The dream and the gift

Dear M,

I had a dream about a man, sharply dressed in a suit and tie.  His hair was slicked back and he was sitting at a long table.  He was thin and middle-aged, maybe 50, with graying hair and a weathered but handsome face.  He looked like Jordan B. Peterson.  The room was dark, and lit only by a single lamp hanging from the ceiling; and at the other end of the table sat three men -- also sharply dressed, papers on the table, hair parted to perfection, and evidently holding a trial.  The thin man waited until they spoke.

They said the man was imperfect -- that he had failed, in some sense, to do what was always right, and that according to this standard he fell short.  A silence filled the dark and empty room and held there for a few seconds.  It was then the man spoke.  He showed no fear in his demeanor, and as he went on a glow shone around his head and shoulders.  He became weightless and gave the appearance of transcendence; and the longer he talked it became clear he'd begun to judge 
them.  He began as follows.

"In my defense, when can a man be perfect?  When he's young and sinless? or middle-aged and stable? Or when he's too old to fight, or run, or even drive a car?  I get wiser but I get weaker.  I learn from this world and then I start to leave it.  I think I know what to do, I make a plan, and then the world changes on me.  My sins pile up as I learn how to beat them.

"When do you expect me to always know what's right?  I've been here this whole time and I'm still learning.  I don't think I'll ever know 'enough.'  I was born here with nothing and now I've got something, but it's not everything.  I can't know what things will happen to me by chance, or how exactly tomorrow is going to be different from today.  

"The one thing I've got is this thing between my ears -- this mind, this engine.   The world has been running and I'm powerless to stop it.  So I adapt as best I can.  The world throws something at me and I fix it.  It's this I call wisdom.  It gives me hunger and I make food.  It gives me cold and I keep myself warm.  I come into contact with men and I make friends when I can and fight enemies when I have to.  I learn eloquence to move souls.  How much to play and how much to work.  How much to spend and how much to save.  I'm given silence and I make music.  I was hit with the wind and used it to sail the seas.  I make mistakes.  Sometimes I'm too weak to do what I ought.  I stumble but I get back up.

"I wanted to be a saint but I gave up.  I can't do it and I don't want to.  I'm not filling out a checklist until everything is 'just right.'  How can a life be a checklist?  I'm sorry for some things I've done but I can't erase what I've done, and if I hadn't done it I couldn't learn from it.  But God gave me this mind and I sharpen it.  He gave me this body and I harden it.  I was given a soul and I deepen it.  I am perfection as the world can best see it.  Not an overcoming of the world, but an engine of overcoming; not a destination, but the journey in progress.  You say that I'm imperfect, but I was perfect from the moment I was born.  I am doing exactly what God intended me to do."     

It was then I woke up in a state close to ecstasy.  I realized, at that point, that I worshiped that man, and wanted to be him.  Problems would be thrown his way and he would fail some of them but he would grow; and this growth was the beauty itself -- not an end, but a whole process; essentially an adventure.  Every day brought new problems and new failures and a new being.  This is what being is.  This is what we are, and what separates us from the animals.  We have the choice to be wise.  We have a chance to grow in soul beauty.  We can take charge of this machinery or we can let it all rust.  We can buy it good parts or fill it with cheap ones.  Good gas or bad.  We can run over potholes or drive on a smooth path.  In the end what matters is that we've cared enough for it, and poured enough expense into it to keep it running -- sharply, smoothly, and straightly.  These things people love about us, the way we run, are called virtues.  The lessons we learn, our technology for thriving, are called principles.  You make virtues and good principles your aim and you'll be happy.  You make others happy and they'll call you a good man.

I won't give you my blueprint for physical health here (as you're well aware, it's elaborate and demanding), but I can give you the technology for intellectual health.  To keep the light inside you brighter.  To make your eyes sharper.  To open vistas you'd never have guessed yourself, or learned from reading any books by other authors.  The books below don't encompass everything you can learn, but they give you the ability to learn everything else more deeply.  They're the accumulation of years of hard study; the tossing out of the mediocre and bad and the sifting of the good.  Each of them took a lifetime of a genius's work.  Wisdom condensed in the best language possible.  So take it or leave it; it's your choice.  But it's my joy as your father to offer you that choice -- and if you trust me by now, and you enjoy what I write for you, you'll take it.

The list.

1) Plutarch's Lives.  Biographies without the fluff.  Solid character examinations in entertaining anecdotes.  Any of the Penguin editions will do, as they have the best translations (The Age of Alexander, The Fall of the Roman Republic, The Makers of Rome, The Rise and Fall of Athens, On Sparta); but if you want them for cheap the George Long translations will do.  Wouldn't recommend the Dryden translation.  His name starts with "dry" and it fits him too well.

2) Edmund Burke.  The greatest orator of all time, and one of the best political philosophers.  Makes Cicero look like a circus clown.  A $2.50 "Delphi" edition of his complete works can be bought for the Kindle on Amazon.  Other than this, start off with a hardcover Everyman edition, Reflections on the Revolution in France and other writingsIt's said this title work, the "reflections," is his best stuff.  I disagree strongly (and prefer his prosecution of Warren Hastings), but it's attached to his best stuff, and that makes this collection essential.

