A Symposium on Books

We asked students, professors, and alumni:

Which book most influenced your thinking about issues of political life?

Which book would you recommend to a young person interested in the serious study of politics?



Richard A. Epstein

Gaius’ Institutes

I have been asked to indicate what book has had the most influence on my political philosophy. On that question it is possible for me to give the conventional answers of all classical liberals, which is the books that dominated that tradition: Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise, and Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature. None of those answers would be wrong, but none of them would be, I think, instructive.

It is therefore more instructive on this occasion to indicate what influence on my intellectual life allows me to bring something to the table that is not shared by most writers in the classical liberal tradition. And to answer this question, it is helpful to remind readers that my education as a political philosopher ended with my graduation from Columbia College in 1964. And my education as a lawyer began at Oxford as a law student at Oriel College in the fall of 1964, where my first course of instruction was in Roman Law, a subject that I continue to teach to this day. The first assignment in that first course relied heavily on the book that has had an enormous influence on my life, Gaius’ Institutes.

What, a reader might ask, could anyone hope to learn from a primer written for Roman law students around 160 AD by a man about whose life virtually nothing else is known? A lot is the answer, at least if you try. First, as for significance, Gaius’ Institutes were lost until recovered by accident around 1816. But in the interim they served as the foundation for the far more famous book, Justinian’s Institutes, written over 350 years later. Without question that book of Justinian is the single most influential book ever written on law, given that it shaped the development of western legal thought in both the Roman and the common law tradition for close to 1500 years. (Blackstone may be a close second, but he came too late in the game to influence the world, writing as he did in the 1760s. His influence was therefore enormous on the American front, but not on the continent.)

The question, then, is why? Because Gaius, with a few errors along the way, basically got the dominant categories of legal analysis correct. He wrote in clear form that the first set of legal rules dealt with the acquisition of private property from its unowned condition, and thus articulated the first possession rule which to this day remains the basis of all systems of private property. He was also smart enough to realize (a point that Justinian makes clearer) that all property could not, and should not, be reduced to private ownership, and thus explained how various types of public property could and should, coexist with private property—a point which some modern legal thinkers starting with Locke (who was less accurate on all these points) missed. He then explained that the two offshoots of the property regime were torts and contracts, where the former dealt with the use of prohibited means to achieve personal ends, and the second dealt with the gains from voluntary exchange. But he did not stop there; he also articulated the rules that governed various kinds of forced exchanges, which resulted when by mistake the property or labor of two individuals were mixed together in ways that formed a whole that was more valuable than its constituent parts. The allocation of the gains from these ventures led to the articulation of a sensible set of principles of when strong property rules, which allow for exclusion, become weaker property rules that require the payment of just compensation in order to secure the balance between the parties.

Needless to say the ability to understand these rules lays the foundation for understanding the much more complex arrangements that are needed to articulate the relationship between a fully developed system of private law and a complex system of direct public regulation, chiefly through the exercises of the powers of taxation and eminent domain. These two systems should be adopted only when they produce overall social gain which can then be distributed in a coherent fashion (often by pro rata rules) in order to preserve the social surplus from factional intrigue. The accuracy of these rules in earlier times was quite extraordinary, and their solutions are often superior to those of modern writers whose self-conscious instrumentalism often leads them astray on particular cases. 

Over and over again in my own life, I have tested modern political institutions against the ancient standards that can be derived from understanding the intuitive, natural law, conclusions of the earlier writers, of whom Gaius was the most influential. It helps in academics, as in all other areas of life, to benefit from intelligent product differentiation. Gaius, and the other Roman texts supplied me that intellectual advantage. Who would have ever thought in 1964 that these older texts could have exerted such a profound influence on my life?

Kevin Jiang

Patriotic Grace by Peggy Noonan

The task of introducing any person into the complex and highly opinionated world of American political dialogue is a risky endeavor. This is increasingly true in the modern political sphere in which opinion is overwhelmingly available in print, on television, and, in particular, on the Internet. One risks creating not a conscientious contributor to political dialogue, but a mouthpiece for popular pundits, who are given to repeating the popular stance on a political issue rather than considering or even acknowledging the opposing side. Considering the present dangers, the first book I would recommend to anyone wishing to enter the political dialogue is Patriotic Grace by former Reagan speechwriter and current Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Peggy Noonan.

