Book Meme 2012 Week 10: Books for the Post-Apocalypse

Aristotle Plato philosophers

Alas, ’tis upon me! Obscenely late, but here nonetheless — the end of the 2012 Book Meme! ‘Twas scheduled for but ten weeks…but it never specified which ten! I just…spread them a bit apart, is all. Nonetheless, I bring my participation here to a close. May next year’s Meme be as fruitful, but more timely!

Topic: Which books would you bring if the world was destroyed and we had to restart civilization? (i.e. the basis of human knowledge, thought, and civilization)

I take the premise of this topic to be the utter destruction of human society wherever it exists, survived only by small and incomplete groups of people who, lacking any clear leadership and way forward, must join together to reform themselves into a healthy society that can not only self-perpetuate, but grow, and provide for the welfare and happiness—physical, emotional, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual—of its members. Had they but a very few (we’ll say in the single digits) books recovered from our current civilization, which ones might be the most helpful for the rebuilding of society? Which ones would advise them best against the pitfalls that could scuttle their endeavor, show them how to avoid various tyrannies and injustices, and reveal the best way, the ideal, that they should strive for?

To proffer an answer to such a question, we must know what is the purpose of human society, of all human relationships, and indeed of our very existence.

I reject offhand all philosophies and worldviews that claim there is no purpose or meaning to human existence. To build a successful society, one must have a goal that one is working towards, and these—whether relativisms, existentialisms, Postmodernisms, or other intellectually bankrupt ismatic[1] forms—offer none.

Now, there are many other philosophies that do indeed offer an answer, and I reject all but the one I know by experience and revelation to be true. The Westminster Catechism may say it best:

 Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

Ergo, the purpose of human society and civilization is to enable all people to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever. This is the real standard by which a civilization can be deemed more or less successful.

Thus, the only book that would be truly necessary in the Post-Apocalypse is the one book that has, completely and perfectly, as its great theme the glorification of God and the communication of Him to humanity:

The Bible.

So there you go.

However, the topic question is in the plural. While the Holy Bible is the only necessary and all-sufficient book, and indeed contains in it all the principles by which mankind must ever need to live, it is not the only book which can be useful to us. God has gifted us the ability and desire to communicate and to share our communications, even across the age; the gift of Literature, that we would be foolish not to take advantage of while we can, but never, of course, forgetting that the chief end of Literature is also the enabling of mankind to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever.

So, acknowledging the embarrassing deficiencies of my personal education (including the fact that I simply don’t read much literature of a political or even philosophical nature, not as much as I should), I’ll suggest another book that could, if read intelligently, discussed wisely, and applied humbly, aid in the building of “a more perfect union.” There are many others, but it’s painful to think of choosing so few books at the exclusion of others, and this meme has been delayed long enough, so I’ll stick with this one “honorable mention” for now.

Politics by Aristotle

 Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all.

-Politics I.2.1253a25

I choose the Politics over Plato’s Republic mainly because it’s been absolutely ages since I read Plato, and then only a few selections, and frankly it hasn’t stuck well in my memory. Aristotle, in contrast, I studied fairly rigorously over an entire course, reading his Politics, Poetics, and Nicomachean Ethics, and then comparing them to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. That was still a few years ago, so I have to rely on my margin notes and underlined passages of the book, but I still think the Politics is one of the best texts for inciting useful debates about the most important aspects of human society.

Just as for Christians everything comes back to glorifying God through Christ and His act of redemption, for Aristotle everything comes back to eudaimonia, or a life consisting of the best and truest happiness. Aristotle’s wisdom comes from his attempts to reconcile the ideal with the practical. He knows that there is a perfect, moral absolute by which mankind can be judged, but he also knows that we can’t completely live up to it.

The ideal form of government, in his opinion, will be the one which best fulfills the highest purpose of a government; that is, the common interest.  Since the common interest is what is best for all citizens, and since what is best for individual citizens is virtue, then the best government will be that which can foster the most virtuous citizens (presumably both in quality and quantity), as well as maintain “a perfect and self-sufficing existence” for them (III.9.1280b33).  “The good life,” Aristotle says, “is the chief end, both for the community as a whole and for each of us individually” (III.6.1278b23).

He talks about who should make the laws (ideally, only the most morally upright men no matter what rank of society they come from), how the economy should be structured, how and when wars should or should not be conducted, how to avoid a culture of petty jealousies and political squabbling, and why it is imperative that they not just settle for a mediocre society, but actively strive for the best one possible. And should these survivors of the apocalypse ever become existential and suicidal, they might remember this:

But people also come together, and form and maintain political associations, merely for the sake of life; for perhaps there is some element of good even in the simple fact of living, so long as the evils of existence do not preponderate too heavily. It is an evident fact that most people cling hard enough to life to be willing to endure a good deal of suffering, which implies that life has in it a sort of healthy happiness and a natural quality of pleasure.

