Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Harmful books again

Tom Cerber notes that Andrew Sullivan has (predictably) jumped on the bandwagon carrying those who would bash the list of ten most harmful books, already discussed here and here on this site.

I wish that I had said some of what Tom says, especially this:

One could reasonably argue that books by Nietzsche, Kinsey, Dewey, etc. are harmful because they seduce people into thinking thoughts that harm their souls. But Sullivan the libertarian doesn’t seem to recognize this. For him, harm is reduced to bodily harm. This strikes me as overly crude.

Moreover, judging whether or not a book is harmful says nothing of whether one should read it. There’s good reason to read a book that might harm your soul, if you have the maturity to understand what’s going on.

Further, a book that’s good for your soul might prove to be harmful. Didn’t Athens execute Socrates because his philosophizing threatened its political rule? Sullivan needs to be more sensitive to the fundamental challenge that philosophy itself makes on politics.

Game, set, match to Cerber, over Sullivan, who can only jump to the conclusion, unworthy of someone as intelligent as he is, that regarding a book as harmful is tantamount to wishing to ban it.

This, by the way, is an example of a move I often encounter in people who object to the mere possibility of "moral absolutes." If I believe that something is "absolutely wrong," I’m told, I must want to suppress it and ban it legislatively. Freedom, it seems to these folks, demands that we be non-judgmental and indeed relativistic. But I can regard something as morally wrong without thinking that it is the role of government to prevent or prohibit it. Consider, in this connection, this passage from that noted latitudinarian St. Thomas Aquinas:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

For other passages along the same lines, go here (Third Article) and here (Fourth Article).

Update: Win Myers has more provocative thoughts on book lists and Andrew Sullivan, who, he says, comes closer to describing the Left than the Right in his comments. For still more commentary, go here and here.

Discussions - 5 Comments

This, by the way, is an example of a move I often encounter in people who object to the mere possibility of "moral absolutes." If I believe that something is "absolutely wrong," I’m told, I must want to suppress it and ban it legislatively. Freedom, it seems to these folks, demands that we be non-judgmental and indeed relativistic.

Since liberals think the solution to all problems involve the government it shouldn’t be a shock that they assume others will use the same means to solve problems they see. Liberals don’t just think "hate speech" is bad they beleive it’s the governments role to get rid of it...so they assume us crazy right wingers will do the same thing.

Didn’t Athens execute Socrates because his philosophizing threatened its political rule?

Actually, no.
According to Will Durant, Socrates died because of his politics pure and simple.

His leading opponent was a man named Anytus, who years before had threatened to revenge himself upon Socrates for the fact that Anytus’ son had fallen under Socrates’ influence and become a drunkard. This, should be noted, was when Anytus himself was under a similar sentence as he arranged for Socrates, that is banishment or death. Anytus being reasonable choose banishment.

It did not help that the murderous tyrant Critias had been noe of Socrates; pupils; that the immoral and treasonable Alcibiades had been his lover; and, Charmides, his early favourite had just died in battle against the current democracy in Athens.

Also Athens as at the vary tail end of (what I’ll just sum up as) a French Reign of Terror series of revolutions and counter-revolutions. The current winners were in a forgiving mood and Socrates may have been ignored had Anytus not hated him.

Also, always remember that Socrates was given the choice of blandishment or death and he willful selected death.

Hardly the martyr history makes him out to be.

cite: Will Durant, History of Civilization Vol. 2. pg 452

And
here is another list which has plenty of harmful books (there ARE exceptions, but well over half are harmful), either by being struthious beyond belief, mind-numbingly ignorant, or just plain boring.

TTBOMK, Durant did not do primary-source research. Does he list any sources for his account of why and how Socrates came to have his famous encounter with the draught of hemlock? I’d be curious to know which historian or tradition Durant is basing himself on here, but I don’t have a copy of his set handy.

BTW, I take it you know that Durant’s reputation as a serious historian is not a strong one?

Re: Durant


A quick look shows ~20 (#32-55) endnotes for that section of text. Murray, Xenophon, Grote, Ueberweg, Plato, etc.

It should be noted that so much of this time period is secondary or tertiary sources anyhow.
On the whole, I am impressed with the large number of endnotes in his series. I thought lawyers were citation obsessed.


I am aware of Durant’s reputation. I am just not aware of the reasons for it.
My (uneducated) guess would be because he made money as a writer, and because he was generalist not specialist. (broad knowledge versus deep knowledge). But, I have yet to see a real specific critic of what he did.

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