The World's Most Essential Reading

A People's History of the World by Chris Harman

Four Reasonable Men by Brand Blanshard

The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen

State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability edited by Lisa Mastny of the Worldwatch Institute

 

The Canon

One meaning of the term 'canon' is this: a basis for judgment, a standard, or a criterion. By itself, this definition is empty because it begs the question, a basis for the judgment of what? As the term is intended here, it means 'a basis for the judgment of the best destiny for humanity as a whole'. Needless to say, this is a very important sort of canon indeed. Perhaps the most important of all.

 

The Most Essential Books

In the canon offered here, four books provide the most truly essential insights.

The first of these is Chris Harman's A People's History of the World. His book is pretty much just what the title says that it is: a history of the world from the perspective of ordinary human beings. This perspective yields page after page of startling insights, all invariably and systematically omitted from America media and textbooks. However, the most important insight of them all is never fully accounted for.

Harman makes clear that, over and over again in the course of history, we encounter a kind of cycle. In broad outline it goes something like this: there's a long initial developmental period in which a society strives to achieve some basis for material prosperity and physical security.

If this is achieved to some degree, then it's typically followed by an intermediate period in which a handful of individuals interested exclusively in their own selfish aims gradually take control of society and begin strangling it at the root through their avarice. This is made possible because of the power that they attain through their acquisition of wealth.

And in a third, sometimes rather brief period, the society collapses as a consequence of the ruinous conflicts engendered by the wealthy and powerful. Sometimes this third stage is accelerated by resource exhaustion, or by an inadvisable discretionary war, or by the death of some strongman, but the final outcome is always much the same. Society falls apart, and history repeats itself once again.

Unlike most historians, Harman is well aware of this dynamic, and he walks us through it repeatedly in one place and time after another; but what he unfortunately isn't aware of are the underlying psychological forces.

Psychologists have identified an especially pernicious and malignant combination of personality characteristics that they refer to as the "dark triad". Individuals who exhibit the dark triadic combination are drawn to power and wealth from their very nature; and typically, these desires are never satisfied. Unfortunately, at the same time they are narcissistic and egocentric, machiavellian in their approach to human relationships, and psychopathic in their interactions with other people. The consequence is that, over and over again, the worst rise to positions of authority in society where they then set in motion the same conflicts generation after generation, regardless of how much power or wealth they amass.

Following Marx, Harman characterizes this dynamic as being one of "class warfare", and so it is - yet this sort of account leaves the origins of that warfare itself up in the air. Thus, while he does do his readers an immense service in taking note of the ever-repeating depredations of the "ruling class", we never really achieve much insight or understanding of why this conflict takes place repeatedly and with such strange consistency over the entire course of human history.

Still, this is one of the very few books that affords the sort of perspective that it does; and in doing so, it does describe, convincingly, where human society has stalled repeatedly down through the millennia. For everyone in a democracy to have this knowledge is absolutely essential, and yet it is consistently omitted in nearly all history books. In short, Harman does a reasonably good job of telling us where we've been - and why, as a species, we so rarely seem to progress beyond a very limited and temporary flourishing.

Lacking much imagination, and still more lacking in any humanity, the dark triadic personality tends to respond to every challenge in much the same way: with force and brutality, and often with the deployment of state police (like the Stasi, the KGB, and the FBI).

Philosophers have been long in making clear why this sort of response is rarely, if ever, justified; but they have struggled even more with the questions of where the foundations of values lie, and with determining the most meaningful orientation to life. The fact that all of these questions are answered, and answered systematically and persuasively in Four Reasonable Men, is the reason why this book is the second of the three volumes of our canon.

The author, American philosopher Brand Blanshard, goes still further: he offers an ideal of personality grounded in reasonableness. It's very difficult to doubt that if the world was full of reasonable people - and less full of unreasonable ones - the result could only be for the better. Of course, this contention demands a thorough account of reasonableness; and this Blanshard provides in the form of personality profiles of four individuals who did, indeed, live lives consistently conducted in the light of reason. Extremists can be more colorful, and more readily capture our imagination; but the less interesting reasonable person is now, and always has been, the foundation stone of society, and how and why one can be reasonable is here thoroughly explored.

But knowing what it is that we want to avoid repeating in the future, given the many bad examples of history, and even knowing how, in general, we can best conduct ourselves, is still not enough. It remains to determine how most effectively to bring about the best life outcomes for everyone. (Which is what Blanshard suggests it is ultimately the business of all of us to try to accomplish.) This brings us to the third book of our canon: Anu Partanen's The Nordic Theory of Everything.

Compared to the books provided by Harman and Blanshard, Partanen's book is an easy read. She's not exceptionally conversant in history, and doesn't fully understand why the Nordic societies are so much more successful than America; but she does lay out, page after page, the differences in worldview and in policy that make such enormous differences in the quality of life in the US and in the Nordic countries. It's the closest thing we have to a political guide-book that would more properly be entitled "How Societies Can Succeed"; and that's a very important sort of book indeed.

The fourth book of our four-book canon is State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability. This is one of a valuable series of books brought out by the now-defunct (as of January, 2020) World Watch Institute. The series was edited by Lisa Mastny, and the overall project was overseen by Tom Prugh and Michael Renner, who are almost supernaturally insightful.

The topic is just what the title suggests: an exploration of what we must do in order to begin to govern the world in a more sustainable way. Since climate vandalism is the single greatest threat to the continued viability of the human species, this crisis receives a lion's share of attention in the 22 essays that comprise the book. It reads like a collection of white papers from a think tank for a very good reason: that is just what it is. The overall tone is academic, and all of the authors are careful to cite the evidentiary basis for their conclusions. (There are more than 30 pages of citation end notes.)

Though the book is now (as of 2020) six years old, so little has changed that the world hasn't even yet begun to catch up with the content that may be found here.

Every citizen of the world must know what steps must be taken to bring about a sustainable civilization and in this book, and only in this book, will the reader find such a dense and valuable collection of insights.

Like the other four books of our canon, it is, quite simply, a mandatory read if civilization is to survive.