William T. Vollmann thinks the first Gulf War was OK, but the sanctions were too harsh. That Lincoln was OK, but not Pol Pot. Dislikes Cortez and also bin Laden. In other words, his opinion of when violence is justified resembles that of most Voice readers. Except they haven’t written seven brilliant volumes explaining why—or rather talked

around why while traversing the world and writing elegant footnoted and cross-referenced texts covering some of the most interesting bits of philosophy and history from the whole of human civilization. Given the banality of Vollmann’s conclusions, it’s lucky that Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means isn’t intended to convince so much as explore, subjecting every variant of the golden rule to every empirical test that can be devised.

The very idea of asking what standards we may use to determine whether Caesar was a just man is anomalous in any context—as history, as fiction, as contemporary moral philosophy. Condemning the witch trials as unjust? Sure—but then asking how, supposing witches did exist, they might have been conducted righteously!? This is the sort of book that doesn’t really exist, but only gets used as a gag in other books. But Rising Up is maddeningly real, at its worst the world’s most erudite dorm-room bullshit session given the Cicero treatment and weighed down by numbing cynicism toward belief and hope of all sorts, naive tossing-about of the “social contract,” irritating misuse of the concept of reification, and an epistemological nightmare of means and ends.

But at its best, which is nearly always, Rising Up pulls off that dated chimera of humanism. Vollmann’s insistence on the vitality of ethics draws his topics together with a certain lovely urgency. Descriptive passages glossing on portraits of Napoleon feel more alive than the portraits themselves. (Loving descriptions of Vollmann’s own weapons made me want to run out and buy a Sig Sauer right that instant.)

Rising Up starts with the irreducible truth that politics is men, but often can’t figure out how men got into this stupid business in the first place. Which suggests a reason for its magnitude—every effort to transcend the specificity of this method only enriches its scope.

Nonetheless, this is a scope and method born from actually talking to people! Listening, understanding, believing!

Vollmann’s always been a better journalist than fictionalist, and a better ethicist than both. His first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1988), was a mess, heaps of magical-realist excess thrown on to disguise its essentially autobiographical cast. The writing stepped up as he began to document real people (albeit at the fringes)—white-power street punks, Cambodian prostitutes, and so forth. Seven Dreams, his series on the colonization of North America, likewise started with some metafictional timeline-hopping before settling into the relatively straightforward narrative of 2001’s Argall. His “normal” fiction, meanwhile, keeps fighting the pull toward fantasyland dissolution. The Royal Family (2000) meandered from a strong start into The Penis Without Qualities, with an essay on bail ethics en passant.

Which is to say that ideas, stories, and plots aren’t all the same thing, and bending them to one another usually hurts one of the parties involved. So as Vollmann’s most sprawling work, Rising Up is also his most tightly structured, full of satisfying closures of themes. Within the first section (“Justifications,” i.e., theories), the logical proposition introduced in the first scene will be fired by the third, and surprisingly so. In the second section (“Consequences,” i.e., case studies including accounts of travel to Cambodia, Colombia, the Congo, Columbine—and that’s just the Cs!), he effectively suppresses his live-and-let-live proselytizing in favor of devastatingly effective storytelling.

As Vollmann’s approach changed, so did his language. It started lengthy and unkempt (the aforementioned Angels; 1993’s Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epithets), full of commas and wild catachreses. Each sentence was packed until it could take no more. By now his sentences are machetes of intent, hacking toward the thing-in-itself, words torn from social contestation and impressed toward the increasing precision of his thought. Stripped of foreign voices his words adopt various particular voices—aw-shucks-the-world-sure-is-big, gothic horror, 12 brands of broken English, juridical authority, PBS voice-over, back-classroom quipster, occasional mawkish Cassandra cries: Mr. President! I have looked into their eyes and they hate us!

Sometimes Vollmann’s judgments on rightness tend more toward a textbook for the power-hungry to amalgamate the appearance of such. His historic net is too often partial—examining Lincoln but not Davis, Robespierre but not Danton. (He acknowledges most of these flaws—but does the acknowledgment of a flaw ameliorate its defective character? What a Vollmannish question to ask!) Still, whatever disputes I have with his ethics in no way diminish the greatness of this work—the size of the tome itself is a Lutheran act of passive aggression: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” This landscape is a choose-your-own-adventure of corpses; back-in-the-day Enlightenment rationalism recommended to those who feel like giving a damn: “[W]hen poor people rob or harm people who are less poor, does the class-based aggression for which jealousy is a shorthand possess any legitimacy whatsoever? Trotsky would say yes; Burke would say no. What about you? It is your prerogative and duty to apply a moral calculus, mine or yours, as you see fit.”