The Principled Pragmatic Reader

Last week I got an email from reader Karen, who asked if I would be willing to share some book titles that might help her better know and understand my political philosophy of principled pragmatism.  At first I had no idea what to tell her; there really is no such thing as a compendium for my political belief system.  After all, political treatises are the stuff of which rigid dogma is born; I kind of feel like I’m making up my own principled pragmatism as I go along.

Then it hit me: if no such compendium existed, why didn’t I just make one up?

And so I thought I’d post a list of the ten books which, taken collectively, best represent the principled pragmatism I argue about so strenuously and continuously on this very site.  These works are by no means typical of the texts usually cited in such lists.[1]  Collectively, though, they tell the story of my political leanings better than any treatise ever could.  They are also highly enjoyable and accessible reads.

The Principled Pragmatic Reading List


doubt11. Doubt, A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht

If there is a principal underlying difference between principled pragmatism and more traditional political ideologies, that difference is doubt.  Sooner or later, all ideological dogma forces its adherents to assume X is always the solution – or cause – to any problem; it becomes a matter of faith.  For the principled pragmatist, however, doubt is an ever-present necessity.  So what better way to explore our roots than a review of theological, philosophical and political doubt throughout history?  If there’s a flaw in Hecht’s book it is that it covers a whole lot of ground in just five hundred pages.  However, the tapestry she weaves of the evolution of doubt in our thinking is an enjoyable one, and those who wish to further explore areas she but touches upon can use this book as a springboard into the great works of others.  From Hecht’s introduction:

“The earliest doubt on historical record was twenty-six thousand years ago, which makes doubt older than most faiths.  Faith can be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing.  Doubt has been just as vibrant in its prescription for a good life, and just as passionate for the truth.  By many standards, it has had tremendous success.  This is its story.”

519oGbGHO5L2. The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan

Of course doubt is all very well and good, but sooner or later you need to have the confidence to take action.  Without faith in ideology, where do you even begin to know which paths might lead to success, and which to failure?  Sagan’s Demon Haunted World isn’t a bad place to start.

The book is meant to be a guide to separate science from psuedo-science, but the principles he details work surprisingly well in the lizard-brain world of political messaging.  Sagan walks readers through the process of discerning valid and invalid arguments, with a special emphasis on the credulity-enhancing effects of personal bias.  His “baloney detection kit,” a series of questions you can use to keep yourself from being fleeced by wolves at the ballot box, is a deservedly famous chapter.  Again, while this quote from the book was geared toward pseudo-science, it is just as profound (if not more so) when applied to political ideology:

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

03930466563. The Story of American Freedom, Eric Foner

In the United States, the words “freedom” and “rights” riddle much of the language we use to argue public policy.  It’s pretty common for those looking for your vote or donation to present freedoms and rights as a kind of concrete, non-malleable ideal from which we have strayed.  In The Story of American Freedom, however, Froner shows that throughout our history the concepts of rights and freedoms have been both fluid and evolving.   What’s more, the United States has never had a period where there was anything close to universally agreed upon definition of those terms, either academically or in the use of pubic policy.  The battle over the concept of freedoms and rights is neither new nor nearing an end.  It is embedded into our culture’s very DNA.

This makes The Story of American Freedom highly valuable to the principled pragmatic, because it takes those sacred words that party leaders use to enchant and ensnare us, and exposes them for what they really are.  To quote Foner,

“Today, chroniclers of the past are frequently called upon to contribute to a sense of common national identity by devising a unifying account based on the ideal of freedom.  Historians, however, in the words of one of the preeminent practitioners of the craft, Eric Hobsbawm, are the ‘professional rememberancers of what their fellow citizens wish to forget.’  Americans sometimes ‘forget’ that things we conclude fixed and timeless are in fact constantly changing and contested.  The story of freedom is not a mythic saga with a predetermined beginning and conclusion, but an open-eneded history of accomplishment and failure, a record of people forever contending about the crucial ideas of their political culture.  In this extended conversation over time, the meaning of freedom is as multifaceted, contentious, and ever-changing as America itself.”

mobydick_cover3_web4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville

The first of four novels I have chosen to include.  While Melville certainly did not pen Moby Dick as an encomium to principled pragmatism, it works well enough as one on its own.  The narrator-protagonist Ishmael isn’t simply the exiled orphan without a tribe of his own, he’s the only one that survives the self-destructive dogmatic mission of faith Ahab forces upon the Pequod crew.

