Great Books in a Digital Age?

James Poulos

Current Issue

Ours is a time of institutional crisis. It is our institutions that are in crisis, and because they dominate and define our public order, it is our institutions that have plunged us into crisis. While a host of reasons might be summoned to explain how and why this is so, the identifying mark of our dominant institutions is that they are critical bodies. Whether in academia, media, jurisprudence, social science, or other prestigious knowledge-work industries — increasingly, even beyond that ambit, in sports and entertainment — criticism is what the institutional elite practices, produces, and promulgates.

One of the many consequences of this state of affairs is that this is an uncanny, uncertain time for what critics have long called the "Great Books" — what the great critic Harold Bloom called with a bit more specificity the "Western Canon." For here are found the theorists in whose critical thinking can be found the germ of our signature institutions, wave upon wave over time.

Bloom, in his influential book on the subject, sets his humane pantheon against the postmodern, deconstructionist schools of "resentment," each of which has its brief against the canon as a repository of obsolete power plays carried out by men whose once-supreme identities must now be overthrown. But among Bloom's 26 canonical heroes he includes only a few authors whose work lays claim in some degree to political philosophy, the discipline best suited for wrestling with today's crisis of institutional criticism. There is Goethe and Freud, Tolstoy and Kafka, Dante and Shakespeare, but nothing in the centuries-old line of political thought — the now-familiar genealogy of modern theory running roughly from Machiavelli and Hobbes through Locke and Rousseau to Nietzsche and on to the (putative) triumph of contemporary liberalism.

Indeed, the hallmark of the Western political-theoretical canon is criticism so deep that its effect, by the lights of some of our most respected and discerning readers, has been to prepare the destruction of some of the West's most important founding and sustaining institutions. Machiavelli's political science overthrew Aristotle's. Hobbes's mechanism and materialism ground down medieval custom. Locke's atomized individual, and Rousseau's general will, sowed dragon's teeth in the culture of the commonwealth. Nietzsche announced the end of political theology and the reduction of all politics to power.

But the case against the canon as a saving resource of masterful criticism goes deeper still. Many of the core works of modern philosophy and science reject the very idea of a core of such works. Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, as Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has written, "is now one of our great books — a great book that recommends against the lessons of previous great books." It shares pride of place with René Descartes's Discourse on Method, "which begins with a similar condemnation of book learning as an obstacle to true understanding." The decisive critical debate internal to the canon, Deneen argues, hinges on the battle between "two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty." He continues,

The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist alongside an older conception, but requires the active dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the transformation of education away from the study of great books and toward the study of "the great book of nature" with the end of its mastery.

The obsession with greatness that defines and distorts the canon, Deneen concludes, bears out in the mercilessly destructive course of Western progress. Fueled by this distorting form of megalomania, Western development has culminated in a series of technological conquests that feed ceaseless desires and fixate the mind on mastery, yet ravage nature and deracinate our souls. Better to read and to teach humble books, Deneen counsels, than to remain in sway to the greatest of our false prophets. 

The weight of the charges against the canon is daunting; that the charges come from all directions, "left" as well as "right," ought to give us pause. For the difficulty of defending the canon under such a blizzard of critical pressure strangely mirrors the struggle faced by our dominant institutions of public criticism amid today's great de-authorizing force: the internet.

If the coherence and usefulness of the Western canon seem increasingly untenable today, for reasons that reach beyond ideology, the very concept of a canon — one critically authoritative corpus of thought — now feels harder and harder to countenance. Not only has the unfolding triumph of digital life supplied every claim and every authority with an effectively infinite number of criticisms, the digital revolution has called into profound question how any limited body of knowledge can claim canonical authority over a world where information is infinite. 

Fortunately, the specific threat posed by digital technology to the West's canonical works of political philosophy is not quite so broad in scope. It is still, however, sobering. The charge is similar in theme to the attack leveled by the "resentful" deconstructionists. Only, rather than an ideological play, it raises a practical point. How, it asks, can works of ultimate concern about human beings and how they shall live assert canonical significance in a world that has been so swiftly and dramatically transformed? How can a body of thought that arose so specifically from textual culture, and the culture of the printing press in particular, apprehend the reality of lived experience in an age when ideas now characteristically arise from the culture of the image and of the digit — the fundamental disunity expressed in 0 and 1 that contrasts so sharply with the fundamental unity of mass audiences and mass movements inaugurated by mass production of the alphabetic word?

