The best books on the search for meaning in an age of unbelief

John Carroll Author Of The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited
By John Carroll

Who am I?

My abiding interest is in how people find meaning in their lives in a post-church, secular world, and what happens when they fail. I have concluded that life needs to be seen as an arc leading to significant end; it needs to be experienced as a coherent story. The vital role of culture here is in providing archetypal stories, usually from a long time ago, but ones constantly retold and brought up to date, which provides background shapes to identify with, armatures as it were. I've explored these challenges in a series of books: Ego and Soul, The Western Dreaming, The Existential Jesus, and soon to appear, The Saviour Syndrome.

I wrote...

The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited

By John Carroll,

Book cover of The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited

What is my book about?

Humanism built Western civilization as we know it today. Its achievements include the liberation of the individual, democracy, universal rights, and widespread prosperity and comfort. Its ambassadors are heroes of modern culture—Erasmus, Holbein, Shakespeare, Velazquez, Descartes, Kant, and Freud. Those who sought to contain humanism’s pride within a frame of higher truth—Luther, Calvin, Poussin, Kierkegaard—could barely interrupt its torrential progress. 

But humanism failed, in succeeding Christianity, to provide answers to the three great meaning questions facing every individual: Where do I come from, what should I do with my life to give it sense, and what happens at death? It left the modern West stranded in melancholy and discontent, facing an ordeal of unbelief.

The books I picked & why

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The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald,

Book cover of The Great Gatsby

Why this book?

Don Quixote, who first appears in public in 1604, imagines himself riding around the world saving damsels in distress, righting wrongs, and punishing criminals, and his imagination is so powerful that it drives his life. I believe, therefore I am! That his beliefs are delusional does not seem to matter.

The only people he actually helps are the leisured aristocracy, who stand as proxy for all who dwell in the modern world. They become fascinated by his adventures—and for the very quality in him that they lack, his capacity for life. To use the terms of Don Quixote’s leading twentieth-century disciple, the great Gatsby, his redeeming quality is an enormous capacity for dreaming.

Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is perpetually on edge and lost, within and without, until he finally encounters someone who moves. Gatsby, this shadowy Caesar, attracting rumours like a light-bulb attracts moths, is bathed in a magical aura. But reality, which is sordid, soon crushes the beautiful dreams and the dreamer himself.


By William Shakespeare,

Book cover of Hamlet

Why this book?

Hamlet is Shakespeare's, the master humanist, key work. It stands on the post-Christian threshold of the modern world, surveying the future, asking what is left to believe in.

Hamlet’s first significant encounter is with death, in the form of the ghost of his murdered father. His most powerful love scene takes place in the graveyard reminiscing tenderly to the skull of Yorick, the Court Jester. His one ‘felicity’, as he calls it, is to die. Hamlet confronts us with the big modern question: "To be or not to be?" However, his monologue on the subject, the most famous speech in the English language, has nothing to do with the nature of being—of self, or of identity. It is a long meditation on suicide.

Hamlet’s encounter with death, which has paralysed him, has also emptied him of any saving fantasies. He illustrates Tolstoy’s later dictum that if death becomes meaningless, then so does life. Hamlet pioneers the base modern condition—unbelief without hope of a saviour.

The Possessed

By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Constance Garnett (translator),

Book cover of The Possessed

Why this book?

Dostoevsky’s central character is Nicholas Stavrogin, a Russian aristocrat, around Hamlet’s age. He has the aura of the mysterious stranger, arriving from beyond, haunted, solitary, fearless, and living outside all normal social bounds and conventions. He carries direct Christ allusions, stavros meaning ‘cross’ in Greek. Everybody from his own generation is in love with him, male and female. A few years earlier, adoring disciples travelled the world with him. He taught them that if it could be mathematically proved that the truth excludes Christ, he would choose Christ.

But Stavrogin lost his faith, and thereafter plunged into a life of violence and debauchery, seducing a number of women in the town, even, it is rumoured, raping a twelve-year-old girl. Without faith, he is equally without passion. Having lost the one indispensable thing, he kills himself.

The Ambassadors

By Henry James,

Book cover of The Ambassadors

Why this book?

In Henry James’ masterpiece from 1901, Lambert Strether, aged 55, is a Boston Puritan who hasn’t lived. He travels to Paris on an ambassadorial mission.

From the moment of arrival in Paris he is beguiled and intrigued, but unclear what to do. He proceeds to meander through gilded French drawing rooms in which high aesthetic taste of both manner and décor presides. This quiet and modest outsider eventually fills out into the man who runs the show.

Strether has discovered what to know, who to choose, and when to move. Everything depends on it. The method must be learnt in the thick of lived life along the way.

Here is evidence of the existence of a god within, a wisdom of soul with a coherent vision of what matters, one that slyly directs the focus of the person walking confusedly in the world, leading them to move with discrimination.

The Birth of Tragedy

By Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, William A. Haussmann (translator),

Book cover of The Birth of Tragedy

Why this book?

Nietzsche was the master diagnostician of the challenge of living in a secular world, once God was dead. The Birth of Tragedy develops a powerful theory of culture, its necessity for human wellbeing, and how it works.

The basic assumption is that human life is lived on the surface, driven by a substratum of demonic instincts, nightmare fears, and a barbaric will to lust and sadism. Culture’s task is to transform these unconscious drives into harmonious and beautiful images that capture the mind and give an orderly direction to how humans conduct their lives.

But for culture to have that commanding power it needs to be founded on a fixed and primordial sacred site. Without that, the modern problems rise: nihilism, rancour, and depression.

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