Beyond the Stories: Non-Narrative Cultural Literacy

Email Print

My previous
articles on cultural literacy (here
and here)
suggested 100 titles from various narrative genres that autodidacts
can profitably read if they wish to acquire greater familiarity
with the most influential ideas and themes of the Western cultural
heritage. As I argued previously, an increase in your cultural literacy
can be both personally enriching and — in a number of situations
— eminently useful, and I encourage everyone to make further progress
on this intellectual journey.

Many readers
have requested a list of non-narrative works that can contribute
to cultural literacy, and so I have written this "appendix"
to the original list of 100. The 50 titles here are broken down
by genre, but within each category I have tried to maintain a balance
across chronological periods.
readers are already well versed in political and economic theory,
so I have not bothered to create lists for those categories. Instead
we have philosophy, religion, history, lyric poetry, and math/science.
Most of us (myself included) are weak in at least one of these areas
and would benefit from further reading.

neither these lists nor the list of 100 narrative works can be considered
comprehensive, so please forgive me if I have omitted your favorite
author. If these 150 leave you wanting more, consider picking up
a set of the Great
Books of the Western World


1. Plato, The
Last Days of Socrates
: a good introduction to Socrates and
Plato, focusing on Socrates' trial on charges of "corrupting
the youth" of Athens and execution. The 20th-century
philosopher A.N. Whitehead said that all of Western philosophy was
"a series of footnotes to Plato." When you are ready,
start on Plato's complete

Aristotle: Nicomachean
: happiness as the end of all human action, and ethics
to get there. Aristotle was Plato's greatest student and was an
authoritative voice in most areas of human knowledge from antiquity
until the early modern period. Much of modern thought, to its detriment,
has been a rebellion against Aristotle, although he does have champions,
e.g. Ayn
and Mortimer
. Do yourself a favor and become familiar with his
, especially the writings on logic.

3. Marcus
Aurelius, Meditations:
most influential work of Stoic philosophy in the Western tradition.
Reflections on honor, duty, and self-control from a Roman emperor
commanding his armies in the field.

4. Boethius,
Consolation of Philosophy
: critical bridge between classical
and medieval philosophy, and the most widely copied secular work
in Europe for more than 500 years. Influenced Dante, Chaucer, Tolkien,
and many others.

5. Baldassare
Castiglione, The
Book of the Courtier
: not immediately obvious, but this
is one of the most influential applications of Platonic thought
to society. This book has defined what it is to be a "lady"
or a "gentleman" for the last 500 years.

David Hume, A
Treatise of Human Nature
: observation and experience as
the basis for the "science of man." Essential exploration
of the problem
of induction

7. Immanuel
Kant, Critique
of Pure Reason
: perhaps the most important turning point
in modern philosophy; thinkers before Kant are sometimes lumped
into a "pre-Kantian" category. Kant's attacks on traditional
metaphysics and epistemology in the Critique had significant
implications for ethics, aesthetics, and other areas of thought.

8. G.W.F.
Hegel, The
Philosophy of Right
: history proceeding through dialectic.
Marxism is a
materialistic version of Hegel's philosophy.

9. Friedrich
Nietzsche, Beyond
Good and Evil
: influential call for a new European morality.
Nietzsche espoused perhaps the most consistent rejection of Christianity
of any modern philosopher, realizing that you can't have your cake
(live in a society characterized by Christian ethics) and eat it
too (reject the Christian god).

10. William
James, Pragmatism:
if it works, it's true. A most American philosophy. William James
was the older brother of novelist Henry
and wrote nearly as well.


1. St. Augustine,
of God
: probably the most important post-apostolic theological
work. Among other things, Augustine argues that the success of the
Church (the "City of God") is not tied to the fortunes
of any political kingdom (the "City of Man").

2. St. Thomas
Aquinas, Summa
: the culmination of the medieval scholastic attempt
to synthesize Christianity and the philosophy of Aristotle. If the
full text is too scary, try Peter
Kreeft's abridged version

3. Thomas
à Kempis, The
Imitation of Christ
: perhaps the most-read book in the Western
world apart from the Bible. This devotional classic was intended
for use in a monastic setting, but its popularity has led to its
publication in more than 2000 editions over the last 600 years.

