Reviews, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011
Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997, 2012
Perfect bound, 176 pp., $19.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
In print since 1997, and no stranger to The New York Times best seller list, the gorgeous The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz is a work of art. Adorned with paintings by Nicholas Wilton, there are few lovelier marriages of text with artwork and book design. Elegant cover detail and design elements, both interior and exterior, interact with the tone and intent of the book as a whole. Regarding the writing, anyone who has ever read and loved books like Be Here Now or Hope for the Flowers will adore this book.
While I have a deep appreciation for the intention of the author, in fairness, this review looks at the writing itself and the development of the book, taking into consideration its intent and audience. Ruiz writes with passion and clear conviction of his beliefs. The danger in being so very close to one’s beliefs as a writer is sometimes that you are a few steps ahead of the reader in conviction and understanding. It may be the skeptic’s point of view, but I sometimes had difficulty disengaging my sense of disbelief. Part of that difficulty is tied in very closely to assumptions the author makes throughout.
The Four Agreements begins with a chapter entitled, “Domestication and the Dream of the Planet,” followed by chapters detailing the first, second, third, and fourth agreements, then a chapter on ancient Toltec wisdom, and wraps up with a chapter on achieving personal freedom (as it is deemed in this book). The first chapter refers to the real world, to society, as a “dream,” but the term tends toward overuse and therefore the gradual lessening of meaning. Why not just say “society” when referring to the proscribed cultural norms that become restrictive to our personal freedom as human beings, which is what the book is about?
However, the message is a wonderful and positive one, challenging readers to have the courage to challenge standard beliefs and norms―as well as the negative influences that we may have received since childhood―in order to break free into happiness and total abandonment of hang-ups, fears, emotional burdens, and the like. A beautiful message, but one that presumes that the whole of society goes along mindlessly obedient with whatever it is told, unquestioningly and without independent thought. For example, Ruiz writes that “[n]inety-five percent of the beliefs we have stored in our minds are nothing but lies, and we suffer because we believe all these lies.” One of the “agreements” teaches that one should never make assumptions, should always question, while at the same time making assumptions about its audience.
But for all its presumptions, The Four Agreements does have a message of hope and operates on the premise that every person is responsible for his or her own choices amidst a world filled with chaos, violence, and suffering. The book is visually beautiful, with an endearing message of hope that is uplifting. Recommended reading, yes, for its message and its beautiful artwork―just take it with a grain of salt.