Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ten potters, one brain of clay

If we are the books we read, then for the last ten years I have been growing and changing under a public eye. Nothing I've read has been hidden; most of it has been commented on, if ever so lightly.   Of course, magazines, blogs, and online lectures have played a considerable part in shaping my mind. As part of my 'anniversary celebration', I'd like to reflect on ten authors who have had a significant hand in shaping my worldview over the last ten years.

I should note, however, that a list like this is inherently misleading:  few of these authors were one-man armies. Indeed, most of them had an effect because their subtle influences mixed  and reacted with one another.

Carl Sagan

For most of my adolescence, I lived in constant fear of doomsday and the tortures of Hell. I grew up in a very passionate and opinionated branch of Pentecostalism, one that I could not connect to despite my best efforts, and  by the age of twenty I was utterly demoralized.  Years of frustration, terror, and exhaustion left me so calloused to the threat of Hell that I just couldn't care anymore. I decided that I was going to make the best of my life, however meager that might be.

Through a forum for ex-Pentecostals, I discovered reason to believe that the Pentecostals were not right about me, that I and the rest of humanity were not damned to a torture pit forever.  I flushed all they told me and began building a worldview from scratch,  igniting then the ravenous hunger for nonfiction that continues even today.  Carl Sagan  was one of the first voices I encountered, and what a gift he gave me. He restored my childhood awe of the Cosmos and helped give me a sense of optimism about the future of humanity.   For years thereafter, whenever reading about society made me depressed and anxious, I would return to science and be refreshed. More fundamentally, however, my extensive reading of science  in 2006-2007 (which was dead-even with history, if you can imagine that)  gave me a fundamentally scientific worldview, which shapes my reading of other disciplines. For instance, one of the reasons market economics caught my eye was  because the emergent order therein reminded me rather of biological evolution.

Henry David Thoreau

"I went into the woods to live deliberately"... that approach called to me in the spiritual vacuum following my abrupt departure from the Pentecostals.  I had around this time discovered the great Robert Ingersoll, and admired his commitment to taking nothing on authority.  It was an approach I adopted for myself, but it wasn't simply pragmatic: I needed to know, as a teenager becoming an adult,   that my values were mine, that they were real and not passively accepted. Already wary of consumerism out of fiscal self-defense, Thoreau first awoke in me an interest in simple living --  sow the seed of a deep conviction that flowered later on, namely that a thing can be morally wrong evil if the State has declared it legal -- and a thing can be right even if the State declares it illegal.

Although Thoreau's simple living had a quasi-mystical approach,  another author named Erich Fromm gave me another justification, couched in the language of psychology. What intrigued me about Fromm was his belief -- expounded in a book called To Have or to Be? --  that the modern world had erred in developing a possessive view of itself.  That is, we define ourselves by what we possess, instead of by our character.  I can still remember his example of person plucking a flower in an effort to capture, to posses the beauty -- an action which actually destroys the thing that is so desired.   Part of the reason I keep this example in mind is that I believe the ever-presence of cameras has this effect in terms of our experiences. So intent are we on capturing the moment -- taking photos to post to facebook -- that we take ourselves out of the moment and so, lose it.   This is something I have to remind myself of constantly, especially while on vacation.

Frances and Joseph Gies

Until I encountered the Gies, my perception of the Middle Ages was fairly typical: I regarded them as a dark period in European history between the high points of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, where learning and the arts existed in perennial stupor, where nothing happened but death and war and pushing around mud.   The Gies introduced me to another medieval world,  one in which the institutions that failed were struggling to reform themselves, or being replaced by new structures.   The Gies didn't merely give me a new appreciation for the Medieval period, however, they awoke me to a kind of...chronological snobbery. The view of the medieval epoch as a long period of civilizational death is self-serving flattery on the part of those who came later -- those who, in fact, were standing on the shoulders of the people they dismissed as ignoramuses.   Will Durant would reinforce my newfound appreciation for the medieval period, and Neil Postman would later make me aware that modern minds are just as pliable and superstitious as the "ancients":  we are 'enlightened' only to the extent that our institutions have been managing to acquire, save, and utilize more information.

