December 2009By Christopher Beiting
Christopher Beiting is Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.
10 Books That Screwed Up the World (and 5 Others That Didn't Help). By Benjamin Wiker. Regnery. 206 pages. $27.95.
A book dealer of my acquaintance who came to his trade after securing an advanced degree and then becoming disillusioned with academia told me an amusing anecdote about his mentor, an immensely learned man who also gave up academia for the book trade. "Ninety percent of all books," the mentor once maintained, "should have stayed trees." If this is the case, then Benjamin Wiker's 10 Books That Screwed Up the World (and 5 Others That Didn't Help) is a useful demonstration of the maxim: an opinionated and interesting examination of fifteen significant works of Western civilization that Wiker reckons were so damaging that the world would have been better off had they never been written. Wiker, the recipient of a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, has taught in great-books programs at places as varied as Marquette University, St. Mary's University, Thomas Aquinas College, and Franciscan University of Steubenville, so he comes by his conclusions after many years of considering these materials in an academic setting. The result is a breezy, idiosyncratic work with a light and amusing style Wiker has a gift for well-turned phrases and amusing asides that wears its learning lightly and is sure to amuse or annoy all the right people.
Given Wiker's background, the assumptions that undergird his book should come as no surprise. Wiker takes as norms central principles that virtually all educated people once agreed upon five centuries or so ago namely, that God is real, human beings are sinful, and ideas have consequences. To these he adds another salutary old-fashioned element: a belief in the ultimate reality of the world rooted in a classical realist approach to philosophy. It is a sad testament to our tarnished age that these simple, commonsense positions are not so common (nor considered so sensible) any more, in part because of the actions of the individuals Wiker excoriates in his work. In short, Wiker's yardstick for measurement is the Permanent Things, and he evaluates each of his chosen authors by the degree to which each denied these fundamental realities, and in so doing helped corrode the norms of the society that supported those realities. However, his book is not a militant's tocsin for a new bonfire of the vanities no book-burning here but rather an academic's call for a closer reading, better understanding, and ultimate rejection of a lot of "great" works.
Most of the authors Wiker considers are from either the nineteenth century, during which the Christian underpinning for Western civilization came under serious criticism, or the twentieth century, during which the chickens came home to roost with a vengeance. But he begins his work with five earlier individuals who, he believes, planted the poisonous seeds that were to yield such a deadly harvest in the last two centuries. Wiker believes that his chosen authors' works would not have been possible without the pioneering wrong-headedness of such luminaries as Machiavelli (who stripped serious considerations of morality from politics), Descartes (who steered philosophy into an abyss of skepticism and solipsism), Hobbes (who presented a myth of human origins in savage brutality that helped destroy common-good consideration of social order, replacing them with radical individualism), and Rousseau (who presented a counter-myth of human origins in naïve nobility that also helped destroy common-good considerations of social order, as well as pouring an unhealthy dose of sexual libertinism into the swill), and all receive a chapter examining the foundational nature of their errors.
These men's ideas helped pave the way for two centuries of intellectual blackguards whose works all bear certain common characteristics. All were atheists who rejected God outright, or at least His role in human affairs. All by and large rejected the inherited traditions of the past, particularly in philosophy, instead being animated by the Promethean temptation to create completely new theories and systems of social order. All in particular denied traditional notions of original sin or human evil, which have the unfortunate effect of standing in the way of plans for human "improvement." But far from creating something more lofty and enlightened, all in reality tended to veer toward either violence or libertinism, "the raised fist or the raised phallus" that Malcolm Muggeridge notes come to obsess those who reject God.
In the "raised fist" camp stand such unsavory reprobates as John Stuart Mill (whose Utilitarianism paved the way for a new system of morality and a new collection of elites to enforce it for us), Friedrich Nietzsche (whose Beyond Good and Evil raised brutality to an art form and celebrated unbridled lust for power), Karl Marx (whose Communist Manifesto rejected the model of social cooperation in favor of eternal class violence, and also yoked it to a prolonged exhortation to continual revolution), Vladimir Ilich Lenin (whose State and Revolution did Marx one better, as well as providing the template for the series of brutal revolutions of the twentieth century), and Adolf Hitler (whose Mein Kampf did everything that Lenin did, and added anti-Semitism to the mix for good measure).
In the "raised phallus" camp stand such intellectual ne'er-do-wells as Sigmund Freud (whose Future of an Illusion rejected religion, only to replace it with some truly bizarre notions about human sexuality), Margaret Sanger (whose Pivot of Civilization demonstrated the inevitable link between contraception and libertinism), Margaret Mead (whose Coming of Age in Samoa presented an entirely fraudulent portrait of primitives living in an atmosphere of constant, guilt-free sex, and invited the world to emulate), and Alfred Kinsey (whose Sexual Behavior in the Human Male attempted to normalize perversity and perversion, all under the guise of bogus social science). Dishonorable mention also goes to Sanger and Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man) for their advocacy of eugenics, a monumentally bad idea whose widespread popularity at least, until Hitler actually had the guts to put it into practice is one of the dirty secrets of the twentieth century. And, in the "just because" category, Wiker tosses in Betty Friedan, whose Feminine Mystique allowed her to indulge in the well-concealed Leninism of her youth under the guise of an attack on traditional female sexual roles. All in all, it's a guided tour of an intellectual rogues' gallery, and Wiker is not sparing in holding these knaves to task for the misery their ideas and the advocacy of their ideas has caused, not the least of which are the tens of millions of fatalities that have resulted.
In these dark days, when godless chuckleheads like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens can make the bestseller lists with books advocating more atheism and further flight from tradition, Benjamin Wiker's work provides a welcome corrective, demonstrating quite well the horrific results of the application of these kinds of ideas in the real world. Which is not to say that Wiker's book is perfect. For example, the people who most need to read it are the ones most likely to reject it as a collection of ad hominem attacks rather than a work of substantive criticism.
I admit to being one of those individuals who do not find it unreasonable to look into the background of any individual who proposes a radical new system for human living, to see how well he's managed to make it work in his own life. In a spectrum that runs from the measured (e.g., Paul Johnson's Intellectuals) to the prurient (e.g., E. Michael Jones's Degenerate Moderns), Wiker lands firmly on the measured end and is justified in asking if, for example, Margaret Mead, who wanted life to be a tropical paradise full of free love, saw only what she wanted to see in Samoa.
In other matters, Wiker's work is a little idiosyncratic in its emphases he spends more time criticizing Margaret Sanger for the effect her ideas had on the eugenics movement than for her success in helping to normalize the usage of contraception, a more obvious and logical evil, at least by Catholic standards. Finally, there is the question of the degree to which the books themselves are influential, rather than the authors. While almost no one would disagree that Hitler did much evil in writing Mein Kampf, surely he was more influential as the Führer of Germany, instigator of the Second World War, and author of the Final Solution.
Still, shortcomings notwithstanding, 10 Books That Screwed Up the World is a rollicking good read, and is a fun indictment of a number of books that really ought to have stayed trees.