No doubt there are, again, many recommendations that might be made on this score. But the challenge is incontrovertible: Even our most respected digital thinkers are often delinked from the political-theoretical canon, while few of our most learned political theorists, at least those hoping to salvage and secure the better traditions of Western culture, harbor a deep and native grasp of the character of digital life. So the pressing need is to single out a particular answer, and a particular sort of answer, to the question of what relevance great books still possess in a digital age.

Intuitively, that answer should speak directly to the overarching challenge posed to contemporary life by the triumph of digital technology — that is, the unfolding destruction of the authority of the critical institutions and their elite, upon which the globalized regime of secular democratic liberalism depends. If canonical political theory cannot speak to the issue of the nature of our existence, of our regime, and the relation between the two, then defending the Western canon would appear to be fruitless, not to mention something we who hope to survive in this new era no longer have the luxury of spending our time and energy on.


There are already signs that, among contemporary thinkers with a stake in preserving Western wisdom, institutional dysfunction is moving to the center of attention. To take one example, the editor of this journal recently suggested a provocative way to understand the crisis. Beginning from "the essential conservative insight" that "people enter the world needing to be made better before they can be made free," Yuval Levin argues that "institutions turn us into human beings who are capable of being free men and women, who will choose to do the right thing, generally speaking, and so can be left free to choose, and don't have to be coerced into being responsible."

But, Levin continues, something has gone wrong: Over time, rather than institutions forming individuals in this way, individuals — individualists in the coarse sense — now form institutions. "We've come to think about institutions more and more as ways of providing platforms for individuals to be themselves, rather than creating molds that form individuals to be reliable and trustworthy." The result has been an erosion of faith in institutions — a collapse of authority triggered by a culture-wide quest to assert one's personal authority. "People now look to institutions much more to provide them with platforms to stand out."

This line of thinking draws forth an important insight about how liberal theory might have unwittingly sabotaged itself. In the familiar historical narrative of Western political thought, Lockean liberalism ushered in the modern era of human flourishing by implementing a comprehensive political science of rights and institutions. The American founding, for instance, embodied the deliberate effort to create durable institutions meant for forming rulers and ruled in accordance with the protection and exercise of rights, including individual rights fundamental to justice.

By the end of the 20th century, however, Levin's analysis suggests, rights liberalism had run amok — not in a vague sense of going to ideological extremes, but in a specific sense of being internally unable to rebut the popular sensation of a fundamental right to be recognized to one's deepest personal satisfaction. Once that folk feeling had infested rights liberalism, its infestation of institutional liberalism — charged with ensuring the protection and exercise of rights — swiftly and logically followed suit. In sum, the current crisis of the institutions traces not to the institutionalists themselves, but to we the people. The democratization of rights, not the revolt of the institutionalist elites, is the culprit, and liberalism — shorn from its conservative wisdom, at least — has proven too feeble to forestall it.

This story speaks in a compelling, instructive way to the predicament of the modern world. Yet, on a more pessimistic view, the political science of institutions carries within it a deeper culpability. Rights liberalism and institutional liberalism cannot be considered entirely in isolation. But revisiting the history of Western political thought with this issue in mind reveals that the animating principle of a certain liberal understanding of institutions — namely, institutions must rule to make humanity safe for humans — has deep roots and is in tension with any but the shallowest idea of human freedom.

In fact, tracing the development of institutionalism in the political theory and political science of the West intelligibly points the way toward the current crisis of our critical institutions. Here, I mean to discuss institutions in a particular fashion, different from the one Levin suggests. Over the past hundred years of political and social science, different schools of thought have defined institutions in varying, sometimes competing, ways. The dominant view of institutions as organizations, in particular, has been supplanted to a significant degree by the view that institutions are better understood as rule sets. I wish to recur to the organizational model, wherein institutions are preeminently bureaucratic in the literal sense of official, in order to draw out how liberalism developed. Liberalism arose from the conviction that only the offices (that is, planned and administered systems of social organization) will save us. They will save us by applying patterns found in the physical sciences to rescue us from fatal disharmony.

If one thrust of institutionalism has led in a performative direction, my focus is on one trajectory of the formative thrust. On my reading, formative institutions of the pre-liberal sort not only arose in a more "bottom-up" fashion than formative liberal institutions, which as a rule are conceived and executed by social-scientific elites. Pre-liberal institutions also — and not coincidentally — trace their formative logic to Aristotle's foundational claim in De Anima that the form of living things is their psyche — their life force or aliveness. This is the notion of formative to which Levin points above. However strict or disciplinarian, the essence of pre-liberal institutions is to form humans in manners that comport with their existence and identity as living things.