Barely long enough to be considered much more than a pamphlet, Noonan’s book presents a clear, evenhanded assessment of the state of the modern political sphere and the deepest problem underlying and undermining it. As a mainstay of the Republican Party herself, Noonan takes a distinctly conservative tone throughout her book, which nonetheless remains accessible to the politically undecided and even to most liberals. Through the cordial, eloquent style that she has cultivated as a speechwriter and in her weekly column, Noonan argues that divisive partisanship has become the norm among politicians.

Noonan laments the loss of what she calls “patriotic grace,” specifically, a loss of what she simply describes as “what the people of our country really long for in our national life: forgiveness and grace, maturity and wisdom.” Citing the national unity after 9/11 and the subsequent dissolution of that unity, Ms. Noonan contends that the public must regain that unity for the good of the nation. However, it is important to note that the patriotic grace Ms. Noonan calls for is not a sort of national group hug, or a resolution of partisan divides; rather, it is a less acerbic political atmosphere, where the shallow negativity that pervades modern pundit dialogue is overtaken by smart, constructive debate. In overcoming this shallowness, Noonan argues, the ensuing political discussion will be focused on the best way to push the United States into the future, rather than simply their way versus my way.

I have recommended Patriotic Grace to every person I know who is even marginally interested in the political world. True, Patriotic Grace does very little to cultivate one’s political stance. It nevertheless assumes a far more important role, in defining what it means to be a responsible citizen who engages in useful politics. Whereas before, my political debates often degenerated into stagnant yelling contests, I now have far more stimulating discussions both with those who hold my beliefs and even with those whom I doubt I could ever be in agreement. In turn, I find myself, as well as those around me, more educated about the overall political climate. By avoiding the pettiness that often bogs down political discussion, we are more prepared to be the educated voters and political thinkers that American politics depends on. While Patriotic Grace is by no means the last word in introducing serious political thought, it does provide the most coherent, concise overview of the one vital trait that is sadly lacking in most political enthusiasts.

Josh Lerner

The Road to Serfdom By F. A. Hayek

For those of us who combat the most pernicious forms of statist ideology, few books are more important or relevant than Friedrich von Hayek’s first classic The Road to Serfdom. It is no exaggeration to claim that this book provided the first real rebuttal to the “vital center” Keynesian solutions of the 1940s as well as the global threat of creeping socialism, and thus provided the intellectual backing to those engaged in the war against collectivism.

What makes The Road to Serfdom unique is that it is not designed to be read by the “true believer.” Hayek intended the book to be read by those with whom he did not agree, going as far as dedicating the book to the “socialists of all parties.” It is no coincidence that this book is so often cited as the intellectual turning point for many who become conservatives or libertarians late in life; one becomes immediately enamored of the clarity and passion in the writing of someone clearly more comfortable in the realm of the technical article. Hayek is at his very best in this book, ably combining elements of a philosophical treatise with those of a book of practical politics. The abstractions that Hayek lays out, in the clearest of language, are buttressed by powerful, tangible examples, laying forth the very clear ideology of a profoundly thoughtful man.

The argument of The Road to Serfdom is a rather simple one: all forms of centralized economic planning invariably lead to the expansion of arbitrary state power; these powers, in the wrong hands, can easily become tyrannical. Hayek contends that the only solution centralized authorities have developed for the information-gathering problems they will invariably face (a concept he fully develops in his magnificent article “The Use of Knowledge in Society”) is the procurement of more power at the expense of individual rights and liberties. Hayek posited that command economies were doomed to waste, inefficiency and eventual collapse, because modern economies are too large and complicated to be evaluated and centralized. Markets provide every individual with the incentives to know the information necessary to maximize efficiency.

Within the framework of a market, this information is handled relatively effectively. However, any centralized authority can only have partial knowledge of the necessary information pertinent to the functioning of the economy. When the state authority fails to allocate resources efficiently, it responds to this failure by taking more power—dictating more elements of the economy to minimize this inefficiency (what has been styled as “Prussian Efficiency”). This expanded role that government plays, particularly powers taken during a time of crisis, quickly becomes permanent powers that seek as much their perpetuation as their prosperity. Think of things like the Great Society: if the goal of the Great Society was to eliminate poverty, its inability to do so simply means, to the well intentioned believer in said program, that it needs both more time and more money to work. Its failure to alleviate poverty becomes evidence of its necessity! Hayek lamented, “Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.” Hayek draws these conclusions by harkening back to the formative days of the two great totalitarian powers of the 20th century, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, and pointing out that in both, the fundamental belief in the power of planning led to concomitant expansion of government powers. Centralized economic planning provides the fertilizer to the seed of totalitarianism.

But Hayek isn’t wrapped up in any Ron Paul-style utopia. His vision is that of a limited and prudential state, not the pseudo anarchic state sometime longed for by modern day libertarians. He states, and rightly so, that “nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire.”

And this book could not be more relevant than it is now. As President Obama seeks to expand government control further and further, and as the case for individual rights and liberties are slowly abandoned, Hayek’s warnings become all the more prescient every day. The increasing hubris of this administration, manifesting itself in the belief that it can manage the economy better than the market: that this expansion of government power is only limited to this “crisis”, and that the very concept of economic liberty is constructed by the wealthy as a self-perpetuating ideology—all, sadly, recent developments— means that Hayek’s message has not been properly understood. Hayek’s fear of centralized authority could be realized by successive administrations who have no commitment to limiting the powers of government. Indeed, the more we abandon our own economic liberties, the farther we trudge down the road to serfdom.

Charles Lipson

The Second Treatise on Government by John Locke

No book has influenced me more than John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Most Counterpoint readers know the volume well. Those who don’t should run straight to the Reg, or, better yet, to the Seminary Co-op.

Rather than summarizing this rich book, I will recount my memories of reading it over several decades. They serve as a yardstick not only for my thoughts about Locke but for my perspectives about politics more broadly.

Recounting those changing ideas reminds me of Mark Twain’s observation about growing up. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” I feel the same way about John Locke. He’s learned a lot over the years.

I first encountered Locke when I was a teenager. I almost said “when I was in high school,” but I went to a rural Mississippi school where our only assigned readings were aging textbooks. We filled them with such erudite comments as, “I hate this garbage.” We had no writing assignments and no required outside readings. Fortunately, those omissions gave us plenty of time for teenage essentials: driving around, looking for fun, and, of course, getting into trouble.

I enjoyed reading, but it was hard to find really nourishing books. We had some around my house, but our town had no bookstores and only a one-room library. Mrs. Pettyjohn ran it with an iron hand and tolerated no smut like Nabokov or Joyce. The closest bookstore was in Memphis, 90 miles away. I asked my grandparents (who easily met the most important criteria for all grandparents: they were loving and indulgent) for a set of the Great Books. They gave me the gift of a lifetime. It was filled with treats: Plato, Hobbes, Gibbon, Dostoyevsky, and more. Those books are still on my library shelves, and not merely as souvenirs of my youth. I continue to use them with pleasure.

Mississippi in the mid-1960s was a perfect time and place to read Locke. After decades of rigid racial segregation, the South was changing—by painful fits and starts, often met with violent backlashes. Blacks were organizing to desegregate schools and lunch counters. Many whites were digging in to preserve their privileges, their way of life. More than a decade after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, federal courts were finally ordering school integration. The U.S. marshals sent to enforce those orders were met by defiant local officials, who literally stood in schoolhouse doors to block them. Southern lawmakers were united in their opposition to the unprecedented new laws that would forever change the civil rights and voting rights of American blacks.

Against this turbulent backdrop, I read Locke with particular urgency, especially his ideas about the limits of citizens’ obligations to their government. Here, I thought, was a trenchant and profound rationale for resisting the South’s worst Jim Crow laws, as its segregationist statutes and customs were known.

Four years later, at college in New Haven, my hair was long, my eyes bloodshot, and my views more radical. I was majoring in politics and economics and had been admitted to a program where I could pretty much read whatever I wanted. Locke was still high on my list, but I was shocked by how much he had changed. I had remembered him as a radical, ready to challenge oppressive state power. Now he seemed like a smug defender of property rights, which (he said) preceded the state’s formation and thus strictly limited its legitimate powers. In my dreamy, romantic way, I knew better. I was, of course, completely clueless. Worse yet, I was clueless that I was clueless.

I am happy to report that with each re-reading, Locke has continued to grow. He has gotten better and better, much like Mark Twain’s father. I now read Locke as wisely counseling a balance between citizens’ rights (both economic and political) and citizens’ collective need for a state that will provide a solid framework of ordered liberty. I am struck by the courage it took to articulate that position, writing in exile, as he did, while James II was busy overreaching his legitimate authority and jailing his opponents.

Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration is almost as important as his Second Treatise, and I have spent rewarding time with it as well. It is a significant, although incomplete, step on the contested path to religious freedom and toleration and, ultimately, to free speech.

Over the past few decades, Locke seems to have learned quite a bit. His Second Treatise of Government, like all great books, amply rewards another reading—or two or three. It certainly has for me.

