Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. By Edward E. Ericson Jr. Refinery Gateway. 433 pages. $24.95.
The reputation of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn among Western intellectuals has been going through the agonies of the damned. From a high soon after the 1968 publications of The First Circle and Cancer Ward, his popularity has declined to a point where today seemingly few thinkers in the West take his ideas seriously. Edward E. Ericson Jr. aims to reverse this descent by attempting to refute the critical charges that have been brought against Solzhenitsyn -- that he is "authoritarian, highhanded, antidemocratic, reactionary, chauvinistic, messianic, utopian, extremist, intemperate...."
Ericson's presentation of Solzhenitsyn's thought is clear. The literature search -- looking for critical comments about Solzhenitsyn -- is thorough. And Ericson's analysis of the critics and his defense of Solzhenitsyn are well-argued.
Nevertheless, there are two shortcomings.
First, the book is tedious. The writing is plain and the images lack freshness. The book's rhythm is abrupt and shivering. Multiple short quotes from adverse commentators (usually in book reviews) are followed by equally short rejoinders from Ericson. There is no sweep in the presentation of conflicting ideas. Worst is the accumulation of dull prose from the book reviews themselves (tons of clichés): Speaking of the damned, I would think that endlessly reading reviews like these would be more punishing than Evelyn Waugh's idea of Hell -- to hear Dickens recited forever.
The book's other failing is one-sidedness. Ericson's attitude is: My Solzhenitsyn, Right or Wrong. Ericson generally sees black in Western comments about Solzhenitsyn, and holds up a white image in response. Mostly what Western intellectuals detest in Solzhenitsyn is his Christianity. But there is nothing unusual here. In the new Dark Ages of the 20th century, in which we have lost our traditional morality, an outspoken Christian often makes others uncomfortable, thus inviting their hostility.
But Solzhenitsyn is not all white. There is much fault to find -- e.g., with his Malthusianism and grumpiness. He is long-winded and poorly organized, and his sentences in English translation often have the charm of a boxing gym. And some of his ideas are silly.
Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn probably did more than any other individual to destroy the Soviet system. That's power -- power that would have been more vividly illustrated had Ericson imitated, say, A.N. Wilson's biography of C.S. Lewis, in which no attempt is made to avoid Lewis's failings, and Lewis's genius thereby becomes all the more obvious. Paradoxically, then, Solzhenitsyn's substance would have come through better had Ericson acknowledged the clay feet.
- Richard J. Lanham
An Introduction to Moral Theology. By William E. May. Our Sunday Visitor Books. 239 pages. $7.95.
William E. May not only presents the Catholic Church's rationale for her moral teachings, but also critiques the "revisionist" positions of Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, Daniel Maguire, et al.
May's presentation focuses on the person: "Our moral life can...be described as an endeavor, cognitively, to come to know who we are and what we are to do if we are to be fully the beings we are meant to be...." This focus is important because of the current tendency to diminish personal responsibility and lay the blame for immoral acts at the feet of biochemical or environmental factors.
Why is this book good? Because it is firmly based on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, and brings Thomistic wisdom to the modern reader. Theology cannot be at its best when stemming from inadequate philosophy, and May's theology stems from the best philosophy.
Sin and moral absolutes: These topics are taken up with gusto. The pastor, director of religious education, or unsettled layman will find May's extensive treatment of these matters helpful, especially because he identifies certain theological positions with their corresponding expositors. This book battles the mess people make of their lives when they have been acting according to the false subjective norms of free choice ("if it feels O.K., do it") and so-called conscience ("if it's not a sin for you, it's no sin").
The practical and eternal consequences of apparently abstract moral theologies heighten the significance of this book's few weaknesses. What would have made this book more helpful? There should have been an extensive bibliography to complement the thorough footnotes, which should have been printed on each page instead of at the end of each chapter. The index should have been printed in a user-friendly format. Finally, one's highlighting and/or penned margin notes show right through the paper. If the stakes weren't so high, details such as these could go more easily unnoticed.
- Justin W. Gullekson
George Grant: A Biography. By William Christian. University of Toronto Press. 472 pages. $39.95.
A number of authors have written about Canadian philosopher George Grant, who died in 1988, but William Christian's biography is the first to make Grant's Christian faith the focus. Christian has used his access to Grant's personal correspondence to construct a compelling narrative.
This biography reveals one fact unreported in other works on the life of Grant: He once desired to be a United Church of Canada minister. Unfortunately, the author does not go into much detail about Grant's decision to turn to philosophy over the ministry, although he does note that the Western world has for generations tried "to keep clever people out of the clergy."
Grant's affection for the United Church eventually waned and in 1956 he became an Anglican. The United Church, according to Grant, was scornful of intellect, and had secularized the idea of Providence by turning it into a belief in progress. Later Grant would question his ties to the Anglican Church because of its lack of leadership in opposing abortion and euthanasia.
To people born after World War II, Grant's political views may seem to be a paradox. He opposed the Vietnam War as American imperialism, fought against the influence of big business on universities, and favored strong government intervention in the economy. However, he was also prolife, pro-censorship, and pro-tradition. Grant believed that government belonged in boardrooms as well as bedrooms, so to speak. In this way, his brand of conservatism was far more consistent than any other conservatism of his time.
- Kevin C. Little