A true classical education is a lifelong pursuit of wisdom and understanding with no demonstrable end. The end of the classical education is played out in real time, in parallel to its pursuit in everyday life. When confronting a claim, one might turn to principles put forth by Aristotle or Bacon to find their veracity; when trying to make sense of political turmoil, one might turn to examples from history in Plutarch or Herodotus; or when trying to express the human experience through artful language, one may look to Shakespeare for inspiration.
Unfortunately, time is short. Between work, family, friends, chores, and more, there is little time for reading, especially mentally taxing reading. Hence, while a cheesy “12 Book” education is antithetical to the spirit of a classical education, practical solutions are required for practical problems.
The works presented below were not uniformly selected upon criteria of impact nor the author’s significance alone. Certainly, Thomas Aquinas would make such a list by merit. The list aims to balance significance, breadth of subject matter, diversity of writing periods, and clarity, all to the best possible degree in just 12 books. Some works were cut simply because they were too dense for a list more geared to those new to the Great Books. Others were left out simply because the author is already represented. Some works are far too long (Aquinas’ Summa Theologica), which would likely slow most reader’s motivation to continue on in the list.
1. Plato’s Republic
Few classic books lists would dare omit Plato, and this list is no exception. Plato holds a special place in classical reading, as his works immortalized Socrates as the “Father of Philosophy” and simultaneously taught philosophy in a way many today still find easy to comprehend. Republic explores the concept of justice and its infusion into man and the city-state through a dialogue between Socrates and others. Is it any wonder then that Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed Republic (alongside the Bible) was the one book he would choose to take to a deserted island? Though Plato was certain to be represented on this list, choosing which of his works to include was difficult, as his Republic and Apology are close in repute as his most outstanding works. Nonetheless, Republic is significantly longer than and covers more philosophical ground than Apology. The latter is so short, however, why not just read them both? Problem solved.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”Plato, Republic
2. Aristotle’s Ethics
To not include Aristotle’s Ethics would be a capital sin. In this work, Aristotle wrestles with what the highest aim of man is and how that aim affects how we live. Aristotle is in perhaps the most important teacher of the ancient Greek world, as he was arguably the greatest mind of the time, a worthy successor to Plato’s teaching, a prolific author, and the educator of Alexander the Great. More than any other individual, Aristotle is the cornerstone of western philosophy, as Bertrand Russell suggested, saying “…almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine…”.
“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”Aristotle, Ethics
3. Herodotus’ The Histories
With a mix of fact and fiction in proportions hard to quantify, Herodotus’ work bridges ancient and modern historical scholarship by hailing the transition from emphasis on style and intrigue to bare historical fact. Living in the 4th century BC, Herodotus recounted from contemporary and pre-existing sources the lives of kings and the details of the region’s most famous battles, including those at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis. His work continues to influence history and media in new ways today, for example, as common source material for Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. Professor Barry S. Strauss wrote of Herodotus: “But he is more than a historian. He is a philosopher with three great themes: the struggle between East and West, the power of liberty, and the rise and fall of empires… He goes from the cosmos to the atom, ranging between fate and the gods, on the one hand, and the ability of the individual to make a difference, on the other. And then there is the sheer narrative power of his writing…The old master keeps calling us back.”
“But this I know: if all mankind were to take their troubles to market with the idea of exchanging them, anyone seeing what his neighbor’s troubles were like would be glad to go home with his own.”Herodotus, The Histories
4. Plutarch’s Lives
As my favorite work on this list, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (sometimes just called Lives for short) was sure to make the cut. Plutarch introduces the reader to history in a very different way. Rather than running through events in linear textbook fashion, he emphasized a method to teaching history I have only recently come to appreciate. Plutarch wrote, “The world of man is best captured through the lives of the men who created history.” History is a story of people not stale events with dates tacked on top them.
Plutarch’s Lives covers many of the greatest figures in ancient Rome and Greece in wonderful detail and color. While not all the facts of this nearly 2000 year old history might stand up to modern scrutiny, Plutarch provides unprecedented insight into the character, cultures, and deeds of 48 men that shaped his world (and ours subsequently). The work is also written in an interesting style, with pairs of such figures compared and contrasted to highlight moral lessons to be learned.
