Dr. X posts this from the big Pow-Wow
"The Sea Lord and I actually had a chance to speak on the phone today, but our call was cut short by the two year-old taking a shriek-inducing (but fortunately harmless) pratfall in the living room. Just as that event occurred I was extolling the virtues of a book called Almost a Miracle
, a new and weighty tome about the War of Independence.
"Another book about the Revolutionary War? We've just had had McCullough's 1776
, what else is there to say? Why read another? Three reasons.
"First, the author, John Ferling
, didn't just wake up one day and decide he was going to write a book about this. He's one of the most highly-regarded scholars of the colonial era, and he's been teaching and thinking about this material for decades. I had not known, for example, that when Cornwallis asked for terms at Yorktown, Washington was not sure what to do. Ferling writes: 'Washington had no experience in such matters. In eleven years, and two wars, no enemy army had ever formally surrendered to him...'
"Second, he writes like a sonofabitch. I bought the book after casually picking it up and becoming engrossed in his description of the surrender: 'Slowly, dolefully, the vanquished marched toward the designated field of surrender, a prosaic plain midway between the quarters of the victorious allied commanders and the hitherto obscure village whose name was about to be catapulted into history. It was a gorgeous day, bright and sunny, and the leaves were just beginning to show their autumn colors...'
"Third, it has the endorsement of David Hackett Fischer
, which is in and of itself a complete case for purchasing it. This is on a par with Albert Einstein's endorsement of Tobias Dantzig's Number: The Language of Science
("this is beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands"). Fischer is one of the greatest American historians who ever lived, as well as the author of a brilliant book
about the logical fallacies of historians. He would therefore recognize my current rhetorical tack as an ill-advised appeal to authority
, although in this case it happens to be right.
"The books are piling up, and yet more room must be made, because we haven't yet mentioned that Master Fagles is back in the house - ladies and gentlemen please, mad props for The Aeneid
! In a world where nothing is as it seems...one man must choose between the woman he loves...and his destiny
... Yes, Aeneas is back in town, and this time it's personal. The Aeneid
- don't found Rome without it!
"Before you read it though, I cannot recommend highly enough the article about it ('Let Virgil Be Virgil') in the New York Review of Books. It
is an eye-opening introduction to the epic they warned you about, the boring and light one, the one that plays Don Young to the Iliad's
Ted Stevens and the Odyssey's
"Author Hayden Pelliccia astutely observes that '...the myth is tied to Virgil's Rome; the action is said to have an ultimate purpose, and that purpose touches us, its audience. More disconcertingly, in "everlasting Rome" there might be, or there might not be - this is the problem - an implication that things have perhaps gone a little bit uphill rather than Hesiodically down. But whether they've gone up or down, the significant point is that the "things since then" are there at all: the Iliad
and the Odyssey
do not fast-forward into the present in any remotely comparable way; what happens in the Iliad
stays in the Iliad
"In that same issue there is an article about theinfluential Irish - American - Gay / Positive - Catholic - Conservative - I'm looking for a noun here Andrew Sullivan. Anyway, his greatest mentor, Oakeshott
(I assume it's his greatest - the article names three - Oakeshott, Christ, and Montaigne...that's not alphabetical, and it's certainly not order of appearance)... I say, his greatest mentor, Oakeshott, is "widely credited with having been the grey eminence behind Thatcherism." Author Jonathon Raban explains that "central to Oakeshott's thought was his conviction that reality consists in the unending swarm and confluence of intractable particulars and contingencies."
"Oakeshott denounced as Rationalist (a bad word for him) the framers of the U.S. constitution, Marx, and Hitler. Really, anyone who had a plan for society and tried to implement it. And maybe he had a point. History was certainly contingent for George Washington - Ferling makes a central theme of his book that the War for Independence 'came much closer to ending short of a great American victory than many now realize.' And even mighty Rome descended into chaos after the death of Caesar - Pelliccia speaks of the relentless social dissolution that accompanied Octavian's relentless rise to power, an era in which 'an almost absolute ruthlessness in dealing with one's opponents became the order of the day.'
"I haven't read much Oakeshott, but the problem with denouncing Rationalism is: what's the alternative? If you're not going to try to move forward you are surrendering to the crazy randomness that turns rag-tag colonies into Republics, Republics into Super-Powers, and Super-Powers into military dictatorship. And I just can't endorse that."