[Note: Although originally written for the Master ‘
Great stuff! I’ve skipped Rousseau and haven’t hunted down Oakeshott, yet, and a couple others have been skimmed or are on the shelf unread, but . . . that about covers it for me.
Thanks for the note about Locke being quite distinct from Hobbes in his use of “state of nature.” I think a lot of critics often miss this one.
This post is quite literally a Godsend for me. I have a very strong desire to go back to school to continue my education in political thought (my B.A. is in Political Science), but it is financially impossible for me to do so, and will be for at least another 2 years. In the meantime, I know what I have to do: read these books. Thank you so much for this!
You might also want to include Hugo Grotius on that list, particularly The Rights of War and Peace. He has been called “father of the law of nations” for a reason…
Very nicely done. One addition, perhaps – Nietzsche?
Nietzsche wasn’t missed, Mr Forster suggested On the Genealogy of Morals.
Very good post excluding your comment concerning MBA programs. Your statement is understandable for someone in the liberal arts but there is nothing to say that discussing micro-finance loans for sub-saharan africa is a waste of time(which is what you may be discussing in and MBA program). Just wish you statement wasn’t so emphatic…Everyone has divergent interests.
1) MBA programs. I think your comment, in context, is a reference to previous discussions on this board. Don’t rely on those. I have noticed an increasing tendency on liberal arts oriented boards (this is not a reference to your comment so much as an absolutely inane series of posts I caught on Matthew Yglesias’s blog) to downplay both the intelligence of those in corporate leadership and high finance and the usefulness of MBA programs. Don’t be fooled. Having been in a variety of public and private sector situations, I can say that liberal arts folks would do well to learn from those in the business world.
2) If you are going to read the Trial and Death of Socrates series, Aristophanes’s “The Clouds” should be required, as well. “The Clouds” is a criticism of the historical figure Socrates from one of his friends and contemporaries (Aristophanes plays a central role in the “Symposium”). It is useful because the comic poet points out a lot about the character of “natural philosophy” and the philosopher that is obfuscated in Plato.
3) Where is Leo Strauss!? After reading the ancients I would suggest reading the works “Socrates and Aristophanes” and “Natural Right and History”. The latter is hard to get through and Strauss references much that will be new to the reader (I didn’t understand at least a third of it), but it is worth it. Strauss’s connection with neo-conservatism has given him a bum rap in the liberal world. His interpretation of great philosophic works, however, is breathtaking and wildly insightful.
4) You briefly drop Nietzche and Tocqueville in at the end. Reemphasize those. Despite his popularity , Nietzche is still underrated. There are several wonderful essays in Tom Wolfe’s “Hooking Up” that make wonderful use of Nietzche’s uncanny prophetic prowess. Tocqueville is the simply the greatest social critic of the last two hundred years, anywhere. Pierre Manent and Peter Lawler have a few excellent books on Tocqueville that are worth a read, particulalarly for Americans.
5) Argh! Chesterton’s “the Everlasting man”?! Why does everyone love that book?! I really, really, think “Orthodoxy” is a lot better:) It absolutely changed my vision of Christianity (though is serves a different purpose than the one sited above). Also good is “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”.
6) A great translation of the Marcus Aurelius book mentioned above is “The Emperor’s Handbook” by David Hicks and Scot Hicks. I think they nailed the essence of what Marcus was trying to accomplish (it is a translation, not a commentary).
7) Ok…I don’t like him, but you cannot possibly leave off John Rawls–particularly if you want to be credible in liberal academic circles. “A Theory of Justice”.
8) St. Thomas More’s Utopia
11) Nozick. “Anarchy, State & Utopia”.
– Natural-law thought culminates in the idea of
Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad to have been of service. A few responses:
PGE: I think the famous Locke scholar John Dunn put it best: for Hobbes the single most fundamental fact of the state of nature is that it has no enforceable moral law, while for Locke the single most fundamental fact about the state of nature is precisely the *presence* of an enforceable moral law. As for Rousseau: do not, I implore you, skip him entirely. Too much of subsequent history and political thought derives from him. If you find the explicitly political works unbearable, give Emile a try; it’s a very different sort of book. I should also add that the real content of Rousseau’s work is very different from what you may have heard.