3) Samuel Johnson.  The Rambler.  Nobody ever dispensed wisdom so densely.  He's either hard to find or extremely expensive.  Penguin has a short edition of his essays, but if you can handle the Delphi version of his complete works on Kindle, you can get it for $2.50.  If you're going to read The Rambler, make sure to skip the ones that begin with "to The Rambler."

4) Thomas Babington Macaulay.  Everything he ever did is gold.  Possibly the greatest historian of all time, and in my opinion the greatest peddler of classical liberalism.  Hard to find or expensive in hardcover.  Complete works are available as a Delphi edition.  $2.  Start with the historical essays.

5) Ayn Rand.  The most brilliant woman of all time, and the moral voice of capitalism.  Any of her non-fiction works will do -- The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, Philosophy: Who Needs It, For the New Intellectual, The Return of the Primitive, etc.

6) H.L. Mencken.  Savage American German.  Brilliant and funny at the same time.  His First Chrestomathy and Second Chrestomathy are both must-reads.  Probably the closest thing to my writing style today.

7) G.K. Chesterton.  Light hearted profundity.  Non-fiction works are essential.  Heretics, What's Wrong With the World, All Things Considered, The Defendant, Varied Types, Eugenics and Other Evils are all fun.  Delphi version available on Kindle -- again, $2.

8) Edward Gibbon.  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  You don't have to drink good wine or enjoy a beautiful woman or have a clean house or keep in good shape or have a good attitude at work or get a good sleep or read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But you ought to.  Kindle edition is $2.

9) The Federalist.  The finest political theory I've ever encountered.

10) Montaigne.  The Essays, Donald Frame translation.  Not every essay here is gold -- I'd skip the too-long and wanky "Apology for Raymond Sebond" -- but "On Friendship"?  "To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die"?  "On Pedantry"?  "On the Education of Children"?  Good God -- what a soul.

11) Schopenhauer.  The essays.  A profound curmudgeon who reworked the way I look at happiness.  Complete works available on Kindle, Delphi edition.  Again, $2.

12) George Orwell.  The Essays, Everyman edition.  The only socialist on this list, which is remarkable because I hate socialism.  Too broad-minded to be thrown aside by left or right.  Said to be the conservative's favorite socialist, and the socialist's favorite conservative.

13) Nietzsche.  Beyond Good and Evil; The Gay Science; Human, All Too Human, etc -- Kaufmann translations, if you can find them.  I don't recommend reading Nietzsche until after you're 30.  I tried and I thought he was insane.  Now after dealing with the world this long I realize he's a genius.  Brilliant people almost always look crazy to ignorant people.

It should be noted here that whether he's right or wrong or brilliant or insane, he'll force you to think -- a weight for your mind to lift.   

14) Adam Smith.  The Wealth of NationsKindle edition is dirt cheap.

15) Plato: The Republic, Gorgias, Phaedo, Apology.  Any of the Hackett translations will do.

16) Livy, History of Rome.  If you can't get the rest, get the Early History.  Penguin edition has a phenomenal translation by Aubrey de Selincourt.  Manly history at its near finest.

17) Ludwig Von Mises.  Human Action.  This is the one book on this list that lacks literary panache, but it's solidly written, and probably the most important book, besides The Wealth of Nations, to be written about economics.  His explanation of man shook my understanding of God.  You'll see the whole world in a different light.  Kindle edition $2.50.

18) Erasmus.  In Praise of Folly -- the Penguin translation is the only one that's readable.  Fun, short, and brilliant.

19) C.S. Lewis.  The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, The Abolition of Man, etc.  His theology's boring and his ethics are sometimes questionable, but if you want to exercise your mind, I wouldn't miss him.

20) Alexis de Tocqueville.  Democracy in America, Mansfield translation.  The Henry Reeves translation is also good, but less modern (Vols one & two available free on Kindle).

21) Ben Franklin.  Autobiography and Sayings

22) Sallust. Works, Penguin edition.  Watch republican Rome start to burn.  Oratory, heroics, great men such as Cato and Julius Caesar in action.

23) David Hume, Essays, Enquiries.  You can get his complete works, including his whole History of England, on Kindle, Delphi edition, for a couple bucks. 

24) Machiavelli, The Prince.  Hackett edition.  Just trust me on this one.

25) Francis Bacon, The Essays, and The New Organon.  Concentrated wisdom -- a hard and dense read, but worth it.  

I guarantee that if you read even the first ten of these you'll end up a completely better person.  I guarantee that if you don't, you'll never discover what you could have been.  They have changed my work life, marriage, physical health, parenting, citizenship, and church life immeasurably.

Your father,

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  1. How very timely! Thank you sincerly for your recommendations. Of the list I have only read 4 of the authors (Rand, Lewis, Erasmus, and de Tocqueville)...appreciate a focused list to attack and enjoy.

  2. Thank you for the essay and book list. If Kipling had determined to convert "If" to prose, he could not have exceeded your effort. Tremendous.

  3. I think you may enjoy Nicolás Gómez Dávila. He was a colombian conservative writer who lived in the twentieth century and who only wrote aphorisms. I don't know if he has been translated into emglish, though. Greetings from Spain and thank you for your work.

  4. Correction: he did not consider himself conservative but reactionary


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