Since inception of The Texas Pilgrim almost fourteen years ago, I have reviewed over 100 books and recently my son-in-law asked me to list for him my top ten books, which gave me the idea to publish this special December edition. To do so, I considered not only those books I have reviewed but essentially all the books I have read over the past 35 years or so, some 500 books. The selection involved some difficult choices. Getting to the top 50 was not a problem, but the eliminations down to 10 were tough, and I left some very good ones off the list. You will no doubt note an absence of fiction in the list and I admit that my post-college exposure to great fiction has been limited, an obvious shortcoming. In any case, I thought that Pilgrim readers might have interest, so here is the list, in alphabetical order by author. As always, please let me have your comments.
Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler (1985)
The author himself writes in the preface that a more accurate, if cumbersome, title would have been “Ten Subjects About Which Philosophical Mistakes Have Been Made”. Time Magazine described it as “a provocative look at the errors of modern thought by America’s “philosopher for everyman”, and it is certainly that, covering a wide range of issues on which Adler believes that errors have been compounded over the years, resulting in a number of seriously misguided conclusions that have had consequences. The range of issues he discusses include human consciousness, the intellect, knowledge and opinion, moral values, freedom of choice, and human nature, society, and existence, among others. I have found it to be the book I have most often referred to in the 20 years since I first read it.
The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, by Allan Bloom (1987)
Bloom stunned the academic world with this book, not just because of its sweeping indictment of our elite institutions of higher learning, but also because of the unusually resounding commercial success of a scholarly work by such an intellectual. No doubt it is an extraordinary analysis of the state of the American university and the mind of the students who populate the most elite of the institutions. It is also an in depth survey of the intellectual history leading to the present condition. Essentially, the crisis of liberal education and American intellectual life, according to Bloom, who was certainly no right-wing reactionary, is that no one is prepared to ask or answer the big questions about the nature of man and of good and evil. We have so “closed” the mind of the American student to these philosophical pursuits that we have impoverished their minds as well as their souls and rendered them incapable of determining the nature of man and moral truth. The result is that the large majority of students are “unified only in their relativism and their allegiance to equality, and their greatest fear is not error but intolerance”. A classic.
Witness, by Whittaker Chambers (1952)
I have often said this is one work without which you can’t fully understand the 20th century. It is, of course, the life story of a former Communist and active member of the CPUSA underground, who left the party and later provided crucial and very controversial testimony in the famous Alger Hiss Case of the late 1940s. Nothing I have read captures the essence of the Communist mind and socialist threat as Chambers does, and he weaves his tale in a way that is eerily prescient of many of the conflicts we still face today, for the crux of the Communist faith, which is that salvation by society in a world without God is the only solution to the crisis of history, is alive and well in the progressive remnants left behind under other names, both here and abroad, by the discrediting of institutional Communism. And it is amazing how complicit in this faith and the relentless pursuit of power based on that faith were and are the American fellow-travelers, up to the point of complete denial to this day, despite incontrovertible evidence gleaned from KGB files since the fall of the Soviet Union, and how willing to ignore or rationalize the pervasiveness of this evil our major cultural institutions were and are.
A New Birth of Freedom, by Harry V. Jaffa (2000)
This is a masterful analysis of American political philosophy as defined by the Founders from its roots in the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions and as refined (or “re-defined” as some would say) by Lincoln in the re-founding years leading up to the Civil War. Jaffa is a natural right enthusiast out of the Leo Strauss school and his debates with strict constitutional constructionists like Robert Bork and William Rehnquist are legendary. The issues he confronts and the ideological conflicts he illuminates are critical to our understanding of the exceptional nature of the American idea and are as current as today’s conflicts, both domestic and foreign.
The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis (1944)
As so well noted in a recent essay by Joseph Pearce, this small book is Lewis’s masterful critique of the relativism that was rampant in his day as in ours, and represented the culmination of the author’s quest for the quintessential meaning of man’s being and purpose. In it, he confronts the great question of post-modernity–can we live well without moral truth? His answer, supported by convincing logic, is no. His foundation is the Confucian concept of the Tao (The Way), known in the West as the natural law, which is to Lewis not one of among a series of possible systems of value, but the sole source of all value judgments, a principle which we violate at our peril. His fear is the conquest of nature by man, particularly when human nature itself surrenders to man, and he cautions about the end game of this conquest: “What we call man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by by some men over other men with nature as the instrument.”
Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, by Michael J. Sandel (1996)
Sandel is the Harvard professor whose course, Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, is the most popular lecture series on campus. This is another book that I frequently revisit for its insight into the badly damaged state of affairs in our republic, which was designed to settle contentious issues through our system of federalism and the mediating power of thousands of voluntary associations and institutions which are a primary source of American exceptionalism. This is the “civic republic” well-described by Sandel, but it has been corrupted by what he calls the “procedural republic”, which essentially demands that we move foundational cultural and moral considerations off the table in our deliberation of public policy and focus exclusively on “fair procedures”. And where has this taken us? To an imperial judiciary and deep divisions in the body politic because it has been denied political resolution to a number of issues nearest and dearest to our core. An in-depth discussion of this problem and possible solutions is the central focus of this book.
A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell (1987)
Columnist Tom Friedman has a concept of what he calls “systemic misunderstanding”, a condition of debate or conflict between or among parties in disagreement wherein the conflict cannot be resolved with more facts or information. With Thomas Sowell, among my favorite essayists, such a condition is even more deeply seated in what he has named “a conflict of visions”. For Sowell, the intellectual origins of the sides of debate on essentially all public policy issues can ultimately be traced to the degree to which the opposing parties are of the “constrained” or “unconstrained” vision. Consequently, the very meaning of words like “freedom”, “rights”, “equality”, and “power” may be drastically different, depending on their context within different worldviews, or visions of man. Put simply, the unconstrained vision allows for considerably more knowledge, morality, virtue, and fortitude on the part of human nature to successfully accomplish its objectives than are thought humanly possible by the constrained vision. A profound study that has had a big impact on my thinking for 25 years.
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by Richard D. Heffner (1956), originally published in 1835 and 1840
The New York Times wrote this: “No better study of a nation’s institutions and culture than Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has ever been written by a foreign observer; none perhaps as good”. My only quibble with this analysis would be that I would possibly omit the word “foreign”. What else is there to say? This is the classic treatise on the American way of life written as a result of Tocqueville’s visit to the United States in 1831-32. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the American culture, American exceptionalism, and the pitfalls of and internal threats to American democracy.
Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard Weaver (1948)
From the outset, one of the underlying themes of The Texas Pilgrim has been the notion that “ideas have consequences”, and one of the thinkers who inspired that notion in me is Richard M. Weaver, whose book of that name has been an invaluable source of the wisdom of that aphorism. Weaver diagnoses the ills of the age as the culmination of an evolution of thought that began with a major change in philosophy when, in the fourteenth century, man’s conception of the reality of transcendentals was first seriously challenged. In short, the issue involved whether or not there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man. Thus was born the philosophy of nominalism—the idea that the only reality is that perceived by the senses. Once this concept took hold, the rest, as they say, is history. From there, we proceeded beyond the careful scientific study of nature to the denial of anything transcending experience, to rationalism elevated to the rank of a philosophy, to the materialistic idea of man explained only by his environment, and to psychological “behaviorism” and the abolishment of free will. And from there it was not a great leap to the postmodern abandonment of timeless moral truth and the attendant moral relativism that plagues our age. Needless to say, the consequences abound.
Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, by George Weigel (2007)
This is simply the most compelling explanation that I have encountered of the evil we face in radical Islamism and its sources. Weigel draws on 25 years of experience in moral argument and its intersection with public policy to paint clearly the threat posed by global jihadism. He explores the ideology’s theological, social, cultural, and political roots and offers a new direction for public policy and interreligious dialogue. One point is driven home relentlessly: that our first step in understanding this enemy and achieving moral clarity is to overcome the powerful prejudice, grounded in progressive hope and naivete, that religious belief is disappearing as a factor in world politics.