April 24, 2004

Ten Books -- A Cut Below

I intentionally posted my list of ten books (see the previous post) without looking at anyone else's list, and I see that I've done it a little bit differently than some other folks have. In the other lists I've looked at, folks have listed books that were important to them during the various stages of their lives, that is, books that influenced them at a particular point in time but might do so no longer.

I, on the other hand, tried to list books that not only were influential in my life, but which still are. This probably explains why I had to pad my list a little; much as I love P.G. Wodehouse, I can't claim that he's influenced my world view or personal philosophy or faith.

So...what books have influenced me in the past, but have world views I would now reject?

Off-hand, I can think of two, both of which I encountered when I was in high school and wishing (for reasons I won't go into at the moment) that the Christian faith in which I'd been raised would go away and leave me alone.

The first was Atlas Shrugged, one of the few books the very mention of which can cause any otherwise polite and well-mannered on-line forum to dissolve into rancor and ad hominem attacks in a matter of moments. I was a devoted follower of Ayn Rand for a year or so and did not abandon her until my resurgent faith and intellectual honesty made it necessary.

I do however retain one idea that has its roots in Atlas Shrugged, and so perhaps I should have included it in my list yesterday. It's not an idea that appears in Atlas Shrugged; it resulted from my reflections on Rand's gospel of selfishness and the Bible's gospel of mercy and charity. Simply put, it is the idea that moral obligations are not necessarily reciprocal.

Ayn Rand tells me that the poor, huddling masses have no right to my goods, my money, or any other fruit of the sweat of my brow. And to this I agree. No man has any right to demand that I give him anything whatsoever, simply on the grounds that he needs it. And Rand further says that it is evil to give without receiving; that economic transactions are the basis for human morality. And this I deny.

My Christian faith tells me that I must feed the poor and clothe the naked. And to this I agree--not because the poor and naked have deserve my goods, but because Christ has given me the forgiveness that I do not deserve. As he has given freely to me, so I must give freely to others, not because of their claim on me, but because of his.

And so I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Rand who the villains are in her book, but disagreeing with her about the proper response of her heroes.

The other book that comes to mind is (of all things) Harry Harrison's Deathworld Trilogy -- not because it's a particularly weighty piece of work, but because it's where I first had my nose rubbed in the fact that moral values are not universal. And, as with Rand, I find that I agree with Harrison on the facts, but not on the conclusion. It is true that moral virtues differ from place to place, and from age to age. It is not, therefore, true that all moral values are relative, as Harrison's hero would have it, or that a society's moral standards must be judged by how functional they are for that society. Rather, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, values are in fact absolute; and any society's values will differ from the absolute according to that society's besetting sins.

All this is clear enough to me now. But at the time, I found Harrison's ideas--or, rather those of his characters--shocking, subversive, and compelling. And though I would have stoutly denied being a relativist had you asked me, it's still the case that some of the habits of mind I formed then persisted for years. For example, if all morality is relative, then the standards of any group you'd care to name are as valid as my own. The problem is, it's not really possible to believe that--it's not really possible to believe that two contradictory things are both right, not when both of them are right in front of you. Not at first. And so what happens is, you start to deprecate your own values in favor of the values of everyone else. You start giving more weight to the values of other cultures and less to your own--and that makes you feel tolerant and broadminded, not like those people who claim that they know the real truth.

The trouble is, that point of view is irrational at best--for the other cultures don't agree either. In the end you're swept hither and thither by tides of opinion, for your moral compass has been swept overboard.

I'll stick with the values I grew up with, thanks. I'll undoubtedly have to fine-tune them from time to time--but at least I won't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 24, 2004 03:26 PM

Ian said:

Perhaps I should have made clear that even with the books on my list that would not have the same effect on me today, the effect that they did have still influences me now.

Yes, even Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. Sometimes I just speak like a Judith Viorst character, without meaning to. :)

Will Duquette said:

I had a hard time in Elementary School at times, and I remember my Mom cutting Alexander out of a magazine. What it was doing in a magazine, I don't know, but I remember reading it from a stack of tearsheets. She was trying to make me feel better, and I suppose also to gently teach me a lesson about dealing with problems. She succeeded at the former; as to the latter, well, I already knew I couldn't run from my problems--most of them were faster than me, and anyway I'd have gotten in trouble for leaving class without permission.

Also, and this is for the record, I loved my railroad train pajamas.

Will Duquette said:

Not to leave you with the wrong impression, I bought a copy of the book for my kids a few years ago. Good stuff, and I love the pictures.