Summer Reading: Legendary Generals
Who was the greater military genius: Julius Caesar or Joan of Arc?
Summer for me has always meant two things: reading and travel! I’ve been blessed to do a lot of both lately.
Last month, I joined nine other Joan of Arc enthusiasts for a pilgrimage to “Deep France”. For twelve days, we sojourned in the idyllic village of Domrémy, where Joan was born; bustling Orléans, where she achieved her stunning military victories at the age of seventeen; regal Reims, where she arranged King Charles VII’s historic coronation (a politically improbable feat which counts as one of her “crowning” achievements); and regretful Rouen, where she was tried by an ecclesial kangaroo court and executed as a heretic. As a retired military commander myself, I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by what Joan achieved in her brief but meteoric career as head of the French army. More importantly, as a Catholic, I look to her as a patron saint and model of virtue and faith. For some great books on Joan’s life, check out:
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain (which he considered his best novel!)
Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses by Régine Pernoud, a classic from one of France’s most esteemed medieval historians.
Upon returning, I plunged into Plutarch’s Lives to catch up on overdue reading for my Online Great Books seminar last week. It was an exciting line up of some of the biggest names in ancient military history including the indomitable Alexander the Great; the talented, ambitious, and calculating Julius Caesar; and two of Caesar’s political rivals, Cato the Younger and Cicero. As I shared before, Plutarch is not writing biographies in the strict sense. One of my seminar mates described his stories as “literary portraits,” better suited to contemplating their subjects’ characters rather than the sum total of their historical achievements.
Reading Plutarch was an interesting exercise following so closely on my trip to France. To be sure, the kings and statesmen Plutarch presents in these portraits each have their share of praiseworthy virtues (as well as vices). A bold visionary from his youth, Alexander was as formidable on the battlefield as he was magnanimous in his royal court. Not to be outdone, Caesar executed his military and political plans almost flawlessly, conquering all of Italy within months of crossing the Rubicon. In my estimation (and Mark Twain’s), however, even these luminaries appear dim in comparison to Joan of Arc’s dazzling lodestar.
The other exciting thing that happened to me this month was discovering a complete 58-volume set of Brittanica’s “Great Books of the Western World” at my local “Friends of the Library” summer sale. I purchased it for just $100, which is a steal by any account! This set is a 2003 edition with black binding and is in near-perfect condition. I once owned the tan, 1950’s edition of the set, but its cheap and aging binding couldn’t withstand my many military moves back in the day. It hurt me to let it go during one of the last transfers, but as the saying goes: If you love something, let it go; if it returns to you, it was meant to be!
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