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on April 21, 2000
It is difficult to find fault with the main thesis of True and Only Heaven: that "progress" is nothing more or less than an illusion and that in the end, as the poet wrote,"the paths of glory lead but to the grave". Mr.Lasch arrives at this conclusion via a ciruitous route of some five hundred pages of spectacular erudition while at the same time never lapsing into scholarly jargon that might cause the general reader to become hopelessly befuddled. Although the title suggests an author who was either conservative or neo-conservative,in truth it's difficult to say what ideology he embraced--if any--since he is critical of both the Left AND the Right. Clearly, Lasch, who died several years ago, had become thoroughly disenchanted with a society that had fallen into a pit of mindless consumerism and materialism. As critical as he is of Reagan's America, one can only guess what he would have thought of the America of Bill Clinton.
This book is a must read for anyone who believes that our country is slowly becoming unhinged.
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on March 12, 2009
To balance the fashionably leftist tilt of academia, one needs to read things written with a rightist slant. A history professor at the University of Rochester, Christopher Lasch, once himself a Marxist-oriented, progressive, socialist intellectual, testifies to both his personal convictions and his historical judgments in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c. 1991).
His own confidence in the reigning liberalism of the intelligentsia slipped in the 1970s, when his family studies "led me to question the left's program of sexual liberation, careers for women, and professional child care" (p. 25). Surveying the scene, all forms of "authority, including parental authority, seemed in serious decline" (p. 31), a process which inevitably undermine "the capacity for independent judgment, initiative, and self-discipline, on which democracy had always been understood to depend" (p. 31). Lasch now sees things, not as a young radical, but as a responsible adult--and, more importantly, as a parent.
"To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light. This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness . . . of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence, and the pornography of 'making it'; our addictive dependence on drugs, 'entertainment,' and the evening news; our im¬patience with any thing that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially with the constraints of marital and familial ties; our preference for 'nonbinding commitments'; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we 'impose' our morality on others and thus invite others to 'impose' their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude to the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all" (pp. 33-34). Like lots of scholars' works, this one's deeply personal!
The book's title comes from a prescient passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad," which says: "Many passengers stop to take their pleasure or make their profit in [vanity] fair, instead of going onward to the celestial city. Indeed, such are the charms of the place that people often affirm it to be the true and only heaven; stoutly contending that there is no other, that those who seek further are mere dreamers, and that, if the fabled brightness of the celestial city lay but a bare mile beyond the gates of vanity, they would not be fools enough to go thither." In this book Lasch pursues "a deceptively simple question. How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?" (p. 13). Following a century notable for its geno¬cidal wars and ecocidal woes, why do so many political thinkers and politicians so blithely aver, in chorus with did Eleanor Roosevelt, that the "world's getting better, and better, and better"?
The reason for their optimism, Lasch thinks, is a deeply emotional, if not overtly religious, attachment to the doctrine of historical progress. Tracing the permutations of that doctrine over the course of two centuries is his quest. To do so, he first seeks to accurately define the idea of progress. With their cyclical philosophy of history, the Greeks had no notion of "progress." To Christians like St Augustine, history is linear, but it's hardly on an upward trajectory! Only in the "modern" era did the notion of historical progress clearly emerge, particularly in the economic thought of Adam Smith with its insistence that we have infinite desires for infinite goods and progress means acquiring ever more of the world's goods.
Leading intellectuals of the Enlightenment envisioned better living through commerce and industry. In David Hume's opinion, merchants are the "most useful race of men in the whole society." Tom Paine declared: "If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivil state of governments." Romantics reacted nostalgically against it, Marxists envisioned a distant utopia emerging out of its shambles, agrarian "populists" railed against it, but the modern world still embraces deeply-inscribed Enlightenment aspirations. What¬ever adds to our collection of houses or stocks or household appliances is necessarily good.
The most insightful critics of progress, Lasch found, stood rooted in "the tradition of Christian prophecy, as reformulated by Calvin and his followers and, in the nineteenth century, by moral philosophers and social critics--notably Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson--in whom Calvinism remained a powerful background presence" (p. 227). They saw the human and environmental costs which never appeared in accountants' ledgers.
