Nation and World, Church and God: The Legacy of Garry Wills

Nation and World, Church and God: The Legacy of Garry Wills


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Garry Wills is the polymathic public intellectual bemoaned as missing from American letters. A professor emeritus at Northwestern University, he has built upon his early studies in classics and patristics, while bringing his considerable intellect to bear on American culture, politics, and religion, notably through provocative articles and books on wars, past and present presidents, and the Catholic Church Wills has distinguished himself in the crowded field of Civil War history; fearlessly taken on the legacies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, among other presidents; and offered a critical voice in many fraught ethical discussions, especially in the areas of war and peace.

Nation and World, Church and God gathers original critical reflections by leading writers and scholars on Garry Wills’s life work. Organized around the themes of “Classics,” “Civil War,” “War and Peace,” and “Theology, Church, and the Arts,” the book reflects the cultural acumen, fine-grained political analysis, ethical candor, and theological wisdom of one of America’s most prolific writers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810130012
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kenneth L. Vauxis an emeritus professor of Theological Ethics at Garrett- Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Melanie Baffesis a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.


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Nation and World, Church and God

The Legacy of Garry Wills

By Kenneth L. Vaux, Melanie Baffes

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2012 Sara Anson Vaux
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3001-2


Of Self and Soul: Variations on a Theme by W. B. Yeats

Reginald Gibbons

for Garry Wills


Self Soul
winding ancient stair
broken, crumbling
breathless, starlit air
ancestral night


Why should the imagination of a woman
Long past her prime remember things that are
Emblematical of love and war?
(Why shouldn't she?—the night's a metonym
For ancestral steppes, where the oldest words made song.

On starless nights, cold-clouded, it's not wrong
To invite imagination—which responds;
And self and soul—which ponder what has been,
Acknowledging again what men and women
Endure, and children, whether free or in bonds.)


When sometimes we concede we are all akin,
Each with a share of fear, regret, desire,
Then either opposite—anger or a cure—
Returns us toward, or to ward off, what's broken:

We stand on an oaken, crumbling stair,
Must choose to climb or to descend,
To rescue or escape, to long for an end
Or a beginning: wandering and frail, impure.


steep ascent
a looking-glass
Emblematical of love and war
Emblematical of the night
face to face
malicious eyes
wintry blast


A ploughman leans his everything—
His tattered laugh, his battering toil—
Onto the centuries, as the mule,
Without a soul, pulls blindly on and cannot sing.

What's the good of trying to escape
If always there is more to furrow and to furrow?
In obligation or a ditch, in joy or sorrow,
We too will live it all again, awake and asleep.

Each day's a shard of looking-glass,
Showing us to ourselves, proud beggars,
Flashing a glimpse of what it figures,
As the broad earth's blessings and rigors
Lean in to touch our eyes with a kiss.


Waving his saber, a rider takes porch steps with uproar
And clatter, steel-shod hooves on wood,
He must lean down to enter on his horse, but spurs it hard,
With groaning swing cuts down the glowing chandelier.

It bleeds out slowly, like a man—
Not in a way that one could stanch.
Outside, a kestrel on a branch,
At rest, digesting a green lizard.

Horses won't go down steps. In the vestibule
What had been wondrously hand-made
By worn-out men, dark-skinned, is underfoot. The sword
Is sheathed, the rider has to get the horse and his soul
Out, clear of hazard.

Lincoln studies a map, goes inch by inch.


The consecrated blade
the good of an escape
to live it all again


The question isn't whether we should be;
To think it is, you'd have to credit heaven.
(Thoughtless stars; a horse on antebellum stairs;
The airs of an ovenbird engraven
On the green hush of a dark tree,
Or the saving of forgotten prisoners—
These discredit plausibility.
What's plausible? Not a millionth part of nature,
Nor a million aspects of the human guise,
Neither malicious eyes of prehistoric dragonflies
Nor the forgiving gaze of Rembrandt, the etcher.)


I know not
no longer knows Is from Ought, or Knower from the Known
I am content
I am content


The plenitude of what is is the diet of the mind.
(And the plenitude of what is not?)

Go back six thousand winters—
In middens disinterred, naked to the air,
The bones of beavers, mammoths, fish, reindeer,
Of cattle, horses, bears and boars.

Once in a while, of humankind.

And in harm's way, an excavated cemetery, too—
Reopened wound that even a breeze makes ache,
A breathless ditch made sacred for a sky-god's sake,
Stone blades, tooth beads, and charms against the bugaboo

Of the malicious eye. Male skeletons it holds, in which
Precise projectile points are still stuck fast in ribs,
Spines, necks; here are some heads that other tribes,
Using stone clubs, inscribed with a live hole in each.

Gods of the sky, come see again these Mesolithic tombs
Dedicated to you, where even battle-dogs are buried
With warrior grave-goods—just as dead and wearied
As men, but honored like them too with beads and plumes.

War-horses of the steppes. (Of course, for that's
How human force made way.) And consecrated
By ritual sacrifice, their flesh fat-feasted the fated
Survivors who built death-realm habitats

To remind the gods of men; to bind
Them to men with the prayers of a bard
And by oath, in reciprocal regard.


"Soul," the word, is ancient (from Old English).
"Self," the word, is older (Indo-European).
The sound of either word can span an eon
And revivify the history of a wish.

Composed of soul and body, or soul and self,
Or thought and act, or guest and host,
(Or come to think of it: of hand and book, or mind and shelf)
A mortal man or woman—not a god and not a beast—

Must live a question, questioning;
May dance when lame; and even mute, may sing.
And can; can howl when well and laugh when ill,
Love when in pain, and in pain, love still.

Can weep with happiness; can assassinate
Or sanctify, or both. Can turn to honor
The dust of all creation, and create.


Coming tired from work or war, from difference,
From distant homeland or nearby neighborhood,
A man returns to what needs his defense.
(Has anyone been lost? On which side?)

Anxiously a woman comes back, too, tight-lipped.
For livingness itself is neither bad nor benign;
Livingness cannot discriminate
A kindness from a crime, and does not abate,
No matter what is left behind.

The ploughman smiles with grief—which is a sign
As surely as his furrow is a script.
As surely as a poem may, for a moment, interrupt.


Venice, Rome, and Garry Wills

Edward Muir

"It is hard for a modern liberal to admire Venice in her time of greatness," Garry Wills concludes his study of Venice's imperial religion. That sentence packs a lot. It declares Wills a "liberal" not in the current narrow ideological sense of an adherent of governmental solutions to social problems or the classical nineteenth-century sense of a believer in free markets but in the expansive meaning of the word denoting a person of an open mind for whom evidence rather than dogma governs opinions. Yet at the same time Garry Wills could not be accused of the absence of belief, for his work has been deeply imbued with values: the classical humanistic values, the ethical task of telling the truth about history, and the faith of an observant Catholic. He has, of course, been accused of believing in the wrong things, old-fashioned things, ideologically incorrect things, but he does not fail as a gentle observer of history and contemporary events. In his own words, he is an "outsider looking in" whose adventures have come from observing. To be an honest observer in an age of self-righteous opinionaters places him high in the ethical hierarchy.

And so did the historian Wills in observing Venice note the irony in Venice's greatness. It was great, not because it was La Serenissima or the ideal republic, as its patriots claimed, but because it was a predatory empire, whose most famous icons—the four bronze horses above the west portal of San Marco and even St. Mark's body itself—came to the lagoon as spoils of war or as pious thefts. It was also great because it was a deeply religious city. "It was not only extremely worldly but extremely religious. It was religious about being worldly." It was a city to Garry's liking. "Venice's was not an ideal state. It was just better than most of those around it—better able to sustain, over a long period, whatever ideals it had." On this side of the veil of tears, that may be the most any society could hope to achieve.

Irony is the historian's favorite mode. So only those lacking in historical sense could be surprised that the same person wrote Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, an accounting of the historical and doctrinal dishonesties of the modern papacy, on the one hand, and Why I Am a Catholic and The Rosary, on the other. There is no paradox here. To love the church does not require love of Rome. In fact, for most of Catholic history over the past millennium, the anticlerics, especially in Italy and especially those who railed against the upper clergy, nurtured an abiding lay spirituality. To love God, it often seemed, meant to renounce the temporal obsessions of His church. Since the Gregorian Reforms of the eleventh century, the papacy has so often acted as a worldly rather than spiritual power, a worldliness manifest in its vast legal bureaucracy, extensive properties, Metternichian diplomacy, and territorial ambitions in central Italy. It was and still is a sovereign state that makes the moral compromises all states make. That is where Venice comes in. "Catholics have fallen out of the healthy old habit of reminding each other how sinful Popes can be." Before the eighteenth century, Venice was the place that could at the same moment be both intensely Catholic and intensely anti-papal. Unlike the otherworldly Observant Franciscans, the Venetians were very much of this world. Unlike the Lutherans, the Venetians were willing to live with the fallible self-serving popes as one does with a difficult neighbor but were never willing to be bullied by papal power or snowed by papal doctrines.

