of this Cambridge-educated analytical philosopher proves.

Accordingly, the book has a bold thesis on the general, theoretical level, mapping the connections between politics, art and philosophy. However, it also has a pioneering commitment on the level of the particular, offering the first full-length study into the philosophical legacy of Roger Scruton, probably the most important British conservative philosopher of the late 20th and the first decades of the 21st century. It also allows reader to look into the philosopher’s fascination with Central European art and culture. Finally, it also provides a daring analysis of the late Scruton’s metaphysical inspirations, connecting the arts, and especially music, with religion and the bonds of love.

On MacIntyre

Over the summer, I’ve been reading a good deal of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work for a project on the moral authority of practices. Here is a new translation (by our friend, Nathan J. Pinkoski, with a foreword by Pierre Manent) of the brilliant French political theorist Émile Perreau-Saussine’s biography of MacIntyre. I’m sure it has lots to offer on both MacIntyre and Perreau-Saussine, a wonderful thinker in his own right who was taken from us too soon. The book is Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography (Notre Dame Press).

This award-winning biography, now available for the first time in English, presents an illuminating introduction to Alasdair MacIntyre and locates his thinking in the intellectual milieu of twentieth-century philosophy.

Winner of the prestigious 2005 Philippe Habert Prize, the late Émile Perreau-Saussine’s Alasdair MacIntyre: Une biographie intellectuelle stands as a definitive introduction to the life and work of one of today’s leading moral philosophers. With Nathan J. Pinkoski’s translation, this long-awaited, critical examination of MacIntyre’s thought is now available to English readers for the first time, including a foreword by renowned philosopher Pierre Manent.

Amid the confusions and contradictions of our present philosophical landscape, few have provided the clarity of thought and shrewdness of diagnosis as Alasdair MacIntyre. In this study, Perreau-Saussine guides his readers through MacIntyre’s lifelong project by tracking his responses to liberalism’s limitations in light of the human search for what is good and true in politics, philosophy, and theology. The portrait that emerges is one of an intellectual giant who comes to oppose modern liberal individualism’s arguably singular focus on averting evil at the expense of a concerted pursuit of human goods founded upon moral and practical reasoning. Although throughout his career MacIntyre would engage with a number of theoretical and practical standpoints in service of his critique of liberalism, not the least of which was his early and later abandoned dalliance with Marxism, Perreau-Saussine convincingly shows how the Scottish philosopher came to hold that Aristotelian Thomism provides the best resources to counter what he perceives as the failure of the liberal project. Readers of MacIntyre’s works, as well as scholars and students of moral philosophy, the history of philosophy, and theology, will find this translation to be an essential addition to their collection.

A New Translation of Ficino

This is more in Marc’s wheelhouse than mine, but here goes. Marsilio Ficino was a Renaissance humanist, director of the new iteration of Plato’s Academy that Cosimo de Medici tried to establish in Florence and tutor to Cosimo’s son, Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Florentine Renaissance was an attempt to meld pagan and Christian thought; like many such attempts, it was extraordinarily productive but quite unstable, as Savonarola, another Florentine, demonstrated. This new translation of Ficino’s work, On the Christian Religion, to be released by the University of Toronto Press later this year, looks very interesting. The translators are Dan Attrell and David Porecca, both of the University of Waterloo, and independent scholar Brett Bartlett. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This is the first translation into English of Marsilio Ficino’s De Christiana religione, a text first written in Latin in 1474, the year after its author’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. On the Christian Religion is this Florentine humanist’s attempt to lay out the history of the religion of Christ, the Logos (“Word” or “Reason”), in accordance with the doctrines of ancient philosophy. The work focuses on how Christ in his pre-incarnate form was revealed as much to certain ancient pagan sages and prophets as to those of the Old Testament, and how both groups played an equal role in foreshadowing the ultimate fulfillment of all the world’s religions in Christianity.

The first part elucidates the history of the prisca theologia – the ancient theology – a single natural religion shared by the likes of Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, and Plato, and how it was fulfilled by Christ’s incarnation and the spread of his Church through his apostles. The second part of the work, however, constitutes a series of attacks against the ways in which the Old Testament were variously interpreted by Islamic and, more importantly, Jewish sages who threatened Ficino’s own Christological interpretations of Scripture.

This new English translation includes an introduction that situates the text within the broader scope of Ficino’s intellectual activity and historical context. The book allows us to encounter a more nuanced image of Ficino, that of him as a theologian, historian, and anti-Jewish, anti-Islamic, anti-pagan polemicist.

Protagoras and the Purposes of Centers of Knowledge and Inquiry (Lectures by Leo Strauss)

A little bit at a distance from our normal fare, but still within range. The Protagoras is one of Plato’s dialogues, though perhaps not one of the best known. But it is one of my favorites and one that I will introduce into a new course I am teaching this year on “Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Inquiry.” It contains Plato’s views on the relationship between speech and knowledge. And, more broadly, one can read the dialogue as a set of reflections on the nature and function of centers of learning and knowledge (or, as we say in the modern period, universities)–in particular, what the relationship is between knowledge and virtue or human excellence. This new book, Leo Strauss on Plato’s Protagoras (University of Chicago Press, edited and with an introduction by Robert C. Bartlett), is about the well-known 20th century political philosopher’s lectures on Protagoras. It is sure to be full of insight about the Protagoras and its general themes–ones that are pressing and vital today.

