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jonathan beanI invited a number of folks to contribute to a quasi-symposium for The Imaginative Conservative.

With almost no direction, I asked these fine persons to list (without or with explanation) the 10 books that best allow us to understand our humanity.

In large part, I’d like something new on my reading list.

In equally large part, I wanted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with something other than the many remembrances that flooded the interest. Those, of course, are vital, and I’m glad they exist. But, I’m not sure they do much more than get our righteous blood boiling.

All to the good, I hope—but it would be nice to have something more.

Ten years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, I don’t think we’ve learned the most important things.

That is, we all know what we hate. No sane American likes religious crazies; no sane American wants another culture to ram its ideas–through violence or otherwise–down our collective throat; and no sane American thinks strapping a bomb (conventional or more) to the back of a teenage girl is a good thing.

So, we as Americans know what we don’t like. This isn’t much different, though, for any American over the past 100 years. No sane American liked Kaiserism, Hitlerism, Communism, Ho Chi Mihnism, or Saddam Husseinism.

But, a far more important question arises. WHAT DO WE LIKE? Americans have been hard pressed to answer this for a very long time. Because of the progressives, we’ve become increasingly enamored with power for power’s sake.

This symposium, I hope, will remind us–as Americans and as citizens of the West–what is truly important. That is, it is my prayer that these books and the authors behind them awaken us to the best of which we are capable in this world of sorrows.

And, I want to thank each one of the contributors. It’s a busy time of the academic year for everyone of us, and yet these folks found time to share their wisdom. May God bless them.


The first entry in this quasi symposium is from the inestimable and brilliant, Jonathan Bean. Equal parts wit and intellect, Bean gives some nice reasons for his choices. Bean is a professor of history at Southern Illinois University. He is author, recently, of Race and Liberty in America. Here are his recommendations:

More, Thomas. Utopia (1516) More’s tart commentary includes why a prince or ruler would not want the advice of someone from Utopia because the government is interested in war, not peace, confiscation and not restraint. This proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as More himself–the great “Renaissance Man”–stood by his Church and Faith against Henry VIII’s request for divorce. More paid for it with his head.

Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations and Theory of Natural Sentiments. German thinkers could never figure out Das Adam Smith Problem because they couldn’t understand how someone who extolled economic freedom could also write moral philosophy. Smith demonstrated that economic freedom (then a very rare thing) was beneficial to those who were lording it over the masses, it promised “universal opulence” (when some of the landed elite wanted to keep the poor poor to keep them too weak to revolt). But, together, the books show that cooperation is natural to human beings who are free to serve in order to gain benefits from others who have goods or services they desire. For an excellent analysis of Smith, see Mueller, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours.

Marx, Karl. Communist Manifesto. The book that laid out a history of history (“all history is that of class struggle”) and did so much damage in the name of some distant utopia in the final stage of history. The 20th century was marred by the consequences of this little book.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment (1866). Can an individual embrace nihilism and overcome his moral sense? What would result from such nihilism? Russia and the rest of the world has found out in various ways, both blunt (the Gulag) and beguiling (our pleasure society).

Hayek, F.A. Road to Serfdom (1944) . Dedicated to “socialists of all parties” (including the major parties in “liberal” democracies), this great work shows how communism was not only fatal in practice but flawed in theory as well. The same holds true for other forms of planning and command economies, including national socialism (fascism) and piecemeal planning. At a certain point, Hayek later argued, there comes a tipping point where the State so dominates that it undermines both political and economic freedom. See the USA, circa 2011? The chapter “Why the Worst Get on Top” explains the world human characters inhabit in the next book: 1984.