Tod Lindberg

Two Cheers for Capitalism by Irving Kristol    


Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism and my first boss after graduating from the College in 1982, died in September at the age of 89. For reasons of personal psyche, I am not much of a memorialist, so I didn’t write anything at the time. But the invitation to participate in this Counterpoint symposium brought certain facts to mind. First, my enjoyment of Irving’s patronage did not begin with my job as an assistant editor at the Public Interest in New York, but rather at the U of C, where Irving was the moving force behind providing foundation funding for the first incarnation of Counterpoint (and subsequently an entire wave of alternative right-leaning campus publications). Second, when I arrived on campus in 1978, I had no particular political point of view, but by the time I left, I was a card-carrying neoconservative, having cracked the roster of the farm team at the time, the pages of the American Spectator. The reasons for this evolution were several, but in retrospect, the most important text in the process was a collection of essays by Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, published by Basic Books in 1978.       

Irving famously didn’t believe in writing books. He thought they took too long to write and too few people read them; a well-turned essay could reach a much bigger audience more quickly in a magazine or newspaper. (What he really meant was that Irving didn’t think Irving should waste his time writing books; he was an ironist of the first rank.) Most of the essays collected in Two Cheers appeared in the Public Interest or in the Wall Street Journal, which was never more distinguished than when Irving was making his monthly op-ed appearance as a member of its Board of Contributors.       

Two Cheers provided a robust defense of capitalism and of ordinary bourgeois life at a time when both were in grave peril from a left-wing ideological assault that seemed to be gathering in intensity both at home and abroad. It was Irving’s key insight that the capitalists of capitalism and the bourgeoisie of ordinary life were by nature incapable of effectively engaging in exercises in self-justification. The capitalists were too busy trying to make money. The bourgeoisie were devoted to what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of society, from family to church to bridge club and bowling league. This imbalance — between the ideas embodied in (but not articulated by) democratic capitalist society on one side, and on the other the hostility of a “New Class” elite that enjoyed unmatched influence over public discourse — was what Irving sought to redress by weighing in on the side of those unable to make their own case for themselves and their way of life.       

He won that argument, but it’s not his retrospective vindication that validates Two Cheers for Capitalism. It’s the extraordinary power of his insight and the clarity of his exposition. His unaffected prose and his aphoristic wit made him one of the great essayists of the twentieth century. To read him in “real time,” while the disputes in which he engaged were hotly contested, outcome uncertain, was a formative intellectual thrill.         

Two Cheers for Capitalism is out of print, but many of the essays in it were subsequently collected in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.

Cory Liu

Rediscovering God in America by Newt Gingrich

Whenever I contemplate political issues, I always try to remind myself of the question, why is it that I believe in the principles that make me interested in politics in the first place? For me, the answer stems from my belief in God. I grew up in a household with no religious or spiritual tradition. My family’s values were defined by the Chinese tradition of emphasizing education and devotion to family. I first heard the word “God” in first grade from a friend during recess. My response was to ask him to repeat the amusing one-syllable word so that I could hear it again. For much of my life, a belief in God never played a role in my thinking.

But as I grew older and became interested in history and politics, I became increasingly troubled by a simple but baffling question: on what basis do we judge political actions to be just or moral? Instinctively, I believed in the founding principles of my country – that we are equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. But I struggled to find a logical basis for these basic American values. After all, without a belief in a higher power, what reason do we have, other than vanity, to say that one view of morality is more correct than another? Is there any logical difference between our high minded political opinions and those of a child choosing to have dessert over vegetables? I came to the conclusion that there were only two possible answers: either become a moral relativist and treat all conceptions of morality as subjective opinions without any necessary basis in reality, or believe that there must be a source of moral truth that transcends logical explanation – in other words, God.

I began to pay more attention to Declaration’s statement that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. At this time, I came across Newt Gingrich’s Rediscovering God in America. As I read through the book, I began to realize that a belief in a higher power was absolutely fundamental to the founding fathers’ conception of America, and that it has continued to play an important role despite increasing attacks from secular activists. I learned that since 1789, Congress has started each day with prayers led by the House and Senate chaplains, paid employees of the government. Sessions of the Supreme Court begin with the Marshal announcing, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” I discovered that Thomas Jefferson, who famously described the First Amendment as a “wall of separation between church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, also wrote that his views were “the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinion.” Jefferson, in fact, supported the use of the U.S. Capitol for church services. In fact, Jefferson attended one such service two days after penning his letter to the Baptists.

