12 January 2017

The heavy reading list - 20 modern works and 5 classics

Some days ago now, one of my readers, we’ll call him Jon McC—, suggested in the wake of my last blog post that I draw up a list of twenty books that have been influential on my political, theological and economic thinking. This struck me as an excellent idea, and I will attempt to do so now – though the caveat is that these are non-classics (that is, they have been written at some point after 1688 – a date I’ve picked, somewhat arbitrarily, as the beginning of English-speaking modernity). But, that being said, I’m always happy to pass my readers on to read people a fair bit less muddle-headed than I am!
  1. The Russian Revolution by Nikolai Berdyaev. This is the book that led me to treat Marxism not as a political theory but instead as a (chiliastic) Christian heresy – albeit one from which certain economic and social insights were still retrievable. It is also worthwhile as an introduction to Berdyaev’s somewhat fragmentary and existential philosophical thinking; a style which I then found (and still find) compelling!

  2. The Russian Idea by Nikolai Berdyaev. This is a far fuller exposition of Berdyaev’s historical thinking, tying it more directly into his religious philosophy, and explicating the various strands in Russian thought. It broadened my reading list exponentially (leading me back to Dostoevsky, to Gogol, to Pushkin, to Leont’ev, Solovyov, Il’in and Pobedonostsev) and led me to a fuller and deeper appreciation of the religious tradition I had embraced.

  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. This book a.) helped me tremendously through a rough bout of depression coming back from my Peace Corps service, and b.) demolished entirely what little remained of my beliefs in the cult of ‘progress’. And Vonnegut’s wry, cranky, often contrarian socialism in the tradition of Eugene V Debs was one of the reasons why I couldn’t so easily put socialism behind me – and why I still refuse to condemn the socialist intellectual stream uniformly.

  4. Unto This Last by John Ruskin. A true Tory socialist treatise and a broadside against what had not yet come to be called homo œconomicus, calling for a balanced ethic of consumption and production, this tome also happened to be a guide for Gandhi’s ethic of swaraj, and a direct progenitor of English distributism and the agrarian rising. ‘There is no wealth but life.’ Very, very highly recommended.

  5. Conservatism Revisited by Peter Viereck. A highly useful bird’s-eye view and anthology of a number of different strands of conservatism, ranging from Metternich, Bonald and Chateaubriand to Adams and Calhoun, and even ranging to the conservative ‘Wobbly’ labour-unionism of Frank Tannenbaum. If you want to take a first step into the larger world of conservative and reactionary thought, there are few better places to start than this.

  6. From the Soil by Fei Xiaotong. The single definitive sociological treatment of traditional, rural Chinese culture. Many things that do not make sense to an American visitor of China begin to make sense, even today, after reading this book in particular. Fei furthermore explores the collectivist psychology of the Chinese people, and posits that any form of democratic governance in China will have to be conditioned locally and with respect to this collectivistic psychology. Something of a standing rebuke to China’s zapadniki.

  7. Lament for a Nation by George Parkin Grant. A decidedly dim view of Canada’s future as a nation independent of the United States, conditioned by the election of Lester Pearson over John Diefenbaker, George Grant here lays out his view of the Canadian national project as a conservative one, yet one characterised by a strong sense of social equity and fairness. Though he doesn’t believe the Canadian project will survive American imperial designs, still he holds out a Christian hope for something better to take its place; as such, this book is best not described as a ‘pessimistic’ one.

  8. Technology and Empire by George Parkin Grant. Another masterful work in Canadian High Tory thought from the pre-eminent philosopher of that tradition. Technology and Empire is a series of essays touching on matters of social history, education and the impact of technology in light of the North American cultural inheritance, facets of which will appeal both to radicals and traditionalists. Jacques Ellul and Simone Weil both leave strong impressions throughout this work, as does Leo Strauss.

  9. Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank. Milbank’s most famous work: a sceptical, radical-Platonic read of the history of modern social theory, from the Middle Ages down to the postmodernists. I am not sure that I would now agree entirely with the entire sweep of the book and its fingering of John Duns Scotus as the cause of all our modern woes, but this work definitely got me drinking from a number of different wells, and most deeply from those associated with the saints and Scholastics of Late Antiquity.

  10. The Justification of the Good by Vladimir Solovyov. A broad-ranging work of anthropology and ethical philosophy, which puts paid to a number of the utilitarian and egoistic arguments that characterise much of modern ethical thinking. A selective use of the Christian-humanist intellectual patrimony to articulate what would now be thought a ‘postliberal’ position; though nowadays some of his conclusions might seem dated, it still makes for important reading.

  11. The End of the Revolution by Wang Hui. A collection of essays from one of modern China’s most important literary men, all touching on the topic of China’s revolutionary heritage, the depoliticisation of China’s politics, the challenges facing the Chinese intelligentsia, with an extended meditation on the work of Lu Xun. Even when I was first reading it, I was struck by how he appealed to China’s traditional intellectual heritage to interrogate the present - China desperately needs more like him!

  12. China from Empire to Nation-State by Wang Hui. Here is where Wang’s radical-conservative streak really comes out to play. He takes on the foundation of the Chinese nation on the framework left behind by the Qing Dynasty, and argues that the continuity in China’s form of government that allowed it to transition from an empire into a modern nation is a continuity which takes its legitimacy from a malleable acceptance of a Confucian ethical worldview, which is neither racially- nor linguistically-exclusive. Very intriguing thesis, very much worth reading, though you do have to put up with Wang’s occasionally-circuitous writing style.

