We know by one's reading
His learning andbreeding;
By what draws his laughter
We know his Hereafter.
Read nothing, laugh never--
The Sphinx was less clever!
-- Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
Continuing with the theme of books recommendations (per a reader's request), I'll offer here a short list of books that informs my own brand of American conservatism, and which are also broadly important for anyone trying to formulate their own political, social, and cultural opinions.
The Bible -- I include this text not so much for religious reasons, but because it offers a template for how to navigate the preservation of traditions while still being capable of innovating and reforming. In the Old Testament, the story of the people of Israel is one defined by a set of laws and customs that are oft forgot, oft remembered and restored, and oft applied to new circumstances and challenges. In the New Testament, we see an explosive interpretation and application of those ancient truths that is both consistent with their original meaning, while conceived at a far deeper and more transformative level. I think that at it's best, this is what conservatism must emulate -- recognition of old, unalterable truths, while interpreting and building on them for contemporary needs.
The Iliad, Homer -- I discussed the importance of this in a 2019 article at The Federalist. Among other things, this Greek poem teaches the value of honoring ancient wisdom and legacies, and is a textbook in learning the difference between virtue and vice.
Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle -- This is perhaps the original, foundational text on philosophy and natural law. The first seven books are the most important.
The Aeneid, Virgil -- I discussed this one in a December 2020 article at The American Conservative. It's value is similar to that of the Iliad, though from a Roman perspective.
Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas -- I cite this one knowing few are actually going to take the time to read the whole thing (I haven't, but aspire to). Prima Pars, the Prima Secudae Partis, and Secunda Secundae Partis are probably most valuable, because they provide important insights not only God but anthropology and philosophy. Aquinas is also essential because his work serves as a synthesis of and commentary on inherited truth from a diversity of traditions (Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Christian, etc.).
The Divine Comedy, Dante -- I covered Dante in a 2018 piece at The Federalist. There's corruption, war, sex, and a trip through hell. What more could you ask for? I found Prue Shaw's short book/primer on Dante indispensable, as well as this translation/commentary.
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville -- I read this one in the first few months of the pandemic, and wrote several articles about it (here, here, and here). It's bizarre that a French aristocrat who visited the United States for about a year would write perhaps the most penetrating, extensive analysis on American politics and culture -- and that it would remain so relevant almost 200 years later -- but maybe that says something important about needing an outsider's perspective (and also that nobility ain't such a bad thing).
Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke -- This treatise by an Anglo-Irish stateman is an elegant, very quotable consideration of the problems with revolutions, as well as a defense of both conservative order and thoughtful, measured reform.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky -- The unparalleled titan of nineteenth century Russian literature was one of the greatest students of human psychology, a devout Christian, and a former revolutionary who came to believe reform of the czarist system, rather than its overthrow, offered the best future for Russia. Too bad they didn't listen to him. I've read three of Dostoyevsky's books, and this is undoubtedly the best.
Abolition of Man, C.S Lewis -- This is a simple, straightforward introduction to natural law theory by "the great explainer," as an old college friend once dubbed him.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien -- I'm not a big fantasy guy, but I do believe this book essential reading, because it presents such a riveting epic tale of a people whose civilization is worth preserving in the face of destructive, inhumane evil.
Concise Guide to Conservatism, Russell Kirk -- At about a hundred pages, this is indeed concise, and very accessible. I wrote about this one for The Federalist. Kirk defines in short, pithy chapters the most salient qualities of modern conservative thought.
Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen -- This is one is very recent (2017), and very controversial, especially for conservatives who take issue with Deneen's indictment of the flaws and failures of classical liberalism and America's founding. I discussed some of Deneen's ideas in this article at The Federalist. Yet I would argue that if there is a way forward for conservatism in light of the recent political chaos, we must address Deneen's acute and prescient arguments. Ryszard Legutko's The Demon in Democracy and The Cunning of Freedom offer similarly incisive critiques of contemporary liberal democracy.
Next post, I'll discuss some of the books that have been most influential for me more broadly. (Oh, and the above photo is of my 5-year-old son doing a little light reading.)