4. Martin
Luther, The
Bondage of the Will
: the classic statement of the Protestant
doctrine of predestination. A reply to Desiderius Erasmus's Discourse
on Free Will
. Luther's "Ninety-Five
" are also essential reading as the first document
of the Protestant Reformation.

John Calvin, Institutes
of the Christian Religion
: usually considered the greatest
work of the Protestant Reformation. A systematic
focusing on the sovereignty of God. It also contains
the seeds of the theory of resistance to political authority that
would later be employed in the Netherlands, Scotland, England, and
the British colonies in America.

6. St. Ignatius
Loyola, Spiritual
: probably the most famous Christian devotional
work to focus on spiritual discipline. The "exercises"
are a set of prayers and meditations intended to be completed over
a period of about a month. A central text of Catholic spirituality
(and used by some Protestants, too).

7. The
Sermons of Jonathan Edwards
: "Sinners in the Hands
of an Angry God" and thirteen more sermons from Edwards's corpus
of 1,200. Edwards is often cited as the most important religious
figure in American history for his writings and role in the Great

Charles Sheldon, In
His Steps
: the source of the much-quoted "What Would
Jesus Do?" A major influence on the American Social
movement, which seems to be making a comeback these days.

9. Bertrand
Russell, Why
I am Not a Christian
: one of the most influential attacks
on Christianity in modern times, written by a celebrated British

10. C.S. Lewis,
: probably the most popular exposition of the
basics of Christianity in the 20th century. It originated as a series
of wartime radio broadcasts.

Lyric Poetry:

1. Horace,
Horace has been translated into English more often than any other
ancient writer of lyric poetry and has had a huge influence on the
development of English literature. Many of our colloquial Latin
phrases, e.g., carpe
, originate with Horace. He also invented the genre
of satire (so if you like The
, thank him). Here you will find, among other things,
the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse. For more ancient
lyric poetry, especially if you are a sports fan, try the odes
of Pindar
, which lionize winners of the Olympic Games.

Dante, La
Vita Nuova
: a prose-verse combination expressing devotion
to Beatrice in the courtly
tradition. This collection of poems is regularly cited
as the first major advance in autobiography since Augustine's Confessions.

3. Petrarch,
: collection of 366 poems, most in sonnet form,
written over several decades. The central theme is the poet's love
for "Laura." Petrarch is the father of the sonnet
and is also known as the "father of the Renaissance"
for his self-conscious attempts to revive the culture of ancient
Greece and Rome.

4. William
Shakespeare, Sonnets:
I know that your English teacher forced you to write a Shakespearean
sonnet in junior high school, but now that the trauma is behind
you, go back and gain an appreciation for the beauty of Shakespeare's

5. The
Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
: Metaphysical
whose writings crossed nearly all the genres of the period.
Some of the English language's most familiar poems, e.g., "Death,
Be Not Proud," are here.

Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns
: the Scottish national
poet, and (as far as I know) the only one whose birthday is celebrated
by millions annually. Put on some bagpipe music while you read.

7. William
Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical
: early Romantic collection that transformed English
poetry. It includes Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Mile
Above Tintern Abbey" as well as Coleridge's "Rime of the
Ancient Mariner." Other essential Romantic poets include George
Gordon, Lord Byron
; Percy
; and John

8. Walt Whitman,
of Grass
: probably the most famous collection of poetry
by an American. Includes "Song of Myself" and "I
Sing the Body Electric," among others. Whitman spent the rest
of his life revising and expanding it after its initial publication
in 1855.

9. The
Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
: nearly 1,800 short pieces
from one of America's most popular poets.

10. The
Poetry of Robert Frost
: includes "Stopping by Woods
on a Snowy Evening," "The Road Not Taken," and many
other classics. Frost was the best-known American poet of the 20th


1. Herodotus,
: account of the Persian Wars (Marathon,
etc.) from the "Father of History." Herodotus gave us
the word history ("researches" or "inquiries")
and was the first to gather information systematically (through
interviews, etc.) and then test its accuracy before publishing it.

