Eight classics for understanding our times

Posted: Jul 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Three weeks ago, I wrote about books before 1750 that those looking to avoid the tyranny of the urgent should read. One person who saw the list asked about books from the past 250 years that would help us understand: a) why America has become a success and b) why the 20th century was in many ways a disaster. I do have four recommendations on each topic.

My first choice is heavy lifting at times but is worth it: "The Wealth of Nations," put out by England's Adam Smith in 1776. He showed that competition and free trade reduce poverty and spur helpful activity, since "man's self-interest is God's providence," which means that service with a smile is most likely when we profit by serving. Out of a Christian concern for the common man, Smith also attacked special interests who said they were acting to protect the poor but were actually using government to preserve their own standing.

Next up is an attempt to forestall the age of big government. Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" predicted accurately that French revolutionary ideology would lead to terror and dictatorship in the 1790s. Britain's Burke advocated the political pursuit of limited goals grounded in historical experience, and opposed the Enlightenment approach (now called "progressivism") of attempting to rearrange social and political institutions according to abstract principles.

Burke's reflections can be read side-by-side with the work of the three Americans -- James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay -- who wrote "The Federalist Papers." They were defending the new American Constitution and the compromises Madison and its other authors had made as they attempted to design a structure for a free republic that, unlike those of the past, would last.

Then comes Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s-vintage "Democracy in America." This French observer's emphasis on the importance of religious and community institutions in American life shows the deep roots of compassionate conservatism. Even more, his analysis shows how religious belief, civic associations and the sense that "among Americans are honest callings are considered honorable" all contributed to prosperity combined with liberty.

Turning to the question about the 20th century, I suggest Jose Gironella's "The Cypresses Believe in God." This moving novel tells of one Spanish family in the 1930s and shows what happens when communist and fascist ideologies take precedence over God. Gironella understood the forces that push sane men toward murderous activities that prompt the other side to retaliate; those counter-activities then prompt the original perpetrators to see their action as justified.

The Spanish Civil War led to World War II, which led to Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz," a gripping account of depravity that shows how 20th century totalitarians, believing man is merely an animal, tried to turn all men into animals. Instead of howling, Levi restrainedly wrote of life in hell, and his just-the-facts-ma'am story of survival amplifies the horror of the Holocaust.

Next comes "Witness" by Whittaker Chambers, the powerful autobiography and reflective meditation of a communist who became a Christian. To the scorn of the intellectual establishment, Chambers called himself "an involuntary witness to God's grace and to the fortifying power of faith." He also explained that he first came to believe in God by looking at his infant daughter's "intricate, perfect ears" after she had smeared porridge on her face: He realized that those ears "could have been created only by immense design," and "design presupposes God. ... At that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead."

I'll conclude on a hopeful note with Walker Percy's "The Second Coming." Of a half-dozen Percy novels that capture the God-driven hope and God-forsaken zaniness of contemporary American life, this is the most luminous in showing how humor beats alienation, faith overwhelms spiritual fatigue, and love for a woman can point a man to God. He concludes: "Am I crazy to want both, her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have."