All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1982

Book Review: How Do We Know? by Leonard E. Read

(The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533), 1981 • 117 pages • $6.00

How Do We Know? is the catchy title for the latest book from the prolific pen of Leonard E. Read. The book is a warm and gentle invitation to readers who wish to learn more about liberty. The title might suggest a brief essay on epistemology, but this is far from the case. It is rather more of a modest testimony from a great man who has given his life to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding concerning individual freedom.

The cover of this striking little volume shows the face of an inquiring person looking through the circular portion of a question mark. Many questions leap to the mind of a reader, the first being “Who is this Leonard Read?” The current volume of Who’s Who in America shows him to have been born in Hubbardston, Michigan, September 26, 1898. Here were his school days and his first efforts at business. After a short while as president of the Ann Arbor Produce Company, he became an organization executive for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His rare ability to work with people, his creative imagination, his tireless diligence and his sterling integrity brought him to first place among his peers with the Chamber of Commerce and with other associations such as the Western Conference for Commercial and Trade Executives. Read is an inspiring leader who brings out the best in his associates.

Read was almost fifty when he decided to give his life to the study of liberty. In 1946 he organized the Foundation for Economic Education. This foundation is the lengthened shadow of a man who exemplifies everything he writes concerning the study of human freedom as it applies to the field of political economy. To this concern he has invested his thought, his time and his genius.

There is absolutely no arrogance in Leonard Read. This is his twenty-eighth book on the practice of liberty and yet he professes to know nothing. He is like Socrates who does not claim to be wise but loves wisdom with his total being. Those of us who have known him through these rolling years give testimony to the fact that his personality, his speaking and writing start a contagious love of liberty.

After fifty years in academics, my favorite quotation for high ceremonies such as graduation and honors day comes from a student who said of his new degree awarded summa cure laude, “Nothing wilts as quickly as laurels that have been rested upon!” Read is pushing his middle eighties but he is not about to sit in the sun and disintegrate. He is like the Venerable Bede who, writing in his cold cell, answered the question, “Why do you write in these advanced years?”—and the brave old monk answered, “I do not want my students to believe a lie.”

Every morning Read is at his typewriter whacking away, writing for the multitudes that look to him for the inspiration, knowledge and literature of liberty. His ideas are so cherished that his friends have said, “why do you quote so many sources in your book?” (There are many quotations and 140 names.) On page three of How Do We Know?, Read answers the query, “I am often criticized—in a friendly way—for so copiously quoting those whose wisdom is far superior to mine, Edmund Burke, for instance. ‘Why don’t you confine yourself to your own thinking?’ My reason? Most individuals do not have available to them such resources as are available to us at FEE. So why not share the wisdom of seers—those who have seen what most of us have not—with freedom aspirants!”

This wide-ranging little book deals with the pilgrimage toward a free political economy. The logic of the contents is a pleasant journey for the mind. It begins by urging us to read the great books; it warns against the corruptive influence of coercive power; it moves through the fields of happiness when one finds truth. He then sees America as an experiment in freedom based on morality, as the market works and the ideas possess the people.

He calls us to respond to our visions of greatness held before us by the prophets and seers. He argues for self-realization and stresses the importance of all-out dedication. He takes interest in education, peers into the future and, in the culminating chapter, “Strive To Be A Nobleman,” he challenges us to become honorable before God and humanity.

Read is not content to argue for integrity. He lives it. This is succeeded by charity, intelligence, justice, love and humility, which he mentions on page fifty-eight. He is a man of single mind and calls other people to single-minded pursuit of truth and freedom.

He has little regard for the pretentious. His lovely aphorism is “The know-it-all is a know- nothing.” He is poignantly aware of his own limitation. On page ninety-three he says, “Who am I? Here’s one part of the answer: I am one octillion atoms—1 followed by twenty-seven zeros—a number difficult to grasp unless we use our imagination. Cover the surface of this earth—land and sea—with dried peas to a depth of four feet and their number would fall far, far short of an octillion. Go out into the universe and cover 250,000 other earth-sized planets with four feet of peas and that would be the number of atoms in my make-up. Mystery? The atom? It is so small that thirty trillion atoms could be placed on the period at the end of this sentence without overlapping. Blow an atom up to one hundred yards in diameter and what do you behold? Radiant energy in the form of electrons, neutrons and the like, in wave sequences flying about at the speed of light. In the center is the atomic nucleus which, after being thus expanded, is the size of a pinhead. This and this alone is ‘stuff’ and no one knows what it is, except that it appears ‘solid.’ All else is empty space. Mystery?”

Out of this sense of mystery, however, come his sensible and practical doctrines in the field of political economy, lie argues for sound money, limited government, individual freedom, reliance on the market, the importance of thrift, and the virtues of self-reliance.

The person who takes an evening to read this book is not only in the presence of Leonard Read, but in the presence of the world’s greatest people in time and space, who offer their ideas on how to improve the quality of life in this fair land. There is a suggestion here that America can continue to be an exemplar of liberty for the rest of the world.

The abiding influence of Leonard Read could make this new American Dream come true!

  • Dr. Perry E. Gresham (1907-1994) was President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College. Bethany, West Virginia.