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Confessions of an Autodidact

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By:David Gordon | April 26, 2018
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From the September 2005 issue of Chronicles.

Is self-education a good idea?  The greatest of my teachers, Walter Starkie, in his delightful autobiography Scholars and Gypsies, recalls a comment made in 1914 by his godfather, J.P Mahaffy, the legendary provost of Trinity College, Dublin, about W.B. Yeats: “Poor fellow! He is an autodidaktos—he never worked under a Master.”

Yeats did not end up too badly, though; and, in these days of narrow academic specialization and unthinking left-wing nonsense, you must be able to think and read for yourself.  The task is not easy, but, as Samuel Butler remarked about the verse “Ye cannot serve God and mammon”: “Difficult, no doubt.  But then nothing worth doing in life is easy.”

In what follows, I shall recommend a few books that I have found valuable and then offer some suggestions on how to analyze critically what you are reading.  You do not need me to tell you to read Aristotle and Shakespeare; the books on my list certainly are no substitute for the classics.  You may find, though, that reading them will help you to understand the great books better.

Those who are starting a reading program need to avoid a mistake.  People often begin with very ambitious goals: “I think I’ll read all the dialogues of Plato the first week; then on to the Summa Theologica and the Critique of Pure Reason in the rest of the month.”  When they find that they cannot keep up with their plan, they throw over the whole scheme and give up.

It is much better to start with something easy.  A short book that is the beginning of all wisdom in economic matters is Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson.  Hazlitt, who wrote for many years on the subject for the New York Times, was largely self-educated; but his level of learning easily surpassed that of most academics.  Few writers on economics match his clarity of thought.  Readers of his book will never forget the “broken window fallacy.”  Someone who smashes a store window does not stimulate the economy by providing an opportunity for investment in a new window.  True enough, a new window may be ordered; but, if the hooligan had not smashed the window, the storekeeper would have spent his money on something else.  The fallacy lies in considering only the immediate results of an action.  We also need to ask: What would happen if we do not act?  Much government policy, Hazlitt shows, rests on this fallacy.  You might think the fallacy obvious; but Paul Krugman, among many other worthies, has fallen victim to it.

Even shorter is What Has Government Done to Our Money?, a pamphlet by Murray Rothbard.  Rothbard, who has influenced me on economics and politics more than anyone else, cuts through the obfuscations of monetary theory found in mainstream texts.  He shows how government manipulation of money leads to disaster.  The book is an excellent introduction to the thought of one of the greatest 20th-century economists.

Another very simple but profound work is The Law, by Frédéric Bastiat, a leading French 19th-century classical liberal and economist.  Bastiat asks a devastating question: If people delegate power to the government, by what right does the government acquire new rights that individual persons lack?  If, for example, individuals do not have the right to seize property to promote equality, why does government have the right to do so?  All too often, Bastiat shows, planners view people as clay to be molded into shape rather than as human beings with wills of their own.  The pamphlet made an indelible impression on me when I read it as a teenager.

If you have read these three, you are ready for more difficult material.  Reading Rothbard soon becomes addictive: Once you have read his pamphlet on money, why not move on to his longer works?  I remember how excited I felt when Man, Economy, and State appeared in 1962: Like his great teacher Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard deduces the whole body of economic theory from only a few axioms.  Be sure to obtain the new edition, which includes Power and Market, a brilliant taxonomy of government intervention.

If you have read Rothbard, you must, of course, go on to Mises, the foremost exponent in the 20th century of the Austrian School of Economics.  Many find his masterwork, Human Action, very hard going.  I recommend that readers start with his Theory and History, which contains, among much else, a penetrating analysis of the Marxist theory of history.  Friedrich Hayek told me that he thought very highly of this book, and it is the most neglected of Mises’ major works.  You also cannot miss Socialism, in which Mises develops his famous calculation argument.  The socialists never recovered from it.

Friedrich Hayek extended and deepened Bastiat’s attack on planners as enemies of liberty.  In The Road to Serfdom, he shows that economic planning requires a single set of values to govern production.  Because people, in fact, have very different preferences, the required single set must be forcibly imposed.  Planning thus leads to dictatorship; understanding this is essential to grasping the essence of both Nazism and communism.  You should read this together with Mises’ Omnipotent Government; Mises discusses a different but related argument that shows how interference with a free economy leads to socialism.  Restrictions on the market do not work: Faced with failure, the planners must either return to the free market or intervene even more.  If they follow the latter course, full-scale state control of the economy will soon ensue.

To be broadly educated, you cannot neglect philosophy.  Again, I begin with a short book: Reason and Argument, by the English philosopher Peter Geach.  The book will give you the essential logical tools you need to understand philosophical arguments.  Geach concentrates on analyzing arguments rather than on technicalities of mathematical logic of interest only to specialists.

Is there an objective basis for ethics, as Aristotle and Aquinas maintained?  The logical positivists notoriously held that ethical statements are mere expressions of emotion.  Those who read Geach’s The Virtues will be inoculated against this view.  Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” is basic: It is included in her Collected Philosophical Papers.  She was a profound thinker, and all of her papers deserve careful study.  She compels us to rethink conventional doctrine about a gap between “is” and “ought.”  Anscombe, who was Geach’s wife, influenced another outstanding English philosopher, Philippa Foot.  Foot’s Virtues and Vices and Natural Goodness present a modern Aristotelian view.  Henry Veatch’s For an Ontology of Morals and Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? offer a gracefully written criticism of contemporary ethical philosophy.

