Saturday, March 22, 2008

5 Books - or Thereabouts

An admiring reader (who would have thought!?) wrote to ask me for the title of five books in political theory that I would consider having been formative in developing the line of thought one finds in the writings here. It was a hard task - kind of like asking about the three books you'd like to have on a desert island - but it helped to be able to limit myself to works of political philosophy and ones that I picked as formative rather than more broadly important. I list below the ones that came immediately to mind - I'd welcome suggestions of texts I've forgotten or overlooked. And, I couldn't help but cheat, as you'll note in text(s) #5.


Dear [Reader]:

You pose an interesting, and nearly impossible challenge - distilling what I've come to understand about politics in about five titles. Still, there are a few titles that come to mind, as long as you realize that these are not meant to be comprehensive, but a start, and in particular for what you ask me - as a point of entry to how I've come to look at things.

I begin with the most important first - actually two books (though I'll only count them as one, since they're written by the same author) -

1. Aristotle's Ethics and Politics. Aristotle can be a very dry and often difficult author, but each reading and re-reading brings you deeper into the profoundly integrative and organic way of his thinking in his effort to show that human nature and human culture are not mutually exclusive and, when formed well, should be mutually reinforcing.

2. Vico's New Science. A largely overlooked minor masterpiece. Vico was among the first to criticize the abstractions of Hobbes and Spinoza. His New Science is an effort to ground the origins of human beings on a basis that does not rest on abstract and instrumental reason; rather, Vico "reverse engineers" from what we know about human beings and their nature, including their inclination to form families, to worship, and to build memorials (in particular, to the dead). It is a defense of the "naturalness" of culture, custom, and tradition, and a critique that efforts to undermine those inherited practices through the application of instrumental reason will lead to application of instrumental reason to human relations and a "ricorsi" to barbarism.

3. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Enough said, I'll assume.

4. Tocqueville, Democracy in America. The essential text to understand our age - its virtues and its shortcomings.

5. Tough to choose a last title, and a more contemporary text. Let me cheat and offer a few titles. I'll assume you've read MacIntyre. Bertrand de Jouvenel is well worth reading (e.g., his book On Sovereignty, but really anything. For a good introduction, read Dan Mahoney's short book from I.S.I. Books). Leo Strauss's understanding of the divide between the ancients and the moderns is essential - start with his essay "What Is Political Philosophy?". Hannah Arendt gets some things right, and is always interesting - in particular in her book The Human Condition. Oakeshott is a more analytic and "updated" Burkeian in many ways - the Liberty Fund book Rationalism in Politics is a first rate collection. Pierre Manent is our age's Tocqueville. John Gray is a great analyst of the religious antecedents (and perversions) of modern political thought (e.g., his book Al Queda and What it Means to be Modern). Peter Lawler is our greatest existential, thanocentric critic of modern biotechnologies and the of the effort to make humans "at home" in the world - that is, a modern embodiment of his middle name, Augustine; if you can track down essays written by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, it's worth the effort - though I hope in about another year, you won't need to track them down, as I will be working to bring them together as one or several books; Christopher Lasch was our ages's greatest critic of the faith in progress - especially his book The True and Only Heaven; and, of course, anything and everything Wendell Berry has written.

Yes, I really cheated on this last one, but it's hard to pick the ONE modern classic. Time will tell.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this list. Tracing one's intellectual development can be a delight. For me, it shows the influence of living teachers and long dead writers.

How'd you come across Vico originally? My first reference to Vico was through philosophy of language and rhetoric. It was noted that Vico,as an early critic of Cartesian abstraction, serves as a predecessor to Buber and Rosenzweig's "New Thinking".

For what its worth, I found in Althusius (via Daniel Elazar on "Covenant") the same "grounded" political theory present in Vico and Aristotle, from families to associations on up. While Vico has gained some prominence in the last 50 years, it is in Althusis that we discover a solid foundation for our federal system (through the Reformed covenantal tradition).

Patrick Deneen said...

My first reading of Vico occurred during my Junior year, spent in Ireland, upon discovering that James Joyce named Vico as one of his central influences. I got only an inkling of what Vico was saying then, but picked him up again in graduate school as I began dissertation work on the reception of Homer's "Odyssey" in the history of western political thought, and ended up writing a large section of one chapter of the dissertation on Vico's interpretation of Homer. For anyone researching the roots of Deneen, you can find my discussion of Vico in Chapter 4 of "The Odyssey of Political Theory" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).

Bob said...

For a grounded understanding of the humana condicio there's no one better than E. Voegelin. I just finished Published Essays, 1966-85 and his The Gospel and Culture, On Hegel, and Immortality are indepth exegesis.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Very glad to hear about the possibly-in-progress McWilliams collections.

Kevin J. Jones said...

I, too, read Vico after hearing he was an influence on Joyce. I was unprepared to benefit from the reading at the time, and I've yet to revisit him.

Anonymous said...

My five:
1. Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice
2. George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty
3. Edmund Burke, Reflections
4. George Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft
5. Richard Mitchell, The Gift of Fire