Liberal institutions, by contrast, take their forming logic from the principle (or strong suspicion) that in order to make life livable, living things like humans must be organized more in the manner of nonliving things like numbers or particles — and governed by nonliving things like offices and the rules or scripts they promulgate.

My wager is that this approach will tell us more of what we most need to know amid the unfolding crisis of our institutions: It can tell us how and why the institutional principle, and the machinery of enlightenment that institutions were understood to constitute in the West, have failed again and again to predict and process the behavior of living people. And it can tell us how and why, at each stage, rather than humbling themselves, the West's institutional elites have redoubled their efforts to construct an ever-greater, ever-more-perfect machine.

Yet in a dark sense, the elite has lowered its aims. As the idea of mass enlightenment that captured the elite imagination so early in the modern age has been ever more disenchanted by events, the institutional machinery the elite constructs has expressed an ever-more-radical hostility toward the reality of human life, suffused with risk, danger, suffering, and filth as it, and all life, must be. The dream of mass enlightenment dead, an obsession with universal harmony has arisen in its place. And now, with the triumph of digital technology organizing human life in ways supremely revolting and threatening to the elite, the West's institutionalists are closing in on an embrace of the final, terminal institutionalism: one in which only digitally automated institutions, and no longer human ones, can be trusted to make humanity safe for human beings.


Availing ourselves of great books in the Western political tradition to prove this story would make a significant contribution to the discipline of political theory and, if with greater patience, political science. But even more important, given the severity of our crisis today and the speed with which its conditions are accelerating, it would demonstrate that at least some books in the Western canon remain directly relevant — even indispensable — to processing our current reality and reclaiming wisdom and agency as we struggle to respond to it.

What follows can only be a brief summary of what ought to begin building a sub-canon (or higher canon) of its own. The place to begin understanding the crisis-bound trajectory of Western institutionalism is with Thomas Hobbes and Benjamin Constant, the theorists who proposed to erect a new political order from the wreckage of the English Civil War and the French Revolution. Here, amid twin cataclysms seen to reveal the hostile disorder of human life, the West's modern institutionalism began.

It is in Hobbes that the fallen character of man is contrasted most sharply with the necessity of institutional mechanisms to making human life safe for human beings. And less famously but no less significantly, it is in Constant that the equally dire threat of the supremely dangerous individual, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, is shown to be pacified by a well-oiled institutional machine.

Western institutionalism has sought to harmonize the institutionalist teachings of both Hobbes and Constant, rejecting Hobbes's monarchical "mortal god" on the one hand and Constant's romantic celebration of the peculiarities of the individual conscience on the other. Today, with human-led institutions failing so spectacularly to counter the powerful rise of intolerable people and intolerable content online, Hobbes's monarchical god has given way to visions of a mechanical one, and Constant's culture of conscience to a duty to conform and comply to algorithmic absolutism.

Hobbes has always been significant to the West's own narrative of its political thought and development. While some scholars have tried to insist that Hobbes is best understood only within the confines and context of his own time and its challenges, others have more profitably argued that Hobbes is wrestling, masterfully, with issues of ultimate concern, making judgments as to how humans can and must live in virtue of the conditions imposed by nature.

Regrettably, however, some such interpretations have placed too little emphasis — and in some cases none — upon the role of political theology in Hobbes's work, especially Leviathan. In fact, Biblical patterns of thought are firmly stamped upon Hobbesian institutionalism. For Hobbes, it is the Israelites of the Old Testament who represent the many, and Moses who represents the one, in the foundational legend of our fallen human nature, and the only manner in which human life may be made, as he writes, commodious. No sooner does Moses come down the mountain and back to his people, recall, than he discovers they have rushed back toward idolatry — and, it is permissible to surmise, human sacrifice.

Hobbes is often lamented by conservative critics as a rank individualist of a sort, depicting the state of nature as one wherein everyone is possessed of equal autonomy, rendering each in need of a power that dwarfs all. But it is important to allow that Hobbes was preoccupied with the real-world problem of civil war, of faction, and perhaps above all with the problem of rival interpretive factions — factions of contending critics — in the absence of a single Mosaic sovereign. Only that sovereign could keep whole what were, to Hobbes, in fact two concepts describing the same thing: institutional authority and interpretive authority. In the absence of that sovereign, not absolute autonomy but perpetual faction, among ever-changing factions, held sway. No less than our prideful individualism was our covetous quasi-tribalism laid into our nature. With one voice, we shout "I am the world"; with the other, we cry out in idolatrous worship. Ignore Hobbes's political theology, and we lose this crucial understanding.  

