A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith
by John Rawls
Edited by Thomas Nagel
Harvard University Press, 2009
John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, was perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. As an undergraduate at Princeton in 1942, he submitted A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community as his senior thesis. Decades later, Professor Eric Gregory of the Princeton religion department found this thesis in the Princeton Library, and now New York University Law professor Thomas Nagel has edited it into a book. In the Introduction to that book, he writes:
"The period of Rawls’s final illness and the years since his death have seen the publication of several works brought to completion with the help of others, but they are all books to which he had given his approval. This was entirely different: a youthful work written under pressure of time to meet a college requirement, meant only for the eyes of two faculty members, and expressing views that he had long since abandoned. It seemed clear that Rawls had never imagined that the thesis might one day be published, and that if the question had been put to him, he would certainly have refused."
Every sentence of that is true, and if there’s a single honorable reason to read another word of this grotesque necropsy of a book, I don’t know what it is. God forbid this ever happen to anybody, and shame on both Thomas Nagel and Harvard University Press for doing it to John Rawls. And the same goes for the art book of his pre-literate doodles I can only presume is now in pre-production.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.