Lasch on the bookshelf again

After a week of steady reading, I am now about 320 pages into Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, with another 200 pages to go. And I am ready to put it back on the bookshelf for awhile (except this time with a bookmark!). Ten years ago I would have studied this book very closely; but because I’ve long since been persuaded of his thesis, and because I’ve read more than my fill of Enlightenment philosophers and philosophy, I can’t give Lasch the attention he deserves.

It might be easier if he weren’t so thorough; one interesting but endless chapter discussed the relationship between Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jonathan Edwards; another gave a short history of syndicalism, a failed and long-forgotten alternative to capitalism whose importance is mainly that it flourished at a particular historical juncture. But I’ve learned a few things:

  • Emerson was more, not less, of a Calvinist than the Unitarians he left behind.

  • Many 19th century thinkers were against philanthropy, because it led communities to turn traditional responsibilities over to the state.

  • Most thinkers from Adam Smith on recognized that free-market capitalism and the consumer society that results from it would weaken and possibly destroy traditional virtues (thrift, delayed gratification, benevolence, generosity) among the people. Some resisted it for this reason, while others thought it was worth the price, or maybe even a good thing to have a kindler, gentler populace. Some thinkers (Teddy Roosevelt among them) thought that the solution was an imperialist mindset, inspiring the population to make sacrificial efforts to conquer the world.

  • The idea of wage labor was universally despised in the 18th and early 19th century. The only argument was over whether it should be rejected altogether, or tolerated as a lesser evil yielding the greater good of material abundance.

It really is a good book, well-written and very thoughtful about its subject. But the time for me to read in this subject is past, and I don’t know if it will ever come again.


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