(Before It's News)
The world is filled with bad ideas and bad belief systems. There are also a lot of valid ideas that are taken too far, or applied when not appropriate. Though there is enormous variation on what reasonable folks consider bad ideas, there is a consensus among most rational and ethical people that some ideas and ideologies are downright toxic. Nazism and Stalinism are a few clear- cut examples. Though I would add a long list of much less extreme belief systems to the list of belief systems that I fundamentally agree with, this post is not about delimiting which ideologies are better then others. Instead it is about how reading books, especially a selection of books that include a diversity of ideas, even untenable ideas, can help vaccinate the mind against falling prey to bad ideas or misapplying good ideas.
This concept can work on all sorts of levels. A simple example is illustrated relating to reading about totalitarianism. Reading history about the rise of Nazism, Stalinism as well lesser know tyrannies can encourage a healthy wariness to certain popular movements with authoritarian undertones. Likewise readng fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty – Four fiction or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We provides us with parables that help keep us keep alert to tyrannical ideologies. Likewise, works such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky Demons can give us insights into less obviously dangerous and less far sweeping fanaticism. In turn reading about Democratic ideals espoused by thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson can provide a strong counterbalance to totalitarian thought.
Many people, including myself, believe that what is rising in America is a form if totalitarianism. Much of our arguments are propelled by the above mentioned, and other, books. Some folks disagree with us. I find that some of best counter arguments are themselves driven by the ideas contained in other books.
One can take this concept further. Reading books written by a diverse set of thinkers who present us with a smorgasbord of ideas can teach us to reject and question certain ideas from otherwise insightful people who may have certain ideas that we choose not to accept. Friedrich Nietzsche is a good example of this. I find some of his ideas extremely astute and useful, particularly his criticism of popular culture and conformity of thought.
However his theory, as spelled out in On the Geneology of Morals, of “Master and Slave Morality”, where he rejected values such as “Good” and “Pity” and he dismissed the concept of equality are ideas that I do not accept. Armed with a knowledge of thinkers who extolled values that Nietzsche excoriated, ranging from Plato, the writers of The New Testament, René Descartes to modern day theorists such as Steven Pinker, my mind is buttressed with counterarguments. Even if one is in agreement with Nietzsche on this issue, the point remains the same; Knowledge of contrasting viewpoints can prepare us to examine and reject belief systems that otherwise seem appealing.
Likewise Nietzsche’s critique of morals allows us to examine and apprise all the thinkers that I mentioned above in a different critical light. Even good ideas benefit from examination and critical scrutiny. Acceptance of an idea or belief system is vastly stronger after one has considered counter arguments and still chooses the embrace the criticized system. Just knowing that there are other ideas and belief systems out there can be very valuable.
There are also cases where valid belief systems run into trouble. A herd mentality sets in and dissention and contrary views become demonized. For example, lately many have expressed concern that some elements of modern social justice movements are descending into extremism and intolerance of even slightly dissenting views. Dedicated members of these movements themselves have raised some of these apprehensions. Examining this situation from a point of view of someone who has read about historical Left wing overreach, both from Leftist dictatorships and from radical movements, provides a context to question these excesses. A careful examination, partially through reading, of both Liberal and Conservative ideas yields good ideas from both sides. Such reading can also brings to light criticism of concepts that group pressure might otherwise discourage. Thus I am questioning what I think are some very illiberal trends increasingly emanating out of the Left. I think that that this example is valid regardless what one’s views are on these issues as this concept applies to many other situations. It is that reading helps us questions ideas and belief systems, even if they come from directions that one is usually sympathetic to.
Being exposed to a wide range of ideas immunizes us in a way. We are not so easily seduced to arguments that appeal to our emotions, focus on limited aspects of truth, or turn insight into dogma. Being well read provides us with armor when delving into the conflicts involving ideas. It also protects us from blindly accepting bad ideas that may be part of otherwise worthy belief systems.
I have provided just a few examples above. One could write volumes about the value of reading diverse and conflicting opinions. The marketplace of human ideas is as vast as it is rich. A sampling of multiple products from this market provides one with intellectual balance and understanding that cannot be achieved any other way.
This is a blog about good books. It is a place for me to share my musings about literature, history, culture and science. Most of what one will find here are not plain reviews. Instead, when I discuss a book I tend to explore a thought or two that I have about the work. This is a place for the enthusiastic reader who is curious about the world!