Thursday, 1 July 2021

On The Dangers Of Home-Schooling


This is a blog post about home-schooling - and by home-schooling, I don't mean having to teach your kids at home because of Covid; I mean the radical decision to permanently teach your children at home and not ever send them to school.

I respect anyone’s decision to home-school their children, but I strongly suspect home-schooling is less good for children’s overall development than a traditional education, and that the costs will be brought to bear on young adulthood and beyond. Here’s an analogy. I think humans are like trees, and socialisation and encountering and dealing with the world full on is what makes us strong, grounded, and gives us the deep roots to withstand most natural forces. Home-schooling treats children more like bean plants, as a light, gentle organism requiring careful protection at all times, and with a trellis so it can be carefully guided in a safe manner.

Superficially, home-schooling can appear successful – especially if your child gets good grades and turns out to be a half-decent young adult. But it probably isn’t successful in the medium to long term. I’ve never met a home-schooled young adult who doesn’t lack some key behavioural traits that come from healthy socialisation, or who isn’t ill-equipped to manage the world in several essential ways, even though they themselves do not pick up the nuanced social cues that would help them understand why they are different. It won’t appear immediately obvious where the lack is when a child is not socialised properly or exposed to the challenges that come from being surrounded by peers. Although one obvious disadvantage is that if you are only being taught by parents and grandparents then you are limited to the scope of their understanding, and devoid of a diversity of input.

But there’s another profound reason that’s harder to apprehend. It’s to do with the more abstract life picture you create when surrounded by fellow pupils – it’s a bit like being immersed in a drama, with complex, multi-layered plots, intimately connected to your cognitive development - emotional cultivation, intellectual exploration, authority, diversity of problems, friendships, cultural identity, sexual awakening (interest in the opposite sex), and so forth – it resembles a shared drama, where you abstract out of it everything, good and bad, that plays a part in shaping your childhood identity. That’s an immeasurably valuable part of growing up that is not catered for in home-schooling, and its absence is not likely to be felt very tangibly by those who underestimate its power.

A bean plant, however bright and lovely, is not going to be equipped to handle the demands a tree needs to endure – and we should resist the temptation to wrap our young in cotton wool and place them in gilded cages. It won’t do them the good they need in the long run.


Monday, 21 June 2021

The 5 Categories Of Facebook Users

Having been on Facebook for many years, and observed people’s habits, my observation is that by and large Facebook consists of roughly 5 categories of people.

The Joker: This person spends most of their time posting things to make other people laugh, but not much else.

The Evoker: This person almost exclusively puts up comments about their moods and feelings, their life with family and friends, and photos of associative events. They thrive most on relationships and connections

The Thought Provoker: The person who uses Facebook for almost nothing else except posting opinions and having debates, sharing and citing the occasional link or meme if it helps them post even more opinions and have even more debates.

The Stud Poker: This person is the silent lurker who very rarely (often never) posts anything of their own, but vicariously feeds off the posts of others. Their absence makes you forget they are there, but you can be sure they are watching your every move.

The Pipe Smoker: The rare person who regularly and comfortably encapsulates all of the above, and offers the full package of variety.

Look at your friends list and you'll see most of them fit into one of those categories. 😆


Thursday, 17 June 2021

My Top Movies Of Each Decade

 

I enjoy bringing to attention and recommending great accomplishments – and here I’d like to do so with movies. These are some of my favourites over the past decades; listed alphabetically, and with the director alongside. Hope you enjoy.

1930s

All Quiet On The Western Front – Lewis Milestone

The Bride of Frankenstein – James Whale

Bringing Up Baby – Howard Hawks

Gone With The Wind – Victor Fleming

La Grande Illusion – Jean Renoir

It Happened One Night – Frank Capra

M – Fritz Lang

Mr Smith Goes To Washington – Frank Capra

Ninotchka - Ernst Lubitsch

Swing Time – George Stevens

The 39 Steps – Alfred Hitchcock

The Wizard of Oz – Mervyn Leroy, King Vidor, Victor Fleming

Wuthering Heights – William Wyler


1940s

The Bicycle Thief - Vittorio De Sica

Casablanca - Michael Curtiz

Citizen Kane - Orson Welles

Les Enfants Du Paradis (Children of Paradise) - Marcel Carné

The Grapes of Wrath - John Ford

Great Expectations - David Lean

It's a Wonderful Life - Frank Capra

A Matter of Life and Death - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Miracle on 34th Street - George Seaton

Orpheus - Jean Cocteau

Out of the Past - Jacques Tourneur

The Philadelphia Story - George Cukor

Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock

The Third Man - Carol Reed


1950s

All About Eve - Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The 400 Blows - François Truffaut

High Noon - Fred Zinnemann

Night of the Hunter – Charles Laughton

Rashomon - Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai - Akira Kurosawa

Singin’ in the Rain – Stanley Donen

The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman

Some Like It Hot – Billy Wilder

Strangers on a Train – Alfred Hitchcock

Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder

Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu

Twelve Angry Men - Sidney Lumet

 

1960s

L’Avenntura - Michelangelo Antonioni

A Bout De Souffle - Jean-Luc Godard

Dr. Strangelove – Stanley Kunbrick

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – Sergio Leone

Inherit The Wind – Staley Kramer

In The Heat Of The Night - Norman Jewison

Lawrence of Arabia – David Lean

Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock

2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick

West Side Story – Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Z - Costa-Gavras


1970s

All The President's Men - Alan J. Pakula

Annie Hall – Woody Allen

Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola

Cabaret – Bob Fosse

Chinatown – Roman Polanski

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Luis Bunuel

The Exorcist - William Friedkin

Five Easy Pieces - Bob Rafelson

The Godfather & The Godfather Part II – Francis Ford Coppola

The Goodbye Girl - Herbert Ross

Jaws – Steven Spielberg

Kramer vs. Kramer - Robert Benton

Manhattan - Woody Allen

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest - Milos Forman

The Out-of-Towners – Arthur Hiller

Taxi Driver – Martin Scorsese

 

1980s

Airplane - David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams

After Hours – Martin Scorsese

Amadeus – Milos Forman

Back To The Future Trilogy – Robert Zemeckis

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott

Cinema Paradiso - Giuseppe Tornatore

Midnight Run – Martin Brest

Once Upon A Time in America – Sergio Leone

Raging Bull – Martin Scorsese

Raiders of the Lost Ark - Steven Spielberg

Ran - Akira Kurosawa

The Shining – Stanley Kubrick

 

1990s

American Beauty - Sam Mendes

Before Sunrise – Richard Linklater

The Bridges of Madison County - Clint Eastwood

The End of the Affair - Neil Jordan

Fight Club – David Fincher

Forrest Gump - Robert Zemeckis

Glengarry Glen Ross - James Foley

Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese

Groundhog Day - Harold Ramis

Magnolia - Paul Thomas Anderson

Naked - Mike Leigh

Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino

Secrets and Lies – Mike Leigh

The Silence of the Lambs – Jonathan Demme

Six Degrees of Separation - Fred Schepisi

 

2000-2021

About Schmidt – Alexander Payne

Adaptation – Spike Jonze

Barney’s Version – Richard J. Lewis

Before Sunset - Richard Linklater

Closer - Mike Nichols

The Departed – Martin Scorsese

The Descendants – Alexander Payne

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Michael Gondry

Ex Machina - Alex Garland

Happiness - Todd Solondz

I'm Thinking of Ending Things – Charlie Kaufman

Little Miss Sunshine - Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola

Memento - Christopher Nolan

Million Dollar Baby – Clint Eastwood

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch

1917 - Sam Mendes

No County For Old Men – Coen Brothers

Once - John Carney

The Pledge - Sean Penn

Sideways - Alexander Payne

The Social Network – David Fincher

Stranger Than Fiction - Marc Forster

21 Grams - Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Tyrannosaur - Paddy Considine

 

Films I need to watch that I’ve heard are excellent: There Will Be Blood and Synecdoche, New York


Thursday, 10 June 2021

Racism's Overton Window

 

As many readers will know, there’s a concept called the Overton Window (developed by Joseph P. Overton) which suggests that in every generation there is a “window” of acceptable views, ideas, beliefs and political policies that are categorised as standard and expected, and that everything outside of that window is unacceptable and beyond the pale. The window gets shifted over time because when ideas outside of the window are considered at the extreme, the less extreme but still radical ideas start to become more widely accepted and move within the purlieus of the window.

Views go from so far outside the mainstream that few people accept them into the mainstream >> to radical >> to peripheral >> to mainstream >> to incontrovertible (whereby you’re now considered far outside the mainstream if you ‘don’t' subscribe to them, and could even find yourself in jail if you speak out against them). Here are some examples; In a few decades we’ve gone from climate change alarmism being a belief only subscribed to by a few off-the-wall crackpots, to a situation where if you don’t subscribe to it you’re seen as a filthy capitalist rogue who doesn’t give a damn about anything other than money. In a few decades we’ve gone from homosexuality being illegal, to the slightest intolerance of it being seen as a hate crime. In those same few decades, we've gone from thinking of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 as dystopian fiction, to them being actual political realities imposed on us by the establishment.

Being the hot topic of the day, I want to talk about racism in terms of the Overton Window. Racism is best categorised as unfair segregation or hostile aggression on the basis of race. It is telling people they are not allowed on a bus; it's lynching; it's beating up, it's murdering people because of their skin colour or ethnicity - that is what racism is, and we can all agree that these things are bad. The trouble is, once something is rightly identified as bad, it becomes tempting for people to stretch its meaning and apply it a bit more widely to encapsulate their own cause. Then the Overton Window begins to shift, and it gets applied a little more widely still, then even further, until it means nothing more than 'disliking or disagreeing with someone who happens to be of a different ethnicity or skin colour', and then even further to become 'holding a different view to a view that's popular within a particular group'.

