It would be a pity if this book were ignored. It runs the risk of being ignored because its author thinks for himself, and deeply. Moreover, he is not afraid to follow his thought to its logical conclusions and in the process say things that will win him few enthusiastic allies. His objectivityan almost clinical detachment at timescan be frankly appalling. The book also runs the parallel risk of not being attended with the seriousness it deserves because many of its components, whether contained in whole chapters or in extended digressions within chapters, lend themselves to a kind of intellectual surgery: the superficial reader will face the almost irresistible temptation to simply wrench from the larger whole those components which appeal to him. Some readers and critics will like certain chapters, but recoil, instinctively as it were, from the broader argument; to solve this dilemma, they may simply pretend the broader argument does not exist.
The book is (1) an attempt to sketch out an outline of a bold new theory about the rise and development of civilization; (2) an attempt to recover, at least for earnest consideration, a number of profound thinkers whose stock, so to speak, is quite low among many of America's leading commentators; (3) a bracing polemic against "forgetfulness"; and (4) an attempt to situate the ghastly phenomenon of Islamic terrorism in a larger picture of "civilization and its enemies." The book may be at its weakest on this last point, an admittedly contrarian judgment which I shall have occasion to defend in a moment. But let it first be said that in all four of its "guises" the book is a valuable contribution to the public conversation. Harris's learning is immense, but he wears it lightly; his aim is to illuminate not impress or bludgeon. To that end, he introduces a whole mass of what might be called layman's vocabulary to elucidate more complicated philosophical principles. Some could be refined into conceptual instruments of great power and subtlety. Many readers will already be familiar with his justly celebrated concepts of fantasy ideology and neo-sovereignty, both of which are markedly superior to the blander and more confused popular term for which Harris offers them as replacements: terrorism and empire, respectively. And there are more where those came from.
One of my favorites is the honorific state. As Harris explains,
It is precisely through the triumph of the Pax Americana that the substantive content of the term state has been imperceptibly subverted and transformed out of all recognition. The state, as this term is now used, is no longer restricted to a political entity that can in fact defend itself against all comers and that exists as a viable unit in defiance of those who would absorb or annex it; the state is no longer locked in a continual struggle for its independent survival in a world full of hostile forces, where a failure to face up to the imperatives of reality spells social death . . .. It is now, instead, something very different: an entity called into being by the formal recognition of the international community. (my italics)
Harris detects the action of this terminological transformation in the facile insistence of so many serious people to talk about a Palestinian "state." Such an entity would be purely honorific. "The bitter truth," he writes, "is that if the Palestinian people were indeed a genuine state fighting a genuine war, they would have long since been annihilated root and branch," or been forced to make some real capitulations to the State of Israel, which is indeed a state in the old sense of the word.
It is descriptive and analytical clarity like this, which makes the book so bracing; and the pacing of the book, especially for the first 150 pages or so, is excellent. Harris's insights and reflections unfold gradually, so as not to dismay or confuse. The final third is a bit more uneven. And in chapters such as "The Rare Virtues of the West," this reviewer at least was left with a nagging doubt that the civilization Harris praises with such peculiar vividness has faded and lost its vigor; that Harris is soothing his patient with emollients when what he needs is a tonic, even a bitter tonic; in short, that he honors something which is nearly lost to us.
A prominent but somehow understated figure in this slender volume is the 19th-century English journalist Walter Bagehot, for whom Harris is not alone in his admiration. The great cultural historian Jacques Barzun, in his masterly From Dawn to Decadence, writes of Bagehot's "singular genius," which is a function of his "double vision": "In any conflict of persons or of ideas he was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy; and he entered not only into the reasons but also the feelings attached. This is a rare talent." Indeed it is; and Lee Harris shares it.
What perplexed Bagehot, Harris explainsand here we begin to glimpse the lineaments of Harris's theory about the rise and maturation of is how societies ever escaped from the cyclical pattern of tribalism, how they ever broke "the cake of custom," in Bagehot's lucid phrase. The reader is taken all the way back to ancient Sparta, the great martial city-state which achieved a period of stability as a society of truly astonishing duration. "For a period lasting roughly from the eighth century B.C. to the third century B.C., Sparta was never conquered by an enemy, was never embroiled in a civil war, and was never ruled by a tyrantthree feats that no other society has been able to claim for so long a period, including our own." How was this accomplished? Harris's answer will fascinate, infuriate, or satisfy; it will decidedly not bore.
In his remarkable essay The Government of Poland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declares of Lycurgus, the legendary Lawgiver of Sparta: "He fixed upon [the Spartans] a yoke of iron, the like of which no other people has ever born; but he tied them to that yoke, made them, so to speak, one with it, by filling up every moment of their lives. . . . And out of this ceaseless constraint, made noble by the purpose it served, was born that burning love of country which was always the strongestor rather the onlypassion of the Spartans." As Harris puts it, "Sparta was the place where men first cured themselves of their addiction to lethal violence within their own community. . . . Their sense of loyalty to their own city-state transcended and trumped all other types of affiliationkinship, class, party. No one else in the ancient world managed to pull off this trick." Rousseau again: "Sparta, to be sure, was only a city; but the sheer force of its legislation made it lawgiver and capital to all of Greece and caused the Persian empire to tremble." As Harris has it, the sheer force of Sparta's legislation made it "lawgiver and capital" to all of not just Greece, but Western civilization itself. That legislation was the liberation of men from the family: "Spartan men," he writes, "grew up thinking of themselves not as members of a biological family but as citizens of Sparta, and this achievement changed the world." The Spartans replaced the family with the "team," which was a kind of half-civilized and controllable variety of the male gang. The Spartan was master of his world because he had harnessed ruthlessness within his own society: contained and redirected it. A great weapon, this. Harris speaks of "the organizational arms race," and argues with striking shrewdness that the real breakthroughs in methods of warfare are "not in the construction of new things but in the construction of new ways to organize human beings." Sparta took a huge step in binding men not to their family but to their country.
From there the reader is taken on a tour of later societies, and directed to look attentively at what each added to the technique of political organization: Rome, Christendomboth Catholic and Protestantand finally the United States. This story of refining the social structure of the "team," in Harris's telling, is the real story of the development of civilization.
I once joked to Harris, who is a friend of mine, that his next book should be called "Hegel for Dummies." For it is significant that he has confronted and mastered this great and famously impenetrable German philosopher, a rare accomplishment in its own right. And while he never states it explicitly, my sense is that his cool and competent reliance on Hegel is intended in part by Harris as a recommendation. Similarly with Rousseau, whom Harris turns to regularly: He seems to intimate that these are two thinkers figuring prominently on that large list of Philosophers Everyone Thinks They've Read. The stain of the Jacobin Terror taints Rousseau, and the Communist Terror Hegel; but both, Harris implies, are worth reconsideration, by their purported followers and professed adversaries alike. Some other lesser figures come in for a comparable treatment; and again what is revealed is Harris's intellectual magnanimity. He seems genuinely sympathetic (some will say to a fault) to any thinker who has made a serious effort to understand the world.
On the other hand, Harris is absolutely unsparing when he castigates intellectuals for their great sin: the sin of "forgetfulness." Quoting the historian Robert Conquest, he writes that the 20th century is rightly called the "ravaged century." He continues: "But if it has been ravaged, it has been ravaged by the intellectual." Inebriation with abstract reasoning, with disembodied Platonic ideals, induces them to forget the real historical conditions under which ideals approach actualization. They are forever comparing history and reality to their lofty ideals, and cursing the former two for failing to live up. Discouraged, they then turn with slothful incredulity to projects of utopian design; they subtilize themselves into savages, as Burke put it. Now this is an old story, a staple in the conservative polemical arsenal (and a staple for good reason!), but Harris adds meaningfully to it in developing his critique of modern education, which foolishly aims at turning everyone into modern intellectuals. This critique, mostly contained in the short but profound chapter "How Reason Goes Wrong," calls to mind John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University and C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man. It is not the equal of these great works, but it is no mean contribution either.
Civilization and Its Enemies has been billed as a "9/11 book." A blurb on the back cover by Daniel Pipes refers to Harris as "the reigning philosopher of 9/11" and the description on the dust jacket also pushes this angle. One can hardly fault a publisher for trying to sell a book, but in my judgment the arguments that address terrorism, and Islamic terrorism in particular, show a feebleness that is generally absent elsewhere. And the irony is that the feebleness is very much like the problem that Harris identifies in intellectuals: a forgetfulness about historical context. Here Harris is not a disciple of his own philosophy; he forgets what Islam is. He takes for granted the proposition that there is nothing intrinsic to the faith that makes its adherents susceptible to what he calls the Fantasy Ideologybut this premise is left undefended. It is not even asseverated, but merely assumed. Now: this is a huge and sensitive subject, which I do not for moment propose to put to rest here, but we cannot forget that there is a unique history to consider when assaying Islam and terrorism. Certainly G. K. Chesterton considered it when he wrote these perspicacious words, almost a century ago:
There is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. . . . A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude if lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets.
Here I think Chesterton has captured with his own unique sagacity some of the concrete historical features of Islam's incubation as a creed and movement. These things are part of what made it what it is, and we do well, indeed just as Harris counsels, not to forget them.
But this is a fairly minor quibble. It is reassuring, in fact, to discover that what is most popularone might almost say trendyabout this book is not what is most valuable; that the reviewer who fancies it as one long essay on Fantasy Ideology is selling it short; and that, as what is most popular is also most likely to be misused, what is more valuable is unlikely to be misused. In short, this innovative and stimulating book risks being ignored precisely because it surpasses itself, and challenges its readers precisely because it exceeds its most easily advertised and appropriated arguments. Many will read this book to harvest it for superficially appealing constructs and useful terminology; they will have done a disservice, not least to themselves.