For almost twenty years, I taught a four-seminar rotation of “Great Books” for The College at Southeastern. The readings were formative not only for the students, but also for me, the professor. I gained an invaluable education. Through these works, I was able to trace the rise and development of Western thought and civilization, in which today’s ideologies are rooted. For that reason, and out of gratitude for those years of careful reading, I offer this list of a dozen books every thoughtful person should consider reading.
1. Homer’s Odyssey. Why should a twenty-first century reader bother with ancient fiction involving a Greek hero’s return to his home and family after twenty years of wandering and imprisonment? Because it is a riveting tale that gives insight into ancient Greek polytheism and the perennial human quest for self-discovery; it emphasizes the unique strengths of feminine nature; and, for the existentially anguished among us, it speaks to the tragic sense of life, recognizing the “necessary suffering” that results from human fallings and failings, and encourages us to face the challenges life puts in our path.
2. Plato’s Republic. This slim little book is utterly foundational to any understanding of Western intellectual history. In Republic, Plato explores the nature of justice and the good life, the limitations of human knowing, and the proper role of philosophy. His political philosophy, regretfully, is an ancient precursor to modern Leftism as manifested in socialist and progressive thought.
3. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle begins Ethics—perhaps his most influential work—by asking, “What is the supreme human good?” His answer: Happiness. It is the only thing we desire for its own sake, rather than as a means toward some other end. Aristotle divides virtue into two categories—intellectual and moral—and argues that the virtuous person not only acts according to reason, but does so habitually, that is, until virtue becomes his first reflex.
4. Virgil’s Aeneid. Depicting the mythic founding of Rome, this book is the epic of Western civilization. In it, Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, chooses to take on the mantle of leadership, submitting himself to the suffering that accompanies one’s choice to sacrifice the self for the good of the whole.
5. Augustine’s City of God. If I must choose one favorite text in the Western canon, this is it. Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy and the sack of Rome, Augustine provides a counter to Virgil’s lionization of Rome’s founding. He argues that Rome’s philosophy, religion, and politics were idolatrous, that Rome’s purported love for justice was really a mask for its lust for power, and that Roman civilization was merely a bit player in the grand sweep of divine history. A majestic read.
6. Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. This book is arguably the most influential theological treatise of all time. In it, Thomas addresses more than six hundred theological questions, drawing upon the Bible, church history, and Aristotelian and Platonic sources. The Summa is massive; I instruct students not to read it in bed at night, for fear they will be crushed to death if they happen to doze off mid-sentence.
7. Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Comedy, Dante is guided through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Inferno reveals the dreadful consequences of inordinate or perverted love; Purgatorio reveals flawed souls actively seeking to perfect their loves; and Paradisio reveals the supreme happiness of persons who have achieved perfect love.
8. Shakespeare’s Collected Works. William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of all time. His comedies focus on community—emphasizing the role of love, revelry, and forgiveness in achieving a happy life—while his tragedies focus on heroes who suffer a downfall before choosing either to submit to a higher power or to continue in their own egocentricity.
9. Rousseau’s First Discourse. In this book, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that civilization has been a corrupting influence on humanity. The arts foster unbridled sensuality and sexuality, while the sciences have displaced religion. Together, he argues, the arts and sciences elevate reason over plain feeling, and learning over plain virtue. Rousseau’s influence has been enormous and almost entirely negative. He was a cult hero of the French Revolution and is the forerunner to today’s expressive individualism.
10. Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. The Second Treatise punches above its weight; it has exercised an extraordinary influence on modern constitutions and governments. In it, Locke argues that men are created free and equal, and that they should be free to pursue life, health, liberty, and possessions.
11. Marx’s Selected Writings. Karl Marx sought to make sense of the world without reference to God. He was an economic determinist, arguing that the logic of human history can be revealed by studying the economic “class struggle” that inevitably must occur when some “have” and others “have not.” He argued that a socialist revolution would eventuate in a sort of utopia in which evil would subside and the state would wither away. Marx’s influence can be felt not only in many of the social and political convulsions of the twentieth century, but in ascendant twenty-first century critical theories.
12. Comte’s System of Positive Polity. In this multi-volume work, Auguste Comte argued that human beings are intrinsically good, but are perverted by corrupt cultural institutions and national political arrangements. He envisioned an atheistic “church” that would undermine strong forms of religion and strong forms of the nation-state. With traditional religion and the nation-state thus weakened, wars and tensions would cease. A borderless and pacifistic utopia would ensue. Comte sought to achieve an immanent salvation in which the Christian doctrine of love could be reduced to an abstract humanitarian posture toward human beings in general. With love and virtue stripped of any divine reference point, the soil would be tilled for global unity and goodwill.
So there it is. A list of some of the most incandescent, wide-ranging, and influential writers in Western history. Pour a hot mug of tea and enjoy them for all they’re worth.
Bruce Riley Ashford is a fellow in public theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author, most recently, of The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach.
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