Once terms like racism, sexism, hate crime, misogyny and Islamophobia become more mainstream, people become readily tempted to use them even more widely for their convenience. Before you know it, it's possible to cry 'racism' if someone with different skin colour demolishes your argument; it's possible to cry 'sexism' if someone doesn't support all-women shortlists; and it's possible to declare that you've been the victim of a hate crime just because someone insulted your religion on Twitter (and worse still, perhaps, it's easy to find swathes of people getting offended on your behalf).

And once society is at that stage, it's scarily easy to descend into absolute ridiculousness, where things like the denial of the biological distinction between the sexes, the eroding away of a the concept of competence-based achievements, the refusal to believe that IQ makes any significant difference to success, the denial about the fact that many of the reasons for our struggles are due to our own bad decision-making, the differences between men and women are socio-culturally determined, etc are mainstream views, and to be outside of them is to be beyond the pale.

As I indicated in a recent blog post, it seems clear that most tribal groups that peddle extremist propaganda (whether that's extreme left or right wing movements, environmentalists, woke social justice warriors or feminists) are doing so because they want to seek attention, find some meaning and purpose in their life, assuage their own insecurities and moderate their own self-dislike. And in order to this, they have to artificially construct injustices that aren't really there, or inflate the ones that are already there into something much more severe and unrepresentative of realty. An analysis of radical extremism that fails to consider what the participants personally get out of it is an anaemic analysis - and it is absurd that people go about their business as though this consideration doesn't matter. It really does matter; because if you find what's lurking beneath their virtue signalling and agenda-driven search for purpose, you'll find something dark and horrible (I'm sure it's in most of us).

One way to look at today’s society is to say that we must still be in the throes of racism if mobs of people feel the need to the streets and pull statues down, and demand the removal of others. Another way to look at today’s society – a way that at least has some truth attached to it – is that we must have done an awful lot right to bring about the decimation of most racism if people have the luxury of having to focus on statues of people who died before they were born. As always, I expect the truth lies somewhere in between.

But there is something significant, to do with balance, that we are probably getting wrong about the racism matter. I think it’s partly in the misdiagnosis, and partly in the misallocation of attention. The misdiagnosis is that I think virtually all acts that appear to be racist are, in fact, only proximally identified. I think the distal, and far more prominent causes of apparent racism are built on more fundamental kinds of pain, weakness, fear, resentment and insecurity (often flavoured by national and cultural heritage too). In other words, when someone appears to show racial hostility, it is often only superficially to do with the victim’s skin colour or ethnicity – it is largely driven by the inner hostility and self-contempt of the perpetrator. If we looked for the hurt in the racist, we’d see damaged people who have not been given the sufficient education, diversity of life experience, love, guidance and opportunities to enable them to be better, more tolerant, less hostile people. Attacking someone by their label is the outward manifestation of an inner self-disgust – I don’t think it’s much to do with a genuine prejudice against skin colour or ethnicity. As Graham Greene observed in The Power and The Glory:

“Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

And that leads me to the misallocation of attention. Having regularly misdiagnosed racism, society then places almost all the emphasis on the victim, and almost none on the perpetrator. Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly important to create a society in which the victims of any prejudice are loved, respected, supported, valued and encouraged to thrive. But unless we begin to identify racism and prejudice for what they are, we won’t help the victims or the perpetrators to move forward, and we’ll remain mired in a false stratification that neglects to focus more accurately on the poison and on the medicine.


Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Liberty & Social Policy: Blackstone's Ratio, And Type I & II Errors

                                                                                  

Recently I asked this on Facebook.

Somebody puts a gun to your head and forces you to spin a coin:

If it lands on Heads then ten randomly selected innocent people in the UK, aged between 25 and 40, are sent to prison for five years.

If it lands on Tails then ten randomly selected criminals about to serve five years in prison in the UK, aged between 25 and 40, are set free.

Do you hope the coin lands on Heads or Tails?

Not one respondent said Heads. Everybody who answered seriously said they hope it lands on Tails, or that there are no winners in this scenario.

In the 1760s, a lawyer named William Blackstone famously declared that it’s better for ten guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to suffer. For the next 240 years, most legal systems have paid dutiful regard to this sentiment. I don't know why so many people blithely advocate the principle, nor do I know what William Blackstone thought so special about the number ten as the optimum number of guilty people we should set free for the sake of the innocent. Why isn't the optimum number six or fourteen; why ten? And why is it better for a guilty person to be set free than for an innocent person to suffer - why aren't they both equally undesirable?

The answer, of course, is that nobody ever says. They make these assumptions without ever considering a proper trade off. Moreover, in both scenarios, there is suffering of innocents - either innocents going to jail, or innocents suffering by criminals not being in jail. The right way to measure a preference of false convictions over false acquittals (or vice-versa) is to try to imagine how both would affect the majority of lives, and how much people would be willing to pay to avoid a false conviction or being the victim of a criminal who received a false acquittal. And we lack the information to do a proper calculation on this. Perhaps it would be better for one innocent man to serve time in prison rather a violent man being set free and causing physical harm to six women during the same timeframe. In this case, it may be better to convict just one innocent person rather than letting one guilty person go free. If the conviction of one rapist prevents a further ten rapes, then in this case Blackstone's ratio may be backwards.

There is also a discussion to be had about what constitutes a healthy reasonable doubt. If I'm 90% sure that Fred committed a murder, then I should be 100% sure that I'd vote guilty. But if I'm only 60% sure that Fred committed a murder, how sure am I that I'd vote guilty? I don't know with any degree of confidence. And in any scenario I envisage, the percentages change when the stakes are altered. If the crime is minor vandalism that carries a six month prison sentence, then it's probably never worth convicting an innocent person to see that several guilty people get convicted. But in the case of murder, it may be worth the odd false conviction if it increases the probability of a string of rightful convictions of people who committed murder.

The above scenarios are hypothetical, but there are many real life scenarios where we frequently have to assess a trade off. Should we place people in lockdown during Covid or pay the price of extra deaths in order to avoid absolute economic decimation? Should we live with the ecological consequences of capitalism or risk intervening and costing many more lives through the stifling of economic development? Should we risk the death of some civilians to bring an end to a warmonger's dictatorship? Even though most people never properly consider questions as trade-offs, the world is full of them.

When it comes to policy, then, there are two questions one always needs to ask:

1 Have I got the reasoning right? If yes, go to number 2

2) If my reasoning is right, will my solution actually work?

If yes to 1 and 2, consider implementation. If no, to either, abort.

Alas, so many political decisions fail both criteria. The reasoning is faulty, either because they’ve not undertaken a proper cost-benefit analysis or they misunderstood some statistics, or they treated a complex problem over-simplistically. But even if they got their reasoning right, that still doesn’t mean they should enact a policy, because many policies have negative 'unseen' effects as a result of the changed incentives brought about by the policy's introduction (in economics this is called the law of unintended consequences).

For example, the minimum wage is a state-enforced increased cost to employers, but businesses respond by passing those costs on to consumers with higher prices or fewer jobs, so it does more harm than good. Policies like rent controls and tighter regulations that try to make life better for tenants have such an adverse effect on landlords and property developers that tenants find it harder to rent at affordable prices. Increased taxes on high earners in the hope of raising more money for the treasury can have the unintended consequence of reducing tax revenue as entrepreneurs reduce their capital investments. Subsidies and bailouts increase risky behaviour as firms know they won't be so heavily penalised for their mistakes. The list goes on.

Type I & Type II Errors
It's perhaps wise to think of this in terms of type 1 and type 2 category errors. A type 1 error is the incorrect rejection of a null hypothesis that is true. An example would be, as above, when a jury delivers a guilty verdict in the trial of an innocent defendant. A type 1 error is generally an error that infers an effect or correlation or causality that doesn't actually exist (a false positive).

A type 2 error is the failure to reject a false null hypothesis. An example would be, also as above, when a jury delivers an innocent verdict in the trial of a guilty defendant. A type 2 error is generally an error that fails to infer an effect or correlation or causality that does actually exist (a false negative).

Generally, although not always, we feel that a false positive is less harmful to society than a false negative. An anti-virus system that wrongly thinks a benign program is a virus is better than an anti-virus system that wrongly thinks a virus is a benign program. An airport security system that wrongly thinks an innocent man might be a terrorist and pulls him in for questioning is preferable to an airport security system that wrongly thinks a terrorist is an innocent man and sees one of their planes blown up.

Preferences like this are built into our evolutionary hardwiring, and for good reason, as most people know with the following popular example. A rustling in the bushes may be the wind, but it may be a predator. It's less costly to assume it's a predator and find out it's the wind than to assume it's the wind and find out it's a predator. So over the years we have been primed for false positives - to sense potential danger, patterns and breaks from normalcy, and ascribe them to something causal or deliberate or predatory, even when such things are not there.

But….there is a but. I'm fairly sure that on balance it is usually best to adhere to the opposite approach: that is, it is best to err on the side of individual liberty and pay the relatively small prices when things are sub-optimal, rather than erring on the side of suppression of liberty and suffering the relatively great opportunity costs of doing so.

Let's explore some real life examples, and I'll try to show why we should err on the side of freedom and do very little to intervene.

