September 2020

How did Western society arrive at its (currently) held ideas?

For example:

Around mid-2020, these kinds of questions started nagging at my brain.

So I did what anyone would do: I found the classics section of my favorite local bookstore and started to make friends with people who lived a long time ago. What they have to say they've been saying for hundreds, if not thousands of years! Which makes the old stuff incredibly interesting for at least two reasons:

  1. They're battle-tested in the best way: Time's steady work of erosion has left these works to us. Why? Why did these works remain and what "new ideas" are simply the old ones in disguise?
  1. They have a way of bringing us out of the ruts of our interpretive frameworks by our "modern age". If Socrates says something outlandish and jarring to our ears, we can't write him off as an unenlightened wretch and be done with it; there's simply more going on than we can see at present. Where does he sit in his context, and how were his ideas revolutionary? And more importantly, what is true in what he's written down? Where do I agree (with him, or any author of the great books of the past) and where do I diverge?

So I made myself a small list of greats works. Over the next few years I'll be ticking them off and, with any luck, have a better understanding of the waters I'm swimming in [1]. I'll update the list as my library grows. If you have any recommendations, email me!


Homer: IliadOdyssey

Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays

Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound

Apuleius: The Golden Ass

Plato: RepublicThe Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Physics, On the Soul, Politics, The Art of Rhetoric

Plutarch: Theseus, Romulus, Pompey, Alexander, Caesar, Demostenes, Cicero, Lycurgus, Solon

Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings

Virgil: The Aeneid

Cicero: On Ends, In Defense of the Republic, On Living and Dying Well

Seneca: Letters from a Stoic

Aurelius: Meditations

Augustine: Confessions, City of God


Aquinas: Selected Writings

Montaigne: Essays

Cervantes: Don Quixote

Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales

Shakespeare: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Sonnets, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice

Machiavelli: The Prince, Discourses on Livy

Luther: The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings

Pascal: Pensees

Descartes: Meditations, Discourse on Method

Newton: The Principia

De Tocqueville: Democracy in America

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison: The Federalist Papers

Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy

Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime & Punishment, Notes from Underground

Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling

Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Marx & Engels: The Communist Manifesto

Brontë: Jane Eyre

Hugo: Les Miserables

Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Wright: Native Son

Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Ellison: Invisible Man

Borges: Collected Fictions

O'Connor: Selected Fictions

Morrison: Song of Solomon

[1] This isn't an exhaustive list of things I'll be reading, just the classics I've seemed to miss thus far. I'm deeply indebted to Tommy Collison, who in late 2020 I discovered to be on a similar journey.