As a person who has never had any particular religious affiliation, I appreciate that Gingrich takes great pains to point out that our government does not endorse one religious tradition over another. He approaches the topic of divinity in nonsectarian terms, and states only that our nation’s government has traditionally acknowledged the importance of religious faith and a belief in God in maintaining liberty and happiness. The founders, he writes, believed that all religions that promote morality are beneficial, and, as he says, “Implicit within this vision of the Founding Fathers is a pluralistic sensibility.”

After reading Rediscovering God in America, it became clear to me that until quite recently, there was almost no question over whether the authority for our morals stemmed from a belief in some sort of higher power. I realized just how radical the ACLUs and Michael Newdows of our country are, that in order to ban “Under God” and religious displays in public, they would cite an amendment to the Constitution made by the same Congress that passed a law to hire and pay for House and Senate chaplains and allowed church services to be held in the Capitol. By seeking to eliminate references to God from public discourse, secular activists eliminate the source of authority behind our nation’s political philosophy. By denying the role of God, they reduce our cherished belief that we are all equal and endowed with inalienable rights from universal truths to vain opinions. Gingrich argues that a belief in God is not an old-fashioned artifact, but the foundation for our nation’s great history. As a result of arguments like Gingrich’s, I am now able to say that the principles of my political beliefs are firmly rooted in my belief in a higher power.

John Podhoretz

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

The wildly prolific Victorian writer Anthony Trollope was the most worldly of the great novelists of the English language. His books are not about existential struggle, but social struggle. They are not concerned with First Things; they are, rather, studies in life as people actually live it. How they pay bills. How they cope with falling into debt. How they gossip, and how they act when they become the subjects of gossip. How they try to establish their emotional and personal independence from insistent family members, demanding power brokers, and political mentors. How they balance their hunger for standing and influence with the unacceptable moral compromises they are called upon to make to achieve their heart’s desire. How to do the right thing when it’s the most inconvenient and impractical option, and will cost them dearly.

The Trollope novel that meant the most to me as a student at the University of Chicago and in my twenties was Phineas Finn, which I think may be the most vivid and direct book ever written for any young person interested in politics. It tells the story of a good-looking and adept 25 year-old son of an Irish doctor who finds himself, unexpectedly, a member of Parliament and very much in demand as a man about London.

The novel is about the temptations and complications to which he is subjected by his quick and early rise to power. Finn wanders from the lovely hometown girl he left behind and falls successively for two socially prominent women, who are tempted by him but are bound by convention to others. He discovers that it is expensive to be a member of Parliament, that the only way to make a living is to be given a government sinecure, and that the only way to get a government sinecure is to agree to follow the directives of conscienceless party leaders. And he discovers that the only genuinely honest and moral person he meets in London is a somewhat mysterious slightly older woman, the widow of a questionable but very wealthy banker and, of all things, a Jew.

No book ever written gives its reader a better sense of the workings of a legislature; no book has ever captured the insidious interplay of politics and journalism so well; no book has ever offered a more cool-eyed portrait of the practical issues raised by marriage and money. Most important, though, no novel I can think of offers a more vivid description of what it means to be young and ambitious and idealistic and how difficult it can be to know what to do to achieve one’s aims without sacrificing one’s good name and one’s good character.    

Ajay Ravichandran

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is one of the most influential in a set of late-20th century works of moral philosophy which helped to revive interest in the role of character and community in ethical life. Two aspects of MacIntyre’s argument have been especially important in shaping my approach to thinking about politics. He accounts for the binding force of moral prescriptions in a manner that carries important implications for our understanding of the basis for the social order and demonstrates that the gradual disappearance of the worldview that sustains this force lies at the root of many of the ills afflicting modern political life.

MacIntyre contends that the binding force of morality can only be accounted for with reference to a teleological understanding of human nature, an understanding that sees human lives as directed toward a specific end or purpose that is the only way for them to actualize their potential. A teleological account of morality is one in which moral requirements bind us because acting in accordance with them is part of what it means to achieve one’s purpose in living, just as, say, a soldier must maintain physical fitness in order to achieve the ends to which his profession is directed. While this sort of account has its origins in Aristotle, MacIntyre’s version of it is uniquely effective in demonstrating that no competing approach to explaining the binding character of moral requirements can successfully ground them in non-moral claims.