Take the debate about censorship of free speech as a prime example. Aside from the standard legal prohibitions (making threats of violence, slander, perverting the course of justice, etc) the negative utterances that emerge under a system of freedom of expression are a price worth paying for the astronomical benefits that come from the free exchange of knowledge and ideas. The same for causing offence: we have to be able to risk offending others as a gateway to exploring truths and facts - no one has a right not to be offended.

Or take the free market as another good example. The relatively small costs we would pay for a much freer market would be astronomically dwarfed by the advanced standards of living, enhanced innovation and increased prosperity we would enjoy.

People base their assumptions on all sorts of crazy whims and misunderstandings based on the aforementioned type 1 and 2 errors. If they go unchallenged then they are not getting the correctives they do deserve, and they are getting the latitude they don't deserve.

Or take the issue of whether trans women should compete in women's sports: of course they shouldn't. They have an unfair advantage, and that undermines the sport because it's grossly unfair to the women competitors. It's better to inconvenience a minority of trans people and invite them to compete in a separate trans category in their sport than it is to undermine the whole category of women's sport by letting in a few dominant trans people. Ironically, a lot of the people who want trans people to compete in non-trans people's sport divisions are the same people who support protectionist political institutions that hinder developing countries in competing more fairly in the wider global marketplace. Real life is often more farcical than situation comedy.

At a busy airport, we all have to go through lengthy security checks to make sure we are not terrorists or drug smugglers. Every time you or I go through an airport security system, the airport makes a Type 1 false positive error. It is deemed to be worth the high number of false positives in order to avoid the Type 2 false negative error where the airport fails to detect a terrorist or a drug smuggler. To know which policies are best, we need to ascertain the statistical probability and weigh up the costs of execution against the outcome of a false negative error. If the resultant bad outcome was something like a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people, then a system like an airport security that allows a large number of false positives in return for a low number of false negatives is probably justified.

A system, on the other hand, that sought to protect offence by banning lots of expressions of free speech would be making a catastrophic error, because whatever your beliefs about any subject, the ability to communicate those beliefs - in speech, in writing, in art - is not just the bedrock of society, it is the bedrock of being human! The capacity to express yourself is the very basis of turning the vortex of our inner thoughts into a coherent order, whereby beliefs are formulated and opinions are articulated and challenged. Language is like a tree that plants its roots into our inner-most being, and allows knowledge, thinking, creativity and feeling to spring out in a way that connects humanity as the most advanced species on the planet. And it is the duty of every thinking human to stridently oppose the attempts to uproot that liberty with their emotionally stultifying and intellectually oppressive agenda.

Society is riddled with these examples: from the attempts to restrict free speech and free thought; to attempts to equalise society when the inequalities are based on free choices; to acceding to the demands of the dozens of gender neutral pronouns that have been constructed; to supporting the multi-billion pound climate change crony capitalist industries - and the glaring truth they all miss is that it is far far better to let liberty run its course and deal with any problems when they arise, than it is to stultify liberty in the hope of achieving the narrow outcome you think you want.


Sunday, 2 May 2021

On Being Certain God Exists

 

As I was editing the final draft of my book, I felt a huge sense of God speaking to me. I felt Him challenge the general assumption that we should act as though we believe He exists but never assert that we are certain He does. I felt that He called for a revival of confidence for Christians in the world, where we proclaim that we are certain He exists, because He has made Himself known to us in so many ways that are more compelling to us than the ways we feel certain about other things.

Now obviously this is still a complex consideration that took a while to contemplate - not least because I wanted to test it with more prayer and supplication to the Holy Spirit. And I was also aware that even if this is something of which God approves, there are going to be wise and unwise ways to go about discussing it. After all, the Old Testament is full of occasions where God hides His face from a sinning Israel; and even in the New Testament, where Christ is referred to as 'the image of the invisible God', there are accounts in scripture of Christ's time on earth where He actively avoided the crowds and didn't make a big spectacle of His miracles. Moreover, our basis for faith is said to be on what is 'unseen' (Hebrews 11:1, 2 Corinthians 4:8), so on what grounds might we be permitted to declare that we are certain God exists? On the other hand, if we claim to feel certain about some things, then there is a prima facie case to be made that we ought to be able to feel certain that the God we have a relationship with actually does exist.

There is also a profound distinction between feeling certain God exists, and the faith one has in Christ. To have faith in Christ doesn't necessarily mean one is not certain of God's existence - in fact, one may have faith in Christ precisely because we feel certain God exists and can be found through Him. Or in other cases, one might feel certain that God exists because one has faith in Christ and sees God in Him. I know God exists - by which I mean that of all the things I know, the proposition related to the God of the Bible's existence is known by me as strongly as the other things I know most strongly.

In order to explain that, I need to talk about the different things I know and how I go about knowing them. Here are three examples of things I know. I know that 2 + 2 = 4. I know that Brazil has a larger land mass than Turkey. I know I prefer fried scampi to fried onion rings. These three bits of knowledge are constituent parts of what one could call my worldview. I use the term worldview to mean the aggregation of all the things I know, think, believe and feel, based on the totality of my life experience. That life experience has led me to know that mathematics is reliable; that the land masses of countries are measurable to an accurate degree; that my tastes inform me about what I like and dislike; and that it is possible to compress lots of complex data to formulate succinct theories about the world. It is possible, of course, to challenge some of my knowledge. For example, although I know I prefer fried scampi to fried onion rings, it might be possible to manipulate my neuronal activity to alter my brain states and tastes. Private experiences, as Wittgenstein reminds us, are shaky justifications on which to proclaim knowledge.

When I consider what it involved for me to become a Christian, I am able to declare with confidence that knowing the Christian God exists is something I know as well as I know anything. I know Christianity is true just as I know all the other religions are made up human constructs. You may find this hard to digest, but I think I know why. When you hear someone say they are a Christian, you don't have access to the rich diversity of experience, thoughts and contemplations that went into their becoming a Christian. I think for a non-Christian it is impossible to fully understand how a Christian arrives at their knowledge of God - not least because our knowledge of God is not just of our own doing, it is through God's own Holy Spirit revelations in a daily relationship with us. It is a minute-by-minute awareness of what it means to be in a relationship with God - an awareness to which every Christian reading this will be able to testify.

To know God exists means knowing a lot of other things about how we can know God exists. We are so used to thinking of faith in God through a pretty furtive, circumspect lens that any claims that we know God exists are bound to be met with derision. There came a point in my journey when I started to wonder why this was so. You see, every Christian I know feels certain God exists. Yes we have moments of doubt, we have struggles, and we have emotional and intellectual challenges. But the truth is, we don't just believe God exists, we are certain He does.

Perhaps the reason you don't hear us speaking in terms of knowing God exists is, I suspect, because 1) It is very difficult to articulate what knowing God's existence actually means; and 2) One can't know God exists until one has revelation from the Holy Spirit, so trying to justify the knowledge to non-Christians is rather like justifying Mozart's best symphonies to someone who has never heard music. But whether or not it is possible to articulate this, the fact is, I am certain that God exists - I'm certain with as much confidence as I am certain of anything. Knowing God exists involves taking a whole lifetime's worth of experience, knowledge and comprehension (and dare I say wisdom?) that can be used to formulate a proper understanding of all the things necessary to have certainty of God's existence.

I think we also need to draw a distinction here between certainty and proof. There is no proof of God’s existence, so proof is not what I’m considering here. You may recall in Tennyson’s Ancient Sage, his terrific line “Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt”. The point of the distinction is that I think we can feel certain of things we can’t prove. Proof is something that can be demonstrated to others, but it only really belongs in mathematics. Certainty is something we can’t demonstrate to others in isolation, because it conveys how we feel about something. If we try to demonstrate certainty to others, then we enter the realms of requiring evidence or proof. I can demonstrate that I feel certain about mathematical sums by proving them with a pen and paper. I can demonstrate that I feel certain that biological evolution is factual by providing thousands of pages of supporting evidence. But if we claim we feel certain God exists, what we are actually doing is sharing a summation of a complex worldview built on a repertoire of experience. We have to be careful not to undermine the profound contemplations that work alongside faith and humility, but we don't have to discount certainty on the basis of discounting proof. They belong in different categories.

Finally, we can know something exists in a way that we cannot know that something doesn't exist. Given that certainty has to be a feeling based on a proprietary state, the category of positive certainty has to be operating on a higher level to negative certainty. Let's take human love as an illustration. The man who feels certain that love doesn't really exist could spend his whole life being single or in bad relationships and always feel certain there is no such thing as love. Conversely, the man who finds love with his beloved has the experiential mandate to feel certain love exists. In fact, love is one of those profound things whereby once you have it, you sense there is no real greater certainty in your life, because there is nothing on earth that can change that feeling while it's alive and well. That's why being certain God exists can be valid in a way that being certain He does not exist cannot possibly be. Another reason why this is true is purely down to the informational content. Even if it were possible to feel certain God does not exist, such certainty would take immeasurably more information and cognitive computational resources than feeling certain God exists, which could come about through a much more direct channel, and in much less execution time.

In closing, I am mindful that as Christians, even if we feel certain inwardly, we mustn't alienate people by coming across as being overconfident and potentially strangling the oxygen out of fruitful dialogue. But to be certain, we have to be convinced that the set of all possibilities within our spatio-temporal existence (call it N) has been sufficiently contravened by a Divine power (call it P) who has the qualities to act in a way that seems to us evidently outside of that existence. I do not mean anything that gets entangled with dangerous assumptions like God of the gaps, Clarke's third law etc, I mean a deeper understanding of certainty - a power that God has given us so that He has done enough in our individual lives to enable us to feel certain that He exists. Those Divine contraventions that constitute P could be anything from prophecies, healings, internal revelations, events that we believe to be powered from outside of space and time, and so forth. Of course, our faith is a worldview based on our life experience, so those 'sufficient contraventions' are built on our experience of others' experiences too in a complex join-the-dots epistemology. But it may remain one of those strange elements of Christianity that continues to linger in the abyss - in that most Christians feel certain that God exists, yet rarely feel the confidence to declare it.


