Read the previous installments of our “Readings for Troubled Times” series here. This continues our effort to understand the times in which we live by recommending readings that are relevant to the strange moment in which we find ourselves.
What: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville.
Why: Tocqueville notes that, “when inequality is the common law of society, the strongest inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on a level, the least of them wound it. That is why the desire for equality always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater” (513). And later, “when all conditions are unequal, there is not inequality great enough to offend the eye, whereas the smallest dissimilarity appears shocking in the midst of general uniformity; the sight of it becomes more intolerable a uniformity is more complete” (644-5).
The upshot: the more equal things become, the more offended people will be about the remaining inequalities. A society of perpetual offense seems to be our lot for now.
Mark T. Mitchell
Dean of Academic Affairs
Patrick Henry College
What you should read: Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address”
Why: Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the perpetuation of our institutions included descriptions of conditions similar to ones that we face today. He expressed concern about those who substituted wild and furious passions for sober judgment, the increasing disregard for law that pervaded the country, and savage mobs. He began the speech asking the question how inheritors of “the fairest portion of the earth” and a government “conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty” transmit these to later generations. Lincoln’s 1838 Address about dangers to our political institutions and how preserving these institutions can sustain liberty spoke to his listeners then and speaks to his readers today.
Senior Scholar in Residence
Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization
What: The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa,
Why: Lampedusa’s The Leopard is a nice portrayal of the passing of one world-view to that of another, not dissimilar (by some accounts) to what is happening now, if present trends continue. Lampedusa is clear eyed about both the old and new orders, but especially the motive hidden by “revolutionary” rhetoric.
Gerald J. Russello
Partner, Sidley Austin LLP
What: Ressentiment, by Max Scheler.
Why: I have found Max Scheler’s book, Ressentiment, to be preternaturally diagnostic of our current ills, one hundred years after he wrote it. It pains me to see that the whole of black studies has lurched into ressentiment, where feminists had already staked out the ground. But the spiritual evil of ressentiment—a reversal of moral values whereby your repressed desire for vengeance, your hatred, and your painful sense of inferiority are turned into virtues—is not only endemic among us; it is the object of much of our education. The problem is that reality resists our ideas about it. The woman never will be as physically strong as the man. Healthy women understand it and are grateful for the greater strength of men. Women of ressentiment chafe.
Professor and Writer-in-Residence
Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts