TAC Bookshelf for the Week of July 30
Daniel Larison, senior editor: I’m reading The Immortal Game: A History of Chessby David Shenk. Shenk presents the long history of chess from its Indian and Persian origins as chaturanga and shatranj until the modern era, and he provides a valuable introduction to the basic concepts and rules of the game for those that don’t know them. He alternates between describing the evolution of the game across the centuries with a careful explanation of the unfolding of a remarkable 1851 game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Shenk relates the countless ways that a game of nearly infinite possibilities has been used to understand and explain concepts of mathematics, philosophy, and politics, and he tells the story of his own experience as an amateur player who gradually became fascinated with its complexities. He calls chess a “microcosm of human progress” and throughout the book he considers how the slow, careful accumulation of knowledge about the game imitates and also spurs on the development of civilization and the advance of science. Shenk emphasizes the long endurance of chess in many different cultures, and he details how the game was adapted as it spread to become the chess that we recognize today. New and experienced players would both benefit from this book. Anyone interested in learning more about the game’s origins and growth will be amply rewarded by reading this book.
Emile A. Doak, senior development associate: I’ve been reading Christopher Lasch’s classic The Revolt of the Elites. It’s easy to forget that the work was written almost a quarter of a century ago, as the themes Lasch explores are just as prescient in 2018 as they were in 1994. That cancer has deprived us of Lasch’s insightful commentary on the current sociopolitical moment—when it’s needed more than ever—stands as one of the tragedies of our time.
Take, for example, Lasch’s chapter on communitarianism and populism. It’s striking that Lasch writes so forebodingly of liberalism’s internal contradictions amidst the backdrop of a liberal mid-90s economic scene of relative peace and prosperity. Yet for Lasch, the contradictions are too obvious to ignore. Both liberalism’s commitment to “progress” and its belief that a liberal state could dispense with civic virtue have as their premise that “capitalism had made it reasonable for everyone to aspire to a level of comfort formerly accessible only to the rich.” Neither the contemporary Right nor Left is immune from liberalism’s materialist bent; each side’s reliance on the remarkable growth of global GDP (the famed “hockey stick” graph) as an indicator of human flourishing reveals Lasch’s prescience.
So what’s the alternative? For Lasch, the appeal of communitarianism and populism is apparent from liberalism’s contradictions. But this doesn’t mean that either of these two similar-yet-distinguishable traditions is the answer. Lasch displays a refreshing awareness for the role circumstance plays in politics, eschewing not principle, but policy masquerading as principle. A society that is thoroughly stratified between elites and the masses requires a different guiding philosophy than one instead threatened by communitarian overreach.
Towards the end of his chapter on communitarianism and populism, Lasch outlines the philosophy best suited for our times:
A public philosophy for the twenty-first century will have to give more weight to the community than to the right of private decision. It will have to emphasize responsibilities rather than rights. It will have to find a better expression of community than the welfare state. It will have to limit the scope of the market and the power of corporations without replacing them with a centralized state bureaucracy.
From the perspective of our prevailing GOP-Democratic dichotomy, Lasch’s proposed philosophy represents an incoherent amalgam of contradictory philosophies—which is precisely the point. Lasch had an uncanny knack for wading through partisan rancor to deliver a true diagnosis of our social ills. Would that he were here today to guide us through these troubled times.