The Bookshelf

The tomes featured in the TGA Bookshelf are those the average undergraduate will probably not meet in the classroom during his or her four years at Georgetown.  Each book has enduring character and expresses salient truths about human life that point us toward the higher things.  We think everyone should have them on their own bookshelf, either for continued reference or frequent rereading.    


The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

As a teacher and student of the "Great Books" and a member of the famed Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Bloom had a profound influence on his students and American culture.  This book, his magnum opus, was released in 1987 and instantly became a publishing sensation.  His thesis is the same as his subtitle: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. The social and political crisis of the present age, Bloom says, is really an intellectual crisis.  Under the guise of an ersatz tolerance, American democracy has been duped into accepting relativistic and nihilistic ideas about man and his end.  Accordingly, today's students, the future political, cultural, and business leaders of America, have been taught to become relativists and nihilists themselves, which then leads to despair and the problems that have plagued mankind throughout the previous one hundred years.  In the first section, simply entitled "Students," Bloom describes and analyzes the lives of modern pupils with remarkable insight. His discussion of relationships between men and women at college is the most fascinating part of the book and alone justifies purchasing it.  With no understanding of the past, no vision for the future, or even a basic knowledge of themselves, students are left alone to fend off the degrading and soul annihilating pressures of modern academic life.  If you read it, chances are you'll find yourself in the process.  Bloom goes on to trace the intellectual history behind our current discontents, coming to the conclusion that vulgarized Continental ideas of nihilism and relativism have invaded the university, and then remarking that "a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis [modern nations] face."  Ending with a call to once again reawaken philosophical discourse about our nature, Bloom enjoins us to participate in the "real community of man . . . the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers . . . of all men to the extent they desire to know."  A must read for any student serious about their education.


Memoirs of a Superfluous Man

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock

Few men in history impact American culture the way Albert Jay Nock did. Though little known today among those in higher education (despite having penned one of the best books ever written on the subject, The Theory of Education in the United States), Nock had a profound influence on early American conservative and libertarian intellectuals, men like H.L. Mencken, Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and most notably William F. Buckley Jr., whose family Nock would frequently visit.  Nock's Memoirs are not really memoirs under the normal understanding of the term, but discourses on what he thinks and how he came to think it.  According to Nock, "every person of any intellectual quality develops some sort of philosophy of existence; he acquires certain settled views of life and of human society; and if he could trace out the origin and course of the ideas contributory to that philosophy, he might find it an interesting venture." This idea became Nock's Memoirs, an "autobiography of a mind in relation to the society in which it found itself."  Within its pages reside some of the most perceptive truths about human nature, education, government, and society.  A man of great learning, Nock is known for making distinctions, such as those between government and "the State," between education and "training," and between those who are human and those who are merely what he calls "physically human."  This book defies time and only the dull have read it fully without concluding it is indeed one of the keenest and most entertaining autobiographies ever written.


Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton  

Arguably the best piece of Christian apologetics written during the 20th century, Chesterton penned this masterpiece in 1908 before he converted to Catholicism.  A sequel to his other magnificent book, Heretics, Chesterton's Orthodoxy reads like Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua without the difficult prose.   Inside, Chesterton explains how he tried "to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy."  Explaining in his lively, mischievous style how orthodoxy is really quite liberating, Chesterton succeeds in defending orthodoxy as "not only the only safe guarding of morality and order, but . . . also the only logical guarding of liberty, innovation and advance."  Whether you're Catholic or not, don't leave Georgetown without having read this book.


The Abolition of Man

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis  

From the famed Cambridge Don who penned The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters comes what some have called the best defense of natural law and one of the most prophetic books published in the last hundred years.  Written and originally given as lectures in England during the Second World War, The Abolition of Man is split into three parts.  The first essay defends an objective moral order and indicts the modern project of subjectively analyzing all moral problems.  Lewis denies subjectivity in morality and looks to other cultures, discovering that every civilization in history has possessed certain universal moral maxims that transcend time and place.  In the second essay, Lewis skewers those who deny the validity of making moral judgement as self-contradictory because they cannot help but to make moral judgement themselves.  By denying an objective truth, these relativist must cling, like Hitler did, to the Nietzchean concept of "will to power," an attempt at forcing reality to submit to one's creative might.  The final essay, from which the title of the book is taken, warns of the possible ramifications when there are no objective constraints placed upon societal elites who are then free to reshape society in their own image.  When this occurs, all of political life comes down to a power struggle in which only the strong survive.  This leads to tyranny.  Lewis's fictional novel The Hideous Strength captures the dire social consequences that occur when such ideas are put into practice and should be read as a companion volume.

