The difference in depth of the two books is readily apparent from the difference in the irony that each author employs. Voltaire is heavy and obvious; Johnson, despite his stylistic orotundity, is light and subtle. Candide is expelled from his happy home, Rasselas wants to escape his: already a great difference in depth, for Candide’s misfortunes eventuate from outside himself, while Rasselas experiences Man’s existential, internally generated dissatisfaction and restlessness. Since no one could possibly imagine a place better than the happy valley, Johnson confronts us from the first with man’s inability ever to be satisfied with what he has, which, he suggests, is his glory but also his misery.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?”, Not With a Bang But a Whimper

But it seems best to conclude by registering a note of sobriety, as against hopes for transformation. If cultural despair rests on a view of history as being more powerful than individuals, the revolutionary for his part entertains an exaggerated fantasy of world changing. A heady vision of the progressive hereafter in which economic antagonism has been overcome may come to stand in for, and distract him from, the smaller but harder work of living well in this life. The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this-worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings. In practice, this means seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.

— Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Those who say that we are on the verge of a huge increase in self-understanding are claiming that enlightenment will suddenly be reached under the scientific bo tree. The enlightenment will have to be sudden rather than gradual because, if it were gradual, we should already be able to point to an increase in human contentment and self-control brought about by our already increased knowledge. But even the most advanced societies are just as full of angst, or poor impulse control, of existential bewilderment, of adherence to clearly irrational doctrines, as ever they were. There is no sign that, Prozac and neurosurgery notwithstanding, any of this is about to change fundamentally.

…In my opinion, the great philosopher David Hume understood why human self-understanding was forever beyond our reach. It is not a coincidence that he always expressed himself with irony, for the deepest irony is that of the existence of a creature, Man, who forever seeks something that is beyond his understanding.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “Do the Impossible: Know Thyself”, Anything Goes

Darwin’s instinct for truth — or, as it might more accurately be called, his love of truth — is what led him to formulate the theory of evolution. His instinct of virtue, or love of goodness, is what led him to abhor slavery. The faith he lived by was that these two loves would lead, ultimately, to the same conclusion. A century and a half into the Darwinian age, we live by that same faith, because we have no other choice.

— Adam Kirsch, “Darwinism at 150”, Rocket and Lightship

Tocqueville perceived early that democracy presented a stellar example of the saddest of all dilemmas, those in which two good things clash with little compromise or resolution possible. The two good things in democracy, of course, are equality and liberty. One would think it not too much to ask to have both full justice and complete liberty, but this is not so easily arranged. Laws are necessary for a carefully calibrated fairness; certain constraints will be required, because if everyone is cut loose to do his best, many will fall hopelessly out of the race. Historically, the two chief possibilities have been a gentle good society and a cruel great one. The middle possibility, a gentle society that is also truly great, has not yet shown up. Hoping against hope, many of us continue to wish that one day it will. Tocqueville knew it wasn’t likely to come about soon.

— Joseph Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy’s Guide

There can never not be a situation in which people will find it essential to be a certain way, will want and need to be a certain way, and find that they cannot manage it. We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once.

— Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

But the serial collapse and the sheer insubstantiality of these projects brings to mind Thomas Macaulay’s jibe that an acre of Middlesex is worth more than a principality in Utopia. The heart wants such worthy causes to succeed, looking to them hopefully for solutions to our contemporary dilemmas. The head can’t turn away from reality. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to resist asking, What is it that makes the noble ideas embodied in these communities so fragile, and so apparently unattractive?

…We can think of these two ambitions—reinvented sex and a remade economy—as the twin pillars of the utopian project.

In fact, the example of America’s nineteenth-century intentional communities suggests that there is something elemental in what John Maynard Keynes, writing during the Great Depression, called “the resilience of capitalism.” Nearly every utopia in these books begins with a determination to create a new economy, usually through some amalgam of collective ownership, central planning, and voluntary labor. Yet egoism, acquisitiveness, competitiveness, and all the other ills of human flesh bob repeatedly to the surface, like a cork that will not be submerged.

— Akash Kapur, “The Return of the Utopians

People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to “solve” the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”

— J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

We also owe to romanticism the notion that a unified answer in human affairs is likely to be ruinous, that if you really believe there is one single solution to all human ills, and that you must impose this solution at no matter what cost, you are likely to become a violent and despotic tyrant in the name of your solution, because your desire to remove all obstacles to it will end by destroying those creatures for whose benefit you offer the solution. The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect or true — all this we owe to the romantics.

— Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism

The apparent miracle of the division of labour became a mantra of capitalist economics that was swiftly put into practice throughout the industrial world. It also ushered in the era of monotonous work. Buried in the final pages of The Wealth of Nations, Smith admitted that the results included not only greater national income but also ‘torpor of the mind’ and a loss of ‘tender sentiment’. He said that ‘the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention.’

Many people today know just what Smith was talking about, for we are the inheritors of the division of labour. Whether we are employed in factories or offices, the chances are that we are charged with performing a small number of specialised tasks: copyediting reports, entering data, practising commercial law, serving at the checkout till, designing logos. Few are permitted to be craftspeople, drawing on multiple skills to take a job from start to finish. We are denied the satisfactions of a chair maker who might cut down the tree, then strip the bark, shape the rungs, steam the legs, bore the mortices, clamp the pieces, weave the seat and finally polish the wood with beeswax.

…Some people are searching for work that expands their personal horizons by providing new challenges, opportunities for learning, and ways to use their talents and creativity. There are those who want their jobs to express their values and politics. Others see work as a way of gaining deeper self-knowledge, or understanding of other people and cultures. Many desire careers that are a source of friendship or offer a sense of belonging or adventure. And some are intent on finding their personal calling: a career that provides a meaningful guide to the whole course of their lives.

I believe we should strive to transform work into part of our personal art of living. We need not accept Mark Twain’s opinion that ‘work is a necessary evil to be avoided.’ We must be more demanding of our work and of ourselves, and not sink into the resigned admission that work has to be ‘just a job’ with few rewards beyond the wage. Life is so excruciatingly short, and earning a living is such a large chunk of our limited time on the earth, that we cannot permit work to be a toad.

— Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live?

As Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations, specialization is both the cause and the effect of prosperity, and it creates the modern economic life that allows us to move beyond subsistence. Small groups of people — no matter how talented, no matter how skilled or strong or smart — cannot be wealthy by modern standards over any sustained period of time…Without that specialization, and innovation — if we had to depend on, say, just our family and friends, regardless of their talents — we would be close to subsistence, the economic reality for most of human history. The poorest people in the world today still struggle, no matter their talents, because they are connected economically only to those who are nearby.

…Some people view this lack of interpersonal interaction as a great loss. Perhaps it is. But it is the unavoidable price of modernity and wealth. Trading only with people we care about or are able to see and interact with would leave us with a very limited number of people to trade with. And that would mean we would be very poor. The “buy local” movement has been successful with a very limited number of products — food and some handcrafted items. The ability to broaden the scope of the movement is very limited. We tried buying local once; it was called the Middle Ages. But one reason people were poor in the Middle Ages is that when you trade mostly with people who live nearby, you are bound to be very poor. There just isn’t enough specialization possible with a limited number of trading partners. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

…Unfortunately, Smith’s insights in The Wealth of Nations are not fully understood. We don’t teach our children or even our economics students much about what sustains our modern standard of living…I suspect that if we appreciated the role of specialization and exchange in creating the wonders of modern life, we would be more tolerant of its imperfections and more eager to preserve what gives it its power.

— Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life