J. Hagglund: Happy to have helped. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions once you get started.
David Marcoe: Thank you – Grotius is well worth mentioning, particularly since he applies medieval natural-law thought to the emergence of the nation-state in modernity. So he’s an important transition figure; reading him shows you how natural-law thought adapted to changing political conditions in modernity. If I were to add a few more books, Grotius would probably be one of them.
JDM: Some context is necessary for my MBA comment. I was referring to an earlier discussion here on EO in which it was claimed that an MBA program is less valuable than two years of work experience combined with the careful reading of about 30 books. That claim was the origin of this essay, since EO invited do-it-yourself Master’s programs in other fields. So the claim was not that the subject matter of an MBA was useless, but that the programs themselves added nothing that one could not get from studying the subject on one’s own. My day job is at a pro-market think tank and I put a big dose of Adam Smith in my reading list, so I think my credentials are well established in terms of giving practical economic knowledge its proper dignity. I would like to be able to add that I did not intend to endorse EO’s negative view of MBA programs, but I can’t say that, because my brother did an MBA at a famous and highly-regarded business school just a few years ago and he reported exactly the same thing about its usefulness, as have others of my aquaintence.
Well, two more posts came up while I was composing my responses – I’ll have to go faster this time or I’ll be sitting here all day!
See my previous post on MBAs.
I do love Aristophanes, and I guess since I assigned a critique of philosophy from the theists I should have assigned one from the pagans as well. Great suggestion!
I think the reason we love The Everlasting Man so much is that it transforms not only one’s view of Christianity but of all human history – that was, as I indicated, the reason I assigned it.
As for Strauss, I’m sympathetic to many of his insights (Jon, it was Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind as much as anything else that really cemented my love for political thought) but along with the good there are a lot of fundamental misunderstandings, particularly in “Natural Right and History,” which contains some really abominable mistakes. This was one of the reasons I assigned Tierney’s history book – he shows why the whole Straussian view of modernity is simply mistaken.
Nietzsche certainly is underrated, and on top of that most of his stuff is so hard to get a firm grasp of that most people are afraid to assign it. But On the Geneaology of Morals should be well within most people’s reach.
As for Rawls, when I drew up this list credibility in academia was not one of my concerns – in a do-it-yourself education you don’t want to waste your time with stuff that isn’t really helpful simply because it’s what everyone in academia has read. Allan Bloom’s review of A Theory of Justice, which is in the essay collection Giants and Dwarfs, exposes just a few of Rawls’s major deficiencies.
Similarly, More, Heidegger, and Hegel are valuable for historical insight into the intellectual currents of the times they lived in (like Rawls, I guess), but I didn’t include them because I was focusing on works that I think are of continuing importance, and I just don’t see them as making that cut (hardly anyone outside history departments reads them even now).
OK, OK, I spoke to hastily when I said that hardly anyone outside history departments reads Hegel and Heidegger (I do think you can say that about More, however). That was too strong. But you get my point – their presence in political thought curricula is vestigal, like the appendix.
Thanks for the response. My concern with credibility in academia was not purely, well, academic.
Rawls is important because every serious student of justice eventually cites Rawls, and relying on secondary interpretations of Rawls, while easier, leaves one a bit handicapped in interacting with the works of his students. As a student of Locke I am surprised you do not accord his work more significance. In many ways, his theory is an assault on Locke.
