Read the previous installments of our “Readings for Troubled Times” series here. This continues our effort to understand the times in which we live by recommending readings that are relevant to the strange moment in which we find ourselves.
What you should read: The Republic, by Plato.
Why: Plato’s Republic seems written for every moment. It has never been more relevant than it is today. Concerned with how we seem to run from one obsession to the next, drawn ever on to the next concern by the focus of the media? Consider Plato’s “allegory of the cave.” Concerned with police misconduct? Consider Plato’s discussion of the education of the guardians and meditate on how an ill culture can possibly raise up proper guardians with, as Plato says, the dispositions of “noble puppies.” Concerned with racism and its impact on what should be merit-based decisions? See Plato’s “Myth of the Metals” and his rigorous testing plan. Concerned with the “defund the police” movement, consider Plato’s prediction that advanced democracies will become weak on crime out of egalitarian concerns. Make a careful study of Book VIII of The Republic to witness an advanced democratic society as it becomes unglued with the drive for ever increasing equality, multiculturalism, and unbounded liberty. What happens next, you ask? The tyrant rises, proclaiming he is the friend of the people and will save them from their troubles. How do we know he has become a tyrant, you inquire? When the bodyguards come to protect him, then you will know.
Gary L. Gregg, II
Director, McConnell Center
Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership
Lead Faculty & Director, Strategic Broadening Seminar for U.S. Army
What you should read: The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz.
Why: Stalin died in 1953, but Stalinism was at the height of its power. That year also saw the publication of The Captive Mind by a prominent defector from communist Poland, a literary man who had once been a Marxist true believer. Czeslaw Milosz did not analyze the geopolitics of the Soviet takeover of his country. Rather, he analyzed the ideological dementia that consumed the minds of Poland’s intellectual class, who surrendered en masse to the conqueror’s ideology. In the book, particularly in its four portraits of once-distinguished intellectuals known to Milosz, the author details how and why intelligent people come to say, do, and even believe things that are hypocritical at best, monstrous at worst, all in the name of ideology. Milosz’s words on how Marxism feeds on the existential anxiety of intellectuals in a godless world, and how totalitarian ideology works on their mind like a drug, have piercing resonance today.
author of the forthcoming Live Not By Lies (Sentinel, September 29, 2020)
What you should read: The Tragic Sense of Life, by Miquel de Unamuno.
Why: I have to suggest Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life. Very few have stood simultaneously in time and eternity with such courage as Don Miguel. He lived during a time when the forces of totalitarian ideologies were boiling beneath the land, yet managed to not be swayed by any of the excesses that so seductively presented themselves as the ultimate solution for the problem of existence. Through the so-called "Great Disaster" of the loss of the Spanish-American war and the subsequent cultural schizophrenia that ravaged Spain, through World War I, to the rise of Franco, he was both a voice of political engagement and a reminder that our truest reality is grounded beyond this world. In his most famous work, he articulated this position with so much force that it has perplexed readers since its publication in 1913. His goal was to shake the reader from his existential stupor, to pour vinegar on the mortal wound of our heart, to remind us that we are persons and that troubled are not our times but our condition. We are heroes in the drama of existence that must take full charge of being a "man of flesh and bone, who is born, suffers and dies—especially, dies."
Beyond all the angst caused by this radical condition, however, a deep consolation emerges in the brotherhood of this drama, in the innumerable bridges that love creates above the chasms opened by pride and hatred. He reminds us that we will always have Don Quijote, who dared to dream, who was not a pessimist because pessimism belongs only to the vain, who never once forgot that life is a battle, a struggle to see not things as they are but as they should be. Though far from a playbook on political prudence, this book forces the reader into confronting the inescapable condition of continuously answering the perennial question: "who do you say that I am?"
Proprietor / President
Casa Carmen, Inc.
What you should read: Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia.
Why: In the late 1940s, as Mao Zedong’s Red Army fought its way toward Shanghai, more than a million members of the city’s middle and upper classes fled the coming revolution. In 2019’s Last Boat Out of Shanghai, Helen Zia tells the stories of four real-life children who witnessed or participated in the exodus—one of whom, we eventually learn, is Zia’s mother. This painstaking work of nonfiction is a tale about the human costs of Communist class warfare, to be sure. But as the book traces its protagonists’ hardships in the years leading up to Mao’s victory, a deeper lesson is about how unabashed violence and corruption in government can deliver a country to a tragic point of no return.
Managing Editor, Reason