The most dangerous philosophy book (Fall 2010 edition)

For my Introduction to Philosophy course, an optional question on the final exam was:

In your judgment, what is the most dangerous book we read this semester? First give a clear and sympathetic presentation of the book’s most important themes, and then explain why you think the book is dangerous.

We read six major works in the course: Plato’s Apology and Crito, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” Descartes’ Meditations, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.

Nineteen students chose to address this question.

galileoOne chose Galileo’s work as the most dangerous, on the grounds that Galileo’s resulting conflict with the Church was disastrous to him personally and shows how dangerous it can be to question authority.

socrates-50x80One student argued that Plato’s Apology was dangerous because Socrates was too uncompromising and that leads to social harm.

descartes-50x63Three students voted Descartes’ Meditations as most dangerous, two on the grounds that it can lead one to lose all sense of reality and become psychotic and one on the grounds that his reasoning seems circular and leads nowhere leaving one with nothing.

rand_50x66Rand’s The Fountainhead was voted most dangerous by three students. As with the student who chose Socrates in Plato’s Apology, one argued that her view is too uncompromising and leads to social harm; additionally, it is too hard to apply and so sets one up for failure. One argued that her view of egoism challenges the whole tradition of religious ethics. And one argued that Peter Keating’s character materialistic and socially immoral character is too tempting a role model for most.

freudsigmund-50x68Four students voted for Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents as the most dangerous book. One argued that he undermines free will and moral responsibility. Two took issue with his insulting view of religion and argued that he misses the hope that religion offers. And one argued that his strong pessimism about life itself is dangerously demotivating.

lewis-cs-50x69Six students chose Lewis’s Mere Christianity. One objected to his attack on reason and defense of strong faith. One objected to his attempt to destroy our human sense of worth and self-esteem. One argued that his extreme view of human sinfulness was dangerous. Two argued that Lewis got Christianity wrong in presenting too extreme a version of it. And one argued that the danger of Mere Christianity is that it scares reasonable people away from Christianity.

Finally, one student voted The Fountainhead and Mere Christianity as jointly the most dangerous for the reason that American readers resonate with both given their cultural history and that that leads to paralyzing conundrums about what the right philosophy is.

So with 6.5 votes in total, I hereby declare Mere Christianity to be the Most Dangerous Book in Introduction to Philosophy, Rockford College, Fall Semester 2010.

The most dangerous philosophy book (Fall 2009 edition).
The most dangerous philosophy book (Spring 2010 edition).

2 thoughts on “The most dangerous philosophy book (Fall 2010 edition)

  • December 19, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    That’s fun!

    I wonder how many people where in the class. I wonder if before providing conclusions/opinions/analysis/ students provided criteria/frameworks they consequently used to come to their conclusions …

    What were your thoughts about these students, the class, and what you may do differently in the future Intro classes?

  • March 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    When i hear “dangerous” my thought is “dangerous…to whom?” It is a relative term. Cyanide may be “dangerous” to anyone who is given it in his cup of tea, but has many industrial positive values. I would infer, the professor intends “dangerous” as “to rational thought.” One term he might well define is “religion/ous”. “Religion” apparently comes from the Latin “to read” as in “reading Holy Scripture.” In German, it is expressed by “Gottesbedienst”, or “service to God.” Because so many “religions” can be seen to contradict one another, and because they entail profound epistomological considerations, this subject deserves some preparation. C.S. Lewis is one of the foremost “Christian” apologists, Church of England flavor. He does not deplore reason, but explores the Scriptural version of “faith” which is anything but blind. Paul writes, “Faith is the assured expectation of things unseen…” Reason is man’s glory, but mere reason, without hope or idealism, can lead down many a sordid alley. My own intuitive view is that no other modern writer caused as much misery, mystical mayhem, and monstrous mindset as Sigmund Freud. Freud reduced every natural urge to a pathological desire, and exchanged the “id” for the “superego.” To allow instinct to replace one’s conscience is — excuse me — unconscionable. One example, identifying a son’s love for his mother as some re-enactment of the Oedipus tragedy. The tragedy of Oedipus was not that he married his own mother, but that he bravely sought to find out the truth about his life — and ended up discovering a monstrous mistake, so shocking that he blinded himself, “the world has nothing more I wish to see.” But Oedipus does not commit suicide, and Sophocles (at the age of 90+!) writes Oedipus at Colonnus. Freud had such a prurient view of sex as to make pornography a desirable art form. He detested the very Victorian and proper Viennese society that had rejected him as a Jew. We might sympathize, but Freud found himself compelled to destroy each Western idea he did not like, under the aegis of pretended science. The worst kind of mysticism — using science as the medium of this voodoo! Vladimir Nabokov called Freud, “the medicine man from Vienna.” The critic Harold Bloom wrote of him, “SIgmund Freud was the greatest writer of fiction in the early 20th century.” What other scientist/doctor/writer has enabled so many charlatans (i.e. psychoanalysts) to reap fortunes? How many people have killed themselves over Freud’s fraud, believing themselves unsalvageable? Did Freud believe in anything except the libido?

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