My father was an officer in the Marine Corps. My mother was a former schoolteacher from Barcelona, Spain. They met in Germany. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. We moved every three years or so, to various places in California, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C. area. When my father went to Vietnam for a couple of year-long tours, my mother, brother, sister, and I moved in with my grandparents in Barcelona.
I graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a concentration in political philosophy. I was awarded the Sachs Scholarship from Princeton for study at Oxford University, where I completed a DPhil in philosophy in 1988. In the course of my doctoral studies, I discovered what I took to be irrefutable philosophical objections to pursuing a career in academic philosophy.
As I was not qualified for any kind of employment and could conceive of no better way to advance my literary ambition, I became a management consultant. The work involved extensive travel, much practice in foreign languages, and considerable on-the-job training, all at the expense of large financial institutions which, for reasons that are sometimes difficult to articulate, sought advice from people like me on matters having to do with their business strategy.
After three years of laboring to make life better for multinational banks, I felt the time was right to return to my philosophical calling. I quit my job and got to work on the first draft of my first book, The Truth About Everything: An Irreverent History of Philosophy, with Illustrations. The book was my attempt to rescue philosophy from the clutches of the academy. At the time, however, the publishers of the world (or at least the several hundred I contacted) were unanimous in their conviction that philosophy needed no such rescuing.
With my savings exhausted, I was obliged to return to the material world. As luck would have it, I fell in with a group of fellow consultants who were in the process of spinning themselves off from an old and established firm into a new one, and I joined them as a founding partner. Over the next several years, our firm prospered. Along the way, I made some rather alarming discoveries about my partners. After my first book at last found a publisher, I was eager to resume my vocation as a philosopher of the people. Extricating myself from the firm, however, proved more complicated than anticipated. Irrational exuberance in the stock market ultimately opened the door to a modest future in writing semi-commercial non-fiction. The story is told in my book The Management Myth.
When I was eleven or twelve, my Spanish grandfather told me that the submarine was invented in Barcelona. I had my doubts: My grandfather was always something of a dreamer. In the evenings, after returning from running his small factory, which manufactured paper bags, he would lock himself in his room and write un-filmable screenplays for spaghetti westerns. He was convinced that all the good things in life could be done better in Barcelona. I was sure that the submarine, like everything else, was first made in America. I later discovered that my grandfather was mostly right. As a kind of homage to him, to Barcelona, and to utopia-minded scientists and inventors everywhere, I wrote Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World.
While working as a consultant in the Netherlands, I got the idea of writing a philosophical thriller centered on the secret meeting that took place between the philosophers Leibniz and Spinoza in The Hague in 1676. I was sure that my novel/ screenplay would rejuvenate the discussion of modern philosophy in a timely and accessible way. I figured I could pitch the idea to Hollywood as Umberto Eco meets Dangerous Liaisons in Copenhagen. Eventually, I realized that the facts of the matter were more illuminating than anything I could fabricate, and so I wrote The Courtier and the Heretic. I have more recently converted the material into a play for the stage.
On July 4, 2014, I published Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, with W.W. Norton & Co. I like to think of it as a work of patriotic duty. Although grounded in a study of the past, the book aims mainly for the future, when, it is hoped, Americans will have outgrown their petty nationalisms and politico-theological fables and will look instead for a more durable explanation of the meaning of the American Revolution. The first part of the plan was to supply a revisionist account of the philosophical prehistory of the American Revolution that gives pride of place to a string of philosophers not typically included in the American story, such as Epicurus and Spinoza. The main point of the exercise was to articulate an improved theory of liberalism and of its place in the creation of the modern world.
I have long thought that the more consequential of America’s two revolutions, however, is the one that climaxed in 1865. Upon finishing Nature’s God in 2014, I therefore began work on a sequel that examines the philosophical origins of the war over slavery. The point of departure was a collection of historical curiosities—such as the fact that Frederick Douglass such a big fan of Ludwig Feuerbach; and that Lincoln borrowed some of his most memorable phrases from the works of an excommunicated Unitarian named Theodore Parker. The result was a larger synthesis, according to which the refounding of the American republic involved a revolution of the mind as much as it did a revolution on the ground.
While working on that project, I arrived at what I like to think is a better understanding of the role of extreme economic inequality in the American past and present. The rise of a counter-revolutionary oligarchy, whether among the slaveholders the early republic or the masters of monopoly capitalism today, is the great enemy of reason and the root cause of the degradation of public discourse, or so I came to think. This, combined with the daily experiences of child-rearing among America’s educational elite, prompted me to consider the impact of inequality on human rationality in the American present. In 2018 I wrote an essay for the Atlantic in 2018 on “the 9.9 percent,” or what I describe somewhat imprecisely as the new American aristocracy. A more complete analysis appears in The 9.9 Percent, published by Simon & Schuster in October 2021.
I subsequently returned to the earlier project on the philosophical origins of the second American Revolution and was pleased to discover that it mostly still made sense. The result was An Emancipation of the Mind: Radical Philosophy, the War Over Slavery, and the Refounding of America, published by W.W. Norton in early 2024.
Although the trajectory I have described here may have more than the usual allotment of life’s random swerves, I am inclined to think that my literary career has more unity than might at first appear. The coherence of a philosophical exploration follows not from the objects of its concern but from its method, or so I believe. The projects mentioned here began with something or other that seemed fundamental and yet felt poorly understood, and the resulting works are records of certain journeys of clarification that tend to converge on the same destination. I have brought them out for others to read wherever I sensed an empty space on the world’s bookshelves.
I am aware that the title of “independent scholar” is typically read as a euphemism for “unemployed” or “unemployable.” I am equally sensitive to the fact that no one is or should desire to be an island; and I do not suppose that it would be possible to produce knowledge in a modern society without hierarchies and gatekeepers of some sort. Nonetheless, I consider it my good luck to have been able to pursue my projects without any expectation of support from any institution or organized interest group. Unlike those authors who may indulge in long acknowledgments, I can say with confidence that no indentures were signed, no compromises were made, and no academic careers were advanced in the production of my books. While I suspect that a world consisting only of independent scholars would probably come to resemble the worst parts of the internet, I do think that, in view of the inevitable imperfections in all systems of learning, and especially when those systems appear to be cracking under the pressures of rising inequality, it is a good thing to have a few of us around.