Albert Jay Nock, with some trepidation, popularized Ralph Adams Cram’s theory that the immense majority of homo sapiens is not human, but are merely the raw material out of which the occasional human is produced. Tocqueville believed,
“that in a few minds and far between, an ardent, inexhaustible love of truth springs up, self-supported, and living in ceaseless fruition without ever attaining the satisfaction which it seeks. This ardent love it is—this proud, disinterested love of what is true—which raises men to the abstract sources of truth, to draw their mother-knowledge thence. These persons will not be strictly confined to the cares of practical life, and they will still be able, though in different degrees, to indulge in the pursuits and pleasures of the intellect. In those pleasures they will indulge; for if it be true that the human mind leans on one side to the narrow, the practical, and the useful, it naturally rises on the other to the infinite, the spiritual and the beautiful. Physical wants confine it to the earth; but as soon as the tie is loosened, it will unbend itself again.”
My own unbending process began a few years back when I first learned about the Permanent Things by reading one of Gleaves Whitney’s brilliant Heritage Lectures in which he describes his remarkable story of how he discovered the author of The Conservative Mind:
There is an order which holds all things in their places:…it is made for us, and we are made for it. The thinking conservative, far from denying the existence of this eternal order, endeavors to ascertain its nature and to conform to that order, which is the source of the Permanent Things.
For me it was a fateful fork in the road from which there was no turning back. Thus my ‘path to the river’ began afresh with my way forward being lit by the lamp of experience and the lists of books from ‘the democracy of the dead’ prescribed by Kirk, his mentors and his followers. After spending some time with Kirk, Nock, Nisbet, Hayek, and Babbitt, I found that the thinkers from our past have something to say to the living. And I had become painfully aware that Cram had my type of savage in mind when he constructed his theory. Fortunately I also fit Tocqueville’s apprentice to the truth who will indulge the pursuits and pleasures of the intellect.
So it was with great interest that I followed The Imaginative Conservative’s series of submissions on the Books That Make Us Human knowing I’d be given a treasure trove of priceless books. But here’s the rub; the people submitting lists to the Imaginative Conservative are some of the most refined minds on the planet; educated at the best schools, steeped in the rich heritage of conservative thought and the Good Life stretching back past Burke to Cicero and Aristotle. They probably haven’t even been savages since they were teenagers. Therefore I pondered; would the The Imaginative Conservative readership be interested in asking a guy that was a savage well into his thirties what books he found most uplifting along his climb up the high road? I am grateful to Mr. Elliott for thinking they might.
In typical barbarian style, I will order my list like Dave Letterman, starting with #10 and having the best entry fill the #2 spot in the order.
#10 Rallying the Really Human Things: the moral imagination in politics, literature and everyday life by Vigen Guroian. Friedrich von Hayek wisely advised that “if old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations.” In an approachable, contemporary voice, Guroian gives us a crash course into the rich world outside of John Galt’s gulch. He surveys the profound ideas of leading Christian Humanists like G.K Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk.
#9 Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver. Russell Kirk began his foreword to Weaver’s book Vision of Order with this attention-grabbing insight:
“According to Gregory the Great, it has not pleased God to save men through logic. Richard Weaver would have assented this, knowing as he did the nature of the average sensual man and the limits of pure rationality. Yet with a high logical power Weaver undertook an intellectual defense of culture, and of order and justice and freedom. This book, (Visions) published a year after his death, is the last in a series of three strong, slim volumes: Ideas Have Consequences, The Ethics of Rhetoric and Visions of Order. They are united by Weaver’s appeal to right reason on behalf of the great traditions of humanity.”
In Ideas, Weaver launched an image in my mind of how individuals and societies can fragment and fly out centrifugally toward the periphery fueled by the emancipation and specialization, or, alternatively, we can work centripetally toward those enduring, universal truths that are at the center of all things. Weaver paints a picture of the ‘metaphysical dream’ so that the reader can create and locate himself within a metaphysical dream of his own. He sharpens our vision of the vast Stereopticon that beguiles society and how, by appealing to man’s base impulses, it pulls society indulgently into the gutter. As a bonus, he gives us the clearest glimpse yet into the spoiled-child psychology of Ortega y Gasset’s mass man.
