assorted books tossed aside.jpg
Many assorted old books lays in the stacks as background front view close up
Many assorted old books lays in the stacks as background front view close up

A Good Book About Bad Books

Original Article

10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help
By Benjamin Wiker
Regnery, 260 pages, $27.95

If ever there were a book designed specifically for the enjoyment of InsideCatholic readers, surely it is Benjamin Wiker’s new 10 Books that Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others that Didn’t Help. Wiker should be renowned (if he is not already) for Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists–a book that at once exposes both the ancient philosophical antecedents and modern cultural consequences of Darwinism.

In the present book, the professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville proposes not a new era of book burning, as some might suppose, but rather a learned critique of toxic ideas floating in our cultural water. Wiker plays the role of EPA in the “Great Books” world, covering Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx/Engels, Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Lenin, Sanger, Hitler, Freud, Mead, Kinsey, and Friedan.

10 Books‘s two main virtues consist in exposing our often blind worship of “Science” and revealing the central mistake of the past several centuries of intellectual thought: the attempt to destroy and replace the West’s traditional understanding of the human person and his place in the world.

If there is one truth our children need before college, perhaps it is that just because something is claimed in the name of science–to borrow Gershwin’s words–it ain’t necessarily so. If this is true, it is only because empiricism is the dominant epistemology of our time, making us more susceptible to scientifically glossed claims (“Nine out of ten doctors recommend it!”).

Over the last several centuries, one author after another has assured us of his “scientific” stature. The most obvious cases in point are Marx, Engels, and Lenin–all declaring the scientific necessity of the revolutionary, post-industrialist future. But Sanger, Freud, Mead, and Kinsey also follow in this pseudo-scientific tradition. Kinsey is too disgusting to mention in mixed company, so let’s make Margaret Mead’s influential Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation (1928) our exemplum.

As an Ivy League graduate student in anthropology, Mead traveled to Samoa to examine whether adolescent rebellion was a Western phenomenon or a “natural” one. Of course, Wiker observes, “Her real goal was to convince the West that the rigors of Christian sexual morality were unnatural, and that its anxiety-producing inhibitions are something we’d all be happier without.” The Samoans, she claimed, experience little inter-family conflict because of children’s autonomy from their parents, and the children themselves are free of sexual anxiety because of loose norms. Beginning young, they casually made “common rendezvous with their lovers and their liaisons were frequent and gay,” both homo- and heterosexual.

Therefore, this “scientist” declares, to regain our natural, angst-free state we must relinquish our preoccupation with traditional family and morality. Why saddle ourselves with this unnatural monogamy thing? It only leads to conflict.

Despite the book’s wide, authoritative acceptance (I recall as a boy seeing it in a church library and thinking something was amiss), several problems are apparent. For starters, as Wiker notes, Mead assumes that “what is natural and original is best.” Second, other anthropologists have at last challenged Mead’s findings. They claim “the Samoans were far more concerned with chastity, and hence far less sexually promiscuous, than Westerners of the time.” In other words, this is junk science.

As with numerous writers Wiker examines, Mead’s true genre may have been autobiography. Her travels appear to be more of a search for relativistic justification for her personal life than a fact-finding mission. As Wiker tells it,

She was married when she sailed to Samoa, but ditched her first husband for a man she met on the journey back home. The second was soon traded for a third, and finally her third marriage was casually cast aside. The whole time she was carrying on with her lesbian lover, Ruth Benedict.

Given Mead’s mis-observations and terribly unscientific method, it is clear that Coming of Age only gained traction because it was what the elites wanted to hear. As one anthropologist remarked, “Had the book been similarly unscientific but with an opposite ideology we no doubt would have ripped it apart for its scientific failings.”

If one pattern emerges from Wiker’s list of books, it is the authors’ alternative scenarios of human origins and destiny. Hobbes claimed that in a state of nature, anything goes. Morality does not exist until we form a contract with the state. Rousseau also urges return to a “state of nature,” though his is an Edenic paradise. It is only society itself that corrupted us. Society and morality (especially sexual morality, as you might have guessed) are “unnatural.” And closer to our own time, Freud convinced many that religious traditions originated in an act of patricide: Ancient tribal sons killed and ate their father because they sexually desired their mother. (One is reminded in all of this of Peter Kreeft’s “It’s the sex, stupid!“)

This is all too ironic for Wiker. We were told that God and the traditional Western notions of man’s origins were rejected because of hard science. Wiker writes:

The ideas of God and sin might all seem too mythical for this scientific age until we recall that whether the bad thinker is Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, or Freud, the authors we’ve covered in this book were mythmakers. They were enthralled by entirely mythical states of nature, entirely fictional alternative Edens, entranced by entirely impossible utopian paradises. Tens of millions of lives were offered up to the twin fictions of an alternative Garden of Eden and an alternative paradise, each taken and presented (falsely) as scientific fact.

Centuries ago, Wiker concludes, it may have appeared plausible that once the shackles of traditional religion and morality were overthrown there would be a renaissance of the human spirit, a dawning of the Age of Aquarius. But how can we in the 21st century possibly believe this? As Wiker writes, “Atheism no longer has the luxury of speculating upon how grand the future will be once we’ve rid the world of priests and kings and brought heaven to earth.”

Whether you’re looking for a quick course on the Great Books or to inoculate a child going off to college, this book is a must-read.

Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute.