On Powerful Books

April 30, 2019


Everyone has an opinion.


Most books are mostly opinions. Not all opinions are equal, and some opinions are truly profound. Great opinions are worth reading. But opinions do not make the most powerful books. To understand the nature of power and influence, one must read the books that have been the most powerful and influential, and understand why they were powerful and influential.


The greatest books are not works of psychology and philosophy. They are law. From the Code of Hammurabi to the laws of Lycurgus; from the Ten Commandments of Moses to the Constitution of Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, the most important books have always been lists of rules.


It would be easy to imagine that these works were influential because they were enforced, but this mistakes the cause for the effect. We are all familiar with bad laws. Many legal codes have been implemented across time, and failed. We remember those of the Babylonians, the Spartans, the ancient Israelites, and the early Americans because they worked. Legal codes of this kind are not powerful because they are advanced by those with power, but because they they came from a place of knowledge and experience.


Hammurabi was the sixth king in a dynasty, raised to rule, a successful king and conqueror, and praised as a God during his lifetime.


Lycurgus traveled the world, observing the governments of other nations before compiling the law for Sparta.


Moses was a judge over his people for decades in the desert before writing down the laws -- themselves adapted in many ways from those of Hammurabi.


Jefferson was a lifelong student of history and philosophy, and the Constitution reflects an inheritance of laws which functioned under Sparta, Rome, and England.


This principle is more easily understood at a smaller scale. Medical textbooks, construction code-books, automotive manuals like Chilton's or Haynes', all of these are considered to be authoritative. This is not because they are backed by the violent power of authority -- though some, like code-books, are. They are authoritative because they are reliable.


People complain about the cost of textbooks, but the main reason for their expense is the sheer volume of experience and vetting that restrains their construction. You know that a textbook can't just say anything. Nor can a technical manual. Multiple experts within the field check and double-check the content, ensuring that nothing false is included. The good ones ensure that for clarity, superfluous truths are also kept out.


The most powerful and authoritative books read like recipe books -- indeed, recipe books from your mom's kitchen are not a bad place to start in understanding the nature of the most powerful books. Cook books are compiled by experienced chefs, who do not simply theorize, but experiment, and once they find good recipes, they compile them in a fashion that is replicable. Like cook-books, the greatest books can sound mundane. They are impersonal, descriptive, constrained, detailed, and often -- to the impatient -- boring.


They sound like this:


1. If any one owe a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not grow for lack of water; in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year. (Code of Hammurabi, 48)


2. If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard. (Exodus 22:5)


3. When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies. (Constitution, Section 2[4])


These are not opinions. They are procedural guidelines for achieving specific outcomes. That outcome might be a batch of cookies. It might be a working car. It might be a powerful and great nation.


What else is power, if not the ability to get what you want?


What else is respect, if not other's appreciation of your consistency in delivering what you promise? And how can you deliver what you promise without the power to do so?


When tunneling into the apparent causes of the social, political, and spiritual problems in our society, it is always tempting to read theory, whether its economics (Hayek, Milton), or philosophy (Evola, Nietzsche), or religion (Augustine, Aquinas), or any number of various sub-fields. Even law can be an area of theory: just read Hobbes, or Kant. Theory can be informative, but it can also be misleading. This misleading does not just concern what is true and false, but how truth and falsehood are determined. Like the best thoughts, the best societies were not informed by theory. They were built on experience.


We all want conviction, certainty, and authority in our own lives. We value it as a character quality, admiring it in others and seeking it for ourselves. Yet too often, we seek for a basis of power and influence in theory, mistaking a questioning tool for the conclusion. To grasp the true nature of authentic power, and to seize it for yourself, put down the esoteric writings from philosophers and pick up a technical manual. Read it for the content, which is valuable and, therefore, powerful, in its own right. But more importantly, read it with a constant eye on how such a work might have been written. What would must the authors have done in order to gain the knowledge necessary to write such a work?

Everyone has an opinion. But the most powerful books aren't just opinions. If you want real power, pick up a cook-book, or a Chilton's. Find an ancient arms manual. Read a peer-reviewed journal. Or pass through the boring parts of the Constitution. This takes discipline, but the rewards are worthwhile -- not just for what you will be able to do, but in how you will learn to think. And perhaps, how you might learn to write: not as one more asshole with an opinion, but with true power.


As an expert.


As an authority.


As the law.




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