Revisiting Some Bright Ideas from the Past

by Scott London

I’ve recently returned to several books from the 1960s and 1970s that were widely read and hotly debated at the time but have been largely forgotten in the intervening years. These titles are all out of print at this point. It’s a shame because they are brimming with far-sighted ideas, compelling insights, and still-timely wisdom.

Former University of Chicago physicist John Rader Platt wrote a wonderful little book in the mid-60s called The Step to Man, a lucid and highly original meditation on humanity’s next evolutionary leap. It makes some of today’s so-called new age ideas seem unoriginal and downright uninspired by comparison.

The iconoclastic French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel wrote a book in the early 1970s with the irresistible title Without Marx or Jesus that nicely sums up the existential crisis of our time. As he saw it, we find ourselves in a curious and somewhat painful predicament now that we can no longer fall back on ready-made ideologies and comfortable systems of belief. So what’s left? Where do we take refuge? That’s the question Revel says is haunting us as we transition into the 21st century.

I’ve also been rediscovering the genius of Kenneth Boulding, the late futurist and economist (and an old friend of my family, as it happens). His book The Meaning of the Twentieth Century is still amazingly fresh and original though it was written some forty years ago.

Finally, there’s Lewis Mumford, someone I return to again and again for ideas and inspiration. A towering intellect and a creative thinker. Almost all of his books are first-rate, but lately I’ve been reading The Transformations of Man, a masterful survey of those rare and pivotal moments in human history when an entirely new way of perceiving the world broke into popular consciousness and thereby changed the course of civilization.