As he watches the ineffable white whale snuff the life out his own crew in terrifying numbers, Ahab remains a man of his own peculiar faith.  “[To] the last I grapple with thee;” he hisses, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”  Finally bringing doom upon himself as well as his charges, his belief in the righteousness of his cause never wavers:

“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Has there ever been a passage in all of American literature that better captures the palpable hatred and anger that drives the undoubting ideologues to the destruction of themselves as well as others?

97808050806815. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Truly a classic figure made modern, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell might well be literature’s finest principled pragmatic hero, if not its first.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is no longer the wicked and spineless toady depicted in A Man for All Seasons.  Rather, it is Sir Thomas More with his unwavering morals who repels us.  Far closer to the historical figure than the one presented in the classic Bolt play, Mantel’s More is as unwaveringly pious as legend paints – and it turns out this is not a good thing.  His moral certainty and lack of doubt allow him to go about the business of torturing and killing innocents in the name of God and the church.  Mantel’s Cromwell, on the other hand, looks at More – and the rest of the pious and upstanding Tudor court – and finds them wanting.    But what makes Wolf Hall the perfect choice for this list isn’t just Cromwell’s ability to see the evil being done in the name of morality.  It’s his ability to put reason and the good of the kingdom ahead of his own (plentiful) ambitions and deliver what is perhaps England’s first great example of good governance.  While his betters’ council King Henry based on the lofty ideals of nobility (and their own profit), Cromwell is happy to pivot and reverse his arguments if they get the kingdom to a place that is successful and solvent.

The rest of the court cannot see past the dogmatic rules that run the Tudor court, but Cromwell always sees better and farther.  He alone in the court understands the need to look outside the mores of the lords and ladies :

“And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marshes of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug in to unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.”

5610_original_16. Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke

Liberals will need to get past the fact that O’Rourke is known for being an unabashed conservative, and those emeshed in the cable news generation will need to get past the fact that the names are largely dated.  After all, Parliament of Whores was written shortly after the first Bush won his one and only presidential election.  Still, there has not been a better depiction of the way modern American governments fail when being run as arms of political parties in the past fifty years.  O’Rourke is merciless in his skewering of… well, basically everyone.

“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it…

Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history, mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.”

Surprisingly, the curmudgeonly book ends on unexpected bit of personal insight from O’Rourke.  His beloved town wants to block a developer from building a golf course that will draw traffic and riff raff to his bucolic bit of New England.  Despite being a property rights guy, O’Rourke finds himself on the side of the no-golf course crowd, and takes the time to pick through his own biases and find himself lacking.  It’s a great and sober ending to a thoroughly entertaining read.

bookcover7. Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernières

Most people know de Bernières from his book-group hit Corelli’s Mandolin, but Birds Without Wings is the superior (if not more depressing) read.

Set in the early twentieth century, the book follows two threads.  The first is the rise to power of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, and his role in starting, joining or perpetuating a series of overlapping wars (including what we now call WWI) from 1911 to 1922. As Atatürk’s rise to power unfolds, so too do the fates of the citizens of the small, fictional village of Eskibahçe. The villagers in Eskibahçe are far from perfect, and in fact are often quite barbaric.  But despite moments of shame, the village continually rebounds and survives, as people from differing religions and ethnic groups find ways to coexist.

