There are very few books that earn a place on my bookshelf. I have 3 bookshelfs, but I have one shelf that hangs right over my desk that holds my absolute favorite, thought-provoking books. Even then, there are some that seem to stand out – but none can match Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens. Published back in 2001, Letters is a relatively new book, but within it’s pages it holds a beautifully written series of letters that are so profound – they will stand out as a truly philosophically outstanding work.
Letters to a Young Contrarian is a play on the book Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – and just like Rilke included letters written to 19 year old Franz Kappus, Hitchens includes letters written to a fictional character (the reader) that perfectly encapsulates his indignation and intellect that he wishes to impart on the reader. Hitchens gracefully touches on a variety of issues from familiar territory such as religion, morality, government, and liberty to lesser known stories and facts ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne to even Josef Goebbels.
It seems a daunting task to summarize the value of this book – but having have read and reread and rereread this work, I feel compelled to say something. Like all good works, there are pencil marks on just about every page with notes. From that, I have compiled some of the greatest lesson from each letter – so allow me the vain pleasure of taking it upon myself to summarize just a few of the lessons from this outstanding compilation.
“…when the celebrity culture and the spin-scum and the crooked lawyers and the pseudo-statesmen and the clerics seemed to have everything their own way. they will be back, of course. They will always be “back”. They never leave.”
Here, even in the preface of Hitchens works, we have amazing insights. This one, however, is something of a warning. The fight for liberty and independent thinking is a constant one. It is generation by generation, decade by decade, and year by year. In the first letter he expands on the ‘fight’ be introducing the reader (who Hitch refers to as “My Dear X”) by speaking about basic contrarian arguments but ends the chapter with an important lesson:
“To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.“
It is a play on what Hitchens has been saying for years. I even have one remark on the cover image of this page, “The essence of an independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks”. It almost seems like a whole new enlightenment when one becomes an independent thinker – to know that you will never go back. it is a beautiful thing.
“It’s for this reason that I am quite sure of two thins. The first is that even uneducated people…have an innate capacity to resist and, if not even to think for themselves, to have thoughts occur to them… the second is that we do not naturally aspire to any hazy, narcotic Nirvana, where our critical and ironic faculties would be of no use to use.”
Again, expanding on his first point, Hitchens reminds us that independent thinking is not popular nor natural. He expands on that by pointing to the Bible with a witty jab, “Imagine a state of endless praise and gratitude and adoration, as the Testaments ceaselessly enjoin us to do, and you have conjured a world of hellish nullity and conformism.” Hitch actually warns against those who absolutely think they are right. Just this lesson alone would benefit the world in a way that could only be compared to the invention of the printing press.
“I suggest you learn to recognize and avoid symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right”
In the next few letters, we see more dissecting into illogical thinking patterns. The “decline of intellectual and moral standards” is completely explained and trashed by Hitch:
“They want god on their side and believe they are doing his work – what is this, even at its very best, but an extreme for of solipsism? They are from conclusion to evidence; our greatest resource is the mind, and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved.”
He has always been one to say that it is not to want to act against illogical irrational actions, but to have to act – and I think that ideal sums up his works as a whole:
“Allow a friend to believe in a bogus prospectus or a false promise and you cease, after a short while, to be a friend at all. How dare you intervene? As well ask, How dare you not?”
This compilation is only 141 pages long, but holds thoughts and ideas that are completely ahead of its time. Hitchens outlines the independent mind, dangerous thinkers, and conformist warnings that provides the reader with invaluable life lessons. I could write multiple articles about this book if I could! But to keep this under 1000 words, let me finish with one more quote (because any article about Christopher Hitchens is often filled with quotes):
“…everybody can do something, and that the role of dissident is not, and should not be, a claim of membership in a communion of saints…And of course, one never has to worry about there being a surplus of such people. Those who need or want to think for themselves will always be a minority…”