The books on ethics I have so far recommended are, broadly speaking, Aristotelian in inspiration.  Another important view, which stresses more than these writers the compelling force of moral obligation, is A.E. Taylor’s The Faith of A Moralist. In this vast work, and in his short Does God Exist?, Taylor develops with great force a moral argument for the existence of God.  Taylor was a philosophical scholar of immense learning.  His reviews in Mind and other journals have been models for me.

Robert Nozick was among the most brilliant of all 20th-century philosophers.  He was amazingly swift in argument, always able to devise an odd counterexample that would undermine any philosophical argument he was considering.  If you read his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, you will get a very good idea of his personality.  His criticism of John Rawls’ account of distributive justice in Chapter Six of that book is a model of philosophical criticism.  Nothing remains of Rawls’ egalitarianism after Nozick is through with it.  I definitely do not recommend Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, although this is by far the most influential work of 20th-century American political philosophy.  It is a dull, unreadable affair: Antony Flew, an excellent British philosopher, treats it with withering contempt in his excellent Equality in Liberty and Justice.

Another excellent philosopher, with a very different cast of mind from Nozick’s, is Donald Livingston.  His Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium warns against undue reliance on abstract thought, if taken apart from the “common life.”  (I think he would classify Nozick as just the sort of abstract philosopher against whom he cautions.)  Livingston, in his main line of argument, follows David Hume, whose criticism of philosophy he ably expounds.  Again taking inspiration from Hume, Livingston presents a brilliant philosophical and historical defense of decentralized government.  M.E. Bradford, an outstanding literary historian, offers a closely related criticism of abstract egalitarianism and defense of the Southern tradition in A Better Guide Than Reason and The Reactionary Imperative.  Bradford brilliantly criticized “equality of opportunity,” which is not, he showed, the appropriate conservative answer to “equality of results.”

Speculative metaphysical systems are very much out of fashion, but you are missing something vital if you omit them.  J.M.E. McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence is one of the greatest works of 20th-century philosophy, an amazing attempt to deduce a highly detailed and unusual view of the world from the proposition “something exists.”  F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, a once-famous work, is a beautifully written book by a highly original thinker.

Among more recent philosophers, J.N. Findlay’s Gifford Lectures, The Discipline of the Cave and The Transcendence of the Cave, show that metaphysics is by no means dead.  Findlay had a strangely evocative style.  Here is a sample, from his essay “My Encounters With Wittgenstein”:

He returned to Cambridge during the phoney war: everything was blacked out at night, and one had the strange, almost mystical experience every Thursday of ascending a totally dark spiral staircase in Neville’s Court, feeling one’s way with one’s feet like a horse fording a stream in one of Wittgenstein’s examples, till one emerged in the light of Wittgenstein’s room at the top.

Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations—his most important book—shows the author’s unequaled philosophical imagination at its full strength.  If you work your way through it, you will encounter a highly original mind who offers new ideas in every paragraph.  Nozick’s rival as the most brilliant American analytical philosopher is Saul Kripke; many in this tradition rank him foremost in the world.  His Naming and Necessity is a book of fundamental importance.

There is much more to being well educated than reading economics and philosophy, but I fear that I have left little space for such minor matters as history and literature.  I will confine myself to three other titles.  One of these will keep you occupied for quite some time: the eight-volume History of Political Ideas by Eric Voegelin.  This displays the author’s vast learning to full effect.  The two volumes on the Middle Ages are a good place to start.  Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism is a far-reaching criticism of a harmful emotional form of thought and politics: It defends classical reason against Romantic extravagance.  Yvor Winters’ In Defense of Reason argues strongly for the primacy of morality in literature, from a point of view related to Babbitt’s.

I imagine that these are enough books for a start.  I recommend reading them straight through; I am not a proponent of elaborate outlines in the style of Mortimer Adler, the “great bookie.”  Some people, though, have found his How to Read a Book helpful; for a criticism, see I.A. Richards’ How to Read a Page.  When you read a book, you should not be satisfied with extracting the main ideas: This is why I distrust outlines.  Often, the details and digressions in a book are its most important parts.

Probably the most important suggestion I can give is to read critically: Do not accept without question what sounds plausible.  One illustration must here suffice.  Almost all writers on politics assume that equality of some sort is desirable.  Even Milton Friedman thinks equality is a good thing: He opposes state-mandated redistribution for its harmful effects, not because it is intrinsically wrong.  Why should we agree with this?  Nozick and Rothbard both point out that no argument for equality is ever presented.  Often, people think that the disabled and the severely impoverished merit help; but this has nothing to do with making everyone equal in income or wealth.  Once you think about it, the case for equality dissolves.

I have offered the preceding suggestions with hesitation.  Many other books could have been listed, and I do not mean to imply that these books exceed all others in value.  They are just a few works that have meant something to me.  Once, after I had compiled a list of books on a different topic, a philosopher well known in certain circles berated me for not including his books.  He was not a vain man, he protested, but he knew the value of his work.  I wonder whether he thanks God that he is not as other men are.       

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