Important if true

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

A book can be great without being correct:

Max Weber, the north German economist, proud reserve officer in the Kaiser’s army, literal dueler with academic opponents, and co-founder of modern sociology, sits on every college reading list for his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. If you didn’t read it in college, it’s time to turn off the TV, Google it, and do so. It’s a stunning performance, one of my top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century. The book is brilliant, readable, short. (By the way, henceforth you should exhibit your sophistication by pronouncing his name correctly. It’s “VAY-ber,” not like the “WEB-er” hamburger grill you’ve just put away for the year. You get extra points for saying “Max” in echt deutsch: “Maahx,” not like “Mad Max.”)

Others of the stunning 100 include Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), and Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983). If you don’t know such books, you don’t know much, and you really need to get going.

But that a book is “great” does not mean it is correct, or is to be taken as good history or good economics or good theology. Marx’s Das Kapital is indubitably a great book, one of the very greatest of the 19th century, as I say to annoyed friends of libertarian or conservative bent. But then I say to my left-wing friends, annoying them too, that Marx was wrong on almost every point of economics, history, and politics. Which is why I haven’t got any friends.


So Weber was mistaken. But his is still a great book. Culture, wrote the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, “is a study of perfection [which] seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” Even the best may be found after a while to be mistaken.

Hobbes’ Leviathan is mistaken, claiming centrally that “Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Geist expressed in words does indeed bind and secure people. But Michael Oakeshott properly classed Leviathan as the greatest (and “perhaps the only”) work of English political philosophy.

Another Victorian, a witty atheist, used to suggest that every church door have a large sign declaring “Important if true.” The Protestant Ethic is important though false, an instance of imperfect perfection.

That witty Victorian was Alexander Kinglake, according to Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes:

KINGLAKE, Alexander William (1809–91), British writer.

  1. A skeptic by nature, Kinglake suggested that all churches should bear the inscription: “IMPORTANT IF TRUE.”


  1. Graham says:

    Oddly for me, not entirely convinced by his throwaway criticism of Marx.

    I have limited time for Hobbes, but the author’s dismissal of Hobbes is well wide of the mark. The sword is always there.

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