2. Thucydides,
of the Peloponnesian War
: the first "scientific history"
in the Western tradition, a treatment of the war between Athens
and Sparta. Thucydides searched for cause and effect in human factors
without reference to the gods.

3. Julius
Caesar, The
Conquest of Gaul
: "I came, I saw, I conquered."
Countless schoolboys through the centuries have learned Latin by
studying this book. For more Roman history by ancient authors, see
the works of Livy,
and Tacitus.

James Ussher, The
Annals of the World
: ancient history based on a chronology
resulting from a literal reading of Genesis. Ussher's timeline,
which dated the Creation in 4004 B.C., was included in nearly every
copy of the King James Version of the Bible printed until well into
the 20th century, and it is still upheld by many "Young
Earth" creationists

5. Edward
Gibbon, The
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
: probably the most
famous work of history to come out of the Enlightenment. Gibbon
wanted a "separation of church and history," i.e., an
historical account that was not influenced by Christian doctrine.
Christianity is portrayed as a negative influence in Roman history.
For more history from the Enlightenment, see David Hume's History
of England

6. Jacob Burckhardt,
Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
: 19th-century work
that largely defined our concept of the Italian Renaissance as something
more than a lot of great art.

7. Johan Huizinga,
Waning of the Middle Ages
: perhaps the most influential
work of medieval historiography in the 20th century. Treats the
Late Middle Ages (ca. 1300–1500) as a period of decline and
pessimism following a peak in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Shelby Foote, The
Civil War
: the American Iliad. At three volumes and
1.2 million words, it is the definitive narrative of what transpired
in the War Between the States.

9. A.J.P.
Taylor, Origins
of the Second World War
: one of the most controversial yet
influential treatments of the causes of World War II. Taylor recognized
that, just as in World War I, there was plenty of blame to go around.

10. Paul Johnson,
History of the American People
: probably the best one-volume
survey out there, by one of the greatest living historians. Johnson
adopted Murray
Rothbard's explanation of the causes of the Great Depression
See also his other works, especially Intellectuals.

and the Physical Sciences:

1. Euclid,
the most successful textbook in the history of mathematics, written
in the 3rd century B.C. and used right up into the 20th century
to teach geometry.

Aristotle, Physics:
motion, change, the philosopher's approach to nature, and more.
This work laid the foundation for most investigation that we would
call "scientific" today.

3. Nicolas
Copernicus, On
the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
: substituted a Platonic
heliocentric model of the solar system for the Aristotelian geocentric
model that had dominated science since antiquity. Often cited as
the first work of the "Scientific Revolution" of the early
modern period.

4. Andreas
Vesalius, On the
Fabric of the Human Body
: the treatise that founded the
modern science of anatomy. Vesalius overturned the millennium-long
reign of Galen
with this work, published the same year as Copernicus's Revolutions.

5. Francis
Bacon, Novum
: the birth of modern empiricism in the physical
sciences. Bacon urged the clearing away of "idols," or
false notions, that prevent accurate investigation of nature. Truth
is discovered inductively through experimentation (the modern "scientific

René Descartes, Discourse
on Method
: radical skepticism as a path to true knowledge.
"I think, therefore I am." Other truths follow deductively.
Descartes is a central figure in the history of mathematics and

7. Isaac Newton,
shaped the outlines of physics until the 20th century. Gravitation,
laws of motion, and more.

8. Charles
Darwin, On
the Origin of Species
: the first popular exposition of the
theory of biological evolution, which continues to hold sway to
this day.

9. Albert
Einstein, Relativity:
E=mc2. Einstein overturned the Newtonian
consensus of the previous two centuries with his theory that implied
time dilation, the equivalence of mass and energy, and more.

10. Thomas
Kuhn, The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions
: the most influential
20th-century discussion of scientific theories and why they change,
not through the gradual accumulation of knowledge but through the
discarding of a reigning paradigm in favor of another.

20, 2009

Jason Jewell [send him mail]
is an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the
chairman of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University
in Montgomery, Alabama.

Email Print