The same with Hegel (Heidegger I will drop for the moment, though there is some utility in reading the smartest philosopher of the 20th century regardless of his ongoing significance). I am not sure how someone could read Marx without reading Hegel. More important to ongoing significance, contemporary philosophers, policy makers, and polemicists like Francis Fukyama and Richard Rorty are of ongoing importance, and their work is fundamentally related to Hegelian formulations of history. The distinction between historical man, natural man, and Natural Man is probably the foundational split among modern political philosophers. Aquinas, Hegel, and Darwin (or Carl Sagan, etc) are essential to this discussion. Maybe reading tons of Hegel is unimportant, but reviewing worthy pieces of his writings might at least give the self-taught political philosopher a primary source for historical views of man.
Someone once asked William F. Buckley why he delighted in exposing the hypocrisy of leftists. He replied, “I delight in that which is delightful.” Similarly, I don’t accord much significance to A Theory of Justice simply because A Theory of Justice is not very significant. Even Rawls himself eventually realized how futile the whole project of that book was; if I were going to assign anything of Rawls, it would be Political Liberalism, a book for which I have much more respect.
I do not understand what you can mean by the statement “every serious student of justice eventually cites Rawls,” unless by “serious” you mean “Rawlsian.” Even among the political left there is a large population of theorists who do not take Rawls seriously. And of course outside the left Rawls is held in even lower esteem.
I agree that Hegel is indispensible if you want to know where Marxism came from historically. But you will notice that I included very little Marx in my list, and if Marxism is not worth in-depth study then you can’t justify reading Hegel on grounds that it paved the way for Marx.
Fukuyama is greatly underrated; in fact, I think you yourself are underrating him – calling him a “polemicist” is unfair. If I were to round out the readings with more from the 20th century I would add his The End of History and the Last Man. But that book does not assume prior knowledge of Hegelian thought, and lays out for the reader basically everything he needs to know about it. Indeed, the book is useful as a basic introduction to the Hegelian view of history even independent of its merits as an analysis of democracy’s role in history.
Rorty is also a good suggestion; I don’t expect his view of things to go on being very influential for much longer, but his stuff is still a cogent statement of the case against transcendant morality. It’s the modern American parallel to Nietzsche’s Geneaology of Morals. The book Irony, Contingency, and Solidarity is a good starting point.
I think you and I are aiming at different purposes – you want to convey the history of ideas, but I’m trying to give the reader what I think is of the most enduring importance. Rawls and Heidegger are certainly very important if your goal is to understand what was being written about political thought by academics in the 20th century, but if what you’re looking for is enlightenment on the lasting questions of man’s political situation, I don’t see much of that stuff as relevant.
Thanks, again, for the response. You are obviously a really bright guy, and you are inevitably busy, so I will let your last word stand as far as my arguments go.
I maintain my previous position while acknowledging that you probably know a lot more about this stuff than I do. Have a good weekend.
Nah, I could do this all day. What’s the point of a comment thread if not to keep it going?
(I see that I said above that I didn’t want to be sitting here all day. Well, since I brought up Emerson before, how about “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”? Anybody here seen Next Stop Wonderland?)
And really I doubt that I know more than you do. I just think we have two different kinds of lists in mind.
Thanks for the clarification. I just need to take part in more discussions to catch the carryover!
– As for Rawls, when I drew up this list credibility in academia was not one of my concerns – in a do-it-yourself education you don’t want to waste your time with stuff that isn’t really helpful simply because it’s what everyone in academia has read. Allan Bloom’s review of A Theory of Justice, which is in the essay collection Giants and Dwarfs, exposes just a few of Rawls’s major deficiencies. –
That should be coming in the mail, hopefully today.
This list could continue to burgeon but why not include some of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum? This is somewhat of a compliment to what Marx deals with excepting Leo is using the language of the Church. Although Centesimus Annus takes some of the sting out of Rerum’s clear devotion to workers rights and rejection of liberal capitalism it still gives us insight.
We could then move on to Abraham Kuyper but I digress…
Jon Rowe: You know, it’s been a while since I read anything from Giants and Dwarfs. I’ll have to pull that back out and remind myself what’s in it. I do remember that the Harvard speech (“My fellow elitists…”) is very good.