Venice's anti-papal stance and especially its anticlerical intellectuals (some of whom were themselves clerics) have often been misunderstood. The waters of Venice from Machiavelli to Thomas Mann have often reflected the inner concerns of the viewer. After a sojourn in Venice and its university town Padua in the early seventeenth century, Gabriel Naudé, the French freethinker and Cardinal Mazarin's librarian, famously claimed that these cities were "full of libertines, atheists, and people who believe in nothing." Had Garry been an adjunct professor at Padua in the early seventeenth century rather than at Northwestern in the early twenty-first, he may have been painted with the same brush. It is then and there that one might find some of his true progenitors. These were Catholics steeped in the classics, educated by Jesuits, and above all loyal to their city, who were willing to question dogmas that failed to meet the test of reason, unmask papal behavior that stained biblical ethics, and demand the freedom of expression, especially of the press. Like Garry, several of them combined the sensibility of the historian with that of the journalist. In fact, the seventeenth century witnessed through news sheets and political commentaries the beginnings of what would become journalism, and nowhere in the Catholic world was this as true as in Venice because it was a major center of the publishing industry in Italy and because the republic assiduously protected the freedoms of its pressmen from the threats of censorship or Inquisitorial procedures from Rome.

Here is the rub for historians. All we have to go on is what alleged skeptics wrote or what others might have reported they said in private. How do we know what someone actually believed if they could publish only what was expected? How can we interpret writings and reported utterances in an environment that required thinkers to dissimulate or face imprisonment or even death? This is the problem I want to solve. Of course this is not just a problem for Counter-Reformation Italy in which there were institutional mechanisms for thought control: the Index of Prohibited Books and the Holy Office, better known as the Universal Roman Inquisition, which after 1542 had jurisdiction over much of Italy including the Republic of Venice. Historians of this period like historians of East Germany under Communism are in luck because the very mechanisms designed to control thought, the Inquisition like the Stazi, left records of the thoughts that escaped control, which were obtained through informants and interrogations, records that reveal ideas and beliefs that often cannot be discovered in other ways. I want to argue that the solution to the problem of decoding texts and utterances in a coercive religious environment must rely on the social history of belief and unbelief. The network of relationships, personal and professional, around an author offers the most revealing clues about the nature of the author's skepticism. Inquisitors recognized this and found their best informants from among best friends. The social history of unbelief also reveals that in Counter-Reformation Italy the most forceful critics of religion were often members of religious orders. The intellectual assault on the church's most cherished principles came not from foreign Protestants but from within. In fact, unbelief was just the distorted mirror of belief. It started from some of the same premises and worked with the same intellectual tools.

Despite the requirements of public dissimulation during the Counter-Reformation, the city of Venice and its satellite university town of Padua remained a relatively freethinking island in the Catholic world. Due to the intermingling of ideas from Catholic skeptics, Jewish philosophers, and various heterodox foreigners, who constituted what was perhaps the most diverse population in western Europe, Venice was unusually cosmopolitan. Padua was the only university in Italy where Protestants and Jews could actually study alongside Catholics despite the Council of Trent's prohibition of non-Catholics taking degrees. Venice had the largest publishing industry in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. Venice and Rome signed an agreement in 1596 to enforce the Index of Prohibited Books among Venetian publishers, but if only for commercial reasons the republic was a reluctant censor, and prohibited books—dangerous stuff like Machiavelli, Luther, and vernacular Bibles—could usually be bought from under the counters of Venetian booksellers. In its official culture the Republic of Venice was certainly orthodox and Catholic, but Venetian officials were jealous of their prerogatives over the local church, which brought them into direct political conflict with the Counter-Reformation papacy. Especially after the epic confrontation between Venice and Rome when Pope Paul V placed the republic under Interdict (1606–7), the republic tolerated and sometimes even encouraged unconventional religious speculation and rabid anti-papal polemics.

What were the possibilities of systematic unbelief in Europe before the Enlightenment? The first problem in answering this question is one of terminology, complicated by the fact that the orthodox frequently employed the slur of "atheist" against the heterodox or those with whom they disagreed on theological grounds. Calling someone an atheist was the best short circuit to dismissing unconventional ideas rather than addressing them. Samuel von Pufendorf defined an atheist as someone who either denied the existence of God or divine providence, a definition that would make a deist and atheist. Closely related to them were those who rejected the immortality of the soul as it had been alleged of some of the Paduan Aristotelians from Pomponazzi to Cremonini. Francis Bacon asserted that

the contemplative atheist is rare ... and yet they seem to be more than they are; for that all that impugn a received religion or superstition are by the orthodox part branded with the name of atheists. But the great atheists indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end.

And cauterized they often were in both Catholic and Protestant Europe. But were the accused actually atheists? In the most influential modern study of unbelief during the Renaissance, Lucien Febvre famously argued that the philosophical concepts and linguistic terms necessary for atheism were lacking during the sixteenth century, making unbelief logically impossible. Over the past quarter century, however, Febvre's case has been seriously challenged, both by the social historians who discovered unbelief among common people hauled before the Inquisition and by intellectual historians who have discovered true "contemplative atheists," as Bacon called them, especially in Venice.