Since WWII, "the politics of the civilized minority" (an elite liberal corps which has generally secured its ends by circumventing the will of common people), has dominated America, using the courts, rather than the legislatures, to gain permissive abortion policies, for example. Yet strong protests, voices of "right-wing populism," have also cried out against it, speaking for working class Americans.
This is a long, meandering treatise on the history of ideas which at times follows a chronological pattern, then at times seems to slip and slide in accord with Lasch's prejudices and preoccupations. It contains interesting information, quotations and insights into obscure as well as noted intellectuals of the past. It helps one understand the grip "progress" has exerted during the past 200 years. And, if not persuasively de¬molishing "the true and only heaven," it certainly casts considerable doubt on the veracity its "proggessive" proponents.
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on December 25, 1998
I frequently argue that the breadth of Lasch's moral vision requires a thorough reading of his ouevre, not just an individual title. That said, TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN comes the closest to encapsulating what Lasch, as one of the last best public intellectuals, had to say. Part of HEAVEN's success in this regard is its simple length, which allows for a more comprehensive statement. More important, though, is that here finally Lasch is explicitly taking as subject what was his central obsession all along: the locomotive degradation of allegiance to the Jeffersonian ideal in a heedless process called "progress." Those accustomed to the spirited polemic of his more famous work may find themselves slowed by the more overtly scholarly nature of this one, but the payoff is big in terms of a foundation in the animating ideas of the lifework of the best cultural critic of his era. Lasch is never simple. He is always subtle, and always stoic: he makes Hawthorne and Nietszche look like playground amatuers. More importantly, his perspective is radical enough (meaning, truly alternative--almost anarchic)and his arguments innovative enough that one may finish his book and only think one has read it. A close, careful read, however, will yield a take on the malaise critical to any sort of "progress" in the discourse about the future of democracy in America.
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on May 4, 2014
Couldn't agree more with the top three reviewers, although I had purchased the book the year of its release I'm rediscovering it and think its truthfulness is coming to light as we enter 2014. I think the book speaks out on the dawning of what has now become a dysfunctional state in American affairs - Dysfunctional Government and a Dysfunctional Society. As the book alludes, this began with government serving the interests of big business, not of the peoples. Born from this was the great flight of corporations to overseas manufacturing in effort to max. profits (in offshore tax-free wealth) and cut benefits (wages & healthcare) that set the stage for an orchestrated derailment of economic equality which led to unemployment and freeze on working class wages keeping with inflation. The powerful bought their way into meddling with America's ingredients to suit themselves and when the recipe failed the public's left as the big loser, the good puppets to the Sell and the Buy; the Bigger and the New.
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on January 2, 2004
If this book had concerned itself with the idea of progress, the history and future of progress, that would have been quite sufficient. But no, he must historize everything, including the whole last thid of the book (really weak) where we review and empathize with just about every social cause and group on the planet.
Progress is interesting; those who criticize it use the very thing they decry to make their point. In one sense, progress does mean human enrichment. Now, to many folks this means more things. To Lasch, it should mean a better life, better citizens, more responsibility. I guess one could say it was the classic argument: Quantity vs Quality.
It goes without saying that progress brings material wealth - it always has and always will. Most of us take it for granted and even those who protested the "excesses of capitalism" at the WTO in Rome arrived by jet! Lasch laments the loss of authority in our society and this is directly related to loss of civic participation. Only one generation previous, men and women considered such things as Masons, Rotary, Optimist, and Knights of Columbus important features in society. But the silence from civic groups is deafening.
Lasch is particularly concerned about a new type of rampant individualism that has swept the nation (and the West). It is of the kind that does what it wants to do regardless of how others are affected, it does not partake in communal discussion nor social gatherings, it is a god unto itself. Societal goals are sublimated to the pursuit of pure pleasure. This condition is fatal for a society that prides itself on civic involvement and a long-standing ecumencalism in religion and politics. In the end he asks the question. "What is it all for?" That is something each of us must answer.
