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Friday, September 24, 2010

"10 Books That Screwed Up The World" by Benjamin Wiker

"Books, and people too may be carelessly approached or walked right past, without ever getting a chance to show themselves for what they are. Once one is aware of the possibility of seeing much more, one proceeds much more carefully, like a hunter who pauses often to look and listen, because the game could be anywhere." (Cary Stickney, Convocation Address at St John's College Graduate Institute in Liberal Education , 1994).

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Allow your eye for a moment to survey this list of ideas, taking note of those that may seem familiar at the very least; or, note those that perhaps may be adopted into personal lifestyle or in the lifestyle of someone you know:
  • Do whatever it takes to accomplish your purpose--you are accountable only to yourself;

  • Your opinion matters most--what you think will “be;”

  • I think, therefore, I am;

  • Guilt does not exist, so do whatever makes you feel good as long as you don’t hurt someone else;

  • Conscience does not exist, society is unnatural for the animal called “man” who needs to return to natural “roots;”

  • You are what you produce;

  • The destiny and happiness of man depends on his own efforts;

  • Morality is a series of taboos established in the name of religion.

These are a few ideas that have found their way into western mind through the very influential books included in a collection often referred to "The Great Works of the Western World," or "The Great Books of the Western World." The writings range from the time of ancient Greece to around 1940 (depending on the list). Authors include Homer, Socrates, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pascal, Thomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, and Leo Tolstoy (to name a few). Many feel intimidated by the dates of the publications found in the reading list, or will perhaps balk at their titles, so these works generally go untouched except for those who for various reasons will actually read them and are subsequently influenced by them. Would it be surprising to learn that many universities still use these books, and a handful actually build their entire curriculum around the collection alone?
Benjamin Wiker wrote “10 Books that Screwed Up The World And Five Others That Didn’t Help” is a book about books, with the intent of showing that while books such as those afore-mentioned may be “great,” the ideas contained therein are not often great. Wicker does not grapple with the meaning of “great,” but argues the point that bad ideas (specifically those titles discussed in his book), “float, largely undetected, in the intellectual air we breathe,” and the fact that most will not engage these books underscores the dangerous results of breathing polluted intellectual air. Bad ideas lead to the kind of disallusionment as expressed by Michelle Obama in 2008: "I don't know about you, but as a mother, wife, professional, campaign wife, whatever is on my plate, I'm drowning . . . " (p. 225). What led her to this point?
Wiker stresses the influence of bad ideas through the anecdote that Rousseau (whose ideas grew into what became the French Revolution and Communism, among other movements) republished his books in the skins of those that laughed at the first editions. These problems unchallenged bad ideas are traceable in history, evident in politics, create unnecessary ethical dilemma, generate hate, contribute to general confusion, misplace intention and destroys man. As the author succinctly states, "the road to savagery is paved with gullibility." (p. 70)

Wiker divides this 260 page book into three major sections that give chronology to the development and influence of ideas, one upon the other. The first section, “Preliminary Screw Ups,” shows where the first foundational cracks become evident in the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli’s 1513 publication of “The Prince” followed by a discussion of Rene’ Descarte’s 1637 work called “Discourse on Method.” The fourth is Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 literary monster, “Leviathan;” and finally, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential 1755 piece, “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men.” These books started the tail-spin.

The second section focuses on the “Ten Big Screw-ups,” books that were influenced by the first four already mentioned: Marx and Engels’ “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848); John Stewart Mills’ “Utilitarianism” (1863); Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1871); Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886); V.I. Lenin’s “The State and Revolution” (1917); Margaret Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization” (1922); Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (1925); Sigmund Freud in “The Future of an Illusion” (1927); Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928); and finally,Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948).

The final section, “Dishonorable Mention” includes “The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan, and closes with an Afterword, “A Conclusive Outline of Sanity.”

There is a curiosity that people are not interested to question their own presuppositions, yet hold them (good or bad) tenaciously and pay a price in doing so. The irony is that many universities who lean heavily on these books teach students to ask questions, but the background is that the student is the teacher--does he know what questions are good?
This book is a must-read because most are not intentional students of literature, culture, philosophy, or theology yet hold and are influenced by ideas that touch on these areas and more. The author does an astounding job explaining 15 of the Great Books in concise chapters, breaking the ideas in question down into digestible chunks. Most importantly, the author shows how and where these bad ideas surface in thought and action, evaluating them from a theological position in light and sometimes witty ways.
Anyone who spends time with people outside the Christian bubble will recognize most if not all the ideas reflected here that have worked their way into daily life and thought. This book adequately prepares the reader to face what lies “out there.” Each high school and university student should read The Great Books of the Western World because this is the nest of ideas that shows from whence we've come, and how we got here. The student should question everything, not for pure skeptism nor to be his own teacher, but to confirm and conform to absolute truth; but if he or she will not, the student should at least read this book, regardless of professional direction. The Great Books will not go away, so a good student should be prepared to discern and respond to their ideas.


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