An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum
In the preface to this book, the author opens with the following: “Ours is an anxious age–the Anxious Age, it often seems: a moment more tinged by its spiritual worries than at any time in American since perhaps the 1730s.” He then begins to define how we got from that point, which was coincidental with the beginning of the First Great Awakening, to where we are today in terms of what he calls the nation’s spirituality, or what I would join others in calling our “civil religion” and its underlying basis in the Protestant ethic. A review by Mary Eberstadt in National Review calls it “a strikingly original diagnosis of the American moral condition” and adds that “anyone wishing to chart the deeper intellectual and religious currents of this American time…..must first read and reckon with An Anxious Age”. I can’t improve on that.
The Cave and the Light: Plato and Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman
Whether or not you have spent much time with these two pillars of the philosophical foundations of Western Civilization, this will be a fascinating account of how the thought of Plato and Aristotle diverged on many critical issues and how the threads of these differences have wound their way through almost every serious strain of our intellectual tradition over the past 2,500 years, with some of each of their ideas dominant in certain historical periods and less so in others. It’s the story of Western Civilization as an ongoing dynamic tension between the two and, as the author makes clear on this journey from classical Athens to 21st century America, “everything we say, do, or see has been shaped in one way or another by the ideas of Plato and Aristotle”. If you are like me and know just enough of their thought to be “dangerous” and want a different take on its enormous impact on our lives today in every field of endeavor, this is a fun read.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray
This book had been on my short list almost since it was published a couple of years ago, and I had read so many reviews of it that I almost felt I had already consumed it. Then my friend Adam Meyerson of the Philanthropy Roundtable gave me a copy and I am pleased that he did so. Because, despite all that has been written and said about American cultural decline, this book is the most enlightening and frightening analysis of it that I have seen. Of course, Murray is no stranger to being out on the leading edge of provocative analyses of American social life and I’m sure he has the scars to prove it. In this analysis, he identifies the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfaction in life as only four–family, vocation, community, and faith–and proceeds to demonstrate with compelling data the degree to which these foundations have collapsed among white adults in their prime years of 30 to 49 over the past half-century. The result is that the Founders’ vision for the “pursuit of happiness” has been severely damaged. He offers alternative outcomes, but his final warning is that this trend away from the qualities necessary for this pursuit will not be reversed by incremental victories by specific items of legislation or elections or specific court cases, but “only when we are talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it has been: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious”. Should be required reading for anyone in a leadership role in America.