As I’ve read a bit more about the history of philosophy I’ve learned that there are some philosophers and some works of philosophy that have had an enormous impact on the way everyone who came after thought. Some of those works have become famous. Others remain largely unknown. Here are a few of the most famous ones.
The Republic, by Plato (c. 380 BCE). Because of its title, and because it mostly seems to be talking about a city-state, most people think that this is a book about how to govern what, by today’s standards, sounds like a rather awful place to live, but the ‘republic’ is actually a metaphor for a person, and the question Plato is trying to answer is ‘what does it mean to live a virtuous life?’. Thus the ruling class of the city represents the intellect ruling over the body, the warrior class represents emotion, and the lower class represents the instincts and appetites. Plato’s famous ‘cave’ as a metaphor for enlightenment also appears, and the work as a whole has been tremendously influential for the last two thousand years or so.
Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641). You may not know the title but you certainly know the catch-phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am’. Descartes ‘Meditations’ were written during the Enlightenment, a time when intellectuals were moving away from the received wisdom of the Classical philosophers and the Church and engaging in scientific and philosophical experimentation. Descartes was concerned with epistemology – what we can know and how we can know it – and comes down firmly on the side of ‘Rationalism’, concluding that we can only know things through our use of reason. It’s a short work and easily read, although not necessarily so easily understood, and a great starting-point if you want to read something by a philosopher.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848). Another short and extremely influential work, the ‘Manifesto’ is a summary of Marx and Engels’ theory that the whole history of society and politics is the history of a class struggle between the ‘proletariat’ (the underclass, who make stuff), and the ‘bourgeois’/aristocracy (who own and control the means of production). Their conclusion is that the current bourgeois-run capitalist system will inevitably be overthrown by the proletariat in a glorious revolution and replaced with ‘socialism’, in which everyone will share everything and everything will be wonderful. So far a number of countries have gotten as far as the ‘overthrow the bourgeois’ bit, hence its place on my list of famous and influential works.
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883-1885). As with Descartes’ ‘Meditations’, you’re most likely to be familiar with this work because of its most famous line, ‘God is dead’. You may also have heard that it contains the idea of the ‘superman’, which Hitler found so inspiring (although if you’ve read my article on Nietzsche you’ll know that he himself would likely have been horrified by Nazism). ‘Zarathustra’ is more of a series of parables which illustrate the philosophy of Nihilism than a detailed explanation of that philosophy, a fact which has probably served to make it more interesting and better-comprehended than many philosophical works.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949). Beauvoir’s characterisation of the relationship between men and women as a dualism in which the male is seen as the ‘natural’ expression of humanity and the female as a variant expression laid the groundwork for what would become second-wave feminism. Beauvoir also articulated the idea of gender as ‘performance’, a collection of behaviours which are taught rather than innate, declaring that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” From the vantage point of early 21st-century gender politics it’s hard to understate just how influential ‘Second Sex’ has been on generations of women and men who have experienced – and driven – enormous change in societal expectations of both sexes.
I’ve read almost all of these books and in my opinion, while not always easy, they live up to the hype. Have you read any of them? What do you think of them?