Posted: February 10, 2001
Editor's Note: The best books speak to permanent truths. Here, eight experts recommend a few essential volumes, published in the 20th century, for the new century's bookshelf.
Richard Brookhiser on Political Biography
The most interesting biographical works of the 20th century have been memoirs—public figures, or men touched by public events, speaking in their own voices about their experience.
From Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 until the fall of the Soviet Union 60 years later, the century was dominated by totalitarian-inspired warfare, hot or cold. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1940-45, magisterially surveyed the central conflict, of which he was the hero, in his six-volume History of the Second World War. His account has sweeping scope and piquant details—he recalls the smoke of burning documents at the Quai d'Orsay as French bureaucrats destroy their files on the eve of the German victory. All is presented in an old-fashioned literary idiom, modeled on Macaulay and Gibbon, reflecting Churchill's old-fashioned conceptions of virtue and vice.
Much of the century's peacetime political life, as well as its wars, was dominated by virulent lying, excused by the ideologies that were the century's perverted religions. Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, published when he was only an aspiring despot, is a tedious specimen of totalitarian spin, brutal, coarse and sentimental (his account of his years as a poor Viennese art student could go straight to the Biography Channel). His chapter on lying, however, is an honest and fascinating primer in modern rhetorical techniques. Big lies, Hitler points out, are more readily believed than small ones; Machiavelli could not have said it better. George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia describes the lies of Hitler's Communist peers, as encountered by the English Socialist journalist during the Spanish Civil War, not only at the scene of the conflict, where the pressure of events might have extenuated them, at least to the lazy-minded, but in the free press of England, where the only incentives to repeat them were ideological sympathy and moral obtuseness. Orwell's efforts to set the record straight constitute a counter-primer in truth-telling.
At the century's beginning most of what is now called the Third World was ruled by European powers; by the century's end, even such backwaters as Macao had reverted to local domination. The memoirs of the Bengali intellectual Nirad C. Chaudhuri (The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and Thy Hand, Great Anarch!) give a first hand account of this colossal shift, accompanied, in Chaudhuri's view, by needless violence and cultural debasement. One of the most poignant vignettes describes Chaudhuri's vain efforts to assure a Muslim mortally wounded in a communal riot that Chaudhuri, a Hindu, wishes to help him rather than finish him off.
The century was not inhabited only by heroes and villains. In islands of peace, average politicians plied their everyday arts. George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall district leader, gave a classic expression of his world view in Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (written with William Riordan). This is the source of the phrase "honest graft." We would like our pols to be better, of course (though they could hardly be funnier), but the twentieth century showed us they could be far worse.
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Paul A. Cantor on Literature
It was a dark and stormy century. Thus the best and most characteristic literature of the twentieth century was seldom edifying or uplifting in any simple way, but rather tended to be deeply troubled and disturbing. Reducing the wealth of twentieth-century literature to five titles is admittedly an absurd task. But here goes—my list (in chronological order) is in many ways personal but is also meant to convey a sense of the rich variety of form and content in twentieth-century literature.
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907)—Even more than Heart of Darkness, this Conrad novel offered a chilling prophecy of 20th-century politics. It accurately predicted the way the extreme right and the extreme left would challenge the liberal middle throughout the century, and more generally how abstract political ideologies would invade and destroy the domestic world and especially the family. And as a tale of double and triple agents, Conrad's spy story captured the duplicity of modern politics and above all the way modern revolutionaries would seek to remake reality to fit ideology.
William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems—Probably the greatest lyric poet of the twentieth century, Yeats offered a profound response to its apocalyptic violence. Eventually active in the politics of a newly independent Ireland, Yeats grappled as both a man and an author with issues that turned out to be central to 20th-century experience: nationalism, decolonization, revolution, civil war. Thoughout his extraordinarily long and varied career, he proved that a poet could remain true to traditional notions of lyric form and beauty and still come to terms with modern experience.
Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus (1947)—In a century in which tragic experience threatened to become commonplace, Mann wrote the most tragic of all novels. By casting a modern composer as a latter-day Faust, Mann explored the connection between nihilism in culture and nihilism in politics, relating the destructive creativity of modernist art to Germany's Faustian pact with Hitler. Authors such as Orwell and Solzhenitsyn imaginatively explored the distinctively 20th-century phenomenon of totalitarianism, but no one probed its cultural and philosophical roots as deeply as Mann.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1954)—At once the most innovative, influential, and representative literary work of the second half of the 20th century, Waiting for Godot stretched the limits of drama and pioneered the path that has come to be known as postmodernism. No work of the century captured more fully or more poignantly the spiritual emptiness that came to haunt the modern world. And while deconstructing traditional notions of dramatic form and voiding the stage of conventional meaning, Beckett wrote a prose of such lyric beauty as to restore paradoxically the poetry of drama in a prosaic age.
Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (1980)—Perhaps the greatest of the authors who have emerged in what is often called postcolonial literature, Rushdie showed how the frontiers of literature could be expanded when East meets West and in particular how English as a global language could acquire a new power and range. His epic novel of Indian independence brings together myth and history to capture the extraordinary hybrid character of postcolonial existence. Breaking through all boundaries—between high art and pop culture, between literacy and orality, between realism and fantasy—Midnight's Children may be our best clue as to what the globalized literature of the 21st Century will look like.
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Anthony Fucaloro on Science
Modern science contributed mightily to the intellectual climate leading to the Enlightenment and, years later, to the climate leading to its decline. How is that possible? The answer is revealed by considering what science has discovered as well as its method of discovery.
Attendant to the birth of modern science were optimistic expectations that scientific progress would lead to pretty much what it has led to: a bountiful existence for man—at least for those living under constitutional political regimes.
But along the way, science removed the earth from the center of the universe (Copernican revolution), abolished Creation (Darwinian evolution), and called into douby traditional, commonsense notions of human self-motion (modern neuroscience).
One of the most revealing accounts of this last point can be found in E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, which claims that all human behavior is related to adaptive traits evolved over the millennia. Thus human nurturing of the young results from hormones acting with neural networks—a system created and mediated by the genetic code, itself formulated over eons by "trial and error." The propagation of the species is apparently achieved by a purposeless, sterile (so to speak) mechanism.
Albert Einstein and others pointed out that the modern scientific method rests upon two fundamental principles: the observational tradition perfected during the 16th and 17th centuries and the application of "deducto-logical" systems to these observations. These systems (mathematical constructs from the largest subset) lead to conclusions drawn from the application of logic to sets of assumptions (often referred to as axioms or postulates), which are themselves not logically provable. These conclusions are unassailable if and only if the assumptions are correct.
Modern science has developed powerful, yet often subtle, observational tools to verify axioms. So, for example, mathematicians have found that one of Euclid's axioms does not conform to observation, necessitating new geometry. Both geometries are correct in the sense that each is a self-consistent deductological system, but only one meets the criterion that its axioms conform to observations, albeit incredibly sophisticated ones. For those with a mathematical bent, I recommend Irving Adler's A New Look at Geometry which describes, in some detail, the role of mathematical constructs in the scientific enterprise.
Science makes no appeal to transcendental notions. Its laws are devoid of human passion. The enterprise itself assumes a purposeless nature and unsurprisingly discovers no purpose in nature. However, science is a human enterprise; scientists do science and governments control it. How this affects scientific progress is discussed in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
For example, nothing inherent in medical science compels its practitioners to heal rather than harm. This is decided by the moral (political) regime within which physicians practice. (Consider the conduct of physicians working at Auschwitz and Lubyanka in the last century.) Leon Kass in Toward a More Natural Science has heroically attempted to recast modern science, especially medical science, in a way that accounts for human ends, including morality, within the enterprise itself. This teleological approach is reminiscent of the ancient sciences and represents a major break with modern scientific tradition.
