All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1981

Book Review: Thoughts Rule the World by Leonard E. Read (The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533), 1981

128 pages • $6.00 cloth

Leonard E. Read has produced his own two-foot shelf of books. Thoughts Rule the World is number twenty-seven. This handsomely bound new volume has all of the sparkle and charm of his earlier books with the added dimension of experience and wisdom which is reserved for what Norman Ream calls “the chronologically gifted.”

Napoleon, dejected and in exile, his dream of world conquest faded, reflected on his experience and said—“the pen is mightier than the sword.” Had he thought still more deeply he might have arrived at the conclusion that the pen is nothing without thought, and that thought truly rules the world. The world of Leonard Read is made up of learning, thinking and writing about Liberty. His thoughts are not intended for world conquest. He has spent his life in a relentless effort to know the truth and to share his discoveries with those who come to him with seeking minds.

Those who are out for a polemic to correct the left-leaning liberals will find no encouragement in this book. Read is no contentious debater. He bears no relationship to the young philosophers of Plato’s Republic who were described as “like puppy dogs who bite and tear one another, with out a true vision of truth.” Read believes that one who loves liberty must study it, live it and let the example of his integrity and rectitude draw to him those who would learn.

The Sage of Irvington has illuminated one hundred eighteen pages with a most amazing range of pertinent quotations. He begins with his old friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and concludes with Oliver Goldsmith. In between is a startling array of philosophers, economists, poets, emperors and presidents with a spate of scientists and saints for good measure. The intellectual companions of Leonard Read are from all ages and all places.

While this book is made up of twenty-six brief essays on liberty, it is not without an underlying unity; nor is it devoid of intellectual rigor. Herein the reader finds “logical reasoning from a sound premise.” Answers to important questions are throughout the book. The proper role of government, the miracle of the market, the failure of coercion, the creative power of free individuals and many other truths become self-evident as the book proceeds.

Now and again an insight comes through as an almost poetic image. Take for example the observation: “When little men cast long shadows, the sun is setting on a civilization.” The author transcends again the owl wings of economic prose and flies on eagle wings of poesy as he writes: “As to the glory and sublimity of truth, all is mystery.”

Few moral philosophers have given adequate notice to the relationship between manners and morals. Read devotes a wise chapter to this very subject and comes out with a conclusion which is both persuasive and brightened with hope. “True, good manners lead to good morals. When enough individuals thus blest reason justly from a sound premise, Liberty will again prevail!”

Leonard Read is not only a thinker, writer, teacher and executive. He is also a man of great faith. He sees the liberty which rang out from the Liberty Bell as secured by the fact that the Declaration invoked the rule of God rather than the rule of man. Free individuals under God are not easily subjected to the tyranny of command government. The chapter, “Goodness: The First Step to Freedom” views creativity as the hope for humanity, and goodness as participation in the Creation. John Milton’s Areopagitica is called in to distinguish between liberty and license. “None can love freedom heartily, but good men, the rest love not freedom, but license.” Individual creativity is regarded as goodness which is to be guarded with religious devotion.

Grover Cleveland is seldom quoted. Only Read would find an epochal decision in an obscure administration. Cleveland, on principle and against his political self-interest, refused to sign a bill that would aid some Texas farmers in a time of distress, but thereby turn charity over to the government. Cleveland saw the responsibility for human survival and economic well-being as individual responsibility and voluntary sharing rather than as an opportunity for politicians and bureaucrats to buy votes and power with other people’s money. Read commends Cleveland for understanding the role of government as that of “keeping the peace and invoking a common jus tice.” This good press for Cleveland makes me proud of my kinsman, Walter Q. Gresham, who was his Secretary of State.

The book ranges over many fascinating landscapes of the mind. A chapter is devoted to mental growth, another to mutual obligations. The problem of ends and means comes in for full consideration. Conscience, a persistent problem in moral philosophy, gets a new insight and a new definition. Long-range goals for a creative and effective life are brought under the spell of Lecomte du Noüy, Thomas Carlyle and Immanuel Kant.

The story of the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, is truly inspiring as related in chapter twenty- one. Here is a little Greek slave with a crippled leg derived from the cruelty of his master, who nevertheless lives with so much joy and wisdom that the world made pilgrimage to his obscure home for information and insight. Read calls this “the law of attraction” and a wise formula for anyone who aspires to interest people in the philosophy of freedom.

“Each of us is the architect of his own character,” says Leonard Read, and with this remark his students are on their own. Individual freedom is the only freedom that finally matters and individual responsibility is a concomitant. Governments cannot be creative. Only individuals can bring the insights and innovations which remake the earth and the societies which inhabit it. This does not rule out the important factor of voluntary cooperation. Freedom of association is a fundamental liberty, but coercive association can be tyrannical.

The obnoxious word “mandatory” has no place in this volume. Those who try to impose their wills on others by force are not hated and they are not denounced, but they are invited to consider the folly and indignity of their beliefs and practices. Everyone is invited to study the freedom way of life. The bungling mail service by government, compared with the effective transmission of voice by private industry, is illustrative of the advantages of free enterprise.

Many students of political economy have overlooked the importance of envy and covetousness in social and political affairs. Not so Leonard Read who writes, “We should note the extent to which this ‘guiltless’ taking of property by coercion is rationalized. Accomplices, bearing such titles as philosophers and economists, rise to the occasion: they explain how the popular depredations are good for everyone, even the looted. Thus, we find that covetousness, unchecked in the individual, lies at the root of the decline and fall of nations and civilizations.” The cure for envy and covetousness lies with the attitude of each individual. The person who counts his blessings cannot covet.

Another aspect of the freedom way of life which is frequently overlooked is the fact that free people have more fun. Those who are zealous for mandatory controls on everything are grim and fierce. They miss the excitement and pleasure of free choice. Read sums up this idea with a one- liner: “Have fun, or forget it!”

Leonard E. Read is himself the greatest of his books. His long life of dedication to liberty is the exemplification of all he writes. He not only praises consistency but lives it. He honors humility and admits his ignorance and fallibility. He thinks truth and lives love. Whitehead wrote, “Philosophy begins in wonder and ends in wonder.” By that definition Read is a true philosopher, for he has a sense of the numinous which he calls “mystery.” The Foundation he has created is a quiet center for the study of liberty which draws thinkers from all over the world. He has not yielded to despair nor failed to find joy in the search for truth and freedom.

The final chapter of Thoughts Rule the World is “Good News.” The opening quote for the essay is the author’s own. “Experience has convinced me that there is a thousand times more goodness, wisdom and love in the world than men imagine.” This is no mere optimism. Read has the critical eye to observe and the good judgment to avoid unwarranted assertions. There is a quality of hope and happiness in every sentence. The book is good news indeed!

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