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Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

Entries in roman (2)

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization - Arthur Herman (2013)

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

I am a student of history, having read much of the main classical Greek and Roman translated history sources. However, my study into the area of philosophy has been tertiary. This book provided not only an architectural outline of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical structures but a progressive history of their changes, branches, impacts and major figures on both sides. The book is written with warm and engaging tone while being crisp and insightful in its points.

This is a great book for anyone who wants a thorough history of western philosophy for a layman. It doesn't require college philosophy course training to follow the arguments , ideas or people. It is smartly self-contained and accessible. The best book I have read in the last five years.

The author's primary insight is, itself, a triumph of western thinking- that the world's most proliferated civilization has become so by the dynamism of its two polarities of philosophical inquiry. The tension of that dynamism has become the powerful tool for self-critique and self-correction that is built into the 2500 year-old scaffolding of western thought. This insight alone makes this book not only worthwhile, but essential to virtually everyone interested in their society and participation in it.

The author, Arthur Herman, is scant ever guilty of injecting personal prejudice into the text or it's summary findings. This makes it not only readable, but laudable. 

At just over 700 pages, Herman, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, has presented the book in an affable style while staying solidly bound by scholarship and not making illogical leaps in his conclusions. He also doesn't treat the book like a thesis outline. There is no dissertation style and format here, giving the "tell them what you'll tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them" mindless repetition. Thankfully, the scholar leans this book towards a popular audience and it reads perfectly well for the informed and uninformed reader. 

The breadth of this work, the importance of the topic, the careful attention to detail, the rigorous explanation of change, and the final sterling conclusions it draws make this one of the best books I've ever read.

A brilliant work of international significance.

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Review by Kim Gentes


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon (1776)

Defining an era has come to be the popular work of historians who have had the fortune to write well enough to have appeal to the general public. The work of research, selection, collation, evaluation and summation on a given time and subject seems daunting enough. But imagine for a moment that you were tasked with writing a comprehensive book on a subject that covered about 1500 years of time and included most of the known world. This is the kind of work that was tackled by Edward Gibbon in writing his multi-volume tome, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

Before we begin to appreciate the topic and contents of the book, we must recognize the unbelievable accomplishment of Gibbon. The sheer amount of content, volume of research and power of mind needed to accomplish this task is nothing short of legendary. And the impact resulting from this work has been no less impressive. Published in 1776, its appearance in the same year as two of the most important documents in modern history, The Wealth of Nations (by Adam Smith) and the American Declaration of Independence, is not subservient in weight to these other works. What these documents meant to the immediacy of political and economic changes in the 18th century and beyond, Gibbon’s work has meant to academicians, historians and scholars who received in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the seminal account of European (and world) history for the time period of 2nd to 14th century AD.

Exploring a summary of the details of this book is literally impossible in less than 20-30 page report for even the scantest of overviews. The Roman Empire, according to Gibbon, reached reached its apex power and stability within the purview of the reign of Augustus Caesar and was subsequently managed with intrepidity under the stewardship of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines. The end of that era marked the conclusion of the Roman majestic glory, after which the fruit, growth and full harvest of corruption impaled the Empire with repeated thrusts of political, economic, military and societal failure. The Roman empire expired not in one cataclysmic event, but in a gradual failure of systems and life highlighted by poignant defeats throughout its structure. Indeed, according to Gibbon, it was the weight, success and vastness of this magnificent empire that ultimately pulled its components and leadership down on top of itself.

Gibbon’s articulation of the facts and illumination of the forces behind those facts builds this book into an epic not only of history but of the genius of this author's mind as a great tool of systems analysis.  The writing is so methodical, it takes on a rhythm in each progression of reign from emperors to dynasties to epochs. The reader is given a clear (even if daunting at times) assessment of each and every ruler of the Roman legacy. This is as one would expect. But what one would not expect is the deep and penetrating review of literally every other force at work throughout the known world during the long tenure of the Roman world. From Atilla the Hun to Mohammed (the growth of Islam) to Genghis Khan to the long and arduous story of the Christian religion to the history of each of the barbarian nations and tribes to the dozens of tribes and rulers of the Arab, Scandinavian, Germanic, African and even Mongol streams. Every single influence that made its presence felt in the Roman world is examined, with elaborate prose, via the pen of Edward Gibbon.

The writing is obviously scholarly, yet is very readable in our current English form. While it is rife with detail it is also pithy and even humorous at times. The only vise which Gibbon displays with regularity is his almost insistent propensity to present his points in threefold form. It seems like every section or detail was listed with a triplicate procession of reasons, even when it might have just been a habit that Gibbon filled with his illustrious prose rather than the succinct clarity of solid data. Gibbon also spends regular opportunity to berate the prejudices of various other historians of antiquity and the subjects of his own writing- although reading his book 250 years later, his own prejudices shine through as clearly as those he occasionally demonizes. It will always be the vice of every writer to misunderstand the worldview within which their own work was undertaken, and Gibbon does not escape from this truism. However, he does seem to be aware of this possibility and rains or shines on the variously good/bad qualities of any given subject where it was clearly needed.

It is from the story of Roman power and descent that we see the pre-eminent example of the idiom "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". The dozens of leaders and pretenders that rise and attempt the imperial purple of Roman emperorship turn into a mind-numbing repetition of ascent to prominence, coup of the current emperor, rise of power for the new, corruption and decline into another regime toppled by murderous treachery.  This cycle is so certain that it becomes the only surety in the Roman story during its decline. Yet, there are heroes- people whose noble character rises above a desire for power. And those great characters break the mantra of power and corruption. It is in that contrast that we can glimpse moments of greatness. In the Roman story there is a reflective narrative of our human condition- one that has tragedy and glory. It is within this meta-narrative that we can glean greatness- and Gibbon is an excellent narrator.

What you have in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is a complete and unrelenting archive of over a millennia of history of the greatest geopolitical entity that has ever existed on the earth.  It is written in strident prose and breathtaking detail. Included in the footnotes and commentary of the book is much about the various historical research that has been done since Gibbon’s work. While some small parts of the book's data are now recognized as misinformed, the vast majority of it stands not only as a great resource but as the seminal text of the Roman epic.

You may well have many reasons to avoid reading this book, including perhaps its size of over 3500 pages (depending on the version you are reading). But none of those reasons are worthy of stopping the thoughtful person from reading, understanding and gleaning the wisdom of this tremendous book.


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Review by Kim Gentes