Battle of the books

What works can be said to have altered history?

A few by scientists and philosophers, perhaps, bu

Darwin's Origin of Species
Janet Browne Atlantic Books, 174pp, £9.99
ISBN 1843543931

Marx's Das Kapital
Francis Wheen Atlantic Books, 130pp, £9.99
ISBN 1843544008

Plato's Republic
Simon Blackburn Atlantic Books, 181pp, £9.99
ISBN 1843543508

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man
Christopher Hitchens Atlantic Books, 158pp, £9.99
ISBN 1843545136

The Qur'an
Bruce Lawrence Atlantic Books, 231pp, £9.99
ISBN 1843543982

Drawing up a list of books that have changed the world is a tricky business. We see in the past what engages us in the present, and many books that were once hugely influential are now almost forgotten. In the history of ideas as in history as a whole, our view of the past is prone to a kind of optical illusion in which we mistake what is closest to us for the dominant feature of the landscape. There is a powerful tendency to imagine that if a book has disappeared from view then it can never have had much of an impact.

In fact, many books that once shook the world are today unread. Consider Herbert Spencer's The Man Versus the State (1884). Spencer's theories were vastly influential, especially in the US, where his books sold millions of copies (and where The Man Versus the State is still in print). There can be no doubt that Spencer's works had an impact on events, shaping the thinking of Supreme Court judges, but hardly anyone reads him now. While Spencer's works are not without intermittent insights, it was not these that made him so popular - it was the appealingly crude ideology he constructed. Like many a second-rate thinker after him, Spencer supplied a pseudo-scientific foundation for the hopes and prejudices of his time. It was he who coined the expression "survival of the fittest", and though he developed his version of evolutionism independently of Charles Darwin, he set a precedent for the political misuse of Darwinian ideas that continues today.

There could be no better antidote to the per vasive misrepresentation of Darwin's thought than Janet Browne's volume in the new Atlantic Books series of "Books That Shook the World". Relating the history of Darwin's ideas with a pellucid freshness that makes reading the book a continuous pleasure, Browne sets him firmly in the context of Victorian evolutionary thinking and at the same time brings out his own contribution to a world-transforming theory. Darwin has been portrayed as the intellectual godfather of the militant atheism that in recent years has been enjoying a small-scale revival, but Browne shows how far removed this caricature is from Darwin the man - a cautious valetudinarian whose religious outlook seems to have come closest to a mild deism. As Browne writes, rather than being "a solitary voice deliberately defying the traditions of the Church or the moral values of society", Darwin's Origin of Species should be seen as "one of the hubs of transformation in western thought".

It is widely believed that Karl Marx wished to dedicate his book Das Kapital to Darwin. As Browne notes, this is a mistake. It is true that Marx admired Darwin - he sent him an inscribed copy of the book, which remains in Darwin's library - but it was Marx's son-in-law Edward Aveling who offered to dedicate one of his books to Darwin, an offer Darwin (who did not want to be associated with Aveling's atheism) rejected. Moreover, despite Marx's admiration for Darwin, the two thinkers could hardly be more different. While Darwin had a genuine respect for facts, Marx was a system-builder in the mould of Herbert Spencer, using his empirical researches to prop up a theoretical scheme he adopted for other reasons. However, it is not as a system-builder that Francis Wheen pictures Marx. Instead he sees him as a "poet of dialectic", and Das Kapital as a literary creation that should be read in postmodern fashion as a necessarily fractured and incomplete intellectual narrative. It is an amusing conceit, and Wheen has a point when he writes that Marx, who understood capitalism better than many economists, gives a vivid picture of its anarchic energy. But in what sense can this postmodern curio be said to have shaken the world? In time-honoured marxisant style, Wheen insists that Marx's ideas were in no way implicated in the crimes of 20th-century communist regimes - the fault lay with Lenin, who turned Marx's thought into dogma. This is tosh. Lenin was a true disciple of Marx, and if anything less dogmatic. More to the point, the claim that Marx's ideas bear no responsibility for communism actually existing implies that Marx had little influence on history. Oddly, although it is hard to square with the idea that Das Kap-ital was a world-shaking book, this seems to be Wheen's view - he appears to believe that Marx's time may be still to come, concluding that he "could yet become the most influential thinker of the 21st century". Happily, this is a forecast no more likely to be borne out than most of Marx's own.

As we all know, Marx took a great deal from Hegel, while turning Hegelian idealism upside-down. Less well known is that, in absorbing so much of Hegel's thought, Marx was deeply shaped by German Neoplatonism, and through it by Plato himself. We tend to think of Plato as an other-worldly philosopher whose interest in politics was confined to utopian speculation, and it is true that he was a mystical thinker before he was anything else. Yet Plato did have an impact on events, though it is hardly evident in Simon Blackburn's account. Blackburn suggests we read The Republic as a thought-experiment, as if Plato's goal was simply to come up with some illuminating analogies. This was not how he was seen in the ancient world. His greatest disciple, Plotinus, took Plato's utopian project entirely seriously, and approached the emperor Gallienus with a proposal to set up a city called Platonopolis, which would be governed according to Plato's scheme. While nothing came of the idea, it shows up the silliness of seeing Plato as an early practitioner of conceptual analysis. Part of the interest of reading Plato is that one enters into a very different way of thinking. Rendered by Blackburn into the banal categories of analytical philosophy, this supremely alien thinker is left seeming familiar and rather commonplace.

A better case can be made for the claim that Thomas Paine's Rights of Man actually affected history than for other books so far published in the Atlantic series, and Christopher Hitchens makes it with characteristic verve and style. A large part of the book is an engaging account of Paine's life and times, and this is well worth reading. Sadly, the overall thrust is too topical. Hitchens dedicates the book - " by permission", he informs us - to Jalal Talabani, the first elected president of post-Saddam Iraq, and it is clear that he believes a version of Paine's ideas ani-mate George W Bush in his current crusade. It is a faintly ridiculous notion, but not entirely without foundation. That an American president whose world-view is shaped by Armageddonite Christianity should also be a disciple of a prophet of the Age of Reason is not terribly surprising. US foreign policy over the past few years has been driven by a mix of Christian and Enlightenment fundamentalism, whose common element is a belief in America as a redemptive, world-transforming power. Hitchens shares this strange faith, and there can be no doubt that he has captured a moment in the zeitgeist. It is probably only a matter of time before we hear Bush quoting William Godwin approvingly on the perfectibility of man.

The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks. The writings of these Enlightenment savants have stirred events for a very brief period in history, now clearly coming to an end. Against this background it is good to have Bruce Lawrence's admirably balanced and informative volume on the Qur'an, and to look forward to Karen Armstrong's volume on the Bible appearing in the Atlantic series next spring. A few great books of science have altered history, as have some works of clairvoyant speculation, such as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions. Future volumes in the series must surely include Confucius's Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavadgita and the Buddha's Fire Sermon - texts that have never ceased to shake the world and, as far as anyone can tell, always will.

John Gray's most recent book is "Heresies: against progress and other illusions" (Granta Books)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world