#8 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Because capitalism has largely solved the scarcity problem in Western Civilization, Huxley’s vision of a materially-wealthy future might get more traction in the minds of today’s readers than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Brave New World has a kind of omnipotent, ubiquitous Big Brother of its own and he’s very entertaining but immensely disturbing. The noble savages that the Rousseauvians unleashed on the world didn’t turn out to be as full of the saving grace as they’d hoped. In Huxley’s future, the State has meticulously organized mankind into a dull conformity by encouraging emancipation from all moral restraint. Society becomes entirely comprised of inhumane automatons and savage sophisticates; barbarians with better toys. Increasingly, as the Stereopticon sexualizes society with an endless stream of sensation, and as the state assumes an expanded role in raising our children; programming them with a ‘values free’ education, Huxley’s dystopian vision seems more like a tale that’s ‘on the horizon’ than it is ‘off the reservation’. Huxley might numb even those Spock-like thinkers on the right to the idea of continuing the hot pursuit of pure Reason. By following an endless stream of experiments in search of utility to its end, Huxley reveals a world of folly that is highly illogical and inhuman.
#7 Rousseau and Romanticism by Irving Babbitt. It has been said that Rousseau really invented nothing, but he set everything ablaze. Rousseau turned vanity into a virtue and told man to make ‘feeling’ the decisive fighting force in man’s ‘civil war in the cave’. From this inverted set of values emerged a million caveman writers who exalted lust and expansive desires over the restraining virtues that Burke says are ninety percent of all virtues. If we are to extinguish the culture of narcissism and save our civilization from a great conflagration, we’ll need to douse the tempestuous flames of feeling divorced from insight. Babbitt’s book serves as a precise decoder ring to the unscrupulous romantic sentiment. Babbitt shows us how the melodramatic, rebellious little savage inside us all is merely the blind, abandoned, bastard great-step child of Rousseau trying to unchain himself. If we are going to turn foundlings into Inklings, we’ll need Babbitt’s work on Rousseau.
If we are going to become more human as a society, it will take great leadership. If we asked all of the contributors to “Dr. Birzer’s Book Symposium” (I put quotes around it because I’d like to see it become a regular TV show) a slightly different question; “we would have a better republic if our leaders took to heart which five books?” I suspect Babbitt’s book Leadership and Democracy would be atop many lists right behind Kirk’s Politics of Prudence or Romano Guardini’s Power and Responsibility. There are no short cuts to right thinking and we’ll need examples who’ve cultivated in themselves the humble but confident ascetic nature to be prudent statesmen in the art of the possible.
#6 Love & Friendship by Allan Bloom. Since John Dewey is the evil step-son of Rousseau, and because Dewey’s impact on education may be the biggest challenge facing today’s defenders of the permanent things, we ought to consider another unique and beautiful voice which deconstructs both Dewey and his illegitimate dad. Bloom’s earlier work The Closing of the American Mind showed what savages were being produced by today’s indoctrination stations (a.k.a. public schools) and were arriving en masse on college campuses. In Love & Friendship, Bloom distills down the master artists of the beautiful and lovely life. Bloom, who spent a lifetime in scholarly study of the highest eulogies to Eros, on his death bed, wrote Love & Friendship like van Gogh painted; his art pouring out of him as if he only needed to tip the well of his soul. Bloom’s Swan Song is a sublime expression and exposition of the exemplary noble and beautiful qualities of human relation reaching back through Shakespeare to Plato’s Symposium.
#5 Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic by Roger Scruton. Scruton seems to me to be the most deeply seeing person walking the planet today. Back in 1986, the Burkean conservative wrote an unprecedented inquiry into the nature of sexual desire. If it were titled ‘Everything You Really Wanted to Know About Sexual Desire But Would Have Never Learned in Public School’, the book could have served as an antidote to the neo-Freudian emancipation being prescribed by the popular Dr. Ruth Westheimer who permeated our airwaves and saturated our culture with a ‘if it feels good, do it’ cast of degraded imagination. Scruton casts many bright lights into the dark corners of the sorely misunderstood impulses in human sexuality. His insights can be a guiding light out of our society’s sex-crazed wilderness. If there must be sex-education in schools, let it be like this. If the emerging generations could begin to simply perceive the differences between ‘sexual desire’ and ‘erotic love’, the lynchpin might be pulled for our society to get our cabooses back on the right track.
#4 Many of the world’s most demonic people and ideas seemed to have passed through fin-de-siècle Vienna. Take a tour of the proving grounds of world destruction in The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Musil sets his story in Vienna at the time just before WWI when the future leader of the Nationalist Socialist party was walking the Ringstrasse and learning to hate the world. Musil, writing his magnum opus at about the time that Hitler’s nemeses von Mises and von Hayek are developing their theories in opposition to and against the tide of collectivism, tells the fictional story of Vienna’s elite banding together in an attempt to come up with great ideas to fix the world. Steeped in the poetic legacy of Goethe, armed with the tragic vision of Burke and an ‘insider’s’ insight into Freud and Nietzsche, Musil—a master of metaphor—examines human nature and explains a salient slice of metahistory that is today at risk of being repeated.
#3 The superfluous man who was ‘a little conservative’, Albert Jay Nock, wrote a history of his intellectual development Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. I have watched with great interest, Dr. Birzer’s discovery of Nock this summer and I am eager to learn what he will bring back after dipping his cup in those still waters that ran so deep in Nock. Young Russell Kirk and old Nock were pen-pals and perhaps Nock’s years spent in Alpena and Detroit made him able to perceive better than most that the young man of letters from the wrong side of the tracks in Plymouth, Michigan was a diamond in the rough. Although Kirk cooled in time to the Jeffersonian ideas that Nock re-polished so well (and indeed so did Nock) he will remain a necessary component of current-day conservatism as we oppose involuntary collectivism and uphold voluntary community. God bless the folks over at Mises.org for making so much of Nock’s work available for free download.
#2 Permit me to impishly point to The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis as the best punch-line in my humane top-ten list. Learning about being bad was never so good for the soul nor ever so much fun. Duncan Williams, in his book Trousered Apes (a term taken from Lewis in The Abolition of Man), asks us to consider why cats cannot perceive themselves in the mirror or in a photo in the same sense that humans can. He then asks, “may not man might be similarly myopic when he contemplates the cosmos, yet through pride refuse to admit the possibility?” Once you finish The Screwtape Letters you’ll become better aware not only of your own demons and how they screw with your head, you’ll see—like bats in the twilight—the reflections of your own guardian angels and how they have been battling for your soul all along. Once you see how splendidly Screwtape’s demonic disciples do their job of bewitching us, you’ll fire them.
And to catch a glimpse of how the demons beguile societies at large, be sure to imbibe the very ‘undemocratic’ toast Screwtape proposes at ‘the graduation dinner of the school for tempters’ that Lewis composed as a follow-up to the devilishly-clever Letters. In the eloquent toast Screwtape skewers the hollow mass men and exposes the egalitarian levelers who lead them.
#1 Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. What do boys need to become great men? -Great role models to imitate. What does one of the world’s greatest leader think makes a man great? Magnanimity, virtue, patience, prudence. The great Roman stoic defines what it means to be noble no matter what one’s station or situation is in life and how to cultivate these exemplary qualities in ourselves. I wish there was a way of gracefully slipping Aurelius’s 151 helpful hints into every Boy Scout Handbook. The savage who would-be noble might pick up Aurelius and begin to see a better way forward, and that might set him on a course back to Rome or perhaps even on to Bethlehem.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.