Heed it, and two especially notable possibilities arise. One is reached by Friedrich Nietzsche, idolater of a life red in tooth and claw, which itself can only live on blood sacrifice. "A legal order thought of as sovereign and universal," Nietzsche warned in typical terms, "would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man." This criticism, of course, is consistent both with Nietzsche's determination that the disenchantment of Biblical civilization had made necessary a new politics, and that the patterns of thought that persisted in its wake could prevent the rise of the new politics for centuries on end. But Nietzsche did not contend with the possibility that, instead of questing for a human superman, a post-human, post-Biblical political science would gravitate on institutionalist premises toward the universal sovereignty of automated systems programmed to defang human life in a way more perfect than any human institution could achieve.

Against that background, now consider Constant. In constructing a regime that domesticated Napoleon Bonaparte into a mere "Head of State" during the Hundred Days, Constant failed to apprehend how an institutional approach devoted to eradicating "the spirit of conquest" from human life would soon be directed with even greater force against interpretive factions that rejected the anthropological teachings of the critical-institutional elite. Constant's individualism, strangely similar to Hobbes's, presumed that human conscience naturally produced factions. While Constant, in contrast to Hobbes, believed the faction of conscience could be trusted to conduce to beneficial living in a political environment well-built by human institutions, he did not anticipate that Western institutions could be captured by factions of conscience that saw human nature as so deplorable that officially recognized ideologies of harmonious domestication would be enforced against creedal dissidents.

Nor did Constant foresee the logical two-part endpoint of that capture: first, the notion that sufficient harmonious domestication could only be achieved through institutions ruled by entities that themselves were not alive; and, second, the anxious surety that the alternative to that domestication was not some simply dissatisfying middle condition but full-on catastrophe, a new dark age. But that is the brink to which the dawning digital age has brought us.


How did we get there? By the dawn of the 20th century, the seemingly harmonized ordering principles consolidated into Western political institutions after the English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution began to strain. Fear of too human a politics — whether in the form of a tyranny of the majority or a demagogic despotism — led institutionalists to rally around an increasingly mechanistic theory and science of political order.

Though bureaucracy traces its deepest historical roots to reunified China in the Song period, and appeared in 18th-century France as a consequence of the absolute monarchy's concentration of administrative power, it was not until the Industrial Revolution ushered in the age of electricity that institutionalists determined the only way to make humanity safe for humans was by mastering the science of rule by systems of offices. Although, in Europe the traumatic disenchantment inflicted by World War I would lead Max Weber, the preeminent theorist of social science and bureaucracy, to describe rationalized "officialdom" as an iron cage, in the U.S., bureaucracy was understood in much rosier and more Whiggish terms as an engine of progress, edification, and uplift, fully in keeping with the original view of institutions as the machinery of enlightenment.

In fact, Weber's own scientific analysis of bureaucracy indicates where and how American institutionalists could enchant bureaucracy, both in the sense of idolizing it themselves and of presenting it to the human beings ruled by bureaucracy as a form of deliverance, not imprisonment. Well in keeping with the trajectory of institutionalism, Weber contrasted bureaucratic authority with traditional authority on the one hand and charismatic authority on the other — that is, the ingrained human habit Hobbes set his institutionalism against, and the disruptive superhuman individual Constant opposed with his own. 

Tellingly, though Weber was insistent upon the value-neutrality of his science, he worked within categories that treated tradition as irrational and charisma as transgressive — judgments alien and hostile to much of Western political theology. "Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge," according to Weber. "This is the feature of it which makes it specifically rational." The dual manner in which bureaucrats accumulate and wield institutional authority, however, takes us deeper:

This consists on the one hand in technical knowledge which, by itself, is sufficient to ensure it a position of extraordinary power. But in addition to this, bureaucratic organizations, or the holders of power who make use of them, have the tendency to increase their power still further by the knowledge growing out of experience in the service. For they acquire through the conduct of office a special knowledge of facts and have available a store of documentary material peculiar to themselves.

Through their technical command, bureaucrats lay claim to power that is politically authoritative because it arises safely from non-living systems, not dangerously from living human beings, whether common or exceptional. Yet the true power of bureaucrats is in their unique claim to possess the most expert knowledge about the science of their own knowledge. No one knows how to use bureaucracies properly better than the bureaucrats themselves. Their self-critique is more authoritative than external critique. In fact, it defeats external critique. The true innovation of officialdom is the de-authorization of human criticism from outside official institutions.

With this innovation, political science became "communications," with the mechanism or medium of bureaucracy the message of institutionalism. The production and dissemination of critical interpretations rose to the top of the institutional hierarchy. The supreme form of knowledge work — whether in academia, media, jurisprudence, or the popular "politics" of "culture war" policing — was now the work of critically interpreting that work.

