Or do they? The Ancient Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero once said, “There is nothing so absurd that it can’t be said by a philosopher,” and, according to author Benjamin Wiker, “philosophers’ absurdities aren’t limited to classroom sophistry and eccentric speculations. They make their way into print and are thereby released upon the public” (Introduction).
As dangerous as a deadly disease, bad ideas are the flotsam and jetsam that go largely undetected in the unsuspecting minds of those indoctrinated by them until they reach a critical mass and can’t be eradicated.
Not convinced? Do you labor under the theory that “people screw up the world, not books” and that no idea—sinister or saintly— contained in any book could possibly be so enticing and influential to any person of power that they might actually go about implementing it into a society whose trust they’ve been given?
Thomas Carlyle, the eminent Scottish essayist and sometime philosopher, was once scolded at a dinner party for endlessly chattering about books, as Wiker reminds us in his introduction: “Ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!” To which he replied, “There once was a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.” In the disturbing quote, Carlyle is referring to the writings of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which inspired the guillotines of the French Revolution.
Bad ideas (from those who are not particularly concerned with everyone’s best interests) often appear first in the pages of a book, and through a publisher claiming to have no moral stake save that of “publish or perish.” When we consider that these ideas are disseminated to the masses for testing through the trials and errors of history, what course of action should we take to eliminate such insidious influences?
The cure, according to Wiker, and the reason why he writes this book is not, in the spirit of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, to have a book-burning and be done with it, but instead to take them up one at a time and to read them. “Know them forward and backward. Seize each one by its malignant heart and expose it to the light of day” (3). That is just what he does, with great alacrity and precision.
This is a book that—in a world where the writing of books knows no end and where books “for Dummies” abound—is refreshing in both its efforts to get to the heart of some of the most controversial books ever written and its ability to do so with straightforward ease.
Fifteen books spanning five centuries (sixteenth through twentieth) are taken to task in chronological order and in three parts. Part One, or what Wiker refers to as the “Preliminary Screw-Ups,” covers: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (ca. 1513); René Descartes’s Discourse in Method (ca. 1637); Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (ca. 1651); and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (ca. 1755). Part Two, “Ten Big Screw-Ups,” includes the following: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Manifesto of the Communist Party (ca. 1848); John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (ca. 1863); Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871); Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886); Vladimir Illyich Lenin’s The State and Revolution (ca. 1917); Margaret Sanger’s The Pivot of Civilization (ca. 1922); Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (ca. 1925); Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (ca. 1927); Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (ca. 1928); and Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (ca. 1948). Part Three, “Dishonorable Mention,” discusses Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (ca. 1963).
The Darkly Unthinkable. Wiker gets right to the heart of the matter with his perspective on the philosopher-statesman Machiavelli’s The Prince, noting that “despite recent attempts to portray [him] as merely a sincere and harmless teacher of prudent statesmanship [he should be treated] as one of the most profound teachers of evil the world has ever known” (7).
The darkly unthinkable is made thinkable. Rulers are taught to shed religion, or use it to their advantage, in their efforts to control the often unsuspecting and easily manipulated masses. They do this because they have embraced the book’s insight, that evil works better than good.
The ruler (whom Machiavelli calls the Prince) is instructed to employ all manner of deceit, duplicity, breaking of promises, and to uphold the “appearance” of virtue while working these profitable characteristics behind the scenes at all times. Wiker writes, “So it is much better, more wise, ‘to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious,’ but if you need to be cruel, faithless, inhumane, dishonest, and sacrilegious, well, then, necessity is the mother of invention, and you should invent devious ways to do whatever evil is necessary while appearing to be good” (10). Hmmm…it seems the more things in the political world change through the ages, the more they stay the same.
Looking for One Good Person. Strip Christianity of its Christ and its creator God, take away its doctrine of imago Dei, and turn the Ten Commandments into ten suggestions so that there is no theistic foundation for morality, and one would be more or less in search of some other worldview that might at least attempt to explain why life is worth living at the end of the day. That’s what atheists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were trying to do when they, in the spirit of the ancient philosopher Epicurus (“we don’t need religion, just self-satisfaction”), founded the ethical theory known as utilitarianism around the idea of “the Greatest Happiness Principle.” Utilitarianism holds that we humans are basically good and that good equals pleasure and evil equals pain.
Wiker exposes the hole in the heart of utilitarianism in his synopsis of Mill’s work by exposing first of all his underestimation of how deep evil runs in the human heart and then by showing how he should have been able to see how such a theory would inevitably “lead to a society addicted to ever more intense, barbaric, and self-destructive pleasures, and that its members would be gibbering cowards in the face of even the smallest pains” (84).
What about the longing we each have for something greater than ourselves, that “God spot” that St. Augustine said only the one true God could fill and satisfy? Even if millions choose to fill it with some idea of a god or gods other than the one true God, isn’t that, too, evidence that there is more to man than the man’s measure of himself?
Hitler’s Own Book. Wicker makes an interesting observation: “Many people have read books about Adolf Hitler, but all too few have read Hitler’s own book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle)” (146). He points out the danger in only reading about Hitler and not reading Hitler himself: we “can easily get an entirely distorted view of him as an evil madman rather than an evil genius” (145). “Given the epic scale of their inhumanity,” Wicker continues, “we need to remember that the Nazi regime did not purport to do evil” (147), but like their great leader who “saw himself as a visionary who beheld an ideal world peopled by an ideal humanity” (149), they pursued “a utopian vision that however unrealizable in practice should act as the pattern for ruthless political action” (151).
It is in his story that Hitler lays out his political first principles, Wiker reminds us. His master plan was based on an understanding of the state as consisting primarily of a racial unit rooted in biology, not utility. In order to fix all social problems one therefore merely had to fix the biological problem first—“the elimination of all those he believed were causing the problems” (163).
Read This Book. As a reviewer of books, I can attest that not all books are fit to be read merely because they are bound and published. I would say, in fact, and this I admit as a lifelong reader of books, the older I get, the more I realize I have less and less time here on earth to read the things we humans have to write. I grow weary of reading for reading’s sake. I want to be moved. I want to be inspired to act by what I read. I want to be upset with the writer for being so brilliantly misinformed, or ecstatic with him or her for getting it right!
I am guessing that Wiker and I have this in common and that many of the readers of this review share our perspective. If I am wrong, ignore my vanity. If perchance I’ve got it right and you too are a lifelong reveler in those few books truly fit to print, pick up a copy of this one. It does not disappoint!
—C. Wayne Mayhall
C. Wayne Mayhall is a frequent contributor to the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, adjunct professor of apologetics at Liberty University, and the author of Patterns of Religion (Cengage Publishing, 2003) and Religious Autobiographies (Cengage Publishing, 2004).