Thursday, June 30, 2011
This is a well written and interesting extended review by John Gray of David Brooks's apparently avidly consumed book, The Social Animal. I've admired some of Gray's work very much, particularly his superb treatment of Isaiah Berlin (which is in some ways as much Gray as Berlin). It is sometimes supposed that "progressivism" correlates with optimism, and "conservatism" with pessimism, but this review is interesting in part because it pits two strains of contemporary conservatism against one another -- Brooks's optimistic, cog-sci, evolutionary-psychology-can-save-us, let's-mine-the-unconscious-for-political-wisdom variety (which Gray, interestingly, associates with Sam Harris's book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values), against Gray's pessimistic, declinist, no,-we're-actually-not-so-much-more-advanced-than-Freud-that-we-can-dispense-with-reading-him brand. Here's the conclusion of Gray's piece:
Brooks cites Michael Oakeshott’s observation that in politics we “sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination.” It is a refreshing reminder of what conservative thinking might once have been. But Brooks would have done better to cite another passage from the same volume, where the skeptical British philosopher notes that
there seems little to stand in the way of the appearance of a vulgar counterpart to this literature of political inquiry. . . . A little book on How to Restore old Cottages may be flanked on the bookstalls by one on How to Restore old Monarchies; an article on “A face-lift for the kitchen: new and exciting materials” in a Do It Yourself magazine will be followed by others on “Dos and Don’ts in making a Revolution,” “How to win an Election.”
Oakeshott comments that “writings of this kind (with perhaps less obvious titles) have been available for more than a century.” It is doubtful, though, whether Oakeshott envisioned a book like The Social Animal: an instruction manual for politicians, the chief virtue of which is that it is practically useless.
This appealing emptiness will not ensure the book’s longevity, however. Soon enough, Brooks’s manual of positive thinking will be consumed and discarded. History will move on and yesterday’s gurus will be remaindered and forgotten. But if Brooks’s book will hardly be remembered, the reverence with which it has been received tells us something important about how we have come to be ruled. The Social Animal is an exemplar of political discourse as we know it today; the chief function is to distract attention from intractable realities, which governments and those they govern prefer not to think about.