Lewis Lapham’s “Age of Folly”

By Allston Mitchell, February 8, 2017

Lewis Lapham and the cover of "Age of Folly"

Lewis Lapham and the cover of “Age of Folly”

A review of Lewis Lapham's collection of essays tracing the decline in American democracy since 1990 to the present day. It is a vital read from a great literary stylist, humanist and old-school scholar. There is wit, intelligence and a grasp of essentials on every page.

Lewis Lapham may write with the elegance and intelligence of an old-school stylist but there is nothing languid and jaded about him – he is disappointed with the direction that the American political experiment has taken – and in delineating his theme, he cuts to the bone with a very modern sense of injustice and a caustic wit.

To those readers unfamiliar with Lewis Lapham he might seem like an unlikely sort of American in this brash new era that delights in its own ignorance and mendacity.  If you had the good fortune to cross his path the conversation would likely turn to Cicero and Thucydides before long, as he is a firm believer in Goethe’s adage that “he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth”.

“Age of Folly – America Abandons its Democracy” is unquestionably a timely book that does not concentrate solely on the nightmare currently being played out in the White House under the new Trump administration but traces the decline in American values back over the last twenty-five years of an imperial adventure that has laid waste its principles of democracy.   Lewis Lapham explains in rigorous detail that the current disastrous state of affairs in the United States has not emerged mysteriously and suddenly like a car driving over a cliff but like one that has been making a series of drastically wrong turns since 1990 which is when his book takes up the story.

This is a book of his essays collected from Harper’s magazine between 1990 and 2015 and from Lapham’s Quarterly between 2014 and 2016 touching on the wars in Iraq, the farcical election of George Bush by the Supreme Court, the economic crisis right up to the appearance of Donald Trump on the political landscape.

"Age of Folly" by Lewis Lapham - published by Verso

“Age of Folly” by Lewis Lapham – published by Verso

We quickly learn that Lewis Lapham loves history, partly because he is convinced that America’s folly has been caused by the country’s lack of a sense of history which he hopes would go some way to tempering the country’s natural tendency towards self-deceit and vainglory.  As Lapham tells us, Aristotle saw it coming, obviously, as he likened the coming to power of a government  to the rise of a “prosperous fool” – an individual so besotted  with money as “to imagine there is nothing it cannot buy”.

Readers of “Lapham’s Quarterly”, the author’s latest venture, will understand his preoccupation with history which he defines as an “antidote to folly” (courtesy of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr). The book is just that, it is vital reading in this era of moral arbitrariness and the shameless manipulation of factual reality to suit the most sordid of political agendas.

There are few writers in the United States who can call upon Goethe’s three thousand years of documented history and couple it both an engaging literary style and the humanity of a gentleman scholar, Lapham may be the only one.

Grasp this book with both hands.


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