Modern science is generally regarded as hugely successful, prompting other disciplines (like politics and economics) to adopt its method in modified form. This trend is fraught with danger because it either ignores or distorts human freedom. Mastering scientific techniques of political leadership is one thing; discerning the proper goals of leadership is something else.
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Robert P. George on Jurisprudence
The flowering of interest in jurisprudence among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century produced a number of outstanding books. The four I discuss in the following paragraphs are, in my judgment, of the deepest and most lasting significance.
In the late-1950s H.L.A. Hart assumed the chair of Jurisprudence in the University of Oxford and began publishing work—culminating in his magisterial book The Concept of Law (1961)—designed to correct key defects in the thought of earlier figures in the tradition of analytic jurisprudence, particularly Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. While retaining his predecessors' insistence on maintaining a sharp "conceptual separation" between law and morality, or "law as it is" and "law as it should be," Hart faulted them for adopting a purely "external" approach to legal phenomena that left out of account the important respects in which citizens and public officials characteristically treat legal norms as reasons for actions. Hart showed that the simpleminded Benthamite understanding of law as "orders backed by threats" (the so-called "command theory") fails to describe accurately the role and functions of law in developed societies. The problem is not, he insisted, in the early positivists' aspiration to describe law independently of moral evaluation; it is, rather, that their descriptive theories "failed to fit the facts."
Lon L. Fuller, a Professor of Law at Harvard, argued in his masterwork The Morality of Law (1964) that the legal positivism Hart retained from Bentham and Austin should be rejected. According to Fuller, careful attention to the "purposive" nature of law reveals that positivism's insistence on the strict "conceptual separation" of law and morality is untenable. Law, Fuller observed, is a matter of "subjecting human behavior to the governance of norms." But to accomplish this goal, rulers—even selfish or corrupt ones—must conform their edicts to certain procedural criteria of legality. Their commands must be promulgated, prospective, reasonably clear, etc. Otherwise, people to whom they are directed will simply not be able to comply with them. Fuller maintained that the criteria of legality, though procedural, constitute an "inner morality of law." And while it is possible for rulers to respect this inner morality while pursuing evil ends, their powers of repression will be significantly mitigated by their compliance with "the rule of law."
Joseph Raz, a student of Hart's, brilliantly defended his teacher's legal positivism and further developed the modern tradition of analytic jurisprudence. In Practical Reason and Norms (1975), Raz explored the different ways in which laws function in people's deliberation and action. He observed that often legal rules function as norms for coordinating human behavior to achieve social goals (e.g. traffic safety, environmental protection). Thus, they provide what he labeled "exclusionary reasons." These are reasons for disregarding other reasons for acting, despite the fact that in the absence of the exclusionary reason these other reasons would properly be taken into consideration, and might even justify an alternative course of action.
The idea of exclusionary reasons, as developed by Raz, is plainly incompatible with the reductionism of the Benthamite account of law, and evinces the willingness of contemporary legal positivism in the analytic tradition to treat human behavior as, in part at least, reasoned and chosen, and note merely as the pure product of external causes. In related writings, Raz responded to Fuller's critique of Hart by arguing that the procedural criteria of legality that Fuller had usefully elucidated are not properly as an inner morality. Raz maintained that, like a sharp knife, the rule of law can be used for good or bad ends. Indeed, conformity to the rule of law, where it improves the efficiency of the evildoing of wicked rulers, is a bad thing.