The consequences of this understanding of morality for the nature of ethical practice provide a basis for important political conclusions. Since moral requirements are injunctions to orient one’s whole life toward the fulfillment of one’s purpose as a human, character and dispositions must play an important part in any effort to understand and meet them. Our natural inclinations do not seem to point uniformly toward right conduct, so our characters must be shaped in the appropriate way. The cultivation of character, in turn, requires sustained and intimate contact with moral exemplars that can only occur in small-scale social settings. Thus, families and small, close-knit communities are necessary parts of any sustainable political order because they help to provide citizens with the capacity to respond to moral requirements.

MacIntyre posits that the gradual displacement of a teleological understanding of human nature from Western thought has debased political life in several important ways. Because the binding force of moral requirements cannot be explained rationally without such an understanding, its absence has created a situation in which we still feel the force of such requirements but cannot account for it. This condition has made prevalent an understanding of morality which MacIntyre calls “emotivism”; this term refers to a cluster of positions united by the view that moral requirements only bind those who choose to accept their foundational premises (which cannot be justified rationally) based on arbitrary preference. Widespread belief in emotivism leads participants in public debate to abandon any hope of truly persuading their opponents (since there are no objectively valid standards to which they can appeal) in favor of efforts to manipulate or coerce them into agreement; MacIntyre captures this phenomenon in his famous remark that “[m]odern politics is civil war carried on by other means.” Additionally, the feeling that fundamental moral questions are unanswerable to which emotivism gives rise leads people to view such issues as secondary in importance to debates about the relationship of means to ends. After Virtue thus enables us to understand the origin of many of the most vexing features of modern political life. The dominance of emotivism is exemplified in the absence of consensus on even the most fundamental moral issues, the increasingly vicious character of public debate, and the emphasis on technocratic policy debates at the expense of the concern with the best way of ordering our lives together that defined Aristotle’s conception of politics.

MacIntyre’s argument helps us understand what sort of political change we should work toward. His understanding of emotivism implies that it cannot be dislodged from its commanding position in the public square through argument. Because the claim that lies at the heart of emotivism purports to be necessarily true of all moral argument, someone who contended that his or her moral framework could demonstrate its falsity would be seen as merely expressing another arbitrary preference. Furthermore, his account of morality suggests that both real moral discourse and moral practice can only be sustained in a society characterized by a certain shared worldview and the presence of specific pre-political institutions. For MacIntyre, then, cultural reform is a necessary prerequisite for political regeneration; thoughtful conservatives surveying our increasingly dysfunctional public life would do well to consider this possibility.

Jeremy Rozansky

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

If man is a political animal, then understanding ourselves, or, better yet, our souls, is the key to understanding politics. In this way, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is a supreme meditation on our politics, and on us. At its core is a conception of politics so alien to our coverage of Washington or our teaching of government, yet also so obviously true: our nation, our body politic is a capable of both character and vibrancy. We have our principles and aims, functions and incapacities. And, like any body, we are nourished. We are nourished through what we call education: the cultural transmission, the forming, and the sustaining of each generation. Professor Bloom’s claim is that our nation is sick, sick in the soul—and he takes us through a Tocquevillian tour using education as his vista.

Bloom presents to us an America ready to inherit our unipolar world. He is looking right back at us. The only obviously antiquated remark might be his use of Mick Jagger as the ultimate drag-queen/taste-depressing celebrity (there is far worse in our generation). But that we have become desensitized is, quite simply, the point. So Professor Bloom at once awakens us to our senses and tries to put them back together.

At first, he explores the realities of his students’ lives. Cultural relativism and openness have self-invalidated our national project and submitted to what represents nothing more than a Will to Power. Our numbness to the spirited things has left us superficial and at sea from the discovery of reality. We lack the basic sense for the sublime. We view the past and their works as relevant only insofar as they inform our curiosity about history and its alien peoples. Our liberations, sexual and feminist, have transformed our erotic lives into something that is, from the former, passionless and routine and, from the force of the feminists, abstract, contrived, and nature-forgetting. Likewise, individualism has crushed the sustaining, self-forgetting bonds of family, friendship, and love, seen in, among other things, our divorce rate. Professor Bloom takes the labors to show how our rhetoric subtly reflects this. In his Delphic way, Professor Bloom tells his audience to “know thyself” and proceeds to tell us that we are corrupted to the bone.

The first of the three parts of Bloom’s book is the most read and most talked about. This is his indictment; the next two parts consist of the diagnosis. The serious student of politics must read all three: he must reflect, be broken down by that reflection, have the yearning for the revivification of his soul, and seek the answer to what went wrong.

