by Denyse O'Leary
If you got a bit of birthday money, Ben Wiker's 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: and 5 Others That Didn't Help would be a good use of your dimes. Wiker, senior fellow at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, is also the author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists.
Wiker makes clear that he is not saying that the books he criticizes should be censored, still less that you shouldn't read them. He encourages us all to read them - critically appreciating the fundamental defects, warps, and wrongness of the ideas. These ideas underlie and help to explain many disorders of popular culture today. Unfortunately, however, they are usually treated with sanctified solemnity in hushed lecture halls, presided over by establishment figures who may be alarmed by criticism.
For example, we often hear people say "If it feels good, do it!", "Feelings matter way more than facts," or "He can't help doing that, it's his genes/hormones/upbringing/society." One aspect of fixing the problem is exploring the origin of such ideas and asking people to think critically about them.
Wiker starts with four books that he considers "preliminary" screw-ups:
Machiavelli's The Prince (on how to govern without morals and get away with it)
Descartes's Discourse on Method (a failed attempt to rescue us from materialism),
Hobbes's Leviathan (on why morals don't really matter), and
Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (more of same).
Wiker discusses the books in order of writing, not "worst"-ness)
About the worldview offered by The Prince specifically, Wiker says,
As we shall see in subsequent chapters, yielding to the temptation to do evil in the service of good will be the source of unprecedented carnage in the twentieth century, so horrifying that to those who lived through it, it seemed hell had come to earth (even though it was largely perpetrated by people who had discarded the notion of hell). The lesson learned - or that should have been learned - by such epic destruction is this: once we allow ourselves to do evil so that some perceived good may follow, we allow ever greater evils for the sake of ever more questionable goods, until we consent to the greatest evils for the sake of mere trifles. (p. 14)As an example, he cites a recent report that women in the Ukraine were being paid $180 for their babies - to be aborted and used in beauty treatments. Few, even among the most strongly pro-choice, would want to think of abortion as a means of making some spare cash - yet that is apparently what happened.
Machiavelli, whose style is copied by many modern politicians, counselled the importance of merely appearing to be religious - appearing at prayer breakfasts, endorsing "values," and ... and then ... enacting what sort of legislation?
Discussing Descartes's Discourse on Method, Wiker addresses Descartes's famous claim, "I think, therefore I am":
... it is simply ridiculous to single out thinking as the act by which I know I am existing. One could just as easily use hearing, smelling, or coughing ... I am not denying that thinking is more fundamentally human than hearing, smelling, or coughing, but only calling attention to the point that Descartes' argument is not somehow essentially tied to thinking. It is only this: that while I am doing X (whatever X is), I cannot doubt my existence because I have to exist to do X.Many people who have awakened from deep unconsciousness to considerable pain will understand what Wiker means: You hurt, therefore you exist. The nature of your existence remains to be determined.
Also, he asks,
If Descartes is the father of modern dualism, what does dualism itself beget? A walking philosophical bipolar disorder, a creature who dwells in dual extremes, either as wholly a ghost or entirely a robot. One day he feels that he is a god, a purely spiritual being, capable of completely mastering and manipulating all nature (including his own body) as he would any machine, and the next day believes that he is a purely material being, a helpless machine entirely mastered by the mechanics of nature.Our culture has seen plenty of both phases.
About Rousseau and Hobbes, he comments,
If we might be a bit glib, whereas Hobbes's men in the state of nature were gorillas - nasty, brutish, and curiously short - Rousseau's primitive men were suave, peaceful, innocent, carefree, and cheerfully libidinous bonobos. Rousseau therefore gave us a new Adam, a carefree, make-love-not-war ancestral archetype who became the societal ideal of the "free love" movements. (p. 45)The modern "evolutionary psychology" movement is largely dedicated to giving Hobbes's and Rousseau's imaginings the veneer of science, by explaining how these conflicting origins of human behaviour supposedly promoted our survival.
But now, here are Wiker's ten key books, and a brief comment on their relation to the current intelligent design controversy, as it plays out in popular culture:
Ten Worst Books 1: Marx and Engels's The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)
John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism (1863)
Ten Worst Books 3: Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871)
Ten Worst Books 4: Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
Ten Worst Books 5: V. I. Lenin's The State and Revolution (1917)
Ten Worst Books 6: Margaret Sanger's The Pivot of Civilization (1922)
Ten Worst Books 7: Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (1925)
Ten Worst Books 8: Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion (1927)
Ten Worst Books 9: Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)
Ten Worst Books 10: Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
Fifth book that didn't help: The fifth book that didn't help? Betty Friedan's the Feminine Mystique (1963)
Next: Ten Worst Books 1: Marx and Engels's The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)
(Note: This post is part of a series that looks at Ben Wiker's 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: and 5 Others That Didn't Help. Wiker discusses the books in order of writing, not "worst"-ness.)
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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