This book offers a transcript of Strauss’s seminar on Plato’s Protagoras taught at the University of Chicago in the spring quarter of 1965, edited and introduced by renowned scholar Robert C. Bartlett. These lectures have several important features. Unlike his published writings, they are less dense and more conversational.  Additionally, while Strauss regarded himself as a Platonist and published some work on Plato, he published little on individual dialogues. In these lectures Strauss treats many of the great Platonic and Straussian themes: the difference between the Socratic political science or art and the Sophistic political science or art of Protagoras; the character and teachability of virtue, its relation to knowledge, and the relations among the virtues, courage, justice, moderation, and wisdom; the good and the pleasant; frankness and concealment; the role of myth; and the relation between freedom of thought and freedom of speech.
In these lectures, Strauss examines Protagoras and the sophists, providing a detailed discussion of Protagoras as it relates to Plato’s other dialogues and the work of modern thinkers. This book should be of special interest to students both of Plato and of Strauss.

Augustine and Contemporary Social Issues

Readers of the Forum know that we have a special interest in Augustine. We’ve noted a number of books about him, and covered City of God last year in our Reading Society. This month, Routledge publishes a collection of essays applying Augustine to present-day debates, Augustine and Contemporary Social Issues, edited by theologian Paul L. Allen (Corpus Cristi College–Vancouver). Looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This book focuses on applying the thought of Saint Augustine to address a number of persistent 21st-century socio-political issues. Drawing together Augustinian ideas such as concupiscence, virtue, vice, habit, and sin through social and textual analysis, it provides fresh Augustinian perspectives on new—yet somehow familiar—quandaries. The volume addresses the themes of fallenness, politics, race, and desire. It includes contributions from theology, philosophy, and political science. Each chapter examines Augustine’s perspective for deepening our understanding of human nature and demonstrates the contemporary relevance of his thought.

A History of Modern Catholicism

From the important historian of religion, John T. McGreevy, comes this new treatment of the history of Catholicism in the modern period: Catholicism: A Global History From the French Revolution to Pope Francis (Norton, forthcoming). I’ve relied on Professor McGreevy’s excellent history, Catholicism and American Freedom, before, and I am looking forward to this comprehensive study.

A magisterial history of the centuries-long conflict between “progress” and “tradition” in the world’s largest international institution.

The story of Roman Catholicism has never followed a singular path. In no time period has this been more true than over the last two centuries. Beginning with the French Revolution, extending to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and concluding with present-day crises, John T. McGreevy chronicles the dramatic upheavals and internal divisions shaping the most multicultural, multilingual, and global institution in the world.

Through powerful individual stories and sweeping birds-eye views, Catholicism provides a mesmerizing assessment of the Church’s complex role in modern history: both shaper and follower of the politics of nation states, both conservator of hierarchies and evangelizer of egalitarianism. McGreevy documents the hopes and ambitions of European missionaries building churches and schools in all corners of the world, African Catholics fighting for political (and religious) independence, Latin American Catholics attracted to a theology of liberation, and Polish and South Korean Catholics demanding democratic governments. He includes a vast cast of riveting characters, known and unknown, including the Mexican revolutionary Fr. Servando Teresa de Mier; Daniel O’Connell, hero of Irish emancipation; Sr. Josephine Bakhita, a formerly enslaved Sudanese nun; Chinese statesman Ma Xiaobang; French philosopher and reformer Jacques Maritain; German Jewish philosopher and convert, Edith Stein; John Paul II, Polish pope and opponent of communism; Gustavo Gutiérrez, Peruvian founder of liberation theology; and French American patron of modern art, Dominique de Menil.

Throughout this essential volume, McGreevy details currents of reform within the Church as well as movements protective of traditional customs and beliefs. Conflicts with political leaders and a devotional revival in the nineteenth century, the experiences of decolonization after World War II and the Second Vatican Council in the twentieth century, and the trauma of clerical sexual abuse in the twenty-first all demonstrate how religion shapes our modern world. Finally, McGreevy addresses the challenges faced by Pope Francis as he struggles to unite the over one billion members of the world’s largest religious community.

The Shadow of God

It’s not a new insight that many contemporary secular movements substitute for God. Communism, nationalism, left-liberalism, and other encompassing causes offer a kind of transcendence for individuals, who can find meaning in commitments to moral progress in the world. But what happens when progress doesn’t occur? The failure of secular movements to deliver can lead to great frustration and bitterness, without the consolations of ultimate justice in the world to come. That, suggests Harvard philosopher Michael Rosen in a new book from Harvard University Press, The Shadow of God, is our current predicament. Here is the publisher’s description:

Once in the West, our lives were bounded by religion. Then we were guided out of the darkness of faith, we are often told, by the cold light of science and reason. To be modern was to reject the religious for the secular and rational. In a bold retelling of philosophical history, Michael Rosen explains the limits of this story, showing that many modern and apparently secular ways of seeing the world were in fact profoundly shaped by religion.

The key thinkers, Rosen argues, were the German Idealists, as they sought to reconcile reason and religion. It was central to Kant’s philosophy that, if God is both just and assigns us to heaven or hell for eternity, we must know what is required of us and be able to choose freely. In trying to live moral lives, Kant argued, we are engaged in a collective enterprise as members of a “Church invisible” working together to achieve justice in history. As later Idealists moved away from Kant’s ideas about personal immortality, this idea of “historical immortality” took center stage. Through social projects that outlive us we maintain a kind of presence after death. Conceptions of historical immortality moved not just into the universalistic ideologies of liberalism and revolutionary socialism but into nationalist and racist doctrines that opposed them. But how, after global wars and genocide, can we retain faith in any conception of shared moral progress and, if not, what is to become of the idea of historical immortality? That is our present predicament.

A seamless blend of philosophy and intellectual history, The Shadow of God is a profound exploration of secular modernity’s theistic inheritance.