Exhaustively documented, and in some ways just exhausting, though at the same time exhilarating, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a towering achievement. It synthesizes centuries of history and multiple avenues of thought to analyze how we arrived at certain negative aspects of modernity. Gregory’s claim is that we got here as the result of the unintended consequences of choices made in response to “major, perceived human problems.” Those choices were, initially, the Reformation’s religious choices, which ran counter to the entire worldview of medieval Christianity. But the Reformation did not solve the problems—it made them worse, in a declining spiral, accelerated and exacerbated by subsequent secularization, itself partially the result of the Reformation. The result is a world in which the ability of humans to find meaning in their lives has been crippled, rather than enhanced. We would, implicitly, be better off with something more like the High Medieval synthesis destroyed by Martin Luther.
This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
Although no author likes to have his book lumped with another, this book is an excellent complement to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. Both books discuss, from different angles, possible practical reactions to the modern dominance of digital toys and tools. Today, when companies such as Facebook and Google are increasingly under fire from across the political spectrum, David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog reminds us of one possible response—not attack (although I am personally all for attacking such companies), but a return to the active use of pre-digital things. He takes us on a persuasive tour of analog offerings, and makes a compelling case for their continued persistence and growth, even if he seems unaware of some of the less socially beneficial results of that trend.
Oh, but this is a fascinating book. Written in 1930 by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, it is one of those books that is occasionally mentioned, especially recently, but rarely actually read. 1930, in Spain, was the hinge of fate, and it has been nearly a hundred years since Ortega wrote. That means we can see where he was wrong, and where he was right, and what he wrote says to us today.
As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.
This is a short book with a sweeping thesis. In essence, the thesis of The Geography of Thought is that many important cognitive processes dominant in East Asian (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) cultures are substantially different from those processes in Western (i.e., American and European) cultures. This proposition explains a variety of dissimilarities in how people from each culture approach the world and each other, and it is also a partial explanation of the Great Divergence—why the modern world was created by the West, and by nobody else, to the lasting (so far) benefit of the West. While the author, Richard Nisbett, goes to great lengths to not ascribe superiority to one type of cognition over another, his cultural analyses show why the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution could not have happened in East Asia. As they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and perhaps the relative value of Western ways of thought has passed its use-by date.
This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “tower”). Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end. The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies. The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison.
In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic. Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918. And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome. Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising. Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.
Niccolò Machiavelli is known today for two things: the adjective “Machiavellian,” and the book from which that adjective is derived, The Prince, which provides advice for monarchs who accede to power. But Machiavelli wrote more than one book, and his second-most-famous book is this one, Discourses on Livy. In it, he provides advice for the founding, structuring, governing, and maintenance of republics, along with advice to individuals holding power, and a good bit of practical military advice. All this he extracts primarily from the extant writings of the historian Livy (64 B.C.– A.D. 12) on early Roman history, although he also brings in much other matter, including his own personal experiences and then-current events (Machiavelli wrote Discourses about 1517). Thus, this book is part history, part mirror of princes, and part advice to those holding power in a republic on how not to get killed.
In today’s world, discussion about morals is a lost art. In part, this is because stupidity is on display everywhere, and encouraged to be so, even though most people’s thoughts and opinions are less than worthless, as a glance at Facebook or The New York Times comment sections will tell you. More deeply, it’s because America is dominated today by the nearly universal (but wholly unexamined) belief that the only legitimate principle of moral judgment is John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”—that no restriction on human action can be justified other than to prevent harm to another. The Righteous Mind is an extended attack on the usefulness of the harm principle as the sole way to understand and justify human morality, combined with detailed explanations of the much broader ways in which people can and do view morality. The author, Jonathan Haidt, uses this framework to understand political differences, and to plead for an increase in rationality and civility to arise from that understanding.