One of the greatest pleasures of an academic career is the discovery of books that open new intellectual vistas—bringing an old problem into sharper focus, or taking us to a new hilltop for a view of it we’ve never seen before, or exposing us to a different horizon altogether. Academics all specialize, and we can feel too diffident about opining on books written outside our own comfortable niches. But some of the best perspective-altering reading experiences I’ve had in recent years have come from books that I read well outside the bounds of my own research. Nonetheless they made their way into my thinking and writing in various ways—they “stuck.” And books that “stick” in this way we are apt to recommend whenever an opportunity arises. Herewith four such books that “stick” with me, all from the last decade.
The late Michael Potemra, then book review editor of National Review, asked me to review Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism when it was published in 2014. Otherwise I might have missed the book altogether. But I wrote a rave, and have recommended it once before in these columns. The book was astounding, convincingly challenging many of the presuppositions I had been taught as a young man and had carried around in my head for years. I suppose I had already begun to doubt some of those presuppositions already—that liberalism, with its doctrines of individual equality and human rights, was an altogether modern philosophical innovation—but Siedentop exploded them altogether, showing that early Christianity’s insistence on the imago Dei shattered the pagan world’s traditional politics of hierarchy and subjection, and that by the middle ages the predicates of liberal politics were in place. If liberalism has “failed,” perhaps it is not because it has been true to itself, as some of its contemporary critics claim, but because it has severed itself from its Christian roots.
A chance meeting with the classicist Kyle Harper at a conference led me to his book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, which had just then been published in 2013. Harper was delighted at the time with an enthusiastic review of his book by the Princeton historian Peter Brown in the New York Review of Books, and when I read Brown’s review I knew I had to read the book too. Like Siedentop but in a smaller compass, Harper describes the moral revolution worked by Christianity in the pagan Mediterranean. It shattered the Roman world’s exploitative sexual economy, in which respectable men preyed on slaves and prostitutes, of either sex, in casual faithlessness to their wives—and in which women of good family were permanently ruined by shame if they were seduced or sexually assaulted. Shame was the thing to be feared and avoided at all costs. But Christianity taught the moral equality and dignity of both sexes, forbade all sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage, and considered every fall from grace a sin that could be forgiven, every sinner redeemable. The impact of this revolution was positive on every front—but especially positive for the status of women.
Why Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion should be on its publisher’s exhibit table at a political science meeting, I could not say. But I was very glad to discover these 2011 Gifford Lectures (published in 2015). Harrison, an Australian historian, shows that the contemporary view that science and religion are at odds is a distinctively nineteenth-century phenomenon, and that even the idea that “science” and “religion” exist as distinct categories is only a century or two older. In what he calls a “historical cartography,” Harrison maps the evolution of these two concepts, which began life as descriptions of virtues, each of which was completely compatible with the other. “Religion” traveled from being an “inner disposition” of “rightly directed worship” to being something of which we could speak with the indefinite article—that we could have or belong to “a religion,” this one rather than that one, and perhaps none at all. “Science,” for its part, went from being an intellectual virtue, a “habit of mind,” to being “an accumulation of knowledge outside of the minds of individual knowers,” a body of discoveries and findings whose progress and utility are of the utmost moment. There is nothing inevitable, or sensible, about the ostensible “conflict” between science and religion, Harrison persuasively shows. But ironically, in our own day it is the “more absolutist claims of scientific knowledge” that “have a whiff of theological dogmatism about them.”
My last recommendation is of a book that came to my attention in a more ordinary way—accompanied by widespread attention, acclaim, and criticism. Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012), coming in at only 126 pages plus notes, is a brisk but densely argued brief against the view, dominant among most contemporary scientists, that a reductionist materialism can explain, well, us—creatures with consciousness and cognition who believe that our value judgments are rooted in reality. Nagel’s daring and iconoclasm are evident in his subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. He was persuaded, he writes, by the “intelligent design” school of Darwin critics that the standard evolutionary account of the human mind comes up short. Nagel does not embrace the “design” thesis himself, but his thrusting it away rests on the rather feeble ground that he “lack[s] the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose.” Many people who accept the thesis of a divine creator struggle in just this way to “see” what is more easily evident to others, the mystics and the saints among us. But in any event, Nagel’s philosophical case for the ineffably immaterial side of the human experience is a wholly convincing one.
There you have four of the best books I’ve read in the past decade. My particular work in these years touched often on issues of religious freedom and the place of faith in our society, and each of these books, taking me outside my own much narrower work, enriched my understanding of my own central concerns.