In his remarkable book entitled The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson makes the point that "the best things in life" invariably "cost us something." We must sacrifice to attain them, to achieve them, to keep them, even to enjoy them. That is one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. It is the message that we know we ought to instill in our children: patience, commitment, diligence, constancy, and discipline will ultimately pay off if we are willing to defer gratification long enough for the seeds we have sown to sprout and bear. A flippant, shallow, and imprecise approach to anything--be it sports or academics or the trades or business or marriage--is ultimately self-defeating. It is not likely to satisfy any appetite--at least, not for long.
It was the modern abandonment of this kind of cultural substantiveness, this pattern of lifetime reading that provoked G.K. Chesterton to remark, "The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from the past was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack of Rome, the triumph of Attila, or all the barbarian invasions of the Dark Ages. It was lost after the introduction of printing, the discovery of America, the coming of the marvels of technology, the establishment of universal education, and all the enlightenment of the modern world. It was there, if anywhere, that there was lost or impatiently snapped the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity; the thread of that unusual human hobby: the habit of thinking."
Happily, Ben House has, in his new book as in his whole life, undertaken the costly, difficult, and arduous process of reconnecting that long, thin, delicate thread for all of us. He has begun reconnecting it by preserving the practical lessons and profound legacies of Christendom without the petty prejudice of humanistic fashions or the parsimonious preference of Enlightenment innovations. He has begun reconnecting it, all the while avoiding the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable.
Reading the chapters of Punic Wars and Culture Wars, it is evident that Ben understands that the best sort of history is always a series of lively adventure stories—and thus should be told without the cumbersome intrusion of arcane academic rhetoric or truck-loads of extraneous footnotes. History from that perspective is a romantic moral drama in a world gone impersonally scientific—and thus should be told with a measure of passion, unction, and verve. In Ben’s hands, history, books about history, and books about books about history come to life. Thus, these “irrelevant things,” as he has dubbed them in his introduction, actually prove to be among the most relevant of all things.
But, to have undertaken such a work as this, it is readily evident that Ben has had to work hard. By dint of great intellectual ardor, he has disciplined himself to think, concentrate, make connections, and draw conclusions—affording him a richness of insight that otherwise would not have been possible.
Ben ably demonstrates the fact that a healthy appreciation for the gritty work of history not only enables us to recall many of the famous lives, deaths, movements, triumphs, disasters, opportunities, and controversies, but it provides us with tantalizing details of some of the most important lessons and profoundest inspirations that the long legacy of human civilization has to offer us as well. In other words, Ben has undertaken the practice of that old discipline of moral philosophy—and he has done so without apology.
Henry Cabot Lodge once asserted, “Nearly all the historical work worth doing at the present moment in the English language is the work of shoveling off heaps of rubbish inherited from the immediate past.” This is precisely the kind of work that Ben House has undertaken here. Lots and lots of shoveling. Together with the great historians of the Christian tradition, he has snapped the spell of smothering modernity with a sane backward glance at the worldview that gave flower to the remarkable liberty, justice, and hope enjoyed by the lands of the West.
There are only a certain few books that actually have the power to ruin a reader. All too uncommon is the volume that can actually reshape your way of thinking, seeing, and living. Ben talks about a few of those rarities within the pages of this book (just out from Covenant Media Foundation). What he fails to tell us is that this book, his book, must necessarily take its place among them. So work through it—knowing that it very well may in fact, ruin you.