Battle of the Books: What Works Can Be Said to Have Altered History? A Few by Scientists and Philosophers, Perhaps, but None So Much as the Central Texts of the World Religions

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), July 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

Battle of the Books: What Works Can Be Said to Have Altered History? A Few by Scientists and Philosophers, Perhaps, but None So Much as the Central Texts of the World Religions


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Drawing up a list of books that have changed the world is a tricky business. We see in the past what engages us in the present, and many books that were once hugely influential are now almost forgotten. In the history of ideas as in history as a whole, our view of the past is prone to a kind of optical illusion in which we mistake what is closest to us for the dominant feature of the landscape. There is a powerful tendency to imagine that if a book has disappeared from view then it can never have had much of an impact.

In fact, many books that once shook the world are today unread. Consider Herbert Spencer's The Man Versus the State (1884). Spencer's theories were vastly influential, especially in the US, where his books sold millions of copies (and where The Man Versus the State is still in print). There can be no doubt that Spencer's works had an impact on events, shaping the thinking of Supreme Court judges, but hardly anyone reads him now. While Spencer's works are not without intermittent insights, it was not these that made him so popular--it was the appealingly crude ideology he constructed. Like many a second-rate thinker after him, Spencer supplied a pseudo-scientific foundation for the hopes and prejudices of his time. It was he who coined the expression "survival of the fittest", and though he developed his version of evolutionism independently of Charles Darwin, he set a precedent for the political misuse of Darwinian ideas that continues today.

There could be no better antidote to the pervasive misrepresentation of Darwin's thought than Janet Browne's volume in the new Atlantic Books series of "Books That Shook the World". Relating the history of Darwin's ideas with a pellucid freshness that makes reading the book a continuous pleasure, Browne sets him firmly in the context of Victorian evolutionary thinking and at the same time brings out his own contribution to a world-transforming theory. Darwin has been portrayed as the intellectual godfather of the militant atheism that in recent years has been enjoying a small-scale revival, but Browne shows how far removed this caricature is from Darwin the man--a cautious valetudinarian whose religious outlook seems to have come closest to a mild deism. As Browne writes, rather than being "a solitary voice deliberately defying the traditions of the Church or the moral values of society", Darwin's Origin of Species should be seen as "one of the hubs of transformation in western thought".

It is widely believed that Karl Marx wished to dedicate his book Das Kapital to Darwin. As Browne notes, this is a mistake. It is true that Marx admired Darwin--he sent him an inscribed copy of the book, which remains in Darwin's library--but it was Marx's son-in-law Edward Aveling who offered to dedicate one of his books to Darwin, an offer Darwin (who did not want to be associated with Aveling's atheism) rejected. Moreover, despite Marx's admiration for Darwin, the two thinkers could hardly be more different. While Darwin had a genuine respect for facts, Marx was a system-builder in the mould of Herbert Spencer, using his empirical researches to prop up a theoretical scheme he adopted for other reasons. However, it is not as a system-builder that Francis Wheen pictures Marx. Instead he sees him as a "poet of dialectic", and Das Kapital as a literary creation that should be read in postmodern fashion as a necessarily fractured and incomplete intellectual narrative. It is an amusing conceit, and Wheen has a point when he writes that Marx, who understood capitalism better than many economists, gives a vivid picture of its anarchic energy. But in what sense can this postmodern curio be said to have shaken the world? In time-honoured marxisant style, Wheen insists that Marx's ideas were in no way implicated in the crimes of 20th-century communist regimes--the fault lay with Lenin, who turned Marx's thought into dogma. …

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