Hello, December! This feels strange. Somehow time during the fall holidays seems to progress both too slowly and too fast all at once. I can’t explain it. But unicorns continue apace, and here is this week’s fabulous herd of exceptional and/or exceptionally thought-provoking reads on the Latin word of the year, Advent, and the many tragedies of war.
Now that we are into December, year-end ruminations, lists, best-of votes can begin. Might I direct your attention to the most important of the last of these? Don’t forget to vote for the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 2023 Latin Word of the Year by December 10th! Some explanation of how the five fabulous finalists, all beginning with the letter R were selected:
For a word to be eligible for the competition:
- its TLL entry was, or will be, published in 2023 (the lexicon’s next fascicle, R10 resilio – resurgo, which contains this year’s finalists as well as many other fascinating R-words including respicio “look back,” respondeo “answer,” and restituo “restore,” will be released in December);
- it is a new word in the sense that it is not found in any of the standard ancient Latin dictionaries (the lexica we used to determine lexical “newness” include Blaise’s Dictionnaire latin-français des auteurs chrétiens, Castiglioni–Mariotti, Forcellini, Le grand Gaffiot, Georges, Lewis & Short, the Oxford Latin Dictionary, Souter’s Glossary of Later Latin, and the Woordenboek Latijn/Nederlands);
- it was deemed of particular merit by an internal preselection on morphological, semantic, and/or thematic grounds (in other words, the lemma struck us as particularly interesting, or funny, or relevant…).
Once you’ve voted for Latin word of the year, you can turn your hearts to Advent. Check out Dixie Dillon Lane’s ideas for “An Outdoor Lessons and Carols for Advent.” It is what it sounds like—an event mostly outdoors and in a barn, and it is filled with joy and wonder!
Okay, on to war, as promised. The release of Napoleon has historians in a tizzy. Don’t miss Philip Bunn’s review this week at Current! Philip is a political theorist rather than a historian, by the way, and this made his task of reviewing the film either easier or harder—one of these, for sure. Over at Bulwark, at any rate, historian David Head suggests a via media of sorts for how professional historians might treat such Hollywood ventures. David should know–as a historian of, among other things, piracy, he’s used to terrible movie takes on his areas of expertise. A taste:
Lurking beneath historians’ criticism of Napoleon and Hollywood’s history-related blockbusters in general is a feeling of helplessness—a sense that we’re badly outgunned. A movie by a big-name director, no matter how flawed, will influence more people than any history class, no matter how skillfully it’s taught. Against a movie with a $200 million budget, an overworked professor at a regional state college doesn’t stand a chance. Film beats history class every time.
I used to feel this way, too, but now I’m more sanguine.
I’ll take the new Napoleon, warts and all, and teach from it, as I’ve done for years with clips from Scott’s previous epic, Gladiator. It dates me to show a movie from 2000, but it works. Students are savvy about visual culture and enjoy seeing what’s real, what’s invented, and why it matters.
Speaking of Napoleon etc., do you have a military historian in your life? Are you stumped for Christmas presents for the aforementioned military historian in your life? Military historian Bret Devereaux has a list of reading recommendations on his blog, mixing books both new and slightly older.
If you were going to read just one book about the Holocaust, a good contender is Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. It’s a chilling account of how ordinary men could be made into killing monsters under the right circumstances. Historian Chris Gehrz, who assigns this book regularly when teaching WWII and the Holocaust, wrote this week about holding a class mock trial of Holocaust perpetrators. A taste from Chris’s reasoning:
But with the recent resurgence of both fascism and anti-semitism in American public life, I’ve increasingly wondered if it was still a good idea to push students to make contact with the minds — what E.H. Carr called “imaginative understanding” — of both the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. If we can imaginatively understand why Holocaust perpetrators acted as they did, are we more likely to fall into a morally relativistic view of Nazism? Can we continue to distinguish between empathy and sympathy?
Browning’s core thesis — that the “ordinary men” perpetrated genocide not because they were so different from us, but because they were so similar to most other humans — convinced me that it’s still worth pushing students to ask the questions at the heart of our mock trial. For if Browning is right that these mid-20th century Germans were primarily motivated by impulses as universal as conformity to authority, social pressure, and career ambition, then it’s maybe not a bad thing to make early 21st century Americans ask if they’d behave any differently under their own version of these circumstances.
Read the full essay to find out what students thought about this exercise.
In Russia, the period surrounding WWII on both sides was the era of the Gulag, a horror known all over the world in no small part because of the writings of Solzhenitsyn. I may not share Robert Morrison’s opinion that “Solzhenitsyn was the greatest Russian of all time,” but I found his piece this week at Providence Magazine breathtaking. A taste:
Historian John Lukacs knew this. Lukacs (János Adalbert) had an extraordinary insight into Solzhenitsyn. Young Lukacs had been in Budapest in 1945 when the Red Army came in. He noted his fellow Hungarians had spread rumors that the Big Three at Yalta had consigned Eastern Europe to the Soviet sphere, but they were unconcerned. We are Central Europe, they reassured themselves. Apparently not from a British or, even more, an American vantage point.
Lukács wrote in his book, 1945: Year Zero, that the most powerful thing in the world that year was not the atomic bomb then in development. Instead, it was the idea developing under one particular furry shapka hat, with its Red Star emblem. That fur cap was worn by a young Red Army artillery office, Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn. The idea genesis’d within the warm confines of that distinctive Russian headwear was that one day the Soviet empire, built on the bones of untold millions, could collapse. It would take 46 years for Solzhenitsyn’s vision to be realized, but he was a prophet before his time.
Finally, it feels like the shameless self-promotion portion of this roundup, but it was an unusually big week of essays for me, so I’ll point out three in brief.
First, I was honored to be invited to write for The Raised Hand, the Substack for the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, an organization that is doing important and truly wonderful work. The question of the year is: “What has the university to do with the good life?” My essay in response is: “Why Athens and Jerusalem Need Each Other, and Why a Healthy Democracy Needs Both.”
Second, my essay for Christianity Today, “The Pink Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” argued for the need to encourage the life of the mind of all Christian women. To single out just one point: “Evangelicals, just like the rest of Americans today, must recognize that motherhood itself is an intellectually rigorous activity that benefits from—and, really, requires—a robust life of the mind.”
Third and last, to conclude on an Advent-appropriate note, I appreciated the opportunity to write for Plough about the Jewish doctrine of tikkun olam (repair of the world) and the novels of Eugene Vodolazkin. A taste from the conclusion:
God has always worked through ordinary people. And it is this faith in God’s people, no less than a faith in God’s goodness, that allows Vodolazkin to tell stories of life in the land of despair while asserting that this brokenness, while true, does not have the final say. Yes, there is much death all around. Yes, the innocent will suffer, see their bodies broken for no purpose other than the whims of those who abuse power – that is a story that Vodolazkin tells as openly as do Alexievich and Petrushevskaya and their many other contemporaries. But these abuses too are mere commas in the story that someone greater is writing. Tikkun olam, the repair of the world, requires a physician, one both great and good. He alone is up to the task.