-III.6.1278b28

The group of post-apocalyptic survivors would find much to debate in Politics, and if they are wise, they will learn from his logical and methodical processes while still being able to critique him, hopefully from a biblical viewpoint. Many of his views, such as the ones on slavery, they should not adopt, although I think Aristotle was rather progressive for his time for insisting that not all who were physically slaves should have been, and that some who physically were among the elite deserved to be slaves! But he understands the interconnectedness of society: the importance of individual virtue and self-regulation, of families maintaining healthy relationships, of neighbors caring for each others’ welfare, and of a people that respects its government because its government is composed of morally upright and wise men who try their best to serve the people humbly and selflessly. That’s the ideal. We’ll never quite get there on this earth, and we’ll probably stay very far away, but Aristotle knows this and still insists we must strive for this ideal. In post-apocalyptic stories, we usually see the survivors dissolving into petty power-struggles and jealous squabbles, but if they had Aristotle’s Politics, they’d learn a bit about how to deal with some of the specific problems they come across.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: a government’s “intrinsic strength should be derived from the fact, not that a majority are in favor of its continuance (that might well be the case even with a poor constitution), but rather that no section at all in the city would favor a change to a different constitution” (IV.9.1294b13).

Of course, if the survivors had only Politics and not the Bible, while they might succeed in recreating something similar to a decent Greek city-state, they would not fare nearly as well as if they were pursuing Christ. God blessed Aristotle with perhaps the best of worldly wisdom, but even that cannot compare to the penetrating truth of the gospel, which lays bare all men’s hearts .

N.B. Ideally, this would be paired with the Nichomachean Ethics and the Poetics, for they all are designed to complement and explain each other. You’ll understand Politics much better if you know all the internal debates Aristotle goes through to understand eudaimonia in the Ethics, and Art in the Poetics.


[1] Taking the form of an “-ism,” that is, of theories and schools of thought that try to squeeze the grandness of the universe into their narrow field of vision, without success. To my knowledge, I have coined the word. There is probably a better one out there, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

12 thoughts on “Book Meme 2012 Week 10: Books for the Post-Apocalypse”

  1. You finished! Huzzah!

    “God blessed Aristotle with perhaps the best of worldly wisdom, but even that cannot compare to the penetrating truth of the gospel, which lays all men’s hearts bare.”

    Amen.

  2. I can’t think of one book. However, my favorite times with my children and now my grandchildren have been times sitting around talking about our favorite passages for books we like, or from movies, or from the Bible with some of my uncles, cousins. We don’t know the entire scripture by heart, even though when I was young we had to say a Bible verse at summer for Grace. I can recall certain members of my famiy rushing to say “Jesus Wept”, and thorugh the years we all have favorite passages. But with a background of family story tellers–and a couple of ministers, my favorite image have always been the End of the World scenario where people become the books. My favorite scene in Reign of Fire is when the older men act out Star Wars in almost medieval fashion. I think in my case I would want to be as close possible to my favorite story tellers.

    1. I still haven’t seen Reign of Fire, although I wanted to when it came out (dragons! In post-apocalyptic London! Yes!).

      While I’d like to preserve as much as possible of existing world literature, it’s also imperative that there be storytellers among the survivors and their descendents.

  3. Wasn’t Aristotle the one who had a particularly bad opinion of women? I am not sure, but I seem to remember that… Not to say that I do not agree with your choice, but I feel that it might need balancing with some other philosophies for the sake of safety. After all, if my memory is correct (of which I am by no means sure) Aristotle’s influence on early Christian theology did much to damage woman’s worth in the eyes of the early Church. Not that he didn’t have good influences as well, of course.
    I guess that my point is this. Yes, it would be a good choice, but you need to throw in some dissenting opinions, namely on slavery and on women’s rights.