The actions of Atatürk soon overtake the village, of course, and before long the need for the adherence to religious and political dogma supersede the need for the townspeople to live in – well, if not harmony, at least a kind of  fragile peace.  By the end of the novel the village is decimated, the young are mostly dead, and the followers of each dogma separate entirely from the others, some by choice and some at gunpoint.  As such, Birds Without Wings lacks an Ishmael or Cromwell and finds membership in this list merely as a cautionary tale.  Principled pragmatism recognizes that civility is severely undervalued by ideologues and assumed to be stronger than it is by most everyone else.  As de Bernières notes,

“Where does it all begin? History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards, and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the Palaeolithic age, when the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and there is therefore an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victims of one time become the victimisers a generation later, and newly liberated nations resort immediately to the means of their former oppressors. The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by any other.”

huckleberry-1fq0p568. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Like Moby Dick, Huck Finn works well as a principled pragmatic tale despite Twain’s intentions to tell his own, different story.

Just as much of an exile from his own tribe as Ishmael,as  Huck travels with Jim he encounters one new tribe after another.  At each stop, however, he ultimately finds each tribe’s demands of its members to be illogical (though Huck would never use that term), immoral and incomplete.  He slips into each new locale, notes the good and the bad of the groups he encounters, and moves on in the hopes of finding something better. Though he does not govern like Cromwell or outlast the true believers like Ishmael, I have always sensed in Huck the competing tension of desiring to be a member of a tribe while continually choosing not be one.  This powerful metaphor speaks to me; it is how my chosen pragmatism often makes me feel.  Because of this, Huck gets an easy invitation to the list.  Better than anyone else, he captures what it feels like to be reluctantly committed to no tribe at all.

And because everyone in the world has read the book at least once, I’ll refrain from quoting the book here.

a-mathematician-reads-the-newspaper9. A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is a great and more specifically targeted companion to Sagan’s Demon Haunted World.  The purpose of this tiny, short book is to look at the way those in power (and the press, while parroting what they say) make use of peoples’ non-careful reading of numbers in news stories in order to make them draw false conclusions.  (In addition, sometimes the same result is accomplished by reporters who do not understand the mathematics of what they are analyzing.)  Paulos gives this example in his introduction:

“On a more prosaic level, claims were recently made that blacks in New York City vote along racial lines more than whites do. The evidence cited was that 95 percent of blacks voted for (black) mayor David Dinkins, whereas only 75 percent of whites voted for (white) candidate (and victor) Rudolph Giuliani. This assertion failed to take into account, however, the preference of most black voters for any Democratic candidate. Assuming t 80 percent of blacks usually vote for Democrats and that only 50 percent of whites usually vote for Republicans, one can argue that only 15 percent of blacks voted for Democrat Dinkins based on race and that 25 percent of whites voted for Republican Giuliani based on race. There are, as usual at the politico-mathematical frontier, countless other interpretations.”

Since these types of accidentally or purposefully fuzzy calculations are so often cited by political parties, this book is an invaluable tool to help you sift through what you read in political blogs every day.

660542-M10. The Lucifer Principle, Howard Bloom

People who love to hate on writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan, Mary Roach and Bill Bryson will despise The Lucifer Principle.  Like those other authors, Bloom is a non-scientist who translates others’ findings and tries to find patterns to comment on.  Unlike the other writers, however, Bloom’s book is incredibly unsettling.

The main thesis of the book states that those things we tend to think of as evil – murder, war, torture, genocide, rape, etc. – were at one time things that helped certain human tribes survive and eventually flourish.  Today, however, technology has enabled us to commit these same acts of evil at an alarming rate.  Bloom believes that the same nasty evolutionary quirks that allowed us to survive in the days before civilization now threaten to make us extinct at our own hands if we do not find a way to buck our genetic calling.  He makes his case in a very Malcolm Gladwell fashion, which is to say he relies heavily on historical anecdotal evidence to back his claim.

You may or may not buy into his central theory, which I have to say doesn’t have optimistic things to say about muslim theocratic nation states.  Even if you don’t, however, reading the book as a collection of disjointed anecdotes about what we humans do when convinced our religion or political viewpoint is The Truth is highly instructive – and frightening as s**t.  Even if you do not buy into his theory as stated, it’s hard to look at his evidence and not come away thinking that we are hardwired to do some pretty awful and evil things when we are absolutely certain we are on the side of the righteous.  If Huck Finn is the principled pragmatic’s touchy-feely Eat Pray LoveThe Lucifer Principle is its scary-ass Scared Straight. In fact, in the spirit of wanting to keep this post light I’m not going to quote from Bloom’s book at all.

columbine-coverBonus Selection: Columbine, Dave Cullen

I really want to make this a full selection, but I’m still in the middle of reading it on the recommendation of a friend.  I’m including it anyway because so far it is a fantastic principled pragmatic tome.

