An impassioned and erudite proposal for vast systemic changes.



A defense of democratic socialism, grounded in religion, philosophy, economics, and literature.

In a densely argued critique of religion and capitalism, philosopher Hägglund (Comparative Literature and Humanities/Yale Univ.; Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, 2012, etc.) tackles thorny questions of value, freedom, and responsibility. Analyzing a wide range of thinkers—among others, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Marx, Martin Luther King Jr., John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, and Thomas Piketty—Hägglund asserts that only secular faith and democratic socialism can “provide the institutional, political, and material conditions for spiritual freedom.” In the first part of the book, the author examines the social and moral consequences of belief in eternity, which he sees as central to religious faith. Believing that one’s soul transcends time leads to indifference to worldly events, immunity from grief or loss, and lack of care about the fates of others. God, Hägglund writes, “is completely irresponsible because he is not bound to anything other than himself.” Secular faith, on the other hand, is premised on an individual’s sense of moral responsibility and investment “in finite lives.” Personal attachments leave individuals open to suffering, but they offer “a positive chance of having a relation to others” and to developing and acting upon “an existential commitment—to a political transformation, a filial relation, an artistic creation, and so on.” The second part of the book focuses on an intensive examination of capitalism, which the author argues necessarily undermines individuals’ spiritual freedom and generates political and economic inequality. Neither a universal basic income nor redistribution of wealth “can free us from capitalist exploitation,” he asserts, “since only wage labor in the service of profit” supports the accumulation of wealth that fuels “the dynamic of capitalism.” In order “for democracy to be true to its own concept of freedom and equality,” he writes, “capitalism must therefore be overcome.” Freedom to act authentically, to make choices that support the common good, and to enhance the quality of our free time is fundamental to Hägglund’s argument in favor of democratic socialism.

An impassioned and erudite proposal for vast systemic changes.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-87040-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.


A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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