Orwell, George. 1984 (1949). Imagine history as a boot stomping on the human face . . . forever. The specter of government propaganda changing constantly in the interests of the State: War is Peace becomes Peace is War. I have a Chinese friend who works in the media there and speaks constantly of Big Brother sending down new directives on how to spin the news in the State’s interest. But Europe and the West is not immune. Witness CCTV UK and post-9/11 surveillance powers gathered by the U.S. federal government. Or regimes like Iran learning how to “firewall” an entire country.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (1931) An alternate view of the future, not as a surveillance state (China or the UK) but as a place of leisure and pleasure and shallowness. Given recent books like The Shallowing of America, perhaps Huxley was as prescient as Orwell was on the dark side of the human condition trampled under not by Power but by Pleasure.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies (1954). Today we declare that every child is a winner, we worry about their self-esteem, and presume they are precious little angels. This novel reminds us that they–like the rest of us–are savages without the civilizing (restraining) influences built up by many generations.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr. Gulag Archipelago (1973). Forget savagery among children. Imagine what the adults can do on a scale of massacring by the millions and enslaving the rest! Solzhenitsyn’s great book documented the chain of concentration camps in the USSR and the conditions under which anyone could be placed in Hell or its earthly equivalent: slave labor in the Arctic Circle. The middle chapters on the crackup of “The Law” are insightful on how positive law can be turned to the use of the Communists (or the Nazis). With no belief in God or natural law, positive law is still law backed by power and too many people have forgotten that we were not born into laws, but we stand equal before the law (by the grace of God) and have our human dignity and “bourgeois rights” (such as due process) from the same Divine Providence. But, as Dostoyevsky warned, “if there is no God, then all is permitted.” If you don’t believe that, then let this book rip out any illusions about the human condition under “historical communism”–a secular “faith” that denied God.

Lewis, C.S. Screwtape Letters (1942). It would be easy (too easy) to put the Bible on a list of the ten books to best understand the human condition. I am sure others will place it there (where it does belong). But Lewis and we born in the 20th century grew up in a secular age. Far better to teach the lessons of the Bible to skeptic, said Lewis, by using satire and have devils as the main characters plotting to tempt a young man so he will fall into the condition of drifting away from the church and toward Hell (literally!). They fail in the effort but we learn much from how we humans do constantly fall prey to temptations and sins, mostly petty but enough to doom us . . . forever.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Doctors at The Mecosta Centre for Spiritual Nutrition report that a mere 100 mg of Birzer, taken daily, provide 121% of required moral nutrients, but this series promises to break the records. Professor Bean dazzles us with his selection, somewhat unexpected at first thought, and Screwtape is an inspired choice amid the blue-chips. It's a fiendishly clever way to save the soul of anyone you love.

    Parenthetically, for TIC folk reluctant to slog through Smith, I can recommend two slim volumes by Prof. Eamonn Butler of London's Adam Smith Institute: in the first, his Primer, The Theory of Moral Sentiments shows how people become charitable and empathetic, leading into the more familiar defense of enlightened self-interest that generates the wealth of nations. You can read it in one sitting. The Condensed Wealth of Nations, just published, makes Smith reader-friendly to modern audiences in only 70 pages and it's a free pdf download. Both expose Smith as a conservative, not an Ur-libertarian. Too good to miss! If Randroids put you off Brother Adam, this brace of Butlers explain why Dr Kirk had so much respect for Smith.

    I eagerly await recommended volumes that inspire the creativity and art of conservatism and tradition, counterbalances to Dr Bean's brilliant warnings. If few are forthcoming, I'll hazard a few suggestions.

  2. I agree Dr. Birzer has provided me with way more than the RDA's recommended daily allowance of moral AND educational nutrients. This symposium just proves the point.

    Stephen Masty you too provide much of that too and I always look to posts or comments with your name and go there first!

    More of you here I hope.

  3. I would add (yes yes…top 10 list, but those are your rules not mine 🙂 ) I'd have to add The Federalist Papers and the Narnia series (because those make me feel so wonderful.)
    Thank you for this site (and thanks to those who pointed it out to me.)

  4. Tolstoy makes it in one form or another on my list. He amazes me with his ability to portray hundreds of different characters from the inside, from their own most sympathetic self-understanding, which also frequently reveals what keeps them from coming to live a more fully human life.

    War & Peace and Anna Karenina provide many examples of this, but the short story, "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch" is perhaps his most developed and powerful sketch of the ordinary small-souled modern.

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