Cullen digs deep – way, way deep – into the famously horrific Colorado school shooting.  What he finds is fascinating. Unless you’ve read the book (or have really, really creepy special interests) almost everything you know about the Columbine massacre is a fiction.  Worse, it’s a fiction that some group of people created (often without realizing they were doing so) and perpetuated because it reinforced certain cultural and/or ideological signaling.  The goth Trench Coat Mafia? Fiction.  Bullied kids seeking revenge on the kids who had tormented them?  Fiction.  The courageous stand of evangelical icon Cassie Bernall?  Fiction.  In fact, almost everything I thought I knew about Columbine started out as a wild-ass theory proffered immediately after the shooting, and which eventually replaced reality in the public’s consciousness because some group had a vested interest (even if it was often a purely  emotional interest) in the wild-ass theory being correct.  Because the events at Columbine are so often cited as the justification to either craft or raise a call to arm to public policy changes, this story is especially astounding.  I have yet to finish it, but so far Columbine is as good an argument for keeping political ideology at arms length when making public policy as I have come across in a long, long time.


So there are my ten.  Or eleven.  Or maybe ten and a half.

Any other suggestions?


[1] I am aware that what will strike many first and foremost about this list – and what will likewise be used as a cause for dismissal by some – is the relative accessibility of all of the chosen titles.  This is not by accident.  Indeed, I have three separate reasons for erring on the side of accessibility rather than the academically classic.

The first reason is that while my principled pragmatism honors expertise in its own right, it disdains that power which justifies itself on the basis of arcane texts.  I am well aware that among all the contributors here at the League, I stand largely alone in this belief; I therefore expect a certain degree of pushback on this point.  I firmly maintain, however, that while the ability to construct one’s own epistemology that references the works of thinkers who have come before is useful as an academic exercise, it is not relevant in the real and tangible word of public policy.  Worse, it sets up a kind of gate-keeping system where only the few with sufficient academic credentials are trusted with power’s keys.  Besides, I think it no coincidence that the end results of such labors usually end up reinforcing whatever position the debater had before he or she set out.  In my experience, epistemological arguments are largely exercises of justification masquerading as “Truth” seeking.  Digging deep into philosophical texts seems a right and proper path to take when coming to terms with theoretical liberalism or conservatism; it seems like so much pseudo-intellectualism when trying to define a practical, working definition of principled pragmatism.

The second reason I’m choosing more accessible texts over arcane ones is that there simply isn’t a classical political philosopher whose work really embodies my vision of principled pragmatism.  When you think about it, this makes sense.  Just as principled pragmatism is happy to take and leave spare parts of its choosing from any ideology it finds lying about, so too does it find both wisdom and folly in all of the great political thinkers.

For example:  The “greatest-happiness” mechanism of utilitarianism is fraught with potential complications in a diverse, pluralistic society; nonetheless, there is much about John Stuart Mill’s works and life that I would happily lay claim to for my own political movement.  (Indeed, his simultaneous intellectual disdain for moralists and moral distain for intellectuals opposed to abolition and suffrage makes him quite the kindred spirit.)  Similar arguments could be made for Hume, Bentham and Spinoza, I suppose.  But let’s face it, when you’re willing to take only the best parts of the different epistemological masters throughout history, you can happily claim parts of any and all as your own without having to get into bed with their nastier conclusions.  Because of this I’m just as happy embracing the wisdom found in Augustine’s Confessions as Epicurus’s On Nature.

But it is this last reason that is the most important:

If a book isn’t so accessible and enjoyable that just about anyone might finish reading it cover to cover, what the hell use is it for me to recommend it?

Follow Tod on Twitter, view his archive, or email him.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

88 thoughts on “The Principled Pragmatic Reader

  1. An Introduction to General Systems Theory, Weinberg
    The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon
    Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice, Weimer and Vining
    Beyond Fear, Schneier
    Why Americans Hate Politics, Dionne
    Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Allison

    This post deserves a post answer, but that’s my immediate 10 second response before I call it a night.

      Quote  Link


      • It’s amazing to me that the same guy who wrote “Applied Cryptography” could write “Secrets and Lies” or “Beyond Fear”.

        I really like both S&L and Beyond Fear. If you could mash them up you’d really get an awesome book on security principles that apply to the general world. There’s some redundancy between the two, though.

          Quote  Link


        • Perhaps it’s unfair — but I detest Bruce Schneier. Applied Cryptography is a terrible, terrible book. It’s hard work writing a book on cryptography which is simultaneously useless from both a theoretical and practical standpoint, but trust Schneier to manage this stunt.

          May I recommend The Tangled Web by Zalewski.

            Quote  Link


          • Heh, for the last few years, Bruce has mentioned time and again on his blog that he thinks he did a very bad job of writing Applied Cryptography, simply because a lot of people that read it went out and wrote really insecure code.

            So he agrees with you, Blaise :)

            I give him a little more credit: he was early in his writing career, and he was attempting to distill something that wasn’t already out in the public sphere, so I still mark it as notable as a first real attempt to explain the intricacies of crypto to people who hadn’t already known who Whitfield Diffie is and why he was interesting.

            (edited to add) Practical Cryptography is actually a pretty good book. Most people who bought Applied probably should throw it out and get Practical Cryptography instead.(/edited)

              Quote  Link


  2. Re: The Lucifer Principle

    Somewhat related though not entirely analogous (and sort of yin to Bloom’s yang):

    Your description reminded me simultaneously of this essay I read by Stephen King a while back (

    And also of Michael Jensen’s idea of “Devil Theory” (

    And also of Noam Chomsky’s description of the psychological forces underlying the War on Terror in the post-Cold War era. I can’t find a link (Chomsky needs to stop producing so much work), but the basic idea is that the American collective unconscious needed a devil to replace the Soviet Union after the iron curtain fell.

    Oh, and incidentally, I sort of find Malcolm Gladwell stuffed full of facile, self-serving bullshit.

      Quote  Link


  3. Great post. Totally awesome. I appreciate the list, and completely agree with your emphasis on the arcane. It’s more pragmatic.

    The link to your original post and the ensuing discussion was also great. I finished my first cup of morning joe and just kept on reading the excellent discussion.

    One suggestion for arcane pragmatism is Robert Pirsig’s Lila. Fiction with a liberal dose of pop philosophy by the author of Motorcycle Maintenance, which just about everybody read back in high school.

    Now I found a link to William James’ Pragmatism and am brushing up on that for the first time in a decade.

      Quote  Link


  4. What about Aristotles’ Politics and Nichomechean Ethics? Plato tried to create the perfect political and social system in his Republic, it was probably the first work that tried to devise the mechanism for a utopian system. Aristotle realizing that humans are humans tried to figure out what work based on what we are not what we should be.

    I’d also argue that the Talmud is the work of principled pragmatists. The Rabbis who wrote it debated about what the mitzvah of the Torah actually mean but at the same time tried to put in enough flexibility so that the letter of the law does not triumph over real life. So while the laws of Shabbat are strict, they can be violated for the sake of helping the sick or aiding a pregnant woman.

      Quote  Link


    • Yeah, I like including selected parts of Aristotle a lot.

      The idea of the Talmud is intriguing; I confess I don’t know enough of it to judge. But this tickles my curiosity enough to follow up with some friends of mine who know it far better than I.

        Quote  Link


    • Yes, although Wolf Hall stops its story line well before Cromwell’s date with the axe.

      I guess I could respond to this in one of three ways:

      1. I was only dealing with what was in the book, not what I know about what happens later.

      2. I think you can make a case that he goes farther and makes a bigger, more positive impact on his country that a non-nobleman might have expected, so maybe he gets stuyle points?

