Books. Allen, James Sloan: Worldly Wisdom: Great Books and the Meanings of Life. Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 2009

by Stanton H. Burnett

James Sloan Allen's intellectual trek has taken him from Columbia to Haverford, the New School, and Juilliard, where he was provost and dean. Along the way he searched the Western (and beyond) canon and produced notable articles in major literary reviews on Virginia Woolf, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde and others who challenged conventional thought. The trek brought him, almost a decade ago, to New York's Mercantile Library, where he has led an ongoing series of reading groups unique in their scope and in the intensity of their following. Now Dr. Allen has moved from the academically intrepid to the most daring of all intellectual high-wire acts, a synthesis of what a series of major works means for our everyday (thus "worldly" in the title) life. The range is vast (from the Bhavagad-Gita to Freud and Gautier), but since Allen is especially interested in how we live with others, in the bonds of society, that focus leads him to put Dante and Machiavelli at the heart of his exploration.

He starts with the familiar Dante conundrum: why are certain sins of extreme violence lodged at higher circles (i.e., sins less grave) of the Inferno than sins which seem much less calamitous? Why are treason and lying buried deep as the gravest of sins, while murder itself occupies a middle level? Following a path of reasoning that maintains a disciplined close contact with the text, Allen illuminates Dante's belief that trust is crucial to the proper functioning of society. Acts that destroy trust, trust in each other's word, inflict deeper wounds on the health of the polis than do the bloody products of uncontrolled rage. Allen is both eloquent and faithful (to Dante's text) in demonstrating the value of this unusual line of reasoning The large scope of Allen's tour through the Inferno (he does not really explore the other two parts of The Divine Comedy and, in general, minimizes religious consideration in most of the Western writers) is reversed when he comes to Machiavelli. Focusing on The Prince, Allen emphasizes the means-end relationship that runs through the Florentine's thought. In Allen's words: "Once we know our ends and understand our circumstances, we must choose means that will logically lead to our ends and that fit our circumstances." It sounds rather basic, but Allen refrains from relating it explicitly to decision-making in the White House. He doesn't have to.


For many readers, this will become the most important, most frequently consulted, book on their shelves. So it is a bonus that the writing is graceful and the choice of authors often surprising and amusing, but always well-reasoned. The guy on the subway reading Oscar Wilde or Moliere may be engaged, with Allen's help, in a very serious pursuit.