Reading Room Archives

The Russian Enlightenment and Its “Absolutist” Champions

In Russia, the Enlightenment began just as the country emerged from the medieval period. Contrast that with the West, where the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) and the beginnings of the scientific revolution laid the foundations for the Enlightenment. In Russia, Enlightenment ideas did not emerge and evolve. They were imported from Western Europe at the direction—and dictation—of two absolutist rulers: Peter the Great (ruled 1682-1725) and Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796).

Bach's Ode to Caffeine

Our modern picture of Johann Sebastian Bach is lopsided. He wrote both secular and religious vocal music, but much more of the latter survived. It’s unquestionable that his Christian beliefs inspired him to write some of the greatest music ever composed. Hearing only the Passions, the Masses, and the church cantatas, though, makes us think of him as a totally serious man who never smiled. 

OLL's January Birthday: Lord Acton

This January’s Birthday essay honors John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton of Aldenham, 8th Baronet, more commonly known simply as Lord Acton. His writings and lectures as a liberal, Catholic historian were tremendously influential at the time and established a legacy that continues to this day.  

Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

It is hard to overstate the importance of Richard Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity. The book set out to describe the ways in which the Church of England was distinctive--neither Catholic nor Calvinist--and wound up all but creating the Anglican church by means of that description. The "judicious Hooker" argued that the Church of England possessed its own unique doctrines, and resisted attempts to define the Church as a reaction against Catholicism or a less radical Calvinism. So, the modest cover of the 1662 edition of Hooker's Lawes in the Hamburger collection at Liberty Fund belies the books extraordinary influence.

Will and Blame in Dante's Paradiso

In the Sphere of the Moon in Dante’s Paradiso, Dante meets two radiant former-nuns who at first seem like “reflections in a deep pool.” So faint are they to him that they are much like a vague thought or reflection one has not yet fleshed out. These two “sisters” are Piccarda Donati, sister to Forese whom we met in Purgatorio, and the empress Constance. Both of these sisters took vows to serve as handmaidens to God and brides to Christ (nuns are the brides of Christ as representatives of the feminine nature of the Church), but both were taken against their wills from their vows back into the secular world. For this reason, they are in the lowest heaven, the heaven or sphere of oath-breakers or those with unfulfilled vows. 

Doing Justice to John Wick

The John Wick franchise is better known for its award-winning stunts than its screenplays. The plots seem thin as a garotte, while the dialogue focuses on guns and Wick's ability to kill with a mere pencil. Yet the March release of John Wick: Chapter 4 is eagerly anticipated, as are two spinoff series: The Continental and Ballerina.   To understand why, I sat down with Adam Smith to watch Chapters 1-3. While Smith once referred to himself as a beau in nothing but his books, he admired Wick's assassin chic and, even more, the films' exploration of resentment and justice. In fact, Smith observed that the films function in the same way as the eighteenth-century plays he discusses in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS): to teach through sympathy.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe “Gets Religion”

After a frenetic and tirelessly productive career, including advocacy of religious liberty that landed him in prison, Daniel Defoe, age 59, began the writing that made him one of history’s unforgettable novelists--known to us all.

Translations from the Chinese: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

Arthur Waley's early 20th century translations opened up the subtle beauties and nuances of classical Chinese poetry to a whole new audience. Still regarded as exceptionally well done, Waley's translations were accurate and erudite, but they were also poetic. Achieving all three at once is, as any translator will admit, a daunting and nearly impossible task. Goodrich's boxed edition of Waley's translations combines his first two books. 170 Chinese Poems  and More Translations from the Chinese into one charmingly designed volume.

Dante’s Paradiso: Illusions and the Sphere of the Moon

In the first Sphere of Paradise, the Moon, we encounter our first cadre of difficult philosophical questions. In addition to those “simple” ones of how one moves in Paradise, and how a body would move in it (it couldn’t—just like a rock’s matter does not enter one’s head, ideally), now we can consider the question of why the Moon appears to have dark spots if it is immaterial in nature. 

G.K. Chesterton and Work in 20th Century America

One hundred years ago, the British writer G.K. Chesterton traveled to the United States for a lecture tour. He published his observations of America in What I Saw in America (1922). In an essay titled “The American Businessman”, Chesterton notes with surprise how passionate Americans appear about their professional work. 