John Finnis, another student of Hart's, deployed analytic methods in his great work Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980) to develop the tradition of natural law theorizing. Finnis argued that "there are human goods that can be secured only through the institutions of human law, and requirements of practical reasonableness that only those institutions can satisfy." Finnis showed that positivism's concern to preserve the autonomy of descriptive jurisprudence is entirely compatible with a sound understanding of natural law and natural rights. His objection to the work of Hart and Raz was that their theories had not gone far enough in pressing the basic insight about law's' role in providing citizens and officials with reasons for action. They rightly rejected Benthamite reductionism and insisted, instead, on understanding law from "the internal point of view"—the viewpoint of the citizen or official who treats legal norms as characteristically providing action-guiding reasons. But they failed to see that the "central" or "focal" case of the internal point of view is the viewpoint "in which legal obligation is treated as at least presumptively a moral obligation; a viewpoint in which the establishment and maintenance of legal order is regarded as a moral ideal if not a compelling demand of justice."
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Wilfred M. McClay on American History
There is no discipline whose products become more easily dated, and thereby more thoroughly transformed into artifacts of their own historical moment, than those of history. Reading Charles Beard or Frederick Jackson Turner or Vernon Louis Parrington today, one inevitably thinks of them as creatures of their time, not as thinkers who stand outside of it. Can one imagine a more Dante-esque punishment than to be adjudged "a great historian in his day" but of only antiquarian interest now?
Fortunately there are works of history that rise to the challenge, though they are not necessarily the best-known ones, and are not necessarily written by people who call themselves historians. The key is that they must address themselves to the questions that will likely dominate the 21st century, and to aspects of 20th-century experience that the coming century might be prone to forget.
By that criterion, the first book on my list has to be Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), even though it is not a work of American history, since it is the best single challenge to the complacent view that History has an inevitable structure, and that all Progress is good. The coming century will need that reminder even more than the 1930s did. Just as valuable is Reinhold Niebuhr's stunning little book, The Irony of American History (1952) which incorporates the Christian understanding of inherent human limitation into a large and powerful interpretation of the meaning of the American experiment.
The century to come will need to be reminded of the classical-liberal virtues of spontaneous order, the perils of "planning," and the importance of maintaining diverse scales and types of organization in society and government. For this purpose, in addition to the many works of Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nisbet, most of which treat many features in American history, it can profitably consult Jane Jacobs's still-luminous The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Robert Higgs's Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987), and Robert Wiebe's thoughtful and underappreciated Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (1995).
It also will need to remember the totalitarian temptations that disfigured the 20th century. Although works of European history will serve that need best, Whittaker Chambers's great American memoir Witness (1952) supplies just what its title indicates—a powerful testimony to Communism's alluring poison—along with an exaggerated pessimism about the future of the West that should serve as an implicit rebuke to any such tendency in ourselves.
As the historical sense atrophies, it will also need to remember what an intense and intellectually engaged use of the past might look like. For that purpose, it could hardly do better than looking to the liveliest and most thought-provoking American historian of the last third of the 20th century: Christopher Lasch. He was not, I hasten to add, the best historian, or the most careful, or the most thorough, or the most reliable. In fact, some of his judgments were appallingly bad. And none of his books achieved the kind of formal completeness and coherence that the ideas contained therein needed and deserved. In short, his work was almost always seriously flawed—but flawed precisely by the compulsive moral energy and intellectual honesty with which he produced them. He was dismissed by "the profession" as a "publicist," and wore the accusation as a badge of honor, taking it as the price one paid for believing that history ought to have some role in public life. Two of his works are especially likely to have residual power: his rambling, cranky, idea-rich book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991) and his posthumously published The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996), the latter quite possibly the best of all his works. In a century in which the very definition of the human person is going to be up for grabs, I am confident that Lasch will be seen to have asked the right questions, and had some of the right answers.
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Harry Neumann on Political Philosophy
Political philosophy's perplexity is the unavoidable tension or conflict between its two components, philosophy and politics. Unavoidable because philosophy strives to call into question what politics reveres as self-evident eternal truth. Thus only a fake politics views itself as most, if not all, modern politics does —as grounded not in rational insight into eternal goodness and truth, but in mere faith, commitment, opinion, belief.
