In keeping with a grand tradition of The Imaginative Conservative, in which we share with one another the precious gift of good reading, I would like to offer my own suggestions for some Christmas gift books. Here are my ten recommendations; feel free to pick and choose:
1. André Laks and Glenn W. Most (eds.), Early Greek Philosophy, Volumes I-IX (Loeb Classical Library, 2016)
Perhaps when you studied “the Presocratics” in philosophy class, you learned about the standard Diels-Kranz scholarly edition (Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker) of the precious fragments that have survived to this day from the original Greek texts. You may even have had a paperback copy of Kathleen Freeman’s translation of all those fragments into English for Harvard University Press, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. More likely, you would have worked with Kirk, Raven, and Schofield’s updated edition of The Presocratic Philosophers from Cambridge University Press (1957; second edition, 1983).
But now, this year, the Loeb Classical Library has published a nine-volume set with the most up-to-date scholarship in the field. Gone is the judgmental appellation “Presocratic”; instead, we now speak of “early Greek philosophy,” without the shadow of Socrates coloring our evaluations.
This is the first time that the Loeb Classical Library has published a multi-volume series all at the same time. It was beautiful of them to do so, for the subject matter merits such special treatment. Laks and Most offer a most accessible, comprehensive, and authoritative treatment, the likes of which has never been seen before. If you have the slightest interest in ancient philosophy, you will need to buy the entire set in order to have access to its gloriously unprecedented treasure trove of philosophy and literature.
2. Paul Rahe, The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy (Yale University Press, 2016)
This is a nice brief volume that sets the stage for the more extended treatment that was begun in The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge (Yale University Press, 2015), which will soon be republished in 2017 in paperback form. You are better off, however, reading this short volume on The Spartan Regime first, because it is guaranteed to whet your appetite and to leave you wanting more.
In its prologue (on “The Spartan Enigma”) and in its first two chapters (on paideia and politeia), it contains revised versions of material that originally appeared in Rahe’s Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Once you are brought up to speed, the subsquent chapters on “Conquest” and “Politics and Geopolitics” contain impressive and highly thoughtful reflections on the ultimate meaning of the historical evidence about Sparta. The stunning conclusion, “A Grand Strategy for Lacedaemon,” will probably send you straight to the 2015 hardback edition of The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge, not wanting to wait around for the paperback volume.
In any event, history buffs will want to have all of Rahe’s volumes on their bookshelf, placed close alongside Edward N. Luttwak’s highly stimulating works, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (2009) and The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (1976).
3. Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (Italian original 2014; English translation 2015, published by Riverhead Books of Penguin Random House)
4. Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016)
5. Massimo Pigliucci, Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life (Basic Books, 2012)
6. Michael J. Dodds, O.P., The Philosophy of Nature (Western Dominican Province, 2010)
7. Wolfgang Smith (ed.), In Quest of Catholicity: Malachi Martin Responds to Wolfgang Smith (Angelico Press, 2016)
Rovelli’s intriguing book takes you on a whirlwind tour of seven topics in less than a hundred pages: general relativity, quantum mechanics, the complex architecture of the universe, elementary particles, quantum gravity, black holes, and the unique role that humans play in the universe.
You will be so excited that you will want to read more, and the best place to go will be Sean Carroll’s bigger book on The Big Picture. Today’s latest science is able to give us a grand perspective unlike anything to which previous generations had access.
But if you want to circle back to ancient philosophy for a noble effort to put the march of science in philosophical perspective, you may want to start with Massimo Pigliucci’s highly enjoyable Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life.
You can also find a concise explanation of the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to the philosophy of nature in Michael J. Dodds’ excellent primer on The Philosophy of Nature.
The relevance of this Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical tradition for understanding quantum theory has been shown by Wolfgang Smith in his book on The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key [Third Edition] (Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2005), and now this year Angelico Press has published Smith’s fascinating correspondence with Malachi Martin about perennial philosophy and the wisdom traditions of world culture. Smith holds strange views on evolution, on intelligent design, and (unbelievably) on geocentrism, but he has nonetheless authored a totally brilliant book on how to understand quantum theory (the aforementioned The Quantum Enigma) according to the perennial insights of traditional philosophy. He also shows himself again in this new book to be a highly sensitive and unusually thoughtful reader of the esoteric wisdom traditions of world religions. Whether or not you agree with him on anything that he writes about, he is definitely a very interesting person who always explores the most fascinating topics on offer.
8. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics: Volume I (Hildebrand Press, 2016)
9. Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Image, 2016)
The great Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) wrote a magnum opus on Aesthetics. The first volume has finally been translated into English, and the Hildebrand Press, an initiative of the Hildebrand Legacy Project, has finally published it this year. Hildebrand kicks off his Aesthetics: Volume I, which itself extends to well over 400 pages in length, in just the right way. He defends “The Objectivity of Beauty” (the title of his first chapter) and thus shakes out of complacency those who would take beauty to be a merely subject phenomenon (“in the eye of the beholder”). Hildebrand, who converted to Catholicism in 1914, famously became the number one public enemy of Hitler. That true story has been told in My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, which was published by Random House in 2014. But this year you can also buy it in a paperback edition, which has added a brand new foreword by Sir Roger Scruton.
10. Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (Vintage Books, 2002)
This collection of incredible short stories by the science-fiction author Ted Chiang is also published this year, under the title Arrival, as a movie tie-in edition to go with the Amy Adams film. Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert trying to communicate with aliens. The movie is based on Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” which can be read before or after the film, without doing any violence to your enjoyment of either. Both experiences, literary and cinematic, are worth taking in. I myself read the short story before viewing the film, which bestowed an advantage in being able to engage in deeper philosophical reflections about what was unfolding on screen. You yourself can enjoy both according to your own preferences, but do not miss reading all of the stories in Chiang’s wonderful collection. In particular, “Hell Is the Absence of God” is a highly effective presentation of an alternate reality in which the scientific method does not hold sway and in which angelic visitations are the stuff of the nightly news.