Daniel Defoe: Religious Liberty in An Age of Militant Sectarianism

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe made a lasting impression on me as a boy. But I seem to have missed the theme, which historians view as religious salvation—“deliverance”—and religious tolerance.  Nor did I get around, back then, to the sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which focuses (amidst the usual adventures) on religious tolerance and how to achieve it.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

We at the Online Library of Liberty think that there are few better things one could do today than to read or listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 

Darwin's The Descent of Man and The Origin of Species: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

Liberty Fund's founder had an abiding interest in the history of science. His library contains works by Boyle and Newton, and he listed Galileo, Avicenna, Ptolemy, and other scientific thinkers on the wall in the Goodrich Seminar Room. When I noticed that a lot of visitors to the OLL had been arriving by way of our online text of Darwin's Origin of Species, I thought it might be fun to see what Goodrich's copies of Darwin looked like.

Welcome to Paradise: Dante's Paradiso

Welcome to Celestial Paradise, otherwise known as the Heaven in Dante’s Paradiso. Yes, that heaven; the heaven, even, for medieval Catholics. 

The “Pamphlet Wars” Climax in the American Revolution and Ratification Debate

You cannot read many biographies of men who engaged the American separation from Britain, declaration of an independent nation, and shaping and winning ratification of the Constitution without encountering—repeatedly—references to pamphlets.Brilliant, fiery, bitterly controversial, famously influential pamphlets: In years around birth of the nation, this brand of journalism climaxed in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and “Rights of Man” (the latter pamphlet a reply to a pamphlet by Edmund Burke). In advocacy of resistance to British measures by men like John Dickenson. And, yes, in The Federalist Papers by master pamphleteers like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison who won ratification.

Moll Flanders and the Pursuit of Happiness

Among Daniel Defoe's masterpieces is Moll Flanders, published in 1722 with a long eighteenth-century title that seems to reveal everything but the protagonist's petticoat:  The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety of Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent.

Voltaire's A Philosophical Dictionary: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

I pulled Pierre Goodrich's copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary off the shelves because of the glorious mid 20th century book design. The striking cream and black checkerboard is eye-catching and emphasizes the "marquee" quality of the author of the text.

Tracing Turkey’s Creation to French Enlightenment’s Influence

Antecedents of the revolution led by Ataturk must be sought in the Turkish Enlightenment, which had two phases.

Kemal Atatürk Founds a Twentieth-century Islamic Nation Rooted in Enlightenment Ideas

He led an overwhelmingly Islamic population out of the Ottoman Empire, created a new secular nation, introduced protections of individual rights, deposed both the sultan and the caliph to introduce a presidency, initiated a Western economic system and Western dress, launched a new Latin-based alphabet, and earlier than many European nations established the rights of women.

A Dissertation upon Parties: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

I should be clear. I am aware that Bolingbroke's Dissertation Upon Parties has nothing to do with the kinds of parties we are all anticipating as 2022 begins to transform into 2023. That said, I was entirely unable to resist posting about this title from Hamburger's collection in the Liberty Fund rare book room

Robert Burns and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

As a young man, Robert Burns read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and expressed his reaction in the strongest terms in his “commonplace book”—a personal journal not intended for publication, but obviously not destroyed by him, and so we read today: 

A Meeting of Minds in the Middle of the Street

We lived across a quiet neighborhood street from one another for more than three decades. On the political spectrum, however, we were so far apart that we couldn’t see one another from our houses. On the religion spectrum, we had an almost equal divide. He was devoted. I’ve always envied him and regretted my lost devotion.

Why Read Borges?

At first glance, the idea that classical liberals throughout the world should learn about the writings of an Argentine man who is well-known for his fiction may seem odd. The works of Jorge Luis Borges, though, are something else.

OLL's December Birthday: John Milton (December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674)

December’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of the poet, statesman, and political philosopher John Milton, considered by many to be the most important author in the English language.  His deeply idiosyncratic personal, political, and artistic sensibilities mirrored the turbulent and revolutionary times in which he lived.