When Brad Birzer asked me to write about the ten books that most heavily shaped my understanding of the human person, I retorted that he might as well ask me which of my children I love best. I agonized over the list interminably and tried not to cheat too much (seriously, just ten?). I finally decided to include the following books knowing that I am leaving out countless books.
It would be a hard task to draw up a list of the ten most important books and encyclicals among the works of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. One of my favorite, Fides et Ratio, begins, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Indeed.
Modern teachers have adopted a progressive view of the mutability of human nature and moral truths. Therefore they have become afraid to teach students about virtue, justice, and truth. Instead, they settle for indoctrinating young minds with a militant relativism and multiculturalism. One of the classic demolitions of his view is C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. This slim volume was most important books of the twentieth century. His argument that the Tao—universal, objective truths that transcend culture and build civilization across the world—is an excellent corrective to the pablum that teachers feed their students. It would produce a generation of “men with chests”—capable of spiritual warfare and defending civilization. There have been many excellent imitators attacking relativism, but there will rarely be a book of such profound brilliance.
“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy (Ignatius reprint, 1995). In the essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton reminds us that fairy tales teach us noble and healthy principles. He writes, “The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. Compared with them religion and rationalism, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.” That line alone makes the book worth reading and pondering when thinking about the human person, imagination, and the soul.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings remains one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. His profound moral vision examined the epic struggle of good and evil as his characters exemplified the heights and depths to which human nature is capable. Along the long road to Mordor, Tolkien elevates the beauty of loyalty, friendship, self-sacrifice, justice, wisdom, and incorruptibility.
One of my favorite books on the American Founding is the collection of documents in William B. Allen’s George Washington: A Collection (Liberty Fund, 1988). In his opposition to the Townshend Acts, Washington wrote to George Mason in 1769, “That no man shou’d scruple, or hesitate a moment to use arms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends.” Generally denigrated for his intellect vis-à-vis men like Jefferson and Madison, Allen’s volume proves that the Indispensable Man had a keen understanding of human nature and the moral purposes of government.
Of course, what liberal education would be complete without a rigorous study of The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison available in editions costing about the same as a latte? In Federalist #1, Hamilton reflects, “It has been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Madison provides his own questions regarding the nature of man and government in Federalist #51. “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Statesman Winston Churchill offered the world the gift of his profound moral vision that shaped his soaring oratory and manly resistance to Nazi and Soviet tyranny. His grandson, Winston S. Churchill edited a collection of his speeches aptly entitled, Never Give In. The stirring “Finest Hour” and “Iron Curtain” speeches are in there but so is his speech to the House of Commons two days after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Churchill said, “We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man . . . .It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.”
One of my more controversial picks may be the incomparable Harvey C. Mansfield’s Manliness. Mansfield combatively assaults the wimpy “gender-neutral” society that feminism has created in the latter half of the twentieth century. He asserts that the manly-man “rouses himself and seeks attention for what he deems important, sometimes something big . . . [such as] the nature and value of Western civilization.”
F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom simply cannot be missed since it is a classical defense of liberty and individualism and indeed civilization against destructive statism. “We have been progressively moving away from the basic ideas on which Western civilization has been built,” by abandoning liberty half a century ago as well as today.
I am going to take the license to cheat a bit here at the end of my essay. There are several books that expose the fallacies of ideas about man stretching back from the French Revolution to the twentieth century and the resulting horrors of man’s inhumanity to man. I have spent many hours with my students reading most of the following books with great profit in their understanding of human nature. Francois Furet, The French Revolution; Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution; Elie Wiesel, Night; Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution and Communism; and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the Gulag Archipelago. Do they count as one?
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.