JDM: I must admit that it is a failing of mine that I have difficulty taking critiques of liberal economics with adequate seriousness. To my mind, the only one that has any real power is the one Smith himself presents in Book V of The Wealth of Nations – namely, the danger that in a commercial society people will cease to think. That’s the purpose of his discussion of schools and churches, to which I alluded in my list.
An astonishing post that leaves me debt to both our host and Mr. Forster.
There is so much here that is so, so good. I dearly love Augustine’s take on the pagan religions in City…; I perhaps would raise up Marcus Aurelius a notch more, if only because his Stoicism seems to be one of those underlying themes in early American Civic Republicanism (not to mention that Calvin began with a commentary on that other Stoic, Seneca).
Sorry to miss the Nietzsche reference. Blogging is bad for reading comprehension, I guess.
I would say that Hegel is important, but it’s not so clear that it’s so easy to get. I often find it bewildering, and I’m supposed to be an expert in those sorts of things.
If you were going to round out the 20th century, you’d also have to include MacIntyre’s _After Virtue_ and Taylor’s _Sources of the Self_.
Please elaborate on the connection you percieve between Roman stoicism and early American thought. What do you have in mind? Is it that the stoics advise us to lower our expectations of what politics and other worldly endeavors can achieve?
Your remark about Augustine also moves me to clarify that when I talk about “paganism” I mean real paganism, such as was practiced in pre-Christian Greece and Rome, and is practiced today in much of Asia and Africa. It is unfortunate that American evangelicals have started using “pagan” to mean simply “non-Christian”; as I said, I think few people today really understand what paganism is for those who believe in it. (And I should also say that I don’t use the word “pagan” as a term of abuse, but simply as the best available descriptive term for a certain type of belief.)
Did I say Hegel was easy to get? If so, I certainly didn’t mean that! Like you, I find much of his stuff incomprehensible.
If it was my remark about Fukuyama that prompted your comment, what I meant was that Fukuyama gives you just enough information about Hegel’s theory of history so you can understand his (Fukuyama’s) argument. In other words, it is not necessary to read Hegel before you can read Fukuyama. And let’s all give thanks for that!
One thing that has helped me grasp some of Hegel’s ideas is the section of C.S. Lewis’s book The Pilgrim’s Regress where John and Virtue are in the house of Wisdom. Remember, in Lewis’s intellectual circle in the 1920s Hegelianism was the major antagonist to Christianity, so Lewis’s “allegorical defense of Christianity” culminates with Hegeliansim.
Do-It-Yourself MA in Political Thought
Do you want to know something about political philosophy and thought from a historical perspective? No? Well, you should. Check out Dr. Greg Forster’s guide on how to self-educate yourself with a MA in Political Thought. You will be glad you read …
I do intend to go back for Rousseau, but in my teenage years of avid political-theory reading I downed my Locke and Bastiat and Tocqueville in huge gobbets, and found Rousseau seemed kinda thin and pale and unappealling by comparison. His influence makes it worth having read him, rather than knowing him only from secondaries, as I currently do, though.
Thanks for interacting profitably in the comments! I have learned as much again from that as from the list above.
I enjoyed the Lewis-Hegelian interaction quite a bit in my reading of Lewis. There’s something of the quaint about it, these days, but as the Fukuyama connection (and I haven’t read Fukuyama, probably should) makes clear, it ain’t dead yet.
As for Heidegger et al, well, over here on the lit scholar side of things we’re still having to take those guys more seriously. You’re right that a “history of ideas” approach and a “touchstones” approach will come up with different lists.
What happened to, say, Hayek and von Mises?
PGE and Greg,
I didn’t mention it earlier, but Peter Lawler’s Aliens in America is one of the best reviews of Fukyama (whom he calls a “teacher of evil”), Hegel, Rorty, et al and the historicism / nature debate that I have ever read. If you are unfamiliar with novelist Walker Percy, James Caesar, or William Galston it is a great introduction to them as well. The whole theme is our “alien” or homeless nature (fitting that Lawler’s middle name is “Augustine”). It is also a nice introduction to Lawler who is one of the lesser known members of the President’s Council on Bioethics, but one of the two primary Tocqueville scholars on the planet and a darling of the conservative philosophy circles (with Mansfield, Scruton, etc.).
“What happened to, say, Hayek and von Mises?”
Hayek should definitely be on there. While they have dwindled in importance since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mises and Hayek could be a perennial intellectual guard against the dangers of collectivism and big government. That is one of the reasons I mentioned Nozick (a more recent scholar) above; but I wonder if a little subsection on modern economic thought (Smith and Marx not withstanding) would be appropriate. A little Keynes (very practically applicable), Friedman, and maybe even Gordon Tullock (Public Choice is THE best way to understand practical politics). I wish more theorists would read James Buchanan, Friedman, and Tullock. They have changed the world as much as anyone in the last century.
To be honest, one reader was also right that a study of the Popes would be useful (1 billion followers). Evangelium Vitae and a few other documents are really accessible, and though I haven’t read any yet, I’ve heard that Ratzinger is prolific.
I agree. This has been a wonderful, civil, and enlightening discussion, Mr. Forster (and everyone else!). Thanks to you all!
Great post Greg, Joe. I think I’ll keep this around as a good reference for what I should be reading.
I’m hoping to be able to start a MS-IS and MS-ISA at GMU in about a year or so if my employer will let me and then maybe a few years later go for a poly sci MA just for fun.
Great post and discussion.
I’ve bookmarked this page to use as a reference both for reviewing old favorites and starting new reading assignments.
Thanks, John. I’m a Walker Percy reader and I have the publications from the Bioethics council, as well as an occasional interest in Hegel, so Aliens in America has just jumped into the “No, REALLY, you gotta read this” category, for me.
Again, Joe, Greg et al, thanks for a first-rate profitable talk on this!
Greg, great post. As soon as I finish my other multi-dozen book reading projects, I’ll start in on this one! :D
BTW – I’m still wondering if there’s such a list for the equivalent of a Master’s of Divinity.
Hey Mr. Carter, ever hear of SpamLookup? It’s a really sweet plugin for MovableType that blocks all comment and trackback spam; or at least, it has not failed to do so in my 2 months or so of using it. It’s not terribly hard to install either: if you can install MovableType, you can install SpamLookup. Download it here.
Greg, thanks for that post which gives the essentials of legacy political science.
Yet, if we share the belief that even the masters of the past can be surpassed, I would suggest Ren
PGE: Rousseau, thin and pale? When I first read Rousseau it was like getting struck by lightning! Of course, I wasn’t a Christian then; I didn’t catch a lot of the blind spots in his discussion of religion because I shared those blind spots myself. For someone who knows what being in Christ is really like, Rousseau might not be so thrilling.
John: Fukuyama a teacher of evil? He’s not Christian, but I don’t think he merits that label. And if we’re going to call Fukuyama a teacher of evil, what will we say about Hayek (see below)?
PGE and John: Actually, most political thought programs don’t contain even as much economic theory as I’ve included in my list, because they don’t have you read 3/5ths of Smith. So I was kind of pushing to include economics as it is. If you want even more, Hayek’s book The Mirage of Social Justice (which is vol. 2 of a three-volume set that has a different title, I forget what it is) is definitely worth reading. Although the main reason I would assign it would not be as a guard against big government (I already have Locke, Smith, and Madison to do that) but to illustrate how the libertarianism of our time grew not out of Christian natural-law thinkers like Locke, as many people think, but rather out of the secularists, especially Hobbes and Mill. For Hayek, freedom is good because (and only because) people find it useful; it maximizes preference satisfaction.
And, for the record, I think everyone should read Milton Friedman, because he’s my boss!
MikeT: If GMU is George Mason University, say hello to my friend Colleen Shogan, who teaches the presidency there. Her dissertation was on moral rhetoric and the presidency.
