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 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:
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.
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.
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.
 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.