More summer reading reviewlets

Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Mark Mazower (Knopf, 2004). Aaron Taylor, who lived for a time in Thessaloniki, recommended this book to me. As the title implies, it’s a history of the city from 1430 until approximately 1950. What we have here is not just the tale of some kind of Oriental Everytown, though some aspects of this apply, but the tale of a city of remarkable communities of people who managed to coexist and thrive until outsiders in the twentieth century ruined everything. The Germans, as usual, had a hand in this, not least of which was their nearly complete extermination of the entire Jewish population, a Jewish population that had been the pride of the city and of the entire Jewish world. Likewise, in the name of “progress”, the striking old city of so many minarets and courtyarded, tiled houses, has given way to a city that is a gigantic grid of ugly apartment blocks. How all this comes to be is related in sufficient detail by Mazower. And while he shows perhaps a bit too much sympathy for the Turkish Muslim perspective, this doesn’t affect the historical account. It’s a very good read, very relaxing.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward Luttwak (Harvard University Press, 2009). Luttwak is the author of the magisterial The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Johns Hopkins, 1979). This volume might even be seen as more of a second volume to that than a separate work, as it immediately follows upon the heels of the last, and picks up the history of strategy in the fourth century, going until the end of the Empire in the fifteenth. Luttwak is a brilliant and engaging writer. I’ve never read such a thoughtful and stimulating book on military history and strategy before. Luttwak clearly admires the “grand strategy” of the Byzantine Empire (which he rightly recognizes as the Roman Empire, continuing after the loss of the West to the various barbarians), and suggests that we might find their strategy useful even today. Considering its remarkable success, I would agree. One wonders: was the vivid Orthodoxy of the Byzantines part of the explanation for their so very different strategy? At least in part it must be. Their adaptability and intelligence were legendary, contrary to the slanders of powdered, atavistic barbarians like Gibbon. This book merits rereading soon, I think.

Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, Paula Fredriksen (Doubleday, 2008). This is a remarkable book, one which has given me a new sympathy for St Augustine. Fredriksen provides a remarkable summary account of the evolution of Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman society as a setting for her detailed discussion on Augustine’s writings. She goes directly to the heart of the matter: the educational system of rhetoric, classical paidea, is crucial to an understanding of not just Augustine’s, but all writing of the time. Most people miss this, almost always pulling quotes out and presenting them as something or other that the author “believed” or “felt.” Baloney. Rhetoric was about winning. And if winning your audience over meant some over-the-top insults toward absent friends or foes, then so be it. Rhetoric was always a tool to a higher purpose, and Augustine clearly had higher purposes in mind than scoring cheap shots at his fellow citizens. As with other Church Fathers, his most vividly awful rhetoric regarding Jews is found in those orations which are attacking heretics, where these “Jews” are a standard trope standing in as an image of the heretics themselves (to quite drastically simplify!). In Augustine’s remarkable work Against Faustus, however, he develops a theology of the Jews that is actually quite positive: they exist as a separate entity from Christians because God wills it so, and those who would attempt for forcibly convert them work against the will of God. The Jews likewise are a help to Christians for their holy books, which are (essentially) those of the Christians also, and which therefore serve as a witness to pagans of the antiquity of the message. I really sped through this book, it was so enjoyable. Fredriksen put many years of work into this book, which shows in its smoothly flowing argumentation, and especially in the extraordinary presentation of helpful background material for those unfamiliar with the period. In future, I am going to recommend this book to those who need an introduction to the rhetoric of the Patristic period. It is excellent!

Thus endeth the lesson on the lessons of ye summer.

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8 Responses to More summer reading reviewlets

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath

  2. seraphim says:

    One cannot but be baffled at your glowing recommendation of an author well known for her assault on whatever Christians (and Orthodox Christians in particular) stand for. Should we underscore the obvious fact that she disfigures Augustine by the usual trick of selective quotations, in order to make him look like a “Christian Zionist”?

  3. You obviously haven’t read the book, Seraphim. Read it and then we’ll talk.

    • seraphim says:

      There is no need to read the book. She does not say anything than already said (by her or by others since at least Celsus or Porphyry). Let me rephrase: I am baffled by your glowing endorsement of the author Paula Fredricksen. We know who she is and what she said. No Orthodox Christian can possibly sleep with the enemy.

      • On the contrary, Seraphim, if you have any intention to offer a meaningful critique of the book, you are required to read it. It is an excellent book, though others of Fredriksen may not be.

        When did God make you the spokesman for Orthodox Christianity and assign you censorship duties for our reading? I must have missed the memo.

  4. seraphim says:

    You love bombast Kevin! God did not send you the memo, censorship. I do not intend to offer any critique of the book. It was already done by better experts than me, devastatingly, some few years ago already. She publicized it relentlessly so we knew what she said (with all the meaningful body language!) without the necessity to buy it ($35!).
    I did not “censor” your readings (as if I could). I just expressed the general discomfort felt by many Orthodox when they are told that they should follow the Jewish interpretations of the Evangelium rather than the ones of the Apostles and Fathers of the Church.

    • Not bombast, some gentle humor! The book is not at all as you describe it, or as it has been described to you. I have just finished reading it, so I know what I’m talking about.

      No, we don’t need to take her word as Gospel. But she does find some interesting interpretations made by Augustine, who most certainly does not present, nor does Fredriksen claim that he presents, some “pro-Jewish Gospel” or whatever. Nor does she twist anything to even remotely insinuate such. Anyone who has read it and thinks so is an iliterate idiot.

      It’s a detailed study of St Augustine’s writings on the Jews, which cover his various rhetorical usages, which include some very interesting tropes that he used consistently. Those are what she highlights, and she does a good job of it.

      If you sat down and read through all of Augustine’s writings and sermons and letters, you would see the same things. She simply pulls out the material and puts it together in a book for people to read, with commentary and background. And she does so with a good degree of skill. It is an engaging book. Others may not have found the book useful, but I see nothing wrong with it, and in fact find it an excellent example for others who would do the same for a wide public readership, that is, who would trace a theme through a Patristic writer, including introduction to the historical and cultural background of the Church Father and discussion of rhetoric.

      If other people can’t be bothered to learn from a good example, then that’s their own problem. And you can keep it to yourself, because it does no good.

      Obviously you could see that I disagree with you on this book (which, I remind you, I have read and know about, and you have not and do not — intransigent ignorance will not win you any points in this), so why do you post such comments here? Nothing is served by them. Don’t do that again.

  5. seraphim says:

    No worries.

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