Cover image for The true and only heaven : progress and its critics
The true and only heaven : progress and its critics
Lasch, Christopher.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York ; London : Norton, 1991.
Physical Description:
591 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Reading Level:
1440 Lexile.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E169.1 .L376 1991 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Can we continue to believe in progress? In this sobering analysis of the Western human condition, Christopher Lasch seeks the answer in a history of the struggle between two ideas: one is the idea of progress - an idea driven by the conviction that human desire is insatiable and requires ever larger production forces. Opposing this materialist view is the idea that condemns a boundless appetite for more and better goods and distrusts "improvements" that only feed desire. Tracing the opposition to the idea of progress from Rousseau through Montesquieu to Carlyle, Max Weber and G.D.H. Cole, Lasch finds much that is desirable in a turn toward moral conservatism, toward a lower-middle-class culture that features egalitarianism, workmanship and loyalty, and recognizes the danger of resentment of the material goods of others.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The publication of The True and Only Heaven could not have come at a better time in American politics--in the wake of the last two national campaigns, which have produced Democratic candidates espousing tired and unimaginative liberal ideas. Lasch--author of the respected Culture of Narcissism--offers a thoughtful study concerning the ideas of progress as they developed in liberal thinking in the political and economic arenas of the last century and a half. Contrasted with liberal progress is populism and its ideas on limitations, both political and economic. Writers such as Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James are cited here as men who cautioned society against unrealistic expectations. Calamities of war, environmental decay, destructive trends in the family, dangerous court intrusions altering societal values, and insatiable consumerism speak to the need for restraint and the importance of heeding thinkers like Emerson, who preached workmanship, morality, loyalty, belief in heroes, and a healthy skepticism of progress. The lower middle class, despite being narrow and parochial, according to Lasch, still seems to support these values. Any book that ranges across such broad cultural developments is bound to have contestable ideas. Is abortion only a class issue? Is Emerson of heroic stature? And just what is the new class? Lasch's sociological jargon may bog down some readers, but otherwise this book is highly recommended. (Perhaps politicians will read it and have something different to say in the next national campaign.) --Eugene Sullivan

Publisher's Weekly Review

The thrust of Lasch's polemic is that progressives mistakenly cling to a faith in progress, i.e., the belief that a steady, indefinite rise in living standards is possible. The world's diminishing resources and America's shrinking middle class effectively doom the idea of such progress, he suggests. Lasch identifies a constellation of thinkers--Carlyle, Emerson, William James, Reinhold Neibuhr, syndicalist Georges Sorel, American populists--who were skeptical of material progress and its presumed benefits. He links their views to the ``petty-bourgeois sensibility'' of the lower-middle class, said to be rooted in family, neighborhood, respect for workmanship, loyalty, thrift, self-denial and a recognition of human limits. As self-appointed champion of lower-middle-class values, Lasch is less cogent than in his jeremiad, The Culture of Narcissism. He uses liberals as a whipping-post to advance his debatable thesis, accusing them of unrealistic optimism and a shallow secularism. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Lasch ( The Culture of Narcissism , LJ 11/15/78) condemns those on both the right and left who continue to believe in progress, i.e., the idea that the American economy can continue to grow indefinitely and lead the way to ``the true and only heaven'' (Hawthorne's phrase) of increasing wealth and ever-higher standards of living. Instead, he argues, we must recognize the environmental limits to economic growth and begin lowering our expectations. (He believes the middle class is already on the verge of extinction.) Lasch analyzes the thought of those who have dissented from the idea of progress and warned of human limitations--Emerson, William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King--and concludes that the solution is a conservative morality that accepts limits but ``asserts the goodness of life in the face of limits.'' Recommended for academic and large public library collections. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/90.-- Jeffrey R. Herold , Bucyrus P.L., Ohio (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Lasch's new book is controversial in the strongest sense of the term. Although Lasch is often affected by logorrhea and seeks to prove too much, he can also be brilliantly succinct, demonstrating a capacity for incisive and vivid writing that one cannot but envy. Based on the premise that old political ideologies have exhausted their capacity to explain events or to inspire people to constructive action, the book seems depressingly topical for the 1990s, an age when the traditional left, its old assumptions called into question, is thoroughly confused. Lasch explores the thought of Puritans, Jews, Progressives, New Dealers, Hume, Helvetius, Burke, Bentham, Adam Smith, Cobbett, Paine, Emerson, and Orestes Brownson, among others. His book is a sort of revolving Drummond Light (to borrow from Melville) that illuminates a wide range of surrounding territory. Indeed, its sweep is sometimes too wide, so that the overview is seemingly lost and irrelevancies appear rife. But these very irrelevancies are instructive and richly comparative. Always critical, Lasch takes up the lance against almost every imaginable thinker and cultural/intellectual movement. His conclusions that progressive optimism about the future is without foundation, that economic equality is unattainable, and that modern science is anything but unlimited in its possibilities will prompt sustained attack. No matter. The book deserves a wide and respectful reading. All libraries. -M. Cantor, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 13
1 Introduction: The Obsolescence of Left and Rightp. 21
2 The Idea of Progress Reconsideredp. 40
3 Nostalgia: The Abdication of Memoryp. 82
4 The Sociological Tradition and the Idea of Communityp. 120
5 The Populist Campaign against "Improvement"p. 168
6 No Answer but an Echo: The World without Wonderp. 226
7 The Syndicalist Moment: Class Struggle and Workers' Control as the Moral Equivalent of Proprietorship and Warp. 296
8 Work and Loyalty in the Social Thought of the "Progressive" Erap. 329
9 The Spiritual Discipline against Resentmentp. 369
10 The Politics of the Civilized Minorityp. 412
11 Right-Wing Populism and the Revolt against Liberalismp. 476
Bibliographical Essayp. 533
Indexp. 571