Beyond the Stories: Non-Narrative Cultural Literacy

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.

Obviously, 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 works.

2. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics: 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 Rand and Mortimer Adler. Do yourself a favor and become familiar with his works, 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, The 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.

6. 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 James and wrote nearly as well.


1. St. Augustine, City 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 Theologica: 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 Theses" are also essential reading as the first document of the Protestant Reformation.

5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: usually considered the greatest work of the Protestant Reformation. A systematic theology 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 Exercises: 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 Awakening.

8. Charles Sheldon, In His Steps: the source of the much-quoted "What Would Jesus Do?" A major influence on the American Social Gospel 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 philosopher.

10. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: 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, Satires: 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 diem, originate with Horace. He also invented the genre of satire (so if you like The Simpsons, 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.

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

3. Petrarch, Il Canzoniere: 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 form 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 language.

5. The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne: Metaphysical poet 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.

6. The 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 Ballads: 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 Shelley; and John Keats.

8. Walt Whitman, Leaves 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 century.


1. Herodotus, The Histories: account of the Persian Wars (Marathon, Thermopylae, 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, History 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, Polybius, Sallust, Suetonius, and Tacitus.

4. 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, The 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, The 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.

8. 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, A 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.

Mathematics and the Physical Sciences:

1. Euclid, Elements: 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.

2. 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 Organum: 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 method").

6. 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 physics.

7. Isaac Newton, Principia: 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.

April 20, 2009