 
 
 

The Education of Henry Adam, by Henry Adams

Counted among the great American autobiographies and listed by various literary and academic associations as the best book written during the twentieth century, The Education of Henry Adams portrays in third person one man's journey of a lifetime.  As the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, Adams had a very personal sense of American history, but his more objective sense of the roots of Western tradition go deeper still.  In The Education, Adams sees clearly how modernism's desire for innovation and progress conflicts with humanity's need for order.  The sophisticated cynicism he displays may seem bizarre to some, but when one considers that much of the last 100 years have been characterized by mass murder and destructive political ideologies, we know that his insight was keen indeed.  The Education reveals Adams' theory of history and chronicles the major historical events and intellectual movements of the late-nineteenth century, during which America recovered from the Civil War and began to join the world stage as a major political and economic power.  His insatiable love of learning, travel, and conversation, not to mention his stints as a political journalist and Harvard professor, give him a unique perspective to understanding the events and ideas that shaped the American twentieth century landscape. Adams' tome teaches one how to think, not what to think, and he reminds us that history, civilization's record, is merely an amalgam of individual experiences.  His personal relationships with the political, cultural, and industrial leaders of his time illustrate how ideas come to life through the work of great men and women.  The Education is filled with many sage observations, including Adams' famous dictum that "[k[nowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education."  A book for students serious about developing a critical mind, sharp intellect, and sense of American history.


Another Sort of Learning

Another Sort of Learning, by James V. Schall, S.J.

Some students have compared Father Schall, an old half-blind Jesuit who recently retired from nearly fifty years teaching at Georgetown, as a kind of modern day Socrates.  Whether or not the comparison holds true, the fact remains Father Schall dramatically impacted the lives of countless students who took his courses during his tenure.  His works on political philosophy constitute an impressive collection and are some of the most erudite and enduring that have been produced by a professor from the Hilltop.  This book, a compilation of essays on education and "the highest things," is a delight to read and will for the discerning reader, provide copious amounts of wisdom.  With chapters such as "What a Student Owes His Teacher," "Why Read?" and "Grades," Father Schall discusses how to study and go about getting a real education, which he sees as an attempt at confronting the fundamental issues of human life.  Filled with valuable lists and reviews of great books that "you will never be assigned," Schall endeavors to provide some "insight into the heart of reality."  He succeeds admirably.  The third and final section deals mostly with things of a spiritual nature and his chapters "On the Difficulty of Believing and Not Believing," and "On Spiritual and Intellectual Life," are arguably the best in the book.  In his chapter on Chesterton, Father Schall writes that "[t]he discourse of mankind with the greatest teachers does not cease because those who speak to us are dead."  This is one of those books that need to be read not just once, but twice, and then again, so it can be savored, enjoyed, and understood more fully.


The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk  

It was the liberal critic Lionel Trilling who famously remarked in 1950 that, "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition," in America.  That was of course, until Russell Kirk and his brilliant and highly readable book The Conservative Mind arrived on the scene.  It is hard to accurately express the impact Kirk's work had on American politics. Perhaps conservative historian George Nash said it was best when he wrote, "[i]t is not too much to say that without this book we, the conservative intellectual community, would not exist today."  William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that it is "inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without [Kirk's] labor." Widely revered as the Godfather of the post-WWII conservative renaissance, Kirk's tome is the seminal work of the movement, laying down the intellectual foundation for the political battles that would culminate in the election of conservative saint Ronald Reagan to the presidency.  In The Conservative Mind, Kirk accomplished what the liberal academic and media establishment believed impossible: he rooted conservatism in the American historical tradition and the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization, thereby giving it the philosophical heft of a worldview both intellectually defensible and compatible with the beliefs of the majority of Americans.  In the book, Kirk explains why conservatism is not an "ideology," but rather, a disposition, a way of living and viewing life, and he outlines six "cannons of conservatism" in order to give it a more ordered philosophical vision.  The Conservative Mind is easy to read and doubles as a work of American political and intellectual history, starting with President John Adams and ending with T.S. Eliot.

 

 
The Idea of a University

The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman

This collection of lectures and essays on the occasion of the founding of a Catholic university in Dublin remain perhaps the most eloquent defense of a liberal education in the English language.  Newman's Ciceronian prose makes the book challenging, but the enterprising student who makes his way through will better understand the value of education at a Catholic college or university.  As Cardinal Newman writes, "practically speaking, [a university] cannot fulfill its object duty, such as I have described it, without the Church's assistance; or, to use a theological term, the Church is necessary for its integrity."  At a time when the Catholicity of Georgetown is at stake, we could do no better than read and reflect upon Cardinal Newman's wonderful book and soak in his valuable wisdom.


 
 
The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency — the belief that the here and now is all there is.
— Allan Bloom