“For kings indeed we have, who wear the marks and assume the titles of royalty, but as for the qualities of their minds, they have nothing by which they are to be distinguished from their subjects.”Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
5. St. Augustine’s Confessions
Perhaps the first autobiography, Augustine’s Confessions remains a staple of both classical and Christian reading lists. Confessions is an interesting work, because it simultaneously gives a personal testimony of Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith while also illuminating theology that has influenced Christian thought ever since.
“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.”St. Augustine, Confessions
6. Machiavelli’s The Prince
Many may find the addition of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince as disagreeable. However, I chose this work for two main reasons: 1) It is very short and hence offsets the absurdly long Crime and Punishment (last on this list); 2) The Prince is considered the first work of modern political philosophy and thus finds itself exceptionally relevant to our hyper-political culture today. Machiavelli offers firsthand insight into the psyche of politicians in the 16th century and today. In fact, the work was not a published book by design at all, but rather a letter from a sidelined Machiavelli to the new powers in Italy in order to both offer help, but more expediently to gain back some political clout with the new administration.
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
7. Cervantes’ Don Quixote
Considered by many as the first “modern” novel, Don Quixote explores the ideas of heroism, imagination, delusion, and chivalry in comedic (though quite long-winded) fashion. Cervantes may be one of the best prose writers to ever put pen to paper, and even through translations from the original Spanish, his mastery over language is evident. Don Quixote has influenced society ever since its writing over 400 years ago and continues to influence our modern world, including modern films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Further, the English word quixotic, meaning “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals”, was inspired by Cervantes’ protagonist and is a testament to the lasting significance of the work.
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”Cervantes, Don Quixote
8. Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Go ahead and search the internet for “most famous plays” and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is sure to be at the top of the list or very near to it. No playwright has influenced society so deeply as Shakespeare, not only by his storytelling and artistry, but also by his direct influence on the English language. Shakespeare popularized hundreds of words in common English usage today, including “bedroom”, “gossip”, and “eyeball”. While he probably didn’t invent all these words, his usage of such words represents the earliest recorded instances. Hamlet is a story that continues to be retold today in various forms, like the children’s movie The Lion King.
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”Shakespeare, Hamlet
9. Montaigne’s Essays
The famous Essays by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is somewhat of a strange work as it doesn’t focus on any one topic other than whatever Lord Montaigne seemed to want to write about. Nonetheless, there is tremendous breadth, clarity of thought, and development of ideas on each and every subject Montaigne put to pen. The work has influenced countless thinkers and writers since the 16th century. In fact, one of the minds behind the Great Books of the Western World set, Mortimer Adler, claimed that Montaigne’s Essays would be one of his top choices of books if he were stranded on a deserted island.
“On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays
10. Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
David Hume was a foremost 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, building on ideas of empiricism and skepticism first introduced by Francis Bacon over a hundred years prior. Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding develops these empirical and skeptical strains to a new heights, that although written of hundreds of years ago, still find wide acceptance today. While many may view the “progress” of the Enlightenment Era’s ideas controversial, these ideas still live in the minds of many today, and Hume’s work is largely responsible for that. The influential Immanuel Kant identified Hume’s work as the book that woke him from his “dogmatic slumber”. Though perhaps the most difficult read on the list, it is widely regarded as a classic of modern philosophical literature.
“In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
11. The Constitution of the United States
The Constitution of the United States rightfully makes this tight list because it is both a fantastic distillation of the “liberty philosophies” of previous thinkers and the most important historical document of the past 300 years. The U.S. Constitution is undoubtedly a political work, and by far one that has shaped our modern world more than any other since its writing. Further, it is a great addition to this list for its brevity to offset some of the longer works on this list.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”Constitution of the United States of America
12. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
In the fiction world, few books could be as deserving as Crime and Punishment (1866) to make the list. While its 200,000 word count may be daunting to many readers, the payoff has been emphasized by its lasting popularity and acclaim from many of the greatest minds since its writing. Likely Dostoevsky’s most popular work, few books compete with Crime and Punishment in capturing such complex characters and their material and psychological struggles. Merits aside, Dostoevsky’s classic novel also represents the only (culturally) eastern European work on the list, in contrast to a majority of western European (and one American) works.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
There are 12 great choices for a broad sampling of the “Great Books”. Undoubtedly, many will wish for a particular substitution here or there. What are your suggestions? What would your list look like? Leave a comment below. For more info on the “Great Books”, check out more from ThinkingWest: