The Rise of the Imperial Self

The book establishes a genealogy of aristocracy and places America firmly within an aristocratic tradition originally articulated by St. Augustine but adapted to American society by Alexis de Tocqueville. Ronald W. Dworkin then traces the evolution of American culture from Tocqueville America, when American aristocracy was defined by a love of something beyond the self, to today’s preoccupation with individuality, self-expression, autonomy, and self-esteem—‘the imperial self.’

Analyzing contemporary American ‘culture wars’ from an Augustinian perspective, Dworkin demonstrates why today’s cultural debates bear a remarkable resemblance to Augustine’s ideological struggles against the Manicheans, Platonists, Donatists, Pelagians, Stoics, and pagan aristocrats of late antiquity. Dworkin persuasively argues that despite popular belief, the rise of the imperial self came not during the rebellious 1960s, but with the ‘organization man’ of the conservative 1950s. This book will be compelling reading for any person seeking to put today’s contentious cultural debates into historical and philosophical perspective.

Ronald W. Dworkin, M.D., Ph.D, has practiced anesthesiology in a large medical center for thirty years. He also teaches political philosophy in the George Washington University Honors Program, and works as a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, where he heads up its Medicine, Society, and Culture project. He writes about medicine and society, and American culture and politics, for The Wall Street Journal, The American Interest, National Affairs, The New Atlantis, and other publications.

He is the author of several books about the world of medicine, and American culture. His newest book, Medical Catastrophe: Confessions of an Anesthesiologist, was released in 2017.


A brilliant and illuminating interpretation of contemporary America and the recent great transformation in the American character. Dworkin employs both the political vision of Tocqueville and the religious vision of Saint Augustine to explain our nation and ourselves with extraordinary originality, depth, and wisdom. Readers of this book will think of their old, apparently-familiar America in an utterly new way—a way that itself is based upon some of the oldest and wisest understandings of political theory and theology.
— Professor James Kurth, Swarthmore College
The most intriguing aspect of Dworkin’s project is how useful the categories if Augustinian psychology turn out to be in analyzing the ethos of diverse societies throughout history. Dworkin is quite successful in substantiating his claim that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ We can use to great advantage Augustine’s notions about true peace, detachment, time horizon, self-love, and faith in the transcendent to sort out the struggles of democracy and aristocracy or post-modernism and the therapeutic ethos . . . Even out current ‘culture wars’ have been played out before, albeit in proxy form.
— Commonweal
Utilizing the grid of interpretation of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Augustine’s The City of God, he [Dworkin] is able to approach the conundrums of the culture wars in an entirely fresh and innovative fashion. Mr. Dworkin’s correlation and integration of ancient heresies and modern atrocities will make your head spin.
— World

Stretches the mind . . . You’ll see this civilization in a new way . . . a vital alternative to the rhetorical sterilities of the Culture Wars
— Philip Gold, Discovery Institute

. . . the thesis itself is plausible and obviously the product of considerable thought and erudition.
— Bret Stephens, First Things

Dworkin pursues his thesis with creativity and some success.
— Professor Stuart Rosenbaum, Journal of Church and State