This will be an extended post, beginning with the personal and grandparental and ending in an extraordinary and really unforgivable bit if self-congratulation perhaps justifying an intervention or clinical help. I apologize for this in advance, but have decided that the confessional has a place on the web. Put it down, if you wish, to my advancing age.
My granddaughter Athena will be nine on the first of August, and I asked her mother for suggestions for appropriate presents. Apparently on a recent family trip to Tokyo, Athena bought a little treasure box and has now begun a collection of objets d’art. Could I find in Paris an appropriate addition to the collection? I had not a clue, but went on a ramble in our Place Maubert neighborhood and ended up some while later in front of a shop at the end of our street called Avanti Musica which is stocked with all manner of little knick-knacks. There I found what I hope will be the perfect gift, a decorated miniature treasure chest cum music box with a dancing ballerina.
Buying presents for my grandchildren is difficult because their doting parents have given them virtually everything that is both age appropriate and available. Last December, faced with the same problem for Samuel, who was turning eleven, I decided that instead of asking his mother and father for guidance, I would give him a present that no one else in the world could give to him: a copy of In Defense of Anarchism, inscribed by the author. Now, I may be self-absorbed, but I am not yet totally dotty. I had no thought that Samuel would welcome this present or even look at it. But I wanted him to have some physical evidence that his grandfather was not just the old guy back East. Perhaps in future years, even after I had passed away, he would be moved to read it. I had the fantasy, I confess, that in nine or ten years, when he was in college, he would take a course in which the book was assigned, and could bring in his copy to show the professor.
When you have spent your entire adult life writing books and have arrived at the age of eighty-three, perhaps it is natural to wonder what it all amounts to. Will anything you have written survive your death? Is it all fated to blow away like autumn leaves? I found myself thinking that perhaps this one little book, no more than an extended essay, would somehow manage to live, that it might even become, in a small and subsidiary way, a part of the canon of works in the Western tradition of political theory.
The works that have acquired that relative immortality are, in at least one way, quite similar: although each book was written at a particular moment in reaction to a particular constellation of contemporary texts, it rises above that situational embeddedness by setting forth an argument that lays claim to universality. No one anymore reads John Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government, which, for those of you who have always wondered, is a devastating attack on Sir Robert Filmer’s defense of the divine right of kings. At the time, Filmer’s position was widely held, but it very quickly was overtaken by history. Locke’s Second Treatise, on the other hand, although manifestly a work of the late seventeenth century, is read to this day by every serious student of political theory. The same is true of Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract and Mill’s On Liberty.
Because of the peculiar circumstances under which In Defense of Anarchism was written, it contains almost no references to contemporary philosophical debates. It is virtually devoid of scholarly footnotes and addresses a single fundamental philosophical question sub specie aeternitatis. It could have been written two hundred years ago, not fifty-two, or indeed one hundred years from now.
Will it live? I would like to think so. In the nature of the case, I shan’t be around to find out, but perhaps eighty years from now, Samuel’s grandson will tell his old grandfather about a little book he has just read in college, and Samuel will take out a present from his grandfather and offer it to the young man for show and tell.