The primary reason for me writing this article is that I am sick and tired of people, who haven’t a hint of political philosophy knowledge, debating political issues online (and I’m using the term “debating” very loosely). On a similar note, even those who have read the works of great political philosophers usually do so selectively, leading to the development of a biased viewpoint. I mean, seriously, how many leftist college students call for a Marxist revolution without ever reading Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital? And how many people who use the term “fascist pig” can actually define fascism? I would encourage socialists to read more Adam Smith. I would also suggest that libertarians pick up a copy of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. And, as a realist and proponent of utilitarianism, I need to force myself to read more Kant. The following fifteen works, which are listed in the order they should be read in, should be read by those wishing to have a meaningful political discussion.
The Republic (circa 380 B.C.) – Plato
Leviathan (1651) – Thomas Hobbes
Second Treatise of Government (1689) – John Locke
The Social Contract (1762) – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781) – Jeremy Bentham
The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) – Adam Smith
Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795) – Immanuel Kant
Resistance to Civil Government (1849) – Henry David Thoreau
The Law (1850) – Frederic Bastiat
Das Kapital (1867) – Karl Marx
Politics as a Vocation (1919) – Max Weber
Reflections on Violence (1908) – Georges Sorel
The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) – Benito Mussolini
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) – Michel Foucault
Twilight of the Machines (2008) – John Zerzan
If these works were building blocks, then The Republic would be the cornerstone. In it, Socrates and his companions attempt to define “justice,” answering questions like, “What compels great men to rule?” in the process. Socrates also describes division of labor in great detail, using it to explain why men form states and war with each other. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau build off of one another, rationalizing the existence of government and explicating the idea of the social contract. In Leviathan, Hobbes’ teaches one of the most basic reasons for government, that men wish “to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men.” Ever since Hobbes, political philosophers have been expanding on that idea. The 18th and 19th century thinkers that follow them on the list all put names to important concepts that are still used today to explain people’s actions. Bentham wrote extensively about “utilitarianism,” while Smith invented the “invisible hand.” The more recent writers, beginning with Marx, are valuable for 1.) the new ideologies they put forth, such as communism, fascism, syndicalism, and socialism, and 2.) their innovative contributions toward the study of social phenomena like revolution and political violence. The writers on this list were crucial in advancing the discourse of basic political concepts, concepts one should understand before discussing politics.
I’ve just described the scholarly benefits of reading these works, but there is a more important reason to read the collective works listed above. Reading them will challenge your developed views. You will undoubtedly draw, from each of the works, information that supports your views, but the list was made so that both sides of the story would be told. The most noticeable “rivals” on the list are Marx and Smith, but Kant and Bentham have drastically different views, as well. Kant believes that, “[Using men] as mere machines and instruments in the hands of [the state]… cannot easily be reconciled with the right of humanity,” while Bentham promotes any legislation that “augments the total happiness of the community,” even if it is at the expense of some unwilling citizens. And Zerzan’s call for “the wholesale indictment of civilization and mass society” and an end to “productionism” could not be further from Mussolini’s declaration, “Fascism sees in the world not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law… it sees not only the individual but the nation.” Exposure to foreign ideas and contradictory views strengthens your beliefs, and any lawyer will tell you that being able to argue every side of an argument is a very valuable skill to possess.
Reading this list will do three things for you. It will provide you with basic political philosophy knowledge, so you do not look foolish by failing to grasp a basic concept in a political debate. It will also help you understand the views of others, thus making you more open to learn from those who are different from you. Finally, by making you read works that both support and challenge your views, it will allow you to refine your beliefs and think of better ways to defend them.
Adam Ondo | University of Rochester | @JoplinMaverick