  13. Reflections of a Russian Statesman by Konstantin Pobedonostsev. Pobedonostsev, though he reserves his harshest criticism for Russia’s fourth estate and for the institutions of democracy in general, nevertheless gives ample attention to the problems of Russia’s common people. He often comes off as a populist or as one of the paternalistic socialists of Ruskin’s vein; assuredly his infamous reactionary convictions are something very different from what many in America are used to.

  14. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s famous ‘philosophical novel’ which tackles with a genially-humorous eye the ways in which modern Europeans of his own age attempt to make themselves happy, though it ends on a somewhat melancholy note. He uses the outside perspectives of Rasselas, Imlac and Nekayah to lampoon modern pretentiousness and ‘wisdom’, though in more serious terms he attacks the institutions of slavery and colonialism as inhumane.

  15. The Fleet Papers by Richard Oastler. The Tory Radical statesman and his crusades against slavery and workhouse conditions in Britain, informed by a conscious idea that the powerful and the comfortable have a responsibility to ensure the welfare and betterment of the weak, poor and miserable. His formulation of ‘Altar, Cottage and Throne’ makes appearances both subtle and not-so-subtle.

  16. On Spiritual Unity: a Slavophile Reader by Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. My first and strongest introduction to Slavophilia, apart from Nikolai Berdyaev’s introductions. Intimations on the meaning of the concepts of sobornost’ and integral knowledge, expressed through meditations on ecclesiology and Russian history. Khomyakov and Kireevsky both show a clear dislike for Western social theories of both left and right, though it is clear they are keen on preventing particularly capitalism from taking root, and place a great emphasis on the institution of the obshchina as a bulwark against it.

  17. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. A more direct, Juvenalian work than Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, but it touches on many of the same themes; in addition to being an attempted repudiation of the social-contract theories of Hobbes and Locke, it uses fantastical settings (Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, the land of the Houyhnhnms) and the person of Lemuel Gulliver to lampoon European colonial endeavours, militarism, sectarianism, scientism and slavery - themes which Swift repeats in his other works.

  18. My Life in Christ by Saint John of Kronstadt. The diary of the great Russian saint and cleric, who addresses his accounts of his own spiritual struggles primarily to his fellow clerics, though there is much also to interest the Orthodox layman. His writings, dense, challenging and spiritually-profound, place great emphasis on humility, hope, patience, single-heartedness, service, kindness to others in the pursuit of emulating Christ. In addition, many of his aphorisms touch on the spiritual challenges of modern life and distractions, and particularly on greed and mammon; his calls to hold possessions in common and to give freely to the poor might be surprising in someone of his reactionary reputation, but they are very much in keeping with Patristic thought on the topic.

  19. The Lord of the Rings by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The one great work of high fantasy to which all others which followed would be indebted, though Tolkien himself was deeply indebted to the fantastic imagination and antiquarianism of William Morris. Even so, his vision of a good society in which the small pleasures are valued, in which the green and wild spaces are preserved, in which the neighbourly and hospitable virtues are exalted, in which small and ordinary everyday deeds of good add up to something greater - these things did leave a far deeper impact on my middle-school mind than the high adventure and epic battles.

  20. A Confucian Constitutional Order by Jiang Qing. An admittedly-ambitious and Utopian institutional-Confucian take on modern governance and legitimacy, but one which draws rightly upon a broad array of intellectual resources both modern and ancient. Jiang’s critiques of the political inheritance of the High Middle Ages share a great deal with Slavophil critiques of the same, and in many points he parallels the thought particularly of Ivan Kireevsky. I have some reservations about his faith in China’s intellectual élite class, but he does come by that bias honestly, considering the same bias inheres in the Confucian canon through the centuries.
With regard to some of the classical works I would recommend, the following is a short but growing list as I delve further into them:
  1. The Book of Rites, traditionally attributed to Confucius. A compilation of behavioural prescriptions for people of every age and from every walk of life, regarding how they should treat the people around them and how they should treat nature, and why. There is a great deal of practical, natural perennial wisdom contained herein, though obviously it is meant for a society that is no longer with us. Still, the idea that we should respect the people who lived before us, and love and care for the people who will come after us, is timeless.

  2. An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by Saint John of Damascus. A classic of the Scholastic tradition, written by a philosopher and polymath with a high respect for the advanced learning of the time, also a Saint and Father of the Church who speaks authoritatively on matters of doctrine. He occasionally gives voice to a Platonic metaphysics regarding time, forms and images in his defences of the doctrines of immortality and the use of icons in worship.

  3. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Saint Bede the Venerable. A historical classic for multiple reasons, including that Bede was among the first scholars of history to place overwhelming reliance on primary sources instead of secondary ones. But Holy Father Bede was also a master hagiographer, prosopographer and Scriptural scholar in his own right, and his mastery of classical learning shines through in his master-work, describing the Christianisation of his own island and people. A must-read for any Anglophile, Christian or otherwise.

  4. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, arranged by Sister Benedicta Ward. A collection of stories and maxims handed down in traditions of various cœnobitic communities, meant to inform and edify seekers after the spiritual life. By turns serious, enlightening and even humorous, the Apophthegmata Patrum is one of the great classics of Christian spirituality, and can be used to make much sense of later Christian thought (and especially, but not solely, Orthodox Christianity).

  5. Beowulf. A tale in the elder Germanic fashion, of hospitality and heroism and comradeship; of facing the unknown; of understanding and appreciating death to meet it with equanimity. The one great ‘secular’ Old English work, it displays the tragic character of the elder Germanic literature, which follows the last glories of a dying line and seeks to preserve its deeds faithfully.

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