James Howard Kunstler

My exposure to James Howard Kunstler begins with a lecture at the University of Montevallo, in which Kunstler connected  suburban sprawl, peak oil, and the financial crisis.  I subsequently read his book, The Geography of Nowhere, which allowed me to understand my own strong interest in historic cities and communities -- particularly the idea of 'place'.  I've since read much about urbanism and place, and through those studies (and others) became more locally-oriented. Additionally,  Kunstler's  doomsday lecture -- delivered at the height of the financial crisis in 2007 --  made me more aware of the need for resilience and preparedness.  By this I don't simply mean he enticed me to become a prepper;  he made me aware that systems can be inherently fragile.  In agribusiness, for instance,  monocultures increase fragility because one disease can have an outsized effect; in urban planning,  the concentration of zones into pods and traffic into collector roads increases fragility by narrowing network options.  I would see fragility at work in politics and economics, too, which is why I've moved away from top down, rational-plan oriented politics and more towards decentralization. Kunstler has thus had a long albeit sometimes indirect influence on my thinking.

In retrospect,  one of Kunstler's subtle effects was to undermine my easy belief in government intervention by demonstrating to me how DC's programs had helped destroy American cities.

Neil Postman

I discovered Postman entirely on accident, finding his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century while searching for a history of the enlightenment.   I found Postman an intriguing enough author that I went on to read his book about technology and society, which gave me eyes to see just as the internet was becoming less a distinct place to go, and more a component of everyday life.  Postman argued that technology is not value-neutral, that its uses carry conceptions about the world: our ability to do a thing leads us to believe doing is perfectly normal.  We never question whether so much of our attention should be focused on smartphones throughout the day,  that we should expect instant reply texts from people, that we should design babies to appeal to our own vanity.  More fundamentally, Postman argued that we have adopted the ethos of the machine -- Efficiency above all --  at the cost of humanity, quality, or other values.

Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death were the two books that most penetrated my thinking.

Marcus Aurelius

A sermon on humanist spirituality introduced me to the Stoics,  and Marcus Aurelius' writings proved a source of needed peace and sanctuary during a particularly unsettling year in college.  I cannot overrate Stoicism's influence on me. It made religion comprehensible for one thing:  my native religion consisted of living in terror of an invisible authority figure with many rules, some of which made sense and some of which didn't. (Why did he want us to scream at him?)    It was the Stoics who helped me understand the power of viewing the Cosmos  as a thing with a moral-rational order, and the serenity from attempting to live within that order.  Stoicism made Greek philosophy come alive, gave me a new appreciation for the idea of Virtue altogether, and would later on  contribute to my political  maturation.  (Specifically: once I started focusing only what I could control,  I started viewing as inappropriate  for other people to control what was beyond themselves, specifically other people and me.  Self government, to me, grew to mean something much deeper than casting a vote for one fraud over another every four years.  Self-government meant self-command.

Emilie Carles

Emilie Carles was a French peasant girl with a quick mind, whose intelligence was appreciated by local authorities and guided towards an education.  She became a teacher in her village, but her real education came from studying the changing world around her with a critical eye.  She was particularly molded by the Great War, through which she developed a deep disdain for government twinned with a love for humanity. For her...government, organized religion, and organized big business were foes of humanity,  joy, beauty, and innocence.  Her brothers and cousins were anarchists and libertarians, and as the sons of France continued being thrown into war or prison, she continued teaching her children to think for themselves and to refuse to allow the government to control their hearts and minds -- to divide them from their fellow men. (I was already cynical about the Great War,  and remain so.)

Carles is important because she opened the door for me to explore the Left. Before this I didn't have a political philosophy, as such, just the belief that we ought to help people who needed help, as well as a strong attachment to the Bill of Rights. I'd never seriously considered the ideas of socialism because of their  connection with mass murderers like Stalin and Mao, but Carles'  writings were more democratic and pacifistic. Yet Carles' door gave me a unique angle of approach: the more I explored the left from that direction, the less I favored state and central control; by the end of college I was thinking of myself as a left-libertarian, one who simultaneously distrusted big business and big government.  (I have a longer  essay called "Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism" that explains my shift from left-libertarianism to plain-ol-liberterianism in full, and includes comments on the role of Stoicism and Gandhi.)