FC: From what I can tell based on a few mintues on the web, it looks like Girard’s theory is an attempt to explain religion as the psychological legacy of prehistoric social processes – like evolutionary biology, but in this case with a different set of concerns. Now, I don’t object to this on grounds that religion is true, because religion could be both a legacy of prehistoric social processes and true. However, I’m with Chesterton in The Everlasting Man: our only serious evidence about prehistory is what we know from early history; any attempt to reconstruct it on other grounds is only speculation, and is totally non-falsifiable. And what we know from early history does not suggest that religion is the result of social processes – just the reverse, in fact.
Lawler calls him a teacher of evil in his book. From what I understand this is some kind of Straussian inside joke, though the argument he forwards is interesting. In actuality, Lawler and Fukyama are friends.
Oh. I didn’t catch that it was a joke – that makes a lot more sense.
But you can hardly blame me for missing an inside joke made by *Straussians*. I mean, imagine what their inside jokes must be like!
Leo: “Hey, Allan, did you see Harvey’s review of Harry’s new book? Talk about a picke telephone screaming ice-cream oxygen station-wagon blue chicken!”
Allan: “Ha, ha! Good one!”
Speaking of which, the Weekly Standard had the best spoof of Straussianism I’ve ever seen. It’s the Straussian Weight Loss Plan: “We teach you how to create the impression that you’ve lost weight!”
Since I’ve criticized Straussians above, I should say that I like Straussians – one of them was my dissertation advisor – and this is all meant in the spirit of good humor.
Sorry to say that there is a lot more in Girard than the prehistorical and biological explanation of religion. In fact it’s all about sacrifice as a compulsion of mankind when things go wrong and the way it temporatily soothes a situation ; then it goes on to explaining both religion and social organization in the same move ; finally it ends on the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus Christ’s) as the Way to end violence (and civilization ?).
But, never mind.
Thanks anyway for your time.
Leo Strauss opens his Thoughts on Machiavelli by calling him a “teacher of evil,” so that’s the joke.
CS Lewis’ The Abolition of Man remains my personal touchstone and is available free in its entirety here.
Thanks so much for this post, Greg. I’m autodidacting on philosophy meself, and it seems I’m in the ballpark. Have enjoyed Strauss’ Platonism tremendously, but Aquinas is next. Just have to put up with Thomas’ love of the USA Today (lists, piecharts) of philosophy, Aristotle.
Will get to Oakeshott someday, I promise.
(Enjoyed tremendously Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is also free
Whew! Pardon me while I catch my breath after using the defibrulator to restart my heart; I went into cardiac arrest when you compared Aristotle to USA Today.
OK, that’s better. Dude, you should warn a guy before you do that.
Those Straussians must have jokes even more esoteric than I thought, because (I think) I know what Strauss meant calling Machiavelli a teacher of evil, but I don’t get how that would apply to Fukuyama even as a joke.
Beware of falling too easily into the Straussian interpretation of things. It becomes self-justifying and circular very quickly. One innuendo suggesting Plato doesn’t believe a word of what he says would look silly, but a thousand innuendos, carefully constructed and with references to the original Greek, seem much more plausible. The innuendos then come off more like a “body of evidence”. But when you examine any one of the thousand “pieces of evidence”, you discover it’s just innuendo. What’s more, when confronted with evidence that the author is sincere, the Straussian just thinks, “that’s exactly what we would expect if he were faking.”
As I’ve said, I think the Straussians have some real insights. But be careful never to let any hypothesis become self-justifying; I think they do this more often than they realize.
Since you’re a Lewis fan, just remember the line in the friendship chapter of The Four Loves about invisible cats.
I must admit I’ve never read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I should have. I’m given to understand that it’s influenced by Rousseau’s moral psychology (dividing the soul into reason, compassion, and appetites) but that Smith’s theory is at least compatible with Christianity – not to say that Smith is necessarily a Christian, which I think the historical record doesn’t decisively tell us one way or the other, but that his theory is one that Christians can believe without self-contradiction.
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