Bloom’s second part “Nihilism, American Style,” presents how the steady infiltration of German Philosophy has changed American life. The so-called “fact-value” distinction is critical here. There is no truth, no good life, nothing to search for, nothing to rightly call evil, just “values”: subjective, arbitrary, weightless. But is nihilism reconcilable with democracy? This is, quite possibly, the chief question of our present regime and perhaps the question of Western history since the failure of the French Revolution. Professor Bloom points out the stakes of our nihilism and the force-fed, profane, and banal politics to which the American-nihilist must succumb. Nihilism is the undoing of liberal democracy, and Bloom does not shy away from the powerful, yet believable Weimar comparisons.

The way toward a resurrection of a serious life is pointed to in the last chapter of the second part: “Our Ignorance.” We must become aware of the great questions: reason-revelation, good-evil, body-soul, self-other, and more alternatives—tensions that animate the soul. To reconstitute the questions will require a reconstitution of university education. Professor Bloom spends the last third describing all the specific problems in the context of a lengthy theoretical history of education, from Socrates to The Sixties. The project is, in simple terms, to think like the ancients: avoiding specialization and relativism, knowing our ignorance, and asking soul-wrenching questions.

Professor Bloom uses broad and intricate brush strokes and an electric wit which balances the seeming stiffness of his terms (a neat trick to keep his modern audience mesmerized). Most of all, The Closing of the American Mind teems with sincerity. He loves his students and he would be mournful should they lose their souls.

Bloom’s is a book to be read before and after college. The first time it harvests a disposition—a healthy skepticism to the university’s notions of political life. After one year, its intellectual history becomes more accessible; its narrative can convince because one has wrestled with Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and the contemporary college crowd. One can see the links, the steady transitions, the advance of nihilism and its repugnant consequences. One can yearn for a soul, see how it has been undone, and then, maybe, one can pick up Professor Bloom’s translation of The Republic and start from scratch.     

George Saad

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

As an adolescent matures into adulthood, the degree to which he sacrifices his natural youthful idealism and accept a strict dichotomy between moral ideals and practical reality is commonly taken to be the degree to which he has successfully learned to cope with a cold, alien adult world. Facing an adult culture in which a rigid adherence to a romantic view of life is likely to be the object of derision, most college students, regrettably, conclude that loyalty to such values as truth, integrity, and personal pride is the path to practical martyrdom rather than the essence of a successful life, and either join in the hazy mediocrity of popular culture or the cynically irrelevant obscurantism of academia. Looking with confusion upon a culture without moral commitment at the age of 17, I picked up a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Vividly, convincingly, and powerfully presenting a vision of the world in which morality is not a disembodied opponent to practical success, but the necessary foundation of all human achievement, it gripped and stirred me at a time when disillusionment too often quenches the deepest passions of youth.

The Fountainhead presents virtue as a fully natural exercise, one fully practicable and, moreover, necessary to human endeavors. The novel’s ideal man who practices this virtue is Howard Roark, an architect consumed by his desire to plan and build the best buildings possible, whose struggle illustrates how allegiance to the truth of one’s creative vision is the prime mover of all human advancement. Against the usual portrayal of the egoist as an unfeeling, manipulative brute, Roark exemplifies the fully cultivated self, legitimately proud of his character and accomplishments. He wants to find the best methods of building, to create the best buildings, to achieve the pride—the worthiness of being—that comes from having successfully understood and conquered nature. Roark’s virtues are not a fight against his natural capacities, but the fullest exercise of them. Where faith is thought of as a virtue, Roark’s sublime happiness lies in his supreme rationality and understanding. Where altruism is held to be the highest moral precept, Roark does not aim to give values away, but to create them. Where piety is considered a mark of reverence, Roark does not submit to anyone, respecting himself as worthy of facing reality alone. He represents the natural potential of man reached in its fullest extent; he does not parasitically feed off the work of others or substitute their judgment for his, but he applies his own resources to achieve his own ends, heartily engaging in the essentially self-generative course of life without corruption.