      3. I’m still waiting to see how the trilogy ends in Mantel’s hands. Will Cromwell eventually be a tragic hero? A martyr? A talented man brought down by the random forces of the world outside of his control? We’ll see.

        Quote  Link


      • I was mostly being silly. I enjoyed the book, and I have Bringing up the Bodies, but I haven’t read it yet. I basically with your take on Cromwell, as well, though his pragmatism didn’t only result in his own death, but many deaths.

        Have you read Ford Maddox Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy? If you like Mantel’s book, you may like them as well. Since Cromwell is not the protagonist

          Quote  Link


  5. Philip Sidney: An Apologie for Poetrie

    There is no art delivered unto mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth. So doth the astronomer look upon the stars, and by that he seeth set down what order nature hath taken therein. So doth the geometrician and arithmetician, in their diverse sorts of quantities. So doth the musician, in times, tell you which by nature agree, which not. The natural philosopher thereon hath his name; and the moral philosopher standeth upon the natural virtues, vices, or passions of man; and follow nature, saith he, therein, and thou shalt not err. The lawyer saith what men have determined. The historian, what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of man’s body, and the nature of things helpful and hurtful unto it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he, indeed, build upon the depth of nature. Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, Cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too- much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

    But let those things alone, and go to man; for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is employed; and know, whether she have brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; and so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s AEneas? Neither let this be jestingly conceived, because the works of the one be essential, the other in imitation or fiction; for every understanding knoweth the skill of each artificer standeth in that idea, or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that idea is manifest by delivering them forth in such excellency as he had imagined them; which delivering forth, also, is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done; but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses; if they will learn aright, why, and how, that maker made him.

      Quote  Link


  6. Machiavelli’s The Discourses (which doesn’t get nearly enough attention)

    Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (sometimes The Praise of Folly)

    Ian Gilmour’s Inside Right (THE book for real conservatives, non-American division; also a good reminder that the British Conservative Party always a contained a large rump of Tories who were rigorously anti-Thatcher)

    Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (A seriously under-appreciated book and a great historical survey of the American 20’s and 30’s as well as a dual biography of Coughlin and Long. If you want to really understand the turmoil of the transformative 20’s, the gut-wrenching impact of the ’29 crash on rural America, and the differences between mid-western and southern economic populism, then Brinkley is your man. Shows why the New Deal was a pretty conservative initiative, compared to a lot of the other ideas floating around at the time.)

      Quote  Link


    • If you want some fiction items:

      Shakespeare’s King John (his most political play ever, and if you have a chance to see it live, jump on it. It hardly ever gets done anymore.)

      Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Don’t cheat and watch the movie, read the book instead. The novel has the romances but is also a fearless look at the changing economic situation of rural England the impact of transformation on the most vulnerable members of the gentry: widows and orphans at the “mercy” of uncaring relations.)

      Anthony Trollope’s six novels of rural, clerical England in the 19th century known collectively as the Barchester Chronicles. (Wonderfully funny and a close-up view of village/small town life through the perspective of a few clergymen and their families. Will seriously make you wonder why Dickens gets all the attention.)

        Quote  Link


    • Voices of Protest is a fascinating book. If America had any idea how close it came to falling under the spell of fascism, there would be a lot less of this cheap talk about how stupid the Germans were to blindly follow Adolf Hitler into the abyss. Father Coughlin filled Yankee Stadium with his followers.

      If there’s anything to be learned from Voices of Protest, it’s how easily a charismatic blowhard can whip up a mob. I recommend Gustave le Bon: the Mob for the clearest explication I’ve ever read of crowd psychology.

        Quote  Link


      • If there’s anything to be learned from Voices of Protest, it’s how easily a charismatic blowhard can whip up a mob.

        That’s a pretty important lesson.

        One reason why I chose Essence of Decision (actually, a great bookend is The Brilliant Disaster along *with* Essence of Decision) is that it shows how leadership can often be mythical.

        Kennedy did a crap job under both The Bay of Pigs Invasion *and* The Cuban Missile Crisis. He was reviled for one and praised for the other, but in both cases a lot of groupthink was going on and it was really only the outcome that made a difference in the perception of the event, and that was a large chunk of luck. And Khrushchev.

