November 2000

Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia.  General Editor: Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. Eerdmans. 902 pages. $75.

How does one get a conceptual grip on this monumental achievement: a collection of over 500 articles about St. Augustine contributed by an international group of over 150 scholars from many disciplines? I recommend re-reading the Confessions first. No encyclopedia about Augustine can substitute for this work written by the Saint himself, which puts in concrete form the basic theological and philosophical issues of life. With this focus the reader can then use this Encyclopedia to flesh out Augustine’s vision.

Take the relationship between faith and reason. Augustine tells us how he, already quite adept at using “truth” for his own ambition, was struck with a love for truth for its own sake at the age of 19. Almost immediately, however, he fell in with the Manicheans, who boasted that their religion was based on reason. Our hero refused to sit among the simple folk and become like a sheep waiting upon the call of the Shepherd. He, the intellectual, would pick his own shepherd. Thus he began a 10-year period experiencing what reason does when it tries to operate without the guidance of the Church: It crashes. Also, Augustine wallowed for a time in the feeling that there is no truth at all. But the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, were not in vain. Listening to the sermons of St. Ambrose out of a merely professional interest, Augustine began to feel the stirring of hope again. He was back among the sheep listening to the Church. From these beginnings in faith, he proceeded to show the world how great the Catholic tradition of faith and reason is.

With this focus, the reader can now tackle this Encyclopedia. There are extended entries on the Skeptics, the Academics, the Manicheans, Ratio, Faith, and Authority. There are detailed entries on the Confessions, the City of God, and the many other works of St. Augustine. There is a wealth of material on the saintly Bishop’s life and time. In this Encyclopedia the reader has a world of experts to lead him to greater appreciation of a thinker who, in dealing in a fundamental way with his own world, can help us today in dealing with our world.

- Richard Geraghty



Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes.  By James V. Schall, S.J. Catholic University of America Press. 296 pages. $24.95.

Fr. Schall’s book is neither a mere repetition of Chesterton nor a platform for his own ramblings. As Schall explains in the Preface, “I was not merely repeating or reprinting or paraphrasing Chesterton, nor was I simply offering my own random thoughts. Rather, I was reflecting ‘on Chesterton,’ to allow Chesterton to let me think….” With that, Schall offers 44 brief but brilliant essays on everything from today’s campaign against the Ten Commandments to the inexhaustibleness of the Great Books, from the nature of virtue and duty to the true spirit of Christmas.

Relying upon the originality of the Chestertonian paradox, Schall is able to bring the reader to new insights about the current state of secularism, the richness of the thought of John Paul II, today’s institutions of higher learning, as well as the modern dismissal of the inherent dignity of all men. As one works through these essays, it becomes clear how the distinguishing characteristic of a mind formed by Chesterton is courtesy born of curiosity: Innocent wonder cannot help but instill an enduring sense of gratitude. Like a child, Chesterton invites a jaded world to see afresh what exists, or, as Schall repeatedly puts it, to see what is. It is intellectual pride coupled with fear that disallows the modern mind to appreciate existence in the way these essays invite. In other words, Chesterton through Schall invites us to be open to and see the higher things which the world neglects.

With Schall, Chesterton comes alive in an entirely new way. Within these pages Chesterton is now able not only to incorporate Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio but to entertain the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand, Flannery O’Connor, Josef Pieper, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Cardinal Ratzinger. Similarly, Chesterton is now able to engage such contemporary curiosities as the United Nations’ understanding of sex and family, Catholic dissent, the Clinton administration, and the musings of National Public Radio.

Professor of Government at Georgetown University, Fr. Schall is the author of over 20 books, hundreds of articles, and is a much beloved and trusted scholar and priest. His willingness to think clearly and broadly allows his reflections on Chesterton to bring the reader to a new appreciation of the classical Catholic mind. As both Chesterton and Schall remind us, dogma is anything but dull and the search for truth brings a reawakening of wonder for what is.

- David Vincent Meconi



Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence.  Edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate. ISI Books. 450 pages. $24.95.

I once heard a great Chesterton scholar remark that distributism is a rather awful sounding name for a very good idea. The comment reflects a marketing problem plaguing the theory. If you ask the man on the street about distributism, you will likely encounter a blank stare. Mention, however, owning your own business, being able to exercise personal freedom in your daily work, and living in a community in which you are known — and the blank stare will likely be replaced with a look of recognition that says, “This is how things should be.”

The idea that a man is better off owning the means to his livelihood than working for hire has generated a lot of enthusiasm at different times. In England, Belloc and Chesterton were at the center of the distributist movement, which called for a wider distribution of ownership of the means of production. The movement spawned a journal and several projects which sought to put the principles of distributism into practice. For a long time I considered the movement, however noble, a rather insular English initiative that simply ran out of gas once Chesterton and Belloc left the scene.

After reading this reissue of Who Owns America?, however, I found that many of the principles of distributism were alive on this side of the Atlantic as well. This book was initially published in 1936 as a sequel to I’ll Take My Stand, a famous literary defense of the agrarian traditions of the South. Many of the original authors in I’ll Take My Stand contributed to the sequel. Even though I’ll Take My Stand made an impact upon its release, it was often dismissed as a collection of romantic longings for a past that could not return. In contrast, the editors of Who Owns America?, Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, conceived of a collection of essays that could possibly initiate a national politics of decentralization. Against the ever-increasing concentration of power by big business and big government, the decentralists of the 1930s wished to propose a counter-revolution that centered on the restoration of widespread property ownership.

The essays in this book cover a wide range of economic, political, and cultural concerns. Although a few of the passages refer to statistics and events that are no longer relevant, the book as a whole speaks clearly to the world in which we live. There is, in these essays, a magnanimous spirit that one encounters only rarely today. Although from a historical point of view the essayists battled on a losing side, their arguments survive and merit engagement to this day.

Edward Shapiro, who contributes a fine Foreword to this new edition, puts it nicely: “Critics during the 1930s derided the contributors to Who Owns America? as romantics, visionaries, and utopians. In fact, the collectivists, with their faith for a better world through industrial planning, were the true utopians.” Thus “it would be foolhardy to write off economic and political decentralization as an exercise in nostalgia.”

The informed Catholic will recognize propositions in these essays that resonate in varying degrees with the social teaching of the Church. These compelling essays speak across the decades and challenge us to form a society fashioned by the authentic needs of the human person.

- Tom Frei





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