Here’s a Book that Supports “The Best Guess I’ve Ever Had”: That No One Really Has Much of a Clue About What’s Supposed to Be Happening Here; That Everyone Is Guessing

Anyone—and it might be anytwo, or at best anyfive or anysix—who has been paying attention to the progressive content of my thinking through the years understands that I’ve been on some sort of journey.

It is my belief that it is not all that remote from a journey that most all who have ever lived participate in.

The road map that I like best, and one to which I’ve devoted a substantial part of my lifework, is that provided by the late Dr. Clare Graves, the  psychologist. He traced the route as a spiral, with well-defined stops. In my most recent book, I shared the view that much of the time I’m now experiencing “life its own self” at Graves’ Stage 7 or, as I renumbered it in this work, Stage 2.0.

From the perspective of the 2.0 mind, one of the key understandings that I keep butting my nose into—like a door jam in the dark—is this: Everyone who has ever tried to explain why the world is, what humans are doing here, and the totality of how it all works has been guessing. Once you are armed with this insight, then it is both fascinating and sometimes a little fear-provoking to see just how many guesses have been put forth about what’s happening and how and why, and how much influence even very bad guesses can have.

A question then: Which of those guesses deserve to be labeled the best guesses ever made, even if they are no longer attention-attractors except for serious scholars, and sometimes not many of these?

Somehow, I have always intuitively suspected that the cultural mentality most likely to take such a question seriously, and attempt to answer it, would belong to a citizen of the United Kingdom. The question itself just sounds very…British.

And so it was a vindication of sorts to come across British critic, biographer and poet Martin Seymour-Smith’s book, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. Published in 1998, this work was just such an attempt—to define the guesses in history that have had “the most decisive influence upon the course of human thought.”

I can’t imagine anyone ever reading Seymour-Smith’s book from cover to cover. At least, I don’t have this kind of ocular or intellectual stamina. But this is one of those books that prompts me to get it down off the shelf every once in a while, open it at random and marvel anew at the origins and consequences of all the guessing that has been going on.

This time, 100 Most Influential fell open to book No. 83, Italian intellectual Vilfredo Pareto’s The Mind and Society. I have always thought that Pareto was an economist, because of what has come to be called “Pareto’s 80/20 Principle.” (Seymour-Smith calls it “Pareto optimality,” and says it was unpopular from the first because of its “the trival many—the critical few” character. In other words, that an economy is best off when the largest proportion of its participants are badly off.) But what do I learn? That Pareto, a congenital sourpuss of a thinker, is consider one of the fathers of sociology. And that The Mind and Society puts forth one of the best guesses for why, to use T.S. Eliot’s notion (as Seymour-Smith does), “Mankind cannot bear much reality.” Pareto’s ideas of the early 20th Century are very much in vogue again in the early 21st Century: that the foundations of the social system are very much anchored in the nonlogical, not the rational, actions of humans.

So Pareto’s best guess is, by other names and because of other systems of inquiry, back in town. I suspect that if I ever summon up the stamina to read this entire work, I’ll find that this is true again and again. That there can only be so many guesses of sufficient quality to be considered very good guesses about what’s happening here even though they all remain just that—guesses—and that most of them have already been fleshed out at one time or another by a very fine, if now perhaps largely ignored if not totally forgotten, mind. But good or bad, they remain mostly that: guesses.

Seymour-Smith died on July 1, 1998, at the age of seventy. For a list of Seymour-Smith’s Top 100, go here: “100 Most Influential Books Ever Written”.

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