Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: I’ve been reading The Republic of Letters by Marc Fumaroli, a French scholar, professor, and historian. It’s a dense book, probably made even denser by the fact that it’s been translated from French. I’ll be reviewing it more fully for University Bookman so this is just a teaser.
Republic of Letters looks mostly at Renaissance Europe and its “men of letters” (essayists, historians, biographers, classics scholars, early scientists), but it isn’t just yet another telling of that vibrant intellectual period. It does something the best history books do, which is uncover an aspect of the period in question that has been largely forgotten. It’s right in the title: many of these men of letters were part of intellectual networks, which spanned countries and even religions (at least, there were Catholics and Protestants writing together). They in fact viewed their network as a kind of republic of the mind, understood as an analogy of the republic of Christendom or the Church. There were even many bishops and some popes in this secular, scholarly “republic.”
One intellectual was invited to work in the chancery in Rome by the pope himself—after having one of his books placed on the Church’s Index of banned books! So it was that censorship, brutality, and religious war lived alongside vibrant intellectual inquiry in that period in Europe. After reading the book, it’s hard to view the Church as a backward, “flat-earther” institution, and it’s also hard to view the Enlightenment and the Renaissance as entirely secular or anti-religious movements.
The Republic of Letters shows how nuanced and complex history really is, and that’s something everyone should remember in today’s black-and-white partisan environment.
Michael Horton, TAC contributor: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is a quiet book laced with a profundity that belies its brevity. The book is a welcome antidote to the noisy and often noxious world we inhabit.
The story is set in the fictional village of Oxgodby in the countryside of north England just after the end of the First World War. It is narrated by Tom Birkin, who is a shell shocked veteran, jilted husband, and art restorer. Birkin travels to the village to take up a job to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village’s Anglican church. While residing in the church’s bell chamber, he begins the painstaking process of revealing the painting. Outside the church, another veteran of the war with his own demons to face is tasked with finding and excavating the grave of a heretical ancestor of the dead heiress whose money funds the work. The residents of the village draw the two broken men out of themselves and into a world colored with the tender beauty of a place that continues on as it has for generations. Carr’s exquisite prose captures some of what will soon be lost to a world besotted with change.
The novel ends with the passing of summer into fall and with Birkin’s return to an uncertain life in London. As an old man looking back on his grace filled summer in Oxgodby Birkin writes, “we can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.” Carr’s miniaturist masterpiece reminds us of what we lose when we lose the rootedness of community and the simple and so often redemptive pleasures that accompany it.
In The Soul of the World, Roger Scruton delves into the transformative power of tradition, culture, and community. As is often the case with Scruton’s books, The Soul of the World is a book that demands a slow reading not because it is dense but because it is so rich with ideas and arguments. Scruton is the kind of scholar that went out of fashion decades ago: he does not confine himself or his thinking to a particular discipline. Instead, he draws on a lifetime of reading, thinking, and writing about topics as diverse aesthetics and the morality of hunting to argue that the world we inhabit is alive with meaning—perhaps divine—that demands our attention. If we fail to recognize this, the world and we as its interpreters, lose something, something so essential that its loss threatens our existence. We fall. Scruton argues, “we stand poised between freedom and mechanism, subject and object, end and means, beauty and ugliness, sanctity and desecration. And all those distinctions derive from the same ultimate fact, which is that we can live in openness to others, accounting for our actions and demanding an account from them, or alternately close ourselves off from others, learn to look on them as objects, so as to retreat from the order of the covenant to the order of nature.’
It is this objectification, this intentional disenchantment of the world that pushes us over the edge into the lonely abyss of mechanism where we serve only ourselves. A world robbed of meaning, of enchantment, is one that can be despoiled at will, a world where community is robbed of all that is communal.