Monday, 19 April 2021

The Rachel Mystery - Everyone Knows Someone Like Rachel

 

One of the very smartest people I know is a mother of five called Rachel (name changed for confidentiality). She's an excellent Christian commentator, and a very thoughtful contemplator of a broad range of subjects. The trouble is, she's thoroughly foolish when she strays into the subject of economics. She is uninformed in economics in a strange way: she speaks as though she knows what she is talking about, and as though people who do know what they are talking about do not. This is unusual. People who genuinely don't understand economics - like Owen Jones, Polly Toynbee and Paul Mason - never sound as though they have much of a clue, which is, of course, down to the fact that they really do not have much of a clue.

But smart, brilliant, incisive Rachel - a tremendous brain on most other subjects - speaks as though she does have a clue, but ends up being like the rest of those that do not have a clue. It's the usual stuff: focusing on the benefits of something while ignoring all the costs, speaking up for certain groups of people while endorsing policies that will harm those people, trying to solve problems that aren't problems at all, misunderstand the difference between the relative and absolute, that sort of thing

After seeing a few instances of this with Rachel, I felt compelled to consider how it is that someone so excellent at most other subjects can be such a simpleton on economics. I had a few ideas, but I think these 4 are primary:

1) Economics is the queen of the sciences, but it is complex and diverse, and requires balanced lateral thinking, and an understanding of the 'seen and unseen' in a way that few can manage with real aplomb.

2) The tribal elements of politics overrides basic economic instincts to the point that people would rather be loyal to their group than loyal to the truth.

3) People's economic beliefs are usually built on good intentions, and they confuse good intentions with good policies.

4) The counterintuitive truth that bottom-up innovation solves problems more efficiently than top down management is anathema to most people, who prefer to outsource their thinking to authority figures.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Seven Most Profound Truths I've Found In The Bible (So Far)

 

A friend of mine, a keen philosopher and atheist, asked me to state some truths that can be discovered by reading the Bible. In thinking about a response, I started considering what I consider to be the most profound truths I've discovered from twenty years of reading scripture. I came up with a list of seven that I thought worth sharing.

I'm going to state my seven by assuming, sine qua non, the basic assumptions and understanding that underpin the reality in which scripture operates - namely; that there are only two principal categories of reality: God and everything else. That everything that isn't God is part of creation, and nothing that is created is on the same qualitative level as God. That God is tri-aspectual: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That our triune God is the Creator of everything that exists apart from Himself. And that existence, therefore, cannot be without sentience – only conscious cognition can shed light on reality to make it concrete, both at an upper level (God) and at the lower level (created observers).

Assuming the recognition of these scriptural claims, here are seven more of the most profound truths I found in the Bible:

1) Perfection
The idea of perfection: there’s not a single perfect person in the world. Everyone is sinful, full of faults, flawed and doing far less well than we ought to be doing. Apart from death, there isn’t anything else that's truer and more inevitable about human beings than that. The most fundamental truths about our being are represented in scripture. To think of perfection, just like to think of Divine sovereignty in Genesis 1, is a remarkable human feat of discovery within our categories of discovery. Somewhere in the rich experience of the sun, moon, stars and sky, and within the exploration of human behaviour and that of all animals, the writers of scripture discovered the standard of God's perfection, and the standard we should all be trying to attain. When Jesus uttered the Divine words "Be perfect" (Matthew 5:48), He was not only showing us God's standard, He was showing us God's love and grace by bringing every human together into a calling to love as He loves.

2) Truth is a person
One of the most important things we've ever discovered is that truth, in all its fullness, is a person - an active personality - the person of Christ. In John 14: 6, Jesus declares "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." And in John 8:32, Jesus tells us that through Him we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Truth, we discover, isn't just something God helps us find (although it is that too), it is instantiated in the person of Christ Himself. It is Christ Himself who guides us into all truth (John 16:13). Discovering that Truth is a person means discovering that seeking God is seeking the truth.

3) That God created us to be in relationship with Him
There is no grander purpose to our creation than to be in a relationship with Him. Remember Christ's words, "Knock and the door will be open to you." What ingenious words they are: all we have to do is know that there is a door awaiting our knock, and our first faithful knock gives us the certain path to a relationship with Christ, and the key to discovering eternal life.

4) That fear of God is the beginning of wisdom
We should think very carefully about why Proverbs says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. There are lots of ways to be fearful, and most of them are good. We should be fearful of things that can harm us, and to avoid physical and emotional danger. This fear is inherent in our evolution. We should be fearful of making mistakes and not doing well enough, because it should inspire us to do our best. Conversely, we should not live ‘in’ fear, because that is unhealthy. Psychoanalytic theory has confirmed for decades that we are better when we confront our fears and deal with them. We become stronger, more courageous, more honest, and more truthful people - and that engenders a multitude of benefits.

So let's think a bit more about what ‘fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’ means. By fearing things it’s good to fear, we become stronger and closer to the truth. To fear God is to subject ourselves to the highest standard possible, and to understand how much we are failing, and how much better we should be doing. Not to elicit guilt or shame (although sometimes that’s appropriate) but to understand that there is a higher standard indwelt in a perfect God, and that it’s wise to respond to that truth.

The question, then, is what would your biggest justifiable fear be with this new wisdom? It would be exposure to the true ‘you’ – the one that no longer hides behind the mask; the one that, in the Adam & Eve story, sees them naked and ashamed before God. ‘Lift not the painted veil’ as Shelley said. You may recall Mr. Beaver in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: “Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion." And Susan’s reply: "Ooh. I thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion". “Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” Our perfect God knows everything about us – He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows all the things we suppress, the true depths of what we are capable of behind the mask: He knows the real you that would bring you utter shame and humiliation if it were ever made known. He knows the Hans Beckert that lives in us alongside the Atticus Finch; He knows the Goneril and Lady Macbeth in our personality competing with the Cordelia and Desdemona. The deepest human fear is surely getting found out; being exposed for what we really are. And it is only before God that this can possibly happen. We are even capable of lying to ourselves, living with subdued deceit in order to avoid facing up to how fallen we really are. It’s only God that sees through all the deceit – our true and real selves before God would be the most fearful thing of all. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

5) That the truth will set us free
I’ve been thinking a lot about Christ's words that “the truth will set you free”. It’s such a profound message that needs a lot of unpacking. What kind of truth will set us free? And what does being free even mean? It can’t be that scientific propositions will set us free, because we are not bound in captivity by any physical propositions we may or may not know. Where we are in captivity is when we are not living our life as we should be – we incarcerate ourselves within the hellish prison walls of our falsehood, our lies and our immorality. When Jesus says “the truth will set you free”, He means live in accordance with God, where you can seek the truth, believe correct things, eradicate untruths, and live the best and most moral life you can possibly live.

We’ll see this when we look at the verse in the fuller context: “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” We get to know the truth by remaining faithful to Christ’s teachings, and a fundamental part of Christ’s teachings is that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. That is, in order to be set free in the truth we have to understand that Christ is the Truth. Living with the knowledge of Christ as the truth means following His two principal commandments: love God and love your neighbour.

This is a very profound truth in scripture. Life is full of badness and falsehood that keep us in chains, but we can be set free from these things by Christ. By searching for the truth and living in accordance with the truth everything becomes better: at an individual level, at a familial level, at a societal level, and ultimately at a global level. Truth is what sets us free to produce truths and goodness. It also means that in any area of our life where we are wedded to falsehood, not behaving well enough, not thinking things through clearly enough, etc, we are in some sense beset by mental incarceration. But it goes even deeper than that. If we don’t live for the truth, then what’s wrong in our life becomes cloudy: we develop a fuzzy blur between what's right and wrong and what’s good and bad. And we become deindividuated – we can’t really know our true self if we don’t live as though the truth is the most important thing - because God is the truth.

6) "In all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28)
We should always remember that God wants to bless us and help us to become wise even more than we want these things for ourselves. That being the case, then everything God allows into our lives must in the deeper sense be to make us wiser and more like Himself, and bless us in doing so. Everything God lets into an unbeliever’s life is to help draw them into a relationship with Him and an understanding of Him, and everything He lets into a believer’s life is to help us become wiser and more like Christ. That’s a remarkable thing to discover – that there are no neutral things happening to us: everything has significance in either turning us into a bit more of a Heavenly creature or a bit more of a Hellish creature. Even though Christians are guaranteed our salvation because of the cross, despite the quality of the work we do being different (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), I wouldn’t be surprised if each day it’s quite possible to take x steps closer to a Heavenly creature and y steps closer to Hellish creature. Our job is to ensure that each day x is a larger number than y."

7) The revelation of cosmic justice and Heaven & Hell
The biggest revelation about Heaven that it's not some kind of afterlife place that mainstream Christians obsess about or even think about as a detached entity - it is a dynamical process that is part of the here and now. The Incarnation is seen as the intersecting point between heaven and earth - it is God becoming human and through His death and resurrection beginning the process of our dimension of heaven in daily living. The Christian journey, then, is not based on an afterlife as a distinct place 'up there' or 'out there' to which we may one day travel, it is the continuation of the gospel of grace and the concomitant good works, kindness, love, forgiveness, mercy and generosity of heart that Christ laid down for us. After Jesus ascended to be with the Father, the Holy Spirit came to be our mediator between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm, where our job as Christians is to try our hardest to bring as many of those gospel qualities to this life. That is the intersection of heaven and earth.