Carl Schmitt, a German philosopher and contemporary of Leo Strauss, rightly insists that, at bottom, all politics is theological: without theology, no morality and without morality, no politics. (See Schmitt's Political Theology, as well as the more recent Politische Theologie II: Die Legende von der Erledigung jeder Politischen Theologie. This has, so far as I know, not yet been translated).
The feud between ancient and modern politics is basically theological. Ancients acknowledge their subordination to eternal, impersonal Law, a non-arbitrary standard of good and evil. Like Schmitt, moderns make no such acknowledgement. Their divine "role-model" is an absolutely free, omnipotent Individual who, as such, is beyond good and evil or rather creates His (or Her?) own good and evil ex nihilo. Consider the Supreme Court's 1992 decision which bestows on all individuals "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life."
Inspiring that apotheosis of autonomous individuality is the modern theology of Spinoza, Rousseau and Hegel, the main enemies of the ancient politics defended today, perhaps solely, by Harry V. Jaffa, most recently in his A New Birth of Freedom. This defense makes Jaffa's politics and philosophy, his political philosophy, ancient not modern. I don't mean "ancient" and "modern" here chiefly in a temporal sense. Such a recovery of ancient philosophy was pioneered in this century by Jaffa's teacher, Leo Strauss, in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern and The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, to name but two of his luminous works.
Ancient piety, and the politics derivative from it, views itself as grounded rationally in eternal Law, not in faith or belief. Like Cato, who loathes philosophers, Socrates' Athenian accusers perceive only irrationality in his gadflying efforts to cut their pious politics down to philosophic size, to open it to his impious prying. Whether Socrates' or Cato's is the right way to go, this is the question for which philosophy, then and now, comes up with no adequate answer.
Philosophy's unsatisfactory grasp of how (or even whether) to live condemns it to this Limbo, what Plato depicts as a "cave." Accordingly philosophy, and therefore all serious scientific or liberal education, remains in essence political, political philosophy. Philosophic awareness of ignorance rules out unambiguous liberation from politics and its piety: no philosophic superordination of philosophy over politics.
The politics championed by Jefferson, Lincoln and Jaffa is grounded in the self-evident rational truth of the laws of nature and native's god, not in faith or belief. It opposes both conservatives and liberals whose ultimate justification, whether they realize it or not, is the anarchic, indeed atheist, deity of Schmitt and Spinoza. This atheist religiosity inspires faith in human autonomy whether by isolated individuals or socialized majorities or minorities, i.e., the "triumph of the will."
For Jefferson, Lincoln and Jaffa, nothing human is, or can be, autonomous. The rights to which they appeal are bestowed by superhuman Law, by nature's god, not by human (or divine) willfulness. In this sense, they are more philosophic—because more political—than Spinoza, Rousseau or Hegel. Said in one sentence: political philosophy is ancient not modern.
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Mackubin Thomas Owens on War
It is no exaggeration to argue that the "short century" that was ushered in by World War I and ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall was the most destructive epoch in world history. It is thus all the more instructive to note that the optimism that characterizes our time—the belief that large-scale war is no longer possible—bears an uncanny resemblance to the optimism of the pre-World War I era. The similarities between Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man and Norman Angell's The Great Illusion are remarkable.
In The World Crisis, his memoir of World War I, Winston Churchill mocked this fatuous optimism as it manifest itself during the Agadir crisis of 1911, which although it was peacefully resolved, marked another milestone on the road to Armageddon.
Churchill remarks that for the statesman at the pinnacle of power, politics and strategy become one. And it is this perspective of the unity of strategy and policy that makes both The World Crisis and The Second World War studies of war without peer. No other statesman of the 20th century had both the opportunity and the literary skill to achieve what Churchill did in these two works.
The choice of Carl von Clausewitz's On War may seem odd, since it was written in the early 19th century and never completed. But it merits inclusion here because of the translation and commentary that appeared in 1976. On War is difficult at best because Clausewitz was able to finish only Book I before his death. In addition, it has been badly translated, especially into English. German officers rarely read Clausewitz, deeming him too abstract, and the British misread him, attributing to him the most nonsensical ideas. But the careful translation by Michael Howard and Peter Paret reveals a theory of war that transcends time and place. War has a nature, and Clausewitz has described it as no one else has.
In his remarkable book, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Donald Kagan, Bass Professor of History, Classics, and Western Civilization at Yale provides a comparative study of the Peloponnesian War and World War I, the Second Punic War and World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. From these case studies he concludes
that good will, unilateral disarmament, the avoidance of alliances, teaching and preaching the evils of war by those who...seek to preserve peace, are to no avail.
What seems to work best...is the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens of and responsibilities required to achieve that power.
Finally, Anton Myrer's Once an Eagle is a fictional account of the 20th century American Army in war and peace. The novel's protagonists are two contrasting types of officers. On the one hand, Sam Damon is the very embodiment of citizen-soldier virtue, noble and self-sacrificing, loyal to his men and his profession. By contrast, Courtney Massengale looks the part of the soldier but lacks the soul of a soldier. He is instead a self-promoting careerist, out only for promotion and prestige. It is no wonder that since its publication at the height of the Vietnam War, Once an Eagle has been required reading for the American officer corps.
These books provide a useful antidote to the naïve optimism about international relations that all too often characterizes our time. Most importantly, they drive home Professor Kagan's central point that "Peace does not preserve itself."
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Paul A. Rahe on Ancient History
Civic-minded students of the past would do well to heed the advice proferred by the author of our Declaration of Independence. In the vigorous defense of his proposed Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge that he opted to include in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson argued that all young Americans should be made to study the history of ancient Greece and Rome as well as that of modern England and America. Studying the history of liberty, both ancient and modern, would, he contended, "avail" our country's future citizens "of the experience of other times and other nations." "It will qualify them," he wrote, "as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views." Only such an education in political prudence could render "the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty."
Jefferson did not recommend Greek and Roman history because he was an unabashed admirer of classical antiquity. The founder of the University of Virginia was mercifully free from what the late Hannah Arendt aptly termed "polis-envy." He once told a correspondent that "the introduction of the new principle of representative democracy has rendered useless almost everything written before on the structure of government; and, in a great measure, relieves our regret, if the political writings of Aristotle or of any other ancient, have been lost, or are unfaithfully rendered or explained to us."
Jefferson was, nonetheless, sensitive to the fact that the ancients had invented political freedom, and he was persuaded that much could be learned from studying their failure to defend and maintain it. As he understood only too well, the friends of liberty must be made acutely sensitive to its fragility—a lesson taught in each and every one of the contributions to our understanding of ancient history that I am about to recommend. One can, for example, be confident that Jefferson would have been fascinated by the argument linking small-scale agriculture and the emergence of political freedom, which is advanced in Victor Davis Hanson's The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995), and he would no doubt have taken great delight in Donald Kagan's splendid description of Athens' travails in his four-volume History of the Peloponnesian War (1969-87). I myself suspect, however, that he would have treasured Robert Strassler's The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (1996) even more. With all of its maps and appendices, it is a pearl beyond price.
Jefferson would have read with great enthusiasm Claude Nicolet's The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome (1976), puzzling over its elegant Aristotelian analysis of the republic's extraordinary success and ultimate demise. But I have no doubt that he would have preferred Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution (1939), savoring the great man's Tacitean prose, pondering his grim account of the decline and fall of the Roman republic, and closely examining his description of Augustus' elaborate attempt to clothe monarchical rule in republican garb—before going on to read this work's two-volume sequel: Syme's magnificent Tacitus, (1958). No academic historian, writing in the twentieth century, even came close to achieving what Syme accomplished within his chosen field.