- In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition
Anyone who has taught classic texts for many years will at once recognize and appreciate the confident tone, penetrating insight, and elegant turn of phrase that characterize Beckett's writing. In twenty interpretive chapters, Beckett covers an impressive range of texts from the Western literary canon— including Sophocles, Plato, Virgil, the medieval Benedictines, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, Dickinson, Santayana,Wallace Stevens, Eliot,Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence, and Simone Weil, and concluding with Czelslaw Mil/osz and John Paul II. And everywhere there is Augustine, not just in the two chapters devoted to him but also as the template used to interpret all the other writers, however different from each other they may seem. Beckett explains, "These writings have been chosen both for their quality and for their closeness to an Augustinian understanding of absolute and relative value" (p. 14). Indeed, In the Light of Christ is an exercise in Christian neo-Platonism. Beckett contends that the texts she has chosen are classics because people are ineluctably drawn to "their truthfulness, beauty and goodness," that they thus can only be understood in terms of "their relation to the absolute truth, beauty, and goodness that are one in God and that are definitively revealed to the world in Christ" (p. 1), and that this can be best seen through the lens of the "Augustinian, Catholic tradition" (p. 3). Beckett insists that this holds true not only with Bernard of Clairvaux but also with Plato and Saul Bellow.
The qualification of "Augustinian" here reflects the polemical nature of Beckett's argument.The book's polemics operate on two different levels.The most explicit polemic, which she sets up in her Introduction ("The Order of Love") and carries through fairly consistently, is against the Enlightenment and what Beckett deems to be liberalism's inevitable trajectory toward the death of God. Here she relies heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre, although her antidote to Nietzsche is Hans Urs von Balthasar.What Beckett really offers throughout the book is a distinctively Balthasarian reading of the classics. This points to a second polemic at work, subtler than the first because it is assumed rather than argued, but no less determinative for Beckett's thesis. She juxtaposes the Augustinian tradition to the Thomistic (scholastic) tradition, claiming that the latter is too "philosophically exacting" (p. 3) to be capable of finding the deeper meanings of texts. Beckett goes so far as to say that Augustine and Thomas are "irreconcilable" (p. 126) in important respects (the respects that [End Page 307] matter most to her). This, however, leads to claims that are profoundly problematic and serve in the end to undermine the persuasiveness of her argument. So while Thomas Aquinas is not considered as belonging to the Augustinian tradition,William Shakespeare is. The bard's "creative quality, his capacity to appeal to, to confirm,to refine our own sense of the truth of being, is secure" because it was "formed by the Christian, and specifically the Augustinian Catholic, tradition" (p. 206).Why this could be said of Shakespeare but not of Aquinas is unclear. Some of the most interesting parts of her argument for Shakespeare's Catholicism are historical and textual in nature, but their value is called into question by other more speculative claims that try to establish a particularly "Augustinian perception" (p. 223).
This brings us to the value of the book for readers of The Catholic Historical Review.While a great deal of Beckett's interpretation of these writings in the Western tradition depends on the historical contexts she describes, that historical work is undermined by her theological commitments. For instance, of Plato she writes, "His belief in God awaits its completion in the light of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ and of the revelation of the Holy Trinity" (p. 51). Readers who will be most edified by reading this volume are those who already have an intimate knowledge and shared love of the texts she has chosen, since many...