This achievement betokened a dramatic shift in the apparent safety and security of institutionalism. The vulnerability of the machinery of enlightenment to the unpredictable and violent behavior of human factions and individuals was replaced by what Weber called "the permanent character of the bureaucratic machine." Already, in Bismarck's wake, German bureaucrats "continued to manage their offices unconcerned and undismayed, as if he had not been the master mind and creator of these creatures, but rather as if some single figure had been exchanged for some other figure in the bureaucratic machine"; after the cataclysms of the two world wars, bureaucracy offered Europe the only way to initiate an authoritative re-founding. The European Union neither arose "traditionally," from the people, nor "charismatically," from a heroic creator of new orders — and for precisely that reason, it was authoritative enough to hold. In the U.S., meanwhile, bureaucracy sufficiently unified scientific, military, and intellectual control to sustain regime continuity over a postwar period of massive social unrest and blistering technological advancement.  

At the same time, however, the specter of Western decline loomed over the institutionalists. The immediate fear was posed by nuclear-weapons technology — or, specifically, by the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands, so to speak, of human nature, thereby destroying humanity. The Cold War, with its threat of global annihilation, seemed to confirm to the institutionalists that human nature remained so profoundly faulty that the literal salvation of the human race could only be trusted to the most reliable and powerful of institutions. As technological development increasingly focused on automation and digital computation, the post-Cold War institutionalists confidently assumed that, as a mere tool, computer technology run by the right people offered a promising way to systematize, domesticate, predict, and process human behavior, making humanity safe at last from human nature.

Yet this approach also spoke, however obliquely at first, to the problem of Western decline as formulated by Oswald Spengler at the turn of the last century. Spengler's characterization of the Western world as a living entity, something defined primarily by the phenomena of body and soul, sharply contrasted with the mid-20th-century view dominant among Western institutionalists that human beings could be effectively analyzed, structured, and managed in the same way as entities that were not alive, that were purely mechanical or inanimate. Against Spengler, the prophet of declining Western vitality, the institutionalists — now equipped with what struck them as merely more-perfect technological tools — put into effect the idea that decline was a choice (to use the language of many contemporary conservatives) because the condition of human vitality did not determine humanity's fate.

On those premises, the internet arose. By the light of the institutionalists, digital technology — developed and implemented by people intelligent enough to know that humans had to be saved from their humanity — would achieve a degree of automated peace and harmony unparalleled in the history of life on earth. Those who fixed their imaginations on using the newest machinery of enlightenment to build networks of universal connectivity would change humanity to comport with what they imagined.

As some of those institutionalists are now reluctantly recognizing in horror, that is not what happened. Instead of consummating their imaginative project, the internet is disenchanting their imagination. Rather than a new age of universal harmony, automated by machines programmed to critically interpret reality in perfectly authoritative ways, digital technology has unearthed and organized deplorably bad factions, bad individuals, and bad content on an unimaginable scale. And it has caused that innate human malevolence to burst from the confines of the digital realm, re-infecting the real world that had seemed to have been so fully sterilized of threats to health and safety.


The response to digital technology's "betrayal" of its institutional "masters" is still unfolding, but the emergent theme is clear. Authoritative "critical thinkers" ought to be able to discern that "tech" is more than a mere tool, and that it does not "like" or favor us simply because "we" created it. Quite the contrary, digital technology seems more to favor the authority structures of the East, where China (for instance) is rushing ahead with a form of comprehensive networked totalitarianism that sends shudders through the West.

Or does it? In fact, Western institutionalists shocked by the unmanageability of online human life are hurtling toward the realization that they cannot actualize their imaginative vision of perfectly harmonious domestication unless they replace merely human institutions with automated ones. Digital technology whispers that the best institutionalists, the best guardians and operators of the permanent machinery of officialdom, are themselves machines.

So the West now finds itself at an unprecedented yet strangely familiar point of crisis. It is one of profound diminishment in the authority and relevance of old texts. Even the "greatest" of those texts are largely reflections on and instantiations of patterns of life set by print and electric technologies, which digital technology is now dethroning.

For that reason, it is hard to anticipate on what ground humans will decide the unfolding battle over whether automata should serve or rule humanity. But the Western canon boasts great works of theory that are still indispensable to grasping how and why humans have arrived at this fateful point. And if Spengler was correct that the fate of the West can only be understood as a question of Western life, the most fundamental Western texts about human life — that is, the most ancient ones — are likely to gain dramatic new significance in the harrowing years to come.

James Poulos is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin’s, 2017), and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.


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