          Quote  Link


        • The most important decision in the missile crisis was not to attack Cuba; as we know now, doing so would have triggered a nuclear attack on the US. There were competing views on this, and Kennedy took the more sensible one.

            Quote  Link


        • Moreover, examine how both the LL/CR exploit these stresses to their own political benefit.

          Archimedes: give me a long enough lever and I can move the world.

          Asshole Politician: give me a sufficiently serious crisis and I’ll use it as the fulcrum to screw up the world. And I won’t need a very long lever, thanks Arch.

            Quote  Link


      • It’s a very important lesson! I can not understand the naivety of people today who simply assume that it is impossible for Americans to ever fall for or submit to fascism/tyranny/etc.

          Quote  Link


      • I think that America was not under much danger of falling under a spell of Fascism. Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and the America Firsters had a very large fallowing for sure but the American political system did not give them away to seize power. In contrast, the parliamentary systems of Italy and Germany gave their fascists the ability to seize power by winning one election or at least getting a plurality. Then they attacked the system from witihn.

        If American fascists were going to gain power, it would have to be through a direct military coup. The United States military was very discinclined to engage in coup d’etat against any administration and did not have the man power either.

          Quote  Link


          • I’m aware of the popularity of Father Coughlin but I’m also aware of the popularity of Rush Limbaugh. Simply because Limbaugh is popular with millions of Americans does not mean he is close to pulling off a coup d’etat.

            There were plenty of proto-Fascists in America during FDR’s term. They did not work together and the Madisonian system was no more favorable to them than it was to the Socialists at the turn of the century. The attempted coup against FDR was more than a little laughable.

              Quote  Link


              • The main problem with the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch was that
                the NSDAP leadership got off too lightly. They should have been punished much more severely for attempting a coup d’etat. One of the main problems with the Weimar Republic was that the judiciary was not sympathetic to the regime and would punish the antics of the Far Right much less severely than they deserved.

                  Quote  Link


                • The main problem with the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch was that
                  the NSDAP leadership was still alive afterward. It’s one case where I’d applaud a complete overreaction by the police, even as far to shooting their German Shepherds.

                    Quote  Link


        • It was a narrow scrape, Lee. If FDR had been any less adroit and ruthless a politician, I believe the fascists would have won, exactly as they did elsewhere.

          My conclusions are admittedly of the woulda-coulda-shoulda sort. But seen through the lenses of those times, FDR viewed Huey Long as one of the two most dangerous man in America, Douglas MacArthur being the other — which lends some credence to your point about a direct military coup.

          It could have happened here.

            Quote  Link


          • And context matters too. The ’20’s did not roar for everyone. There were a lot of agrarian populist governors in the south who had got elected on platforms of standing up for the little guy – and who didn’t have a clue what to do when they got into office and found out life was complicated.

            Some of them had no problem with being called socialists, even while their economic theories weren’t coherent enough to be anywhere close to socialism, and their personal views were pretty drenched in fundamentalist old-time religion. Others ranted against socialism and capitalism both and proclaimed their devotion to Americanism, for want of a better term. And they had conflicting views of Long and later on, Roosevelt – not being sure if they wanted real change or even being sure what real change would look like if it came.

              Quote  Link


            • So Huey Long was building bridges and roads all over Louisiana. Very few local firms were employed: The Kingfish hired in outsiders and pocketed a good deal of the proceeds in kickbacks.

              So at turns, various people would ask him “Why aren’t you employing locals to do this work?”

              The Kingfish replied, “Those guys are teaching us poor Cajuns how to build bridges.”

                Quote  Link


        • On the question of whether the U.S. might have succumbed to fascism, we have to take into account what fascism in the American context might have meant. Thankfully, it probably would not have meant something on the order of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy.

          Given America’s traditions of subsidiarity, it might have meant something milder and in some ways not all that different from what the U.S. was like in the 1930s. I think the Jim Crow South in some ways can be called “fascist,” with an imagined “nation-state” in the confederacy and the region’s “peculiarity” being a nod to a diffuse but in many ways brutal “leader principle.” New Deal era federal intervention was in some ways “fascist like” in that it tried to set up and recognize certain corporate entities–organized labor, employers–and balance them against each other.

          I’m not saying the New Deal era U.S. or what happened later was “fascist” (although the Jim Crow south comes very close, but then, the New Deal arguably was based on an evolving political realignment that helped make the civil rights movement, which had already begun, possible). But I am suggesting that as long as we adopt a malleable definition of fascism, we can see similarities and dangers.

            Quote  Link


  7. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

    Political Liberalism by John Rawls

    On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (even though I am not much for utiltarianism)

    Politics by Aristotle

    Niomachean Ethics by Aristotle

    The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

    Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

    On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

    The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

    Reconstruction by Eric Forner

    Angels in America by Tony Kushner

    Pillar of Fire, At Canan’s Edge, Parting the Waters (America in the King Years) by Taylor Branch

    There is Power in a Union by Philip Dray

    American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor

    The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert A. Caro

    The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro

    Working, The Good War, Hard Times, Race and Division Street: America by Studs Terkel

    Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s by Ann Douglas

    The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made by Iriving Howe

    The Cider House Rules by John Irving

    The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell

    The Coming of Post-Industrial Society by Daniel Bell

    The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

    Howl by Allen Ginsburg

    Modernism: The Lore of Heresey by Peter Gay

      Quote  Link


    • I really like this list but some of them fail the “If a book isn’t so accessible and enjoyable that just about anyone might finish reading it cover to cover, what the hell use is it for me to recommend it?” test.

      I cracked and included the Weimer and Vining book, which is dry as dirt but really good reading for the American public, so I’m guilty too.

        Quote  Link


    • WOW!

      That’s quite an extensive list, ND. I’ve read maybe half of them, but each one is a favorite. (I think the Caro series is the greatest biography ever written on anyone, ever.)

      I have to say, knowing what I know about the titles I know something about, it occurs to me that if you gave me this list before I’d written this post I think I might have said that the common thread was liberalism. So now I’m curious – do you agree with that assessment? If not, what am I missing that you’re seeing? If I”m right, why do you think it is that a principled pragmatic reading list would overlap so with a liberal one?

      I am very much intrigued.

        Quote  Link


  8. This might be me giving it too much thought, but for whatever reason, the first book that came to my mind was Lorde’s Sister Outsider, so I spent off moments during the day wondering whether she was a pragmatist. I mean, she’s a feminist, and much more, so I worried that she might be classified as an idealist rather than a pragmatist. Then while I was riding home, I looked up one of the pieces in Sister Outsider, a speech she gave in 1982 reflecting on the legacy of Malcolm X, hardly a prototype of pragmatism, for her. It’s titled “Lessons from the 60s,” and you can read it all here. In the speech (given at Harvard, a bastion of pragmatism if there ever was one), she says things like,

    Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.


    You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.


    If our history has taught us anything, it is that action for change directed only against the external conditions of our oppressions is not enough. In order to be whole, we must recognize the despair oppression plants within each of us – that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless, it will never change, so why bother, accept it. And we must fight that inserted piece of self-destruction that lives and flourishes like a poison inside of us, unexamined until it makes us turn upon ourselves in each other. But we can put our finger down upon that loathing buried deep within each one of us and see who it encourages us to despise, and we can lessen its potency by the knowledge of our real connectedness, arcing across our differences.

    These seem like perfect expressions of the sort of “principled pragmatism” that I could get behind. So I nominate Audrey Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

      Quote  Link


  9. Also: the essays of Montaigne and Francis Bacon.

    Raymond Aron’s The Committed Observor (If you can find it anymore.)

    Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Which is more available albeit in used bookstores.)

      Quote  Link


  10. I got the Columbine book, based on your recommendation. And you’re absolutely right: everything I thought I knew about it is nonsense. I’m only part-way through, but so far it seems like a significant part of the blame goes to the inexperienced sheriff, who answered questions with what he thought he knew at the time when he should have said “No comment”.

      Quote  Link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *