Author: Charles

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Karl Polanyi)

The Great Transformation, published in 1944, is an ambitious book. It attempts two huge tasks. First, to refute the free market ideology, sometimes called market fundamentalism, represented at that time by men such as Ludwig von Mises, and now by the entirety of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Second, to explain the history of the nineteenth century through an economic lens that also purports to explain both World War I and World War II. Mostly, the book is a failure. It overshoots in its criticism of the free market, and falls short on its claims of historical explanation. Karl Polyani’s prescriptions are, moreover, vague and worthless. There is some truth in this book, but it is buried beneath too much dross.

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (Christina Thompson)

Interest in Polynesia is not much in fashion nowadays, except for using the islands as an exemplar of the claimed, always imminent yet never arriving, effects of global warming. Still, ever since the Spanish accidentally ran into the Marquesas, on the east side of the giant triangle that forms Polynesia, anchored on the southwest by New Zealand, the north by Hawaii, and the southeast by Easter Island, the islands have had an intermittent fascination for Europeans. In part this is the usual fascination with lands far away; in part a specific fascination with Polynesian culture, accomplishments, and, often, origins. It is this last Christina Thompson covers in this narrowly focused, but excellent, book.

A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Nicolas Diat)

A Time to Die is a small gem of a book which works on two levels. On one level, it is a self-examination for the reader, offering him a glimpse of a very specific kind of life and thought, thereby helping him think about his own death. On another level, it is an examination of the decline of our civilization. The monasteries profiled, and the view of human life and death their monks embody, seem like small wooden lifeboats—tiny, fragile, and tossed on the sea of liquid modernity, mere fragments of the glorious past of French monasticism. But are they as fragile as they seem? Or, if the future turns upward, are they rather the vanguard, seeds of a new thing?

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (David Graeber)

I am trying to understand how human beings create value through their actions, and what that implies for humanity. Although this goal is hardly original, and has occupied much brighter thinkers than me for much of their lives, it is a necessary step in defining Foundationalism, because how we occupy our hands and minds, and what effects that has on us and society, are critical components of human flourishing. And the economic path we have been on for the past several decades has led to the opposite of human flourishing, surface appearances notwithstanding. To guide us to flourishing, we must understand why that is, and what can be done differently.

The Captive Mind (Czeslaw Milosz)

We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.

Frederick the Second: Wonder of the World 1194-1250 (Ernst Kantorowicz)

This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Matthew B. Crawford)

Attacks on digital technology for destroying our capacity for attention are a dime a dozen. Despite its title, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head is not such an attack. It is far more ambitious. Somewhat to my surprise, it is a direct assault on the Enlightenment for ruining the habits of mind and practice that lead to human flourishing. Crawford says modern man is subject to delusions, birthed by the Enlightenment, that diffuse our perception of the world in a fog of unreality. He therefore sets himself up in as the paladin of reality, a champion badly needed by our times, offering a return to the solidity of the real, through excellence as developed in skilled practices.

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Walter Scheidel)

Economic inequality is, and has been for several years now, the talk of the town. But most of this talk is political—of economic goods today, and whether and how our society should change who owns them. Little mainstream attention has been paid to the history of inequality, and here Walter Scheidel offers an exhaustive look into the past. The Great Leveler is a good book, if pretty dry, but the author only offers statistics and graphs, and does not consider inequality philosophically. He merely concludes that society-wide inequality can only be reduced, and that just temporarily, by death on a massive scale. That’s probably true, but it does not tell us whether, focusing more narrowly, we can reject bad inequalities while keeping good inequalities.

Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West (R. R. Reno)

Rusty Reno, editor of the prominent religious conservative journal First Things, here couples an original diagnosis of how we got to the vicious decay of now with very muted prescriptions. This is a good enough book, earnest and intent, but it is cramped. Reno offers as an alternative not strong gods, nor even coherent positive visions of the nationalism and populism of the title, but only the tired and repeatedly failed call to return, though some unspecified mechanism, to vaguely conceived virtue. I’m all for virtue, but Reno refuses to acknowledge that, more likely, and more desirable, the strong gods are those who will inevitably, as Kipling said, with fever and slaughter return, to scour the Earth in preparation for the rebirth of actual, living virtue.

Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death (Anthony Everitt)

Different eras view Alexander III of Macedon differently. Though always honored as a hugely successful military leader and conqueror, in the ancient world, he got mixed press, seen as a blend of virtues and faults. In the Middle Ages, and really until the twentieth century, he was usually regarded as among the greatest men of history, and surrounded by myths exaggerating his accomplishments. More recently, without detracting from his military abilities, he has been classed as a killer mad for power. Anthony Everitt, British writer of slick popular histories, tries to move the needle back toward a favorable view of Alexander. But revisionist popular history is a difficult genre to pull off well, and Everitt does not succeed.