At least since Averröes in the twelfth century, philosophers had recognized that Aristotle posited the eternality of the universe rather than a divinely created one and allowed no place for life after death or for revelation. Aristotelian logic could be used to subject miracles to natural explanations, and thus even discussing Aristotle without reference to Christian theology suggested atheism. What was missing for systematic atheism before the Enlightenment, however, was not a philosophical or scientific alternative to the Bible, such as Copernicanism, but a satisfactory theory of social harmony in the absence of religious strictures. How could sin and crime be prevented without the fear of divine punishment? The problem was imagining a society of atheists, especially a society of moral atheists—people who do not believe in God but who have the capacity to act morally. The crucial problem was not cosmological but psychological and ethical. Without the fear of damnation, society would dissolve into a Hobbesian state of nature.

One of the forefathers of the French Enlightenment and an advocate of the open public library, Naudé is a reliable source about Italian intellectual life.He had studied at the University of Padua where he was charmed by the charismatic Aristotelian philosopher Cesare Cremonini, who denied the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul if not exactly in print at least in private conversations with his students. Cremonini was said to have composed his own epitaph: hic iacet totus Cremoninus ("here lies all of Cremonini"), a pithy way of saying his soul died with his body. His reading of Aristotle led him to argue that divine creation, God's providence, and the whole Christian scheme of salvation could not be proved philosophically, an argument that may or may not have expressed his personal views. Cremonini survived more than eighty investigations by the Roman Inquisition, which probably made his ideas the most thoroughly examined in Counter-Reformation Italy if not in all of Catholic Europe. He was far more of a concern to Roman authorities than his good friend and colleague, Galileo Galilei, or even than the martyred philosopher Giordano Bruno, who Galileo had bested for the professorship in mathematics at Padua and who was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. Cremonini died a natural death because as a Padua professor he was under the protection of the Republic of Venice, and he never made Galileo's mistake of leaving Padua for a higher salary, a move that eventually made possible his arrest and trial, or suffered Bruno's misfortune by alienating his Venetian protectors. Naudé described Cremonini as "a great man, with a lively mind which knew no inhibitions. He was free of illusions and stupid prejudices, and he knew the truth perfectly well, although in Italy no one dared spell it out. All the professors in that country, and especially those in Padua, are freethinkers ... Cremonini skillfully kept his private opinions to himself, being in Italy.... One of his maxims was: think what you like, but say what is expected of you (intus ut libet, forus ut moris est)."


Excerpted from Nation and World, Church and God by Kenneth L. Vaux, Melanie Baffes. Copyright © 2012 Sara Anson Vaux. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The American Mind Sam Tanenhaus,
Part One: Classics,
Chapter 1. Of Self and Soul: Variations on a Theme by W. B. Yeats Reginald Gibbons,
Chapter 2. Venice, Rome, and Garry Wills Edward Muir,
Chapter 3. An Elegy for Hykkara Ingrid Rowland,
Chapter 4. On Teaching in College Rudolph H. Weingartner,
Chapter 5. Order and Disruption in the Heroic World of the Iliad Jane Levin,
Part Two: Civil War,
Chapter 6. Nothing Equals Macbeth: Notes on Lincoln's Fatal Attraction Douglas L. Wilson,
Chapter 7. With Malice toward Both: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in Caricature Harold Holzer,
Chapter 8. The South, the Civil War, and American Classical Scholarship Ward W. Briggs,
Chapter 9. Karl Barth and Garry Wills on Fratricide in the U.S. Civil War Kenneth L. Vaux,
Part Three: War and Peace,
Chapter 10. The Quest for Peace with Justice in the Middle East: Christian Zionist and Palestinian Theologies Rosemary Radford Ruether,
Chapter 11. An Essay on Fundamentalism Martin E. Marty,
Chapter 12. Religion in America's Relationship to the World: An Oxymoron Bruce Cumings,
Chapter 13. Garry Wills on Providence, Peace, and Presidential Powers Douglass Cassel,
Chapter 14. "Peacemaking": A Critical Inquiry into a New Theology of Politics Sarah Elizabeth Ruden,
Part Four: Theology, Church, and the Arts,
Chapter 15. Eternal War or the Dawn of Peace: Representations of War, Peace, and Reconciliation in the War Films of Clint Eastwood—Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima Sara Anson Vaux,
Viae et Pontes: The Literary Mileposts of Garry Wills (an Annotated Bibliography) Beth M. Sheppard,

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