In closing
Underpinning these truths, and every other scriptural truth is, of course, Christ's death and resurrection - and the news that despite how readily we miss the mark, we are loved so much that Christ thinks we are worth dying for. His death and resurrection was an act of love and grace to pay a price that we could never pay ourselves. The overarching truth found in the person of Christ is that the cross is God's greatest gift to us - the free gift of salvation - and all we have to do is believe and recognise Divine grace to have eternal salvation. 

Happy Easter - He is Risen!!


Sunday, 28 March 2021

The 96 Works I'd Recommend Everyone Should Read

 

I have meant to do this for a while, but only just got around to it. These works are the most important to me, and are presented as I might present them to an alien race from another planet, who visited earth and asked for recommendations for what I think are the essential books that they should read to see us at our best.

Why 96? Because I'm not going to include books just to make a more attractive and catchy title - after all, how could the list be authentic if it includes books merely for the purpose of rounding off the number? Plus, immediate investigation will show that there are way more than 100 in this list.

Notable omissions: I had better mention that Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald have never made much of a conquest of my tastes. And it may seem almost sacrilegious to say this, but I'm not especially enamoured with Thoreau's Walden either - despite many friends I regard having a huge fondness for it. I don't even have a fondness for Thoreau in the way I do for D.H. Lawrence, like a man has for a car he has no intention of driving. There are some good lines in it, but I have to confess to finding it a tad boring in large parts. I don't deny F Scott Fitzgerald the regard as a good writer, and Gatsby is packed with good lines. But I like my good lines to be almost imperceptibly woven into the story, not presented on the page like paintings in a gallery. One other omission worth mentioning purely due to ignorance is Finnegans Wake, which, despite having got to my mid-forties, I have never read. I bought a copy about 5 years ago, and it's still in my 'to read' pile.

That's it for the preamble - let's get to it. A good rule of thumb here is that the further down the list we go, the less the numerical order becomes as important.

1) The Bible

Comment: More essential than the rest on the list combined. The Bible tells us who God is, and who we are, in ways that are so simple a child can understand, and so complex that everybody who has ever lived and will ever live will only be able to understand a fraction of it in the aggregated lifetimes of us all. That is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment - and unless due respect is paid to it, we'll remain like chimps trying to understand the Internet.

The Bible tells a love story between God and humankind, and it does so by engaging with us at every level we require to fulfil our deepest needs: through philosophy, morality, theology, psychology, art, storytelling and all intellectual and emotional pursuits. Our best attempts at science, philosophy, psychology and morality are like the husk of a bone; Christianity is the marrow. Try to take Christianity out of the equation and all you’re left with is dry, crumbly flakes of membrane. Many people have fallen in love with the membrane like how Eve fell in love with her own reflection in Paradise Lost.

Whether you're a Christian or not (I am), let me tell you one thing with absolute certainty: if you don't try to evaluate the Bible through the starting lens of 'This is the most astounding book ever written', your interpretation of it will be grossly inadequate to the task of uncovering its deeper rewards.

2) The Complete Works of Shakespeare

Comment: Unmatched in writing style and depth. What more is there to say that hasn't already been said? It's simply genius - so good that it is out there on its own in fiction, in its own league. Shakespeare's plays are what one might expect if a large creative committee were pooled together and commissioned their best ever outputs over a number of years. It's astonishing that these works came from one man's mind.

3) Selected works of C.S. Lewis - Especially Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves and The Chronicles of Narnia

Comment: Nobody writes about the profound matters of Christianity with more elegant simplicity and beautiful accessibility than C.S. Lewis: he is the master Christian apologist - the best there's ever been. He's such a good writer that when I read his analogies and illustrations I'm amazed that no one before him had ever thought of them. It's like they've been waiting to be expressed for centuries, and we had to wait until 2000 years after Christ's incarnation for someone to finally state these truths so brilliantly.

4) Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Comment: I don't think anyone has written better on the nature of meaning in relation to the psychology of religious faith. Dostoevsky is probably the most balanced author I've ever read when it comes to the big questions. It's like an exploration of love, faith, guilt, fear, justice and mercy through the lens of dreaming and at the same time how those qualities play out in real life. He shows their qualities not just by their presence but by their absence too, like how you can see the beauty of Christian faith not just by looking at the many excellent believers who have it, but in the absence of it in those that do not. It's a bit like how we appreciate the sun in one way in the summer, and in quite another way in the winter - that's Dostoevsky's characters in a nutshell.

5) The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri

Comment: Absolutely ingenious tour of the underworld and afterlife - a masterly mix of Christian theology, philosophy, literature and mythology that takes us on the journey from sin to redemption, explicating the truth that the worldly profane things will pass away by the end, and that, like Milton's Paradise Lost, the devil is easily exposed as a schemer. There's a good reason Beatrice sent Virgil to guide Dante through Inferno and Purgatorio. Virgil represented the virtues of a good Roman, especially reason and virtue, and was an ideal guide. But he remained in purgation, unable to enter Heaven, because he wouldn’t be able to comprehend anything Divine. The Divine Comedy is a place to learn about our own journey, our exile, what we were created for, and the most important values of life. After the Bible, this is probably the most influential book in the western world.

6) Selected works of Soren Kierkegaard

Comment: At his best, Kierkegaard takes us into some deep theological contemplations that are unequalled in any writer I've read. Yes, sure, Kierkegaard is flawed (aren’t we all?), with some inadequate expositions (especially around subjectivity's relationship with truth and morality), but in writings like Works of LoveFear and TremblingEither/OrPurity of Heart and Sickness Unto Death he tapped into a way of thinking that has, in my view, rarely been surpassed. If you're thinking of a foray, start with Fear and Trembling - it's his most accessible: it's a brilliant exposition on the Genesis story of Abraham being called to sacrifce Isaac. Here we encounter the phemomonel concept of ‘a teleological suspension of the ethical’, which throws ordinary morality up on its head.

7) Paradise Lost - John Milton

Comment: Nails the topic of fallenness like no one before or since. This contains some of the deepest ever thoughts about Heaven, Hell, Satan, Adam and Eve - an absolutely epic poem and one to read and re-read. Milton shows better than just about anyone how our minds have the power to make heaven out of hell, and a hell out of heaven. And along with Dante, Milton is also one of the best exponents of the idea that hell is a mental state into which you’ll be ensnared if you don’t pursue good - and that it is far more than a mere human invention. Paradise Lost really nails this by showing Satan’s delusion in thinking he doesn’t need God because of his own qualities. Satan falls in love with his own mind, and believes that that is a sufficient condition under which to operate. This delusion makes his reality more and more like hell.

8) Pensees - Blaise Pascal 

Comment: At its best, this contains the most brilliant Christian writing I've ever read. I read this twice about twenty years ago when I first became a Christian, made loads of annotations in the margins, wrote about them in my own books, and I've never opened Pensees since. I suspect that's because I don't want to find that my matured self thinks a little less of it. This is also where you'll find the proper laying out of Pascal's Wager, which is much more deep and profound than the crass, diluted form that so often does the rounds. I blogged about it here.

9) Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

Comment: In my view, the best ever British novel. It was said of Ginger Rogers that she wasn't Hollywood's best singer in her era, or the best dancer, or the best actress - but in terms of the Gestalt whole she was the best star in musicals. That's how I feel about Jane Eyre - when it comes to love, grace, providence, self-determination, class stratifications and social status, this isn't the best novel in any one individual element, but it's the best English novel in terms of the Gestalt whole. Certainly my favourite of its kind.

10) The works of Charles Dickens

Comment: No real point singling any out - simply one of the greatest ever storytellers and character creators. Great Expectations is probably the best, but I have the softest spot for A Christmas Carol: it's the quintessential story of grace and redemption for all ages!

11) Remembrance of Things Past - Marcel Proust

Comment: I’m not entirely sure why this allures my palette as much as it does; it has many of the traits I dislike in novels. It’s overlong, pretentious in places, and the narrator of the story is not so fascinating that you feel such an epic length is justified. No novel needs to be this long. But all that said, there is a quality about this work that maybe exists in no other, except perhaps Ulysses. This is effectively about the phenomenology of being; it’s about life, about squeezing as much of the juices of life into one narrative – the observations, the streams of consciousness, the state of being. It’s about what it means to be alive, to see vulnerability in oneself and others, and in essence, about self-discovery. Just in writing this my memory has brought to the fore several episodes from my past where I’ve learned something valuable from an everyday interaction. I don’t think any book has ever elicited that kind of recall better than Remembrance of Things Past. Then again, I guess the clue's in the title, after all.

12) Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot

Comment: As good psychology as it is literature. Rarely does an author understand humanity so well that she understands her own creations with such aplomb.  

13) A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding - David Hume

Comment: The most important philosopher and his most important works. Hume's greatest contribution to philosophy is in laying out the proposition that everything is derived from experience (this is the basis of Hume’s fork – everything is classified as either Relations of ideas and Matters of fact). Hume lays out the important distinction between causation and causality.

14) The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy - G.K Chesterton

Comment: Apart from the works of C.S Lewis, these two books are my favourite books of Christian apologetics. This is Christianity at its smartest. GK Chesterton reminds us that even a watered down Christianity is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. Here's the man at his best in Orthodoxy:

"The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world".

15) The works of Carl Jung

Comment: In my first office job as the junior admin, I snuck to the photocopier over several days and printed just about everything Jung had ever published. I've had a complicated relationship with Jung, not quite love-hate, more like love-exasperation. There's no denying the depth of his mind. Perhaps the best homage to Jung is that it would be unwise to even start writing about his ideas - there are so many brilliant ones that any brief commentary would be inadequate to the coverage of their depth.

16) Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

Comment: An absolutely brilliant incursion into a psychological realism that takes us far beneath where we feel comfortable going. We engage with the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff; the class conflict, the psychology, the bitterness, and the obsession with revenge – it is one of the best deconstructions of traditional love while departing from the traditional love narrative that I’ve ever read. Emily Bronte quite brilliantly seduces the reader with romantic gestures at the beginning, leading us into a false sense of security about willing Heathcliff’s redemption and renewal, but then spends the rest of the book chipping away at the structure of that notion by showing him (and most of the characters for that matter) to be more and more cruel, self-centred and damaged. This is a kind of emotional Hades into which we just don’t want to be going often – a masterclass in expressing dormant, unfulfilled passions and longings, and what beasts lurk beneath the subducts when they remain unchecked. Stunningly good.

17) The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments - Adam Smith

Comment: Adam Smith's two great works - both thoroughly excellent, but while the majority of people associate Smith with the Wealth of Nations approach to humankind, where the market develops by virtue of our self-serving instincts, his Theory of Moral Sentiments is much more concerned with our propensity to be kind and generous towards each other, and is equally good.

18) On the Origin of Species - Charles Darwin

Comment: Racist book that's made almost no contribution to society. It should be banned! J

19) Selected works of Tolstoy - especially War and PeaceAnna Karenina and A Confession

Comment: Heck, this man suffered - he really suffered. He went through the whole gamut of pain, and came out as a stronger thinker and a believer. Isaiah Berlin placed Tolstoy as the greatest writer because he most aptly incorporated the skills of the Hedgehog and the Fox into his work (see further down the list). It was perhaps Tolstoy who gave us the most profound illustrations of human nature in war (as did Wilfred Owen in a rather different way) – illustrations that move us to consider human psychology in battle, and conclude that in spite of the horror, toil and misery, a few moments in war can teach us more about humanity than a lifetime of peace. But best of all, I think, Tolstoy wrenched the truth out of every arm of resistance. About our progression towards ‘truth’ itself, he concludes that “Our progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn't gold”. Tolstoy’s language is evocative of something awaiting discovery – that these truths are already part of reality, and the human job is to gradually uncover them, much like we mine for gold. Only a man of faith could be that perspicacious.

20) Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

Comment: An absolutely wonderful achievement. So many sharp insights and witty observations. What an adventure of the logical mind as well as of the literary one.

21) Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Comment: One minor criticism would be that it's a little bit too long for my liking - Hugo doesn't quite have the capacious mind of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to justify this length. But that aside, this book has one of the greatest expositions of grace in all of literature, with recidivist Jean Valjean and the hugely benevolent Bishop of Digne, who helps him, takes him in and gives him shelter. But in the middle of the night, Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and runs. He is caught, but the bishop even though he was badly let down after various acts of charity and grace, rescues him by claiming that the silverware was, in fact, a gift, and at that point gives him his two precious silver candlesticks as well, reproving Jean Valjean for leaving in such a rush and forgetting these most valuable gifts. As you can imagine, Jean Valjean is stunned by such an act. That act of grace changes Jean Valjean's whole outlook on life and transforms his character (and no doubt many readers too). His life ethos is to emulate the grace and love of the bishop, just as Christians' life ethos should be to emulate Christ's outlook - the One who gave the greatest act of love and grace ever poured out on the world at Calvary. A wonderful story about redemption, and the futulity of being blind to its quality.

22) Persuasion -Jane Austen

Comment: I could actually make a case for all six of Austen's great novels - they are all quite different, and all just about equally good in their own right. I nearly went for Pride and Prejudice, but didn't because it's a slightly more charming fairytale, which is a point against it when measured alongside Persuasion (and perhaps Emma too).

23) Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

Comment: One of the great comedic novels; farcical, sublime, where sanity and insanity are seamlessly blended together with brilliant writing - but in the end it's really a horror story too. Heller laughs at bureaucracies with absurd subordinates and even more absurd leaders. It's part book of Ecclesiastes, part Evelyn Waugh, part Ernst Lubitsch, with a touch of the Marx Bros about it too. Everyone knows what a Catch 22 situation, but few know the exact text:

"Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

24) To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

Comment: Two of the best works on deeper introspection, wayward imagination and streams of consciousness. There are few more talented than Woolf at understanding her characters and using them to draw out our most intimate contemplations. Not an easy author to read though – as she cuts such a lonely, tragic figure, who never got to understand the really glorious truths about life. Like her characters, she was always giving herself over to social occasions to cover the silence.

25) The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

Comment: I have to declare some personal distaste in enjoying this – I don’t really vibrate to the Marxist undertones that Steinbeck conveys, as the Joad family, plagued by the dustbowl storms that battered the land and ruined livelihoods, cross the Panhandle in search of better things in California. And the message about the nefarious divide between workers and owners is generally without sufficient nuance. But all that said, this is an astonishing novel about survival, about self-respect, about family, and most of all about humanity. This story really does convey a spirit of an impoverished group that demands to be taken seriously, because they are so full of dignity and authenticity.

26) Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Comment: Don’t forget Of Mice and Men too – it's an absolutely beautiful, essential read. A hugely gratifying expression of humanity and heart – and in the friendship of George and Lennie we have one of the best relationships captured in all of literature.

27) Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

Comment: Rarely does an author press a spike into the heart of your mind the way Nabokov does. Such beautiful language too. Nabokov is one of the best writers at showing us the periphery, making us believe we are there, and that the perceived centre is really quite illusory. This author understands better than most that, with complete knowledge and perfect hindsight, what most thought was the periphery will actually turn out to have been the centre.

28) Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

Comment: A fantastic story with great characters. Waugh treats his readers as though they are witty and intelligent, and that's why his novels are so good.

29) To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Comment: Tremendous work, a well told story about wretched racial tensions, prejudices and bad attitudes, but where the noble characters rise above the culture and the zeitgeist. This is an unambiguous portrayal of what’s good and what’s bad, where Harper Lee shows that empathy, compassion and insight drives goodness, and apathy, blind ignorance and lazy-mindedness drives badness. 

30) Ulysses - James Joyce

Comment: A hard read, but one to admire. The problem I suspect a lot of people have with Ulysses, including me, is that they read it for the first time too early. Begin your foray into classic literature, and you're likely to want to devour the most highly regarded works first, of which Ulysses is definitely one. Rudyard Kipling once said “What do they know of England, who only England know?”, and what he meant was, not only do you not know much of other countries if you only know England, you don't know so much of England either without knowing other countries with which to make comparisons. Lovers sometimes say that of beloveds too - they love them not just by knowing the beloved and all the qualities she has, but by knowing how the qualities and faults of others give further exhibition to what the beloved has to offer. I think this Kiplingian observation is true of Ulysses too - it is all the more appreciated extrinsically in light of other literature, as well as intrinsically on its more intimate contemplations.

One of the salutary observations that runs through Ulysses is that greatness in reality can be found not just in the splendid parts of life but also in the insipidly ordinary things we experience every day – that angels may well be treading in the most profane places and situations, as well as in the sublime, profound and beautiful instances of living. It seemed to Joyce, I think, that a wise person is someone who can get wisdom and truth from every situation, whether bad or good, right or wrong, or tragic or joyous – he is a bit like a gardener who can make the most of all different kinds of soil in his garden and not just cultivate plants, flowers, and vegetables in the soil that is obviously good.

31) Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Comment: Everything that’s bad about authoritarianism is captured in this novel - and my oh my, Huxley is such a good writer. The quintessence of a dystopian novel is that the tyrannies that preside over us purport to being so for our good, where subjects are reconstituted into automata and develop Stockholm syndrome. Huxley is smarter than Orwell because his imagination of the future’s ’look’ and its technological advancement is more perceptive. What I think also gives Huxley the edge is that he captures the reality of how easy it is to obtain happiness in a life of unthinking. Most of the dystopian characters elsewhere aren’t very happy and content with their lot. But in Brave New World, the characters aren’t miserable at their plight – they have blindly accepted the system into which they have become ensnared.

32) Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Comment: Absolutely superb psychological thriller, so tremendously written. Daphne Du Maurier smartly observes through unlikeable characters that wholesome qualities are earned not bestowed, and dark traits are not prized from the influences of others, but well up from the inner states of mind.

33) Selected works of Nietzsche

Comment: Well.... where do I start with my love/hate relationship with Nietzsche? It’s not easy to summarise my thoughts so succinctly, not least because I don’t believe Nietzsche would find it easy to summarise his own philosophies succinctly – they don’t make easy summations. The thing really worth mentioning about Nietzsche is what a brilliant writer he is – almost like a literary philosopher. Despite being replete with reality checks, I find him a joy to read. There’s no doubt too that he’s a brilliant mind and a deep thinker, offering profound perspectives on what it means to be human in a world where everyone gets so much wrong, and readily conforms to bad intellectual practices. He is mostly justifiably damning of a human species that doesn’t competently know itself or understand itself as well as it might. If you’re going to get into Nietzsche, you’re going to need to roll up your sleeves – but you should find it worth the journey. You could start with Beyond Good and Evil and then On the Genealogy of Morality – there Nietzsche is salutary and constructive in his observations. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a tough read though – it is full of great lines, but its underlying thematic is profane, irreverent and misguided. If only Nietzsche took his ideas to their most profound conclusions, he might have been the greatest writer of his age.