    1. Greek/Ancient–who among them had a ‘good’ opinion of women? Then again the early Greek Fathers seem to have had a better opinion of females than the early Roman church.
      My spiritual advisor is a Greek Orthodox minister. He talked about Mary Magdalene and how she was not originally known as prostitute, neither is Mary of Bethany, (People confuse them). Mary Magdalene, I was informed is believed to the wife of John the Baptist or John the beloved. My pastor said as this was a small community the writers or those giving the oral stories knew who they were talking about. However, I loved that He told me that among the Greeks Mary Magdalene is known as the Apostle to the Apostles as she is sent to Jesus. In one of the gospels you will note that when Jesus appears in the upper room he upbraids the Apostles for not listening and coming when summon. The other lovely thing I like about the Greek interpretation of the Resurrection is that they hold fast to the interpretation of Jesus telling Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me” rather than the harsh, misleading Latin/English Touch me not’. The interpretation is that she probably threw herself at his feet and was embracing him, and he was happy to see her, but he didn’t have time to linger.
      The Law about speaking in the temple, is because Greeks, and some Jews who were ‘new” to the Law, interpreted the Law excusing women from temple service as forbidding them, and of course the fact that females were excused from Temple when they were Taboo, (‘unclean” in translation) increased the misunderstanding of the tradition as the teaching was passed through other cultures. It is believed that women would ask a question in Synagogue (School, not Temple!) and disrupt teaching and Paul objected to this. Anyway, as to women attending synagogue (School) and Temple, I doubled checked with a Rabbi and read an English version Talmud. In the Talmud, often the teachers will divert a question to their mothers, daughters, or other women of substance. There is that remarkable story in the Gospels where a wise woman speaks in the temple when Mary comes—when Jesus is a month old—to the Temple for her purification, (Ritual bath) and sacrifice for the First Born. And of course we have the first service in Exodus where both the men and women give praise.
      For ancient attitudes toward slavery you also might want to try Mosaic law. There are laws for servants—the word “slave” is not used, I believe except in the instance of slaves seeking refuge. Hebrew Law ask that Israel give refuge to slaves, specifies that they are not to be abused and they are to be treated like citizens. Women cannot be sexually exploited by Masters or their guest; in such cases the woman is to be offered marriage or her freedom. The oddest rule is The Law of “captive woman” which looks pretty dodgy at first, but when you read it, you realize that it is a law that protects women and girls of Israel’s enemy in times of war. It doesn’t say “thou may not rape” but there is an elaborate process if a soldier of Israel finds himself attracted, (or possibly filled with battle lust), to a captive female, which included allowing her time to bury and grieve for her men. It is said that, contrary to the behavior of Muslims in African and Eastern Europe, the Prophet himself was opposed to slavery to the point that this was one of the reason he found himself at odds with the local governments.

      Who better to speak of the inhumanity of slavery in the Western World than the former enslaved themselves? There are a number of slaver narratives to choose from; start wth Josiah Henson. and a Live Journal fan suggested Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs

      1. I knew some of that, but not all of it. Very interesting!
        My statement about Aristotle is really along the lines of “don’t let history repeat.” If my memory serves, his statements on women bothered me more than those of Plato and Socrates.

    2. Not particularly in relation to others of his time; I think he was pretty normal in that regard. His big thing is eudaimonia, perfect and self-sufficient virtue, as the main goal for life, and he defines it as essentially a rational (that is, contemplative) activity. He doesn’t think women are at the level of slaves or anything, but he also doesn’t think they have the intellectual strength to attain this kind of perfect intellectual virtue, or at least they can’t get as close to it as a man theoretically can. I think he surmised that the best, most admirable life a woman could have would be based on perfect obedience to a good man (“good” in Aristotle’s highly demanding sense of virtue).

      So yeah, as I said, the survivors of the apocalypse should NOT blindly follow Aristotle, but rather critique him and use him as a tool to incite useful debates and discussions. I think he’s excellent at that, possibly better than Plato. I like Plato too, but he disdained viewpoints other than his own, especially those of people who were not “educated” to his standards (i.e. most people): his approach to philosophy, while still brilliant, also seems to me fairly arrogant. In contrast, Aristotle goes out of his way to consider the opinions of everyone who seems rational and morally respectable. He frequently begins sections of his books by introducing the prevailing opinions of respected men, and even when he disagrees with their views he still takes them seriously. Aristotle will make the assumption that even the common sense of uneducated farmers, while unsophisticated to the philosopher’s ears, may nonetheless carry great truth in it. So in this way, I think Aristotle’s approach to philosophy would provide a model that is humbler and more tolerant than Plato’s, while it still seeks for an absolute truth. He’s very far from perfect, but I think he can be beneficial if studied through the lens of Christ.

      Plus, is it my imagination, or did Plato say that his ideal republic had no place for the arts? I seem to remember that. Aristotle definitely prizes the arts: music, painting, sculpture, drama, poetry, all of them. But I don’t know his opinion on video games as art. +P

      1. Maybe he just talked about it more. I remember thinking that he never could have had a decent conversation with an intelligent woman. Darn the isolation of the sexes in ancient Greece!

        That makes sense. I don’t object to any of that, naturally. 🙂 I just have very little faith in humanity, and seeing the heresies that have arisen in the past… but then avoiding past heresies will not, I suppose, prevent us from inventing new ones, alas!

        Plato, Aristotle and Socrates walk into an arcade…

  4. You should read N.T. Wright’s “After You Believe” for his comparison of Aristotle’s eudaimonia and Christian virtue. Oh, yeah. I’d bring along the Lord of the Rings trilogy for nights around the fire. Good post.

  5. General note to no one in particular: I’m flabbergasted that nowhere in this post do I make a reference to The Book of Eli. How could I have forgotten that movie while writing this?

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