Having thus framed morality in the context of this virtuous egoism, Rand shows that the false ideals of collectivism cannot achieve life, and can only produce parasitic relationships of mutual corruption. Peter Keating, a fellow architect who seeks status above the integrity of his work, selflessly submits himself to the consensus of his contemporaries, and achieves momentary commercial success. However, without confidence in his own judgment or ability, he ends up a pathetic favor seeker who, having lost public support, cannot hide from himself the knowledge he has squandered his life’s potential by placing prestige over personal pride. He is manipulated into this position by Ellsworth Toohey, a social activist who knows that, in order to achieve his egalitarian utopia, he must prop up Keating and attack Roark, so that men do not think of virtue as excellence, but mediocrity. He knows that his socialistic vision cannot be achieved in a world that believes in individual human greatness, and so, in a candid moment after his designs have failed, he explains to Keating his strategy: “Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity, and the shrines are razed.” In attempting to live by the force of the opinion of others alone, the life-affirming creative genius of Roark is not an inspiration for Keating and Toohey, but something which must be quelched out entirely, setting them against the driving force of human life itself. Thus Rand shows that the conventional values of conformity and egalitarianism embodied in Keating and Toohey are in fact destructive of man’s most healthy desires, to think and create, so that evil is not a profitable temptation, as almost all moralists hold, but a course of self-destruction not in anyone’s real self-interest.

With millennia of religious teaching that the good is an unnatural imposition on the world by God, a cross to be carried rather than a life to be lived, our moral thinking has lost sight of Aristotle’s insight in Book 4 of the Nichomachean ethics that a virtuous man must take pleasure from virtue, rather than perform it indifferently or out of painful duty. Having come of age in a political culture in which the “progressives” aim to strangle human economic productivity out of a sense of duty to the poor, and the conservatives aim to shackle the freedom of the human spirit in bondage to irrational religious dogma, The Fountainhead opened my eyes to a vibrant, long neglected philosophical alternative, approaching morality not as sacrifice to secular others or subservience to supernatural deities, but the pleasing, creative achievement of a life worth living. The man who quietly thinks and creates, unfailingly loyal to the truth and seeking his own betterment, is the unsung hero responsible for every human achievement. Long lost in the worship of charismatic demagogues and absent gods, The Fountainhead is a long overdue celebration of the sanctity of the individual human life, and a resoundingly real inspiration to actualize the potentials of one’s own.

Michael Talent

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

There are very few books in the conservative pantheon more important in underlining the importance of tradition than Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke. His defense of tradition and custom is logical and poetic. One of the most powerful lines concerning the state and its institutions is found in his book: “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” In one sentence, Burke provides a provocative argument against presumptuous societal change. The institutions and traditions of a society are a birthright—passed down from generation to generation. These customs and institutions, such as constitutional government or religion, are what keep human vices in check. Destroy or radically alter these institutions, Burke argues, and human nature, in all of its wickedness, is unleashed. In addition, the organic evolution of these traditions makes them irreplaceable. As Burke points out, the British government, with all of its guarantees of liberty and the rule of law, was the product of centuries of growth. Therefore, humans need to approach their societal traditions with care, and not seek to change them radically. Humility needs to be a hallmark of society; no generation should ever be so proud as to think that any they can radically remake society for the better.

This insight into the necessity of custom is driven by Burke’s observations of the French Revolution. The wanton destruction of custom during the revolution appalls Burke. When he wrote Reflections, the French Revolution was in full swing, with the mobs of the sans-culottes opening defying and destroying the remnants of the old order. Burke predicted that the destruction of traditions and institutions would lead to the destruction of any liberty and order that the French people enjoyed—an insight that would come true with the reigns of Robespierre and Napoleon.

However, setting Reflections in the French Revolution does not make the work dated. Burke views the French Revolution not as a contained phenomenon, but as a potential danger to all civilized countries. Burke can see the threat of anarchic mobs in the streets, and it lends his book a passion that is missing in other works of political science. As a result, Reflections is not merely a dry polemic of observations and theories regarding revolution and society. Rather, it is a dynamic defense of the need for institutions and customs to contain human nature and preserve liberty—values that grew up out of Western Civilization. This defense of Western Civilization, and its values, is the essence of Reflections. At its core, the book is one of the greatest defenses of Western values, a timeless classic. What Burke argues for in Reflections would have been just as pertinent in 1917 against Lenin, 1939 against Hitler, or even now, in 2010 against radical Islam. The immortality of Reflections comes from its defense of the freedom and liberty that is institutionalized in Western society as a whole—not just the traditions and customs of monarchial France. Destroy these institutions, Burke argued, and you destroy liberty.

Because of its importance not just in defining conservatism, but also in passionately defending Western Civilization, Reflections on the Revolution in France should be a necessary read for any person—conservative or liberal. I will not say it is an easy read, the book is quite deep and many passages will have to be read multiple times, but it is a rewarding process. Reading Burke is as much a maturing process as it is a learning process. After completing it, though, the reader finds himself with a fuller grasp of conservatism and its concepts. In short, a complete civic education should contain a solid understanding of the Reflections on the Revolution in France.