Howard Zinn 

At one time I regarded Zinn so highly that when he died, I changed my forum avatar to his face for a year in memoriam. Now my image of him is more troubled, old affection mixing with new and contrary convictions.  Zinn's histories of the marginalized and powerless coming together in mobs and forcing the government to respond to their needs used to inspire me, but now I see that approach as problematic on several fronts --- first, the protesters  aren't so much actors as pleaders before the king, subjects, and two, they invariably campaign not for a cessation of coercion, but a redirection of it.  Still, I ever believe that people must be in control of their lives, and while my own thinking on the subject has more in common with  Jefferson than Marx these days, for a while what most appealed to me about the left was the idea of people obtaining the means to be economically independent.  The Epicureans taught, and I am still tempted to believe, that genuine liberty necessitates economic self-direction.  History indicates that total autarky is the path to poverty: just see any nation that has sealed itself off from trade.

Russ Roberts

Had I been born into money, no doubt I could have lived a happy existence doing nothing but going to university for my entire life, with the summers off for travel and museums.  I wasn't, though,  so my ravenous hunger for understanding has to be fed from other sources -- books and podcasts.  I found Russ Roberts while looking for podcasts from professionals (lawyers, economists, and doctors specifically)  because I wanted to glean some of their insight.   Roberts was, to my faint horror, a free market economist. Still, he had interesting conversations with people on the return of industry to America, and on how milk was distributed -- something of interest to me, someone who is prone to read books on the history of coal or cattle or housework.    I found Roberts astonishingly -- maddeningly -- pleasant.   He would interview people he disagreed with, and they'd have the most amicable of discussions, and he was so doggone nice I wanted to keep listening to him.  Later on I started reading his novels, which were political and economic policy arguments in story form. It was through Roberts that I developed a partial understanding of basic economics, as well as an appreciation for libertarian political philosophy.  Eventually I would connect the libertarian nonaggression principle to my own strong sympathy for Gandhi''s refusal of violence, and since then (2012/2013) I've been firmly settled as a libertarian.

Jane Jacobs

Reader, you will search in vain for a review of any Jane Jacobs books on my blog -- for despite the fact that she  is easily one of the top five influences on my thinking,  I've never been able to reduce my wonder at her books to a review.  When I began reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 2010, I could still describe myself as a social democrat on a good day, and a left-libertarian on a bad day. That is, I disliked both government and corporate power, but if I was feeling optimistic I could still support government ventures.    A third of the way into Death and Life,  my belief in government planning was over.  Granted, Jane didn't do this by herself:  I'd long been acquiring an appreciation for the complexity of systems and seemingly inevitable backfire from authors like Kuntsler and Michael Pollan, and  my increasing belief  in 'emergent order' -- was leading to an interest in how markets worked.  But Jane wasn't writing about free markets. She was writing about cities.  Specifically, she was an observer of humans living in cities, and she watched and contemplated the ways their use of the city changed its very nature, and how its physical form changed their use of the city.  I'll have to re-read the book (again) to give it a proper review, but her influence can be reduced to two points. First, she made me realize that planning people's lives without their  consent is immoral. Two,  her understanding of how cities really worked destroyed my resistance to understanding how free economies worked.

There are strong influences I did not mention here because I didn't read full books by them, only essays or speeches or something (Gandhi, Robert Ingersoll)  or because they're relatively recent and I don't know yet what their influence will be. If I do this again in five or ten years, I'm pretty sure Russell Kirk will hold a spot,  as he has been camping in my cranium since I read a few of his works in  2013.  

If you made it through to the end, congratulations and thank you.  As I have reflected on these authors and their influence on me the last few weeks, I've been amazed at the connections, the interplay, and I wonder how I would respond to them if I encountered their works again. A few of these definitely require re-reading, particularly Postman and Jacobs.


  1. Read one Sagan and Aurelius. I'll have to think about which authors have influenced me most.... [muses]

  2. I'm kind of amazed you haven't read more Sagan! Seems like you'd eat him up.

    1. I don't know why.... I liked his TV shows very much. But the only one of his books I've read (reviewed on my Blog in Oct 2009) is The Dragons of Eden. I've *heard of about 50% of the authors you mentioned - probably from here! - but the other half must have passed me by.

      I've been thinking about the influence question over night (except when I was asleep) and I should be able to come up with my version in the next week or so. But rather than author (generally) it will be individual books.... [muses some more]

  3. Wow! What a journey! Parts of itI resonate with my on experience, but not most, of course it is illustrative of the development of a first class mind... Many tx for sharing...


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.