34) The Critique of Pure Reason - Immanuel Kant

Comment: A terrible writer, but if you take the time to sift through this, there are some great rewards, and plenty to appreciate. Kant sought to establish the categories as a priori modes of thought that are applied to concepts in order for them to be used by the mind via the faculty of judgement, and to determine what the categories themselves are, and what role each plays in their specific area of cognition. You'll know quite a bit about these categories anyway - they are now part of philosophy's general idiomatic structure (a priori, a posteriori, analytic, synthetic, noumena, phenomena, etc).

35) Jean Piaget's works

Comment: It's hard to come by in one simple fait accompli swoop - you have to lots of digging to read, but it's essential stuff. This should be taken as way more than mere cognitive development: It's great epistemology too.

36) William Blake collected works

Comment: There are several versions of this. Make sure the one you buy includes Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, and the Marriage of Heaven & HellThe Clod and the Pebble is probably my favourite of the short poems - it's about the superiority of selfless love over selfish love.

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite."

37) Leibniz' Philosophical Writings

 Comment: In Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God we find one of the greatest ideas ever - his "Best of all possible worlds". A deep thinker, and like the selected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great compilation to dip into when you're in quiet solitude and have time to think. Like Jung's works, Leibniz is probably one part reading and three parts stopping and thinking about what you've just read. 

38) Aesop's Fables

Comment: The influence of this book on the world is astounding. There's so much wisdom for young minds to distil from these brilliant fables. This is where we get so many of the dictums in common parlance, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Tortoise and the Hare, Sour Grapes, The Goose That Laid The Golden Egg, and so on. Every child should devour this stuff.

39) Areopagitica - John Milton

Comment: An essential work, and the best book ever on free speech and freedom of expression. Milton lays down the edict about the necessity of having a free press, the liberty to not be silenced or censored, and the wisdom that people who try to impede the freedom of expression in others harm themselves too, because they rob themselves of the ability to hear and think. That observation alone is one of the most profound and perceptive in the history of prose. Mill's On Liberty is worth reading too.

40) The End of the Affair - Graham Greene

Comment: A deep and compelling novel about a love affair that gets stopped in its tracks by a promise to God, where questions of depth of love, sacrifice, loss, hate, cruelty, suffering and faith abound. Without wishing to give too much away, Bendrix's moment of realisation “I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.” is worth an essay in itself.

41) Principia - Isaac Newton

Comment: The foundation of classical mechanics and gravity - what's not to love?

42) Howards End - E.M Forster

Comment: This is powerful and reflective work, that explores the depths of love, friendship, social convention, familial differences, vulgarity within social classes, told within the juxtaposition all the three significant stratified classes of Edwardian England. There's a great subtext here too about the banalities associated with love of money, and the liberation of art and mind.

43) Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan

Comment: Wonderful book about escaping the thrall of sin and finding a whole new world.

44) Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking

Comment: As gripping as many great works of fiction. Although I think the underlying premise about black holes is wrong, as one of my books will explain – I have a hunch that they don’t exist at all in the way are conceived, and are really just reality being rinsed out in the mathematical wash of dark matter, which is also a feature of our conscious cognition. My multi-lens theory of reality theory predicts that difficult counterintuitive things like black holes, infinities and singularities are examples of us being locked into limited physical perceptions by virtue of our being physical agents. Here’s a blog on it

45) Richard Dawkins best works on biology - The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow

Comment: Absolutely terrible philosopher, and he’s utterly daft when talking about religious faith. But few write more beautifully about evolution than Dawkins – he really does justice to the beauty of biology and diversity in the animal kingdom.  

46) The Evolution of Everything & The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley

Comment: In my opinion, these are two of the most entertaining books in recent years. In The Rational Optimist, Ridley lays out the wonders of modern human achievement, and in Evolution of Everything he develops the case that bottom-up evolution rather than top-down design is the main driving force that has shaped much of our culture, technology and society, and is shaping our future. His central argument in both books is spot on: that change in technology, language, morality and society is incremental, inexorable, gradual and spontaneous, and that much of the success of the human world is the result of local human action, not of centrally planned human design; it emerges from the interactions of millions, not from the top down organisations of a few.

47) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce

Comment: Joyce at his most accessible: a terrific account of challenging and leaving behind the dogmas and uncritical cultural thralls into which one is born, or by which one is seduced, and parting company with one's roots for a life of self-determination and pursuing one's own inner-self and creative talents.

48) Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer

Comment: Amusing, clever and insightful. I find it better in small doses than lengthy readings. It's even better if you read it aloud.

49) The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

Comment: This isn’t as beautifully written as some of the literary classics I’ve loved and omitted from this list. But its central message – that all is contained within, in potentia - is one so alluring to me, and so important to my own deliberations, that I think it’s a must read. My inner conflict about whether to include this is, of course, part of the book’s quintessence, and maybe in dealing with this duality, I slightly edged towards the book’s inclusion.

50) Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Comment: Tremendous novel, full of providence, and perhaps the best explicator of Byron’s great observation that “Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt in solitude, where we are least alone”.

51) Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

Comment: I've known a few ladies in my life who were like Emma Bovary - ruined by their imagination and sense of adventure when it isn't anchored to ethical discipline. It's not a novel I especially like, but I greatly admire it, which I guess is, in itself, a kind of liking. Flaubert does, at least, know the cheat of a degenerate mind, and exposes it with depth of imagination.

52) Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

Comment: Hardy’s such a good writer, and such a good storyteller, and this is probably him at his best – the tale of Bathsheba, who becomes more likeable as the novel progresses, as she is able to learn about self-determination from her experiences with her three suitors. The novel is packed with great lines, and profound insights about the talents and worth of women, and how we should abhor societies and cultural practices that expect mere compliance and temperance. Most of Hardy's works are worth reading. 

53) Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

Comment: Masterly creation, superb embedded narrative, but such a real tragedy of a tale too. Mary tells an even better Prometheus tale than Percy, and the central message is always the same. Today we are still stealing fire, and bringing about our doom while expecting too much from our creations. I have a particular fondness for epistolaries too.  

54) Gulliver's Travels – Jonathan Swift

Comment: Classic adventure full of biting satire, sardonically disapproving of dry English customs and even drier politics. This mordantly captures the many silly things that divide humans – it prefigures Freud’s narcissism of small differences – and recognises that the good we do for each other by mutual cooperation far surpasses the good we try to do in politics.

55) Animal Farm - George Orwell

Comment: Orwell’s best book, I think. Orwell wasn’t as witty as Aldous Huxley, but this amuses me more than 1984, even though the extremities are nothing to find funny. Ironically, the animals seem so much more human than the actual humans in 1984.

56) The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

Comment: Tremendously eerie. Whether the ghosts are real or whether the governess is mad isn’t really the main debate in my view. It’s the apprehension of both that always tells the greater story.

57) The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris

Comment: I haven't read much modern fiction, but this is one for which I made an exception, as the film is so good. The book is terrific, and has so much great Lecter dialogue not in the film.

58) - Games People Play - Eric Berne

Comment: The best book ever on transactional analysis. Berne explores units of social interaction (what he calls 'strokes' - how we revert to adult and child modes with ease) and conveys the psychology in the form of social games. Once you've read this, you'll never see your social interactions in the same way again.

59) The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

Comment: Worth the purchase price for the fence painting scene alone. I don't think all the storytelling is exhilarating, but it's a must-read, especially when you are young enough to be edified by coming-of-age narratives. 

60) The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams

Comment: I don't love its heart, but I love its wit - full of brilliant aphorisms and clever wordplay.

61) Philosophical Investigations - Ludwig Wittgenstein

Comment: Tractatus was a load of tosh. Thankfully Wittgenstein rescued things with Philosophical Investigations - a book that showed he'd thought through his life's work much more meticulously. Private inner experiences, language games - pretty much all the best insights you associate with Wittgenstein are here.

62) The Trial - Franz Kafka

Comment: Another work that we in the modern age hope isn't too prescient. A scary prospect that is, sadly, in some countries, a reality.

63) Look Back in Anger - John Osborne

Comment: Jimmy Porter is one of the great characters in playwriting. Cerebral and angry often makes a wicked drama.

64) The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Comment: His most explicitly Christian novel. A deep and brilliant read, in which goodness and beauty is seen through a saintly character called Prince Myshkin. He is the archetypal meek person that Christ describes in conveying who will inherit the earth, and the wise and pious person the world sees as a fool. Prince Myshkin isn't an idiot in the common sense of the word, of course, but he is portrayed as safe and innocent, which purports to make him someone the world ridicules and ostracises. How myopic they are….and still are!  

65) The Code of the Woosters - PG Wodehouse

Comment: This is the best one, but pretty much all the Jeeves and Wooster books are fabulous.

66) 1984 – George Orwell

Comment: Orwell’s abiding misgivings towards the power of authority and the creeping control of the state seem more relevant with every passing decade. The quality of this work isn’t just in its prescience, it’s in how these themes have grown a life of their own – big brother, doublethink, newspeak – and few have been better at excoriating the machinations of undeserved power than Orwell.

67) Candide - Voltaire

Comment: Even though it sends up some of the things I hold most dear, it also lambasts many of the things for which I have the gravest distaste, like uncritical ideas and pliant conformity to leadership. As a man who has a faith, but always feels on the periphery of the mainstream, I can laugh alongside Voltaire. Then again, a lot of what Voltaire would probably call rational free-thinking atheism if he were alive today is to me rather like a group of blind people fighting over a magnifying glass.

68) The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene

Comment: One of the best books ever about faith and suffering. It has whisky and reverence - two of life's best qualities combined.

69) Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Comment: The book that got me into literature in my teens - it was the first great literary work that I ever read. I read this because I loved Apocalypse Now. This was my gateway into the world's greatest novels.

70) Capitalism and Freedom - Milton Friedman

Comment: Not just one of the great books on free market economics, and the pitfalls of heavy state interference – but of human behaviour and united consequences of bad policymaking. Milton Friedman is the natural heir to Bastiat.

A very apt quote:

“Government can never duplicate the variety and diversity of individual action. At any moment in time, by imposing uniform standards in housing, or nutrition, or clothing, government could undoubtedly improve the level of living of many individuals; by imposing uniform standards in schooling, road construction, or sanitation, central government could undoubtedly improve the level of performance in many local areas and perhaps even on the average of all communities. But in the process, government would replace progress by stagnation, it would substitute uniform mediocrity for the variety essential for that experimentation which can bring tomorrow's laggards above today's mean.”

What this means is, even if the government can improve a situation in the short term, the longer term starvation of competition means it will eventually be a sub-optimal solution

71) Notes From The Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Comment: Brilliant exposition of how bitter and tortured the world can make a soul, but how courting false utopia and irrational idealism is a malady against the insight we possess if we try.

72) Wonderful Life - Stephen Jay Gould

Comment: Excellent book about the limestone quarry called the Burgess Shale, and what we can learn about it in broader aspects of evolution’s history, especially how much of a knife edge so much of it sits, and how relatively minor differences in what Gould perceives as ‘chance’ outcomes would have yielded a very different trajectory.

73) Tom Jones - Henry Fielding

Comment: Hilarious and incisive trawl through the adventurous shenanigans and scandalous adventures. I’ll bet they had some great pub nights. At heart though, this doubles up as an intriguing observation of human nature. Never mind its numerous chapters and teeming cast of misfits and scoundrels, the central character is an attractively unbridled young man of fierce temper and unrestrained sexuality who pursues true love through contemporary Britain in a sequence of scandalous and hilarious adventures

74) Oscar Wilde selected works

Comment: For the whole Wilde experience, you need The Picture of Dorian Gray (his only novel, but a good one), then Penguin Plays (which, as the title suggests, contains all his great plays), and last but not least, the Penguin classics version of De Profundis & Other Writings, in which you'll also find The Soul of Man Under Socialism, which is an attempt to embed charitable elements and self-determination into a rotten system, which may be exacerbated by the folk that we don't understand what we are doing to ourselves. I think Wilde is slightly overrated, but even back on his perch he's still one of the world's finest.  

75) Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas Hofstadter

Comment: A quite marvellous book about exploring deeper meaning and patterns in mathematics and logic. Hofstader is on the side of mind as a primacy, and that its potential, like the Extended Phenotype, transcends the apparatus that hosts it. A really terrific book.

76) The Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Comment: Masterly account of children in isolation learning profound and harsh lessons about the nature of their own humanity, and that the problems are mostly within not without. This is one of the first novels I would urge parents to give to their teenage children - it will help prepare them for the stark reality of being human, and thrill them while doing so.

77) On The Road - Jack Kerouac

Comment: Maybe not the best read during lockdown, but hugely evocative and full of great accounts.

78) What's So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew - Phillip Yancey

Comment: Apart from C.S Lewis's works, these are the two books I always recommend as introductions to the Christian faith. There are few non-fiction books that would change your life as much as What's So Amazing About Grace?

79) Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Comment: So many good tales, covering all the big human subjects. One to dip in and out of.

80) Surfaces and Essences - Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

Comment: The best book ever about analogies. And given that analogies are much of our human thought, it's a very important book. A tad repetitive, so should be about 10,000 words shorter, but a fantastic read.

81) Confessions - St Augustine

Comment: The first really great deep examination of a Christian soul. It's easy to get diminishing returns if you read it for too long in one session, so my advice is to read it in small sittings.

82) The Imitation of Christ - Thomas Kempis

Comment: Probably the best ever Bible commentary that isn't officially a Bible commentary

83) Herzog - Saul Bellow

Comment: I used to be like Herzog, forever dreaming up letters that I never sent. Saul Bellow does it wonderfully.

84) The Republic - Plato

Comment: I probably will not be inclined to read this again, but everyone should read it once – it’s a monster of a book, with a breadth of consideration about justice, political rule, and it’s a fascinating look at classical Greece. The Allegory of the cave is one of the greatest and most relevant observations in philosophical history, and while the Theory of Forms has come to grief, the ideation behind has planted seeds that are still as relevant as ever.

85) The Machinery of Freedom – David Friedman

Comment: Friedman makes a good case for libertarianism here. Some of the data is so 1970s-centric that it will feel a bit anachronistic today, by the central message is generally good, and there’s lots of good material in there to help people think like an economist, especially around perverse incentives and the ‘seen and unseen’ effects of policy, as per Bastiat’s wisdom.  

86) Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond

Comment: One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. It’s a kind of determinism in geographical causality – in other words, how geography plays a huge, often seemingly accidental, part in societal progress and retardation of progress.

87) Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

Comment: This is the only book in the list that I haven’t yet finished. I’m working my way through it, a few pages a time in small dips. But I’ve read enough to know how useful this book is – and can recommend it on the grounds that it’s obvious this is one of the most important mainstream behavioural science books. The reason for my small dips – and it is a strange one – is that I quite like treating it as I do my daily meals: it’s easy to get diminishing returns if you overload on material like this, especially as most of it is fairly standard wisdom and has been covered in about 50 works that predate it.

88) The Analects - Confucius

Comment: One thing I like about The Analects by Confucius is his observation, highly influential for the time, that harmony doesn’t have to be about a homogenous group - it’s often found in marked differences. Rather like how a musical or vocal ensemble has harmony in variety, society needs a variety of skills and specialities and talents to have harmony. His observation about creating harmony from difference to make the world a better place is both telling and prescient.

89) The Interpretation of Dreams - Sigmund Freud

Comment: Here’s something interesting about profound past insights. Their provenance and therefore their influence can get washed up into a cultural norm, whereby people take it for granted to such an extent that due credit is no longer afforded. The Bible is the most extreme case of this: its most important messages have been so readily absorbed into the world’s socio-cultural thinking that they are just taken for granted and they are crassly dismissed as archaic. They are like a concert audience who sits their enjoying the sounds of the symphony while forgetting that there’s an orchestra on stage. We do this with free trade too: the wisdom of Smith, Ricardo, Hayek, and Coase are so culturally ingrained that people enjoy the scent of their flower while trying to break the stork. I think this is also true about Freud, although obviously to a much lesser extent – we take for granted his observations about the unconscious and about the subset elements of personality as competing forces so readily that we now tend to only think of Freud as the flawed psychoanalyst who wasn’t quite so accurate on religion or sex.

90) Proper Study of Mankind - Isaiah Berlin

Comment: Some very good essays. Probably the highlight is The Hedgehog and the Fox - one of the best pieces of non-fiction. I have a chapter on it in one of my books, which I hope you'll get to read one day.

91) The Prince - Machiavelli

Comment: Classic work outlining how to rule a country, especially assuming the base and incorrigible nature of people. This is a book I wish was satire, but seems to me like it isn't, it's just plain old realism.

92) The Logic of Scientific Discovery - Karl Popper

Comment: Popper's own Kuhnian paradigm shift, using falsification as a criterion of demarcation to draw a sharp line between those theories that are scientific and those that are unscientific, and arguing that all knowledge is only an approximation to the reality. Of course, we are even hotter on falsifiability these days than Popper was - we have out-Poppered Popper. One caveat though, even through a scientific lens, falsifiability has real limits in its utility - after all, "All Xs are Y" is a generalisation which is falsifiable but near-impossible to verify, and "There is a Z" is a singular proposition that can be verified but it's near-impossible to falsify. Falsifiability, therefore, has better utility in generalisations than in specific singular propositions.

93) The Seven Basic Plots - Christopher Booker

Comment: I found this book so valuable - a really important thesis in my lifetime, showing how, in literature, there are only seven ‘storylines’ in the world, and that to the greatest degree all narratives are really variations of these basic seven storylines. The Seven basic plots, according to Booker, are as follows:

1) Overcoming the Monster

2) Rags to Riches

3) The Quest

4) Voyage and Return

5) Comedy

6) Tragedy

7) Rebirth

One minor criticism. Mr. Booker’s analysis is a little too parsimonious for my liking, despite his subsequently adding two further plot types – ‘Rebellion’ and ‘Mystery’. One glaring and obvious omission is the topic of ‘love’, which although containing the potential to be played out in any of the above storylines, was not itself a primary plot in the view of Booker. Another omission is what is often referred to as ‘character study’ or a ‘psychological study’ of a person’s mind – one which involves cutbacks on the external plot, but instead provides a penetrating incursion into the psyche of an individual – an incursion which is so often presented to us with our own selfhood in mind. But this is still an interesting book, and revealing to anyone who hasn't thought along these lines before.

94) Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Comment: Prescient and brilliant - the text is so incisive. Bradbury probably isn't as intelligent as Aldous Huxley, but I think he's a better writer. Check out his Zen in the Art of Writing too - one of the best books I've read on writing.

95) The Cloud of Unknowing - Unknown

Comment: I find a bit samey to read it in large chunks, but it's wonderful for the occasional dip, and usually uplifting and challenging.

96) Freakonomics - Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

Comment: Packed full of interesting and surprising stuff. One of the most compelling light-hearted commentaries on society and the unexpected things it throws up. What we find in this, and so many other social science books, is that human behaviour, when measured through a societal and statistical study, yields so many important discoveries that are as interesting as the great stuf we make up for entertainment.

Hope you enjoyed!

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