Recompense for a serious mistake

George Weigel

I won’t venture into classical Roman literature, which is not my forte, but I will say with assurance that the greatest modern Latin pun was the result of a schoolgirl prank. In 1844, General Charles James Napier, commanding a British army during the heydays of imperialism in South Asia, was ordered to subdue the province of Sindh (which is now in Pakistan). His methods were criticized in Parliament, and young Catherine Winkworth remarked to her teacher that Napier’s report to his superiors should have been a one-word double-entendre, “Peccavi,” (literally, “I have sinned,” but also, phonetically, “I have Sindh”). Miss Winkworth sent her pun to the humor magazine Punch, which then published it as a factual report from Napier under the headline, “Foreign Affairs.” General Napier later commented that, “If this was a piece of rascality, it was a noble piece of rascality.”

Alas, I can claim no such nobility for my own recent fall into grave literary sin, which involved my annual books-for-Christmas column. There, I described my old friend, Leon Kass, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. This was very, very bad. For as I have long known, Dr. Kass is a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan, and to ascribe enduring Cub fanhood to a Chisox partisan is the baseball equivalent of describing Ronald Reagan as a lifelong communist. I can only imagine my reaction if some scribe had, stupidly, described me as a New York Yankees fan; but Dr. Kass, a true gentleman, merely noted that, when his beloved Pale Hose finally won the World Series in 2005, he had written that this miracle “proved….that not all hope is foolishness.”

So: may my fingers freeze on the keyboard before I ever again locate Leon Kass’s baseball rooting interests on the North Side of Chicago: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

In addition to a firm purpose of amendment, though, a confession of grave sin should also include a suitable penance. My self-chosen penance, which is really no penance at all, is to make my unconscionable error the occasion to suggest that my readers use all those unexpired Christmas gift cards to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whatever, to thicken their personal libraries with three more books written or edited by Leon Kass.

First among equals here is Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. Bioethics is a cottage industry today, and far too much of the bioethics professoriate functions as a permission-slip industry for those advancing dubious projects under the banner of the new genetics. In sharp contrast, Toward a More Natural Science offered a brilliant introduction to deep thought at the intersection of science and moral reasoning, just as bioethics was taking off. Decades after its first publication, it remains an essential primer in a crucial field of reflection, the moral health of which is critical to the human future.

Then there is Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, an annotated anthology Leon Kass assembled and edited with his late wife, Amy. Leon and Amy Kass were the premier husband-and-wife teaching team of the past half-century; they knew how to summon from university students the best thinking of which they were capable; and one result of those labors at the University of Chicago is this collection of readings from a host of sources on some of the most important questions of life. Unapologetically pro-marriage, this mini-library between two covers – which includes selections from Jane Austen and Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus and Shakespeare, Homer and C.S. Lewis, and many others – also revives the notion of “courtship;” a concept and experience some may be willing to reconsider after our national dog-paddle through the cesspool of sexual harassment.

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis is another by-product of Leon Kass’s exemplary teaching: a fresh exploration of the first book of the Bible, undertaken without theological presuppositions, in order to unpack what Genesis has to say about the perennial human struggle to find the truth, live in it and through it, and chart a decent, honorable path through history. Agree or disagree, wrestling with Kass’s interpretations of this foundational text in the civilization of the West will armor those willing to fight for that civilization’s future with some tools necessary for the battles ahead.

And once more, with feeling: White Sox, not Cubs!

COMING UP: Books for Christmas

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The past year has seen the publication of any number of books I’ve wanted to write about, but didn’t. Here they are, as suggestions for Christmas gifts that will provoke thought and give pleasure throughout the new year.

Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War (HarperCollins): Beginning with his monumental study of German National Socialism, The Third Reich: A New History, British historian Michael Burleigh has been restoring religious (and pseudo-religious) passions and convictions to their rightful place in the study ofmodern history. Earthly Powers is a great, sprawling smorgasbord of a book, showing how the emergence of the modern state in Europe, and its displacement of religion from public life, opened the door to a variety of fanaticisms that laid the cultural foundations for the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century (which Burleigh explores in depth in a follow-on volume, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, to be published in the U.S. in March 2007). Demanding but richly rewarding reading, and likely to change the way reasonable people think about the past two hundred years.   

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press): Here is the Pope’s most succinct formulation of his proposal for a cultural renewal of the West — “Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try and direct his life…as if God did indeed exist.” Former Italian Senate president Marcello Pera, himself a nonbeliever, comments in a fine Introduction, “This proposal should be accepted, this challenge accepted, for one basic reason: because the one outside the Church who acts [as if God did indeed exist] becomes more responsible in moral terms. He will no longer say that an embryo is a ‘thing’ or a ‘lump of cells’ or ‘genetic material’. He will no longer say that the elimination of an embryo or a fetus does not infringe any rights. He will no longer say that a desire that can be satisfied by some technical means is automatically a right that should be claimed and granted…He will no longer act like half a man, one lacerated and divided.” Like the 2005 volume, Without Roots (Basic Books), the Ratzinger/Pera dialogue in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures opens a window into one of the most important, and hopeful, conversations underway today.

Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale University Press), and Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 ((Knopf): Habeck’s book is the best single introduction to the ideas that drive jihadist Islam; Wright’s is a brilliant piece of reportage, showing how the ideas Habeck analyzes shaped (and misshaped) the men who made 9/11 possible, ideologically and operationally. If you don’t understand how an Egyptian intellectual’s unhappy experience of a church social in Greeley, Colorado, in the late 1940s eventually led to the deaths of some 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, you should: and Wright tells the story masterfully. Both books are must reads for any friends you have in government — Habeck’s, to explain precisely what it is we’re fighting, conceptually; Wright’s, as (among many other things) a chilling cautionary tale of governmental incapacity.

Elizabeth Kantor, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature (Regnery): Dr. Kantor takes no prisoners in this romp through the madnesses of contemporary literary theory — which is, at the same time, a fine introduction to what we used to call the literary “canon.” A couple of her characteristically bracing claims — “most great literature was, in fact, written by dead while males” and “Jane Austen was a fan, not a critic, of ‘patriarchy’” — suggest why Elizabeth Kantor need not apply for a faculty position at most of U.S. News & World Report’s top-tier colleges. But that’s all the more reason to read and enjoy her book, and to give it to your favorite high school senior or college freshman.