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on January 9, 2016
In this book, Christopher Lasch developed an unequalled cultural analysis of the notion of progress and its counterintuitive consequences in terms of decay. Optimism and pessimism are understood as two sides of the same coin, against which he promotes hope. While optimism refers to a unidirectional and naïve collective dynamic which goes along with bureaucratisation, hope centres on culture and a shared sense of responsibility. Completing the intellectual path he had developed in the "Culture of Narcissism", Lasch tirelessly strove to provide his readers with a comprehensive understanding of the path followed by America and the west since the modern era. Importantly, Lasch's cultural analysis of the deadlock faced by modern societies doesn't point at external factors like immigration. On the contrary, it centres on the west's own historical logic, which is undermined by the very idea of progress and its shortcomings. Lasch's advocacy of a certain type of populism unequivocally transcends not only left/right politics but also the theatrical and infantilising type of populism which is emerging from the rubbles of western democracy.
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on July 20, 2012
Cowper Jane Austen Dr. Johnson were aware of the main thesis (also found in Culture of Narcissism) Lasch was a man of the Left --I think--but it was the Tory's in the 18th century The agrarian John Crowe Ransom' essay in I'll take my stand (not as a recall a racial polemic at all) and Andrew Lytle in the same volume--I find some of his language offensive so you might do better with E.P. Thomson Customs in Common from the left. Both write about better roads--having seen two of my students killed by better roads I confess to special pleading. 2 more points Lasch talks bout the devolution of religion into therapy in the first book. Religion is the opiate of the people was first I think exclaimed by De Sade Marx's view is complex and I think of interest to those of all political persuasions. By Contrast Lenin (1905) no fool whatever your politics are did not understand it--his view is reductive. Lasch was one of our great thinkers his essay Gilligan's Island is a masterpiece. Had to get that in. Perhaps it is not surprising the left doesn't really get it-- well Raymond Williams does in his little book keywords Thomson did
These days neither left nor right (save to an extent paleoconservatives) get it but despite his turgid writng (actually part of the pathology he is examining) this is a necessary book--it will not stop progress or improvement but at least you will not be able to plead ignorance. I hope I have not proclaimed some political kyrigma I will just say that were you a liberal or neo con you might be vexed paleoconservatives and hard leftists (well we don't have any so that is not a problem) may be interested-- to the latter be there some-- I'd just ask what does ":a better world's in birth" mean in the Internationale sorry for the spelling--key board is shot--ironic to be writing this on a pc
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on April 2, 2013
Written many decades ago, this is a comprehensive analysis of the meaning of progress throughout the ages. It underscores how little attention "progress" pays to the reality of a world in which resources are shrinking and what that could mean for the quality of our lives
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on January 1, 2015
Lasch may have passed away (all too early), but his ideas and critique have not.
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on December 28, 2012
2012 can end on Monday night after three more days of the kind of political triple cross theology that made Rudolf Hess hop on an airplane and fly to Scotland in 1941 just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It has been a cosmic pogo stick up like any idea in The True and Only Heaven (1991) about the room for improvement people who came to America imagined, expected to find in Emerson's writings on fate, and then discovered that maintaining free markets for everything to go up, down, and sideways in the marginal thinking of millionaires and billionaires just sets up a higher swindle that ends up like societies that have been wiped out by the wealthy before. Some French thinkers have been more astute on how power corrupts. I am fond of Georges Bataille, who wrote The Accursed Share: an Essay on General Economy, Vol. 1: Consumption and The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3: The History of Eroticism and Sovereignty.

John Prine sang about Living in the Future and standing in soup lines in the same song. A popular song Ramble On (2007 Remastered LP Version) is the famous version of an idea that shows up in the first song written by Townes Van Zandt, Waitin' Round to Die. Experts in government became the enemies of people who don't settle down to fulfill their place in the collective financial suicide that will produce a bankruptcy bigger than Enron the next time around. All forms of debate, discussion, and persuasion (p. 367 on politics and mass communications) in The True and Only Heaven are now waiting for the kind of secret deal Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland to offer the British to keep World War II from repeating what turned out to be called World War I. Dewey complained about "unity of outlook on life" (p. 368) disappearing forever, so a big book like The True and Only Heaven turns into another example of social splatology.
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