Every year the third Thursday in November marks World Philosophy Day, UNESCO’s collaborative “initiative towards building inclusive societies, tolerance and peace.” To celebrate, we’ve curated a reading list of historical texts by great philosophers that shaped the modern world and who had important things to say about the issues that we wrestle with today such as freedom, authority, equality, sexuality, and the meaning of life.
The Republic by Plato (427-347 B.C.E.)
Plato’s greatest work was the Republic, an extended dialogue on justice, in which he outlined his view of the ideal state. It is decidedly authoritarian. He begins from the premise that only those who know what good is are fit to rule, and he prescribes a long and rigorous period of intellectual training which he thinks will yield this knowledge. They should also govern with a view to maximizing the happiness of the state as a whole.
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Hobbes was one of the founders of modern political philosophy. He wrote that citizens had to transfer some of their freedom in exchange for protection and security from the sovereign authority. In this way, they have entered into a kind of social contract. Without government, people would find themselves in conflicts.
Treatise of Government by John Locke (1632-1704)
Locke helped to establish the first fully formed, secular theory of human rights with his work, Treatise of Government (1690). He started with the idea that in a state of nature, free from external authority, people had a duty to protect themselves and not to do harm to others. He contended that when society is formed, a government is set up to determine the disputes between people if these rights and duties are not obeyed and respected. Locke saw civil government as the means to enforce laws and to settle disputes as long as they didn’t infringe the trust placed in them by citizens. Since the government exists by the consent of the people to promote the good for its citizens, any government that failed to do so should be removed.
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1711–76)
Widely known for his humanitarianism and philosophical scepticism, Hume’s philosophy was a form of empiricism. He rejected speculative philosophy and theology and all claims to truth that lay outside human experience. The basis for knowledge, he argued, lay only in the experience of the senses. Hume’s most enduring work is A Treatise of Human Nature in which he advocates the scientific study of human nature as a means of understanding and improving society. Such study, Hume argued, would provide the basis for a secular morality and for a society ruled by justice and reason.
The Social Contract by Rousseau (1712-1778)
Born in Geneva in 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a visionary and revolutionary philosopher and writer. He opens The Social Contract with the dramatic opening line ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. Rousseau asserts that the authority of the state can only be legitimate if it comes from the will of the people. The book’s ideas exert a considerable influence on the French Revolution and on the development of modern principles of human rights.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1723 -1790)
Smith was an eminent Scottish moral philosopher and the founder of modern economics, best-known for his book The Wealth of Nations (1776) which was highly influential in the development of Western capitalism. In it, he outlined the theory of the division of labour and proposed the theory of laissez-faire. Hence instead of mercantilism, Smith believed that government should not interfere in economic affairs as free trade increased wealth.
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Paine was another important figure in the history of the French and American Revolutions, best known for his works, Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776-1783). His ideas were rooted in the theories of Locke and Rousseau. In The Rights of Man, Paine turned his attention to the French Revolution to examine the nature of human rights. As a champion of democracy and republicanism, he reasoned that an ideal government is one that would support mankind’s unalienable natural rights (life, liberty, free speech, and freedom of conscience) and that a revolution was permissible if the state failed to benefit its people.
The Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a powerful and ground- breaking work of feminist literature and philosophy. In it, she argued for reform of women’s education, and an increase in women’s contribution to society. Wollstonecraft saw that the prevailing pedagogical theories were turning women into feminine beings, ill-prepared for life vicissitudes. She wanted women to become rational and independent beings, whose sense of self came from the development of their mind rather than a mirror.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
John Stuart Mill was one of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth-century and an advocate of utilitarianism, a theory based on the works of Jeremy Bentham. His book On Liberty (1859) made him famous as a defender of human rights. He argued for the right of the people to live as they wished as long as they didn’t do harm to others. Mill also believed that happiness was the basis for morality and encouraged any action which maximised the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Mill was the leading liberal feminist of his day. He defended the rights of women on equal terms with men in The Subjection of Women (1869) and proposed measures such as votes for women. As with On Liberty, Mill stated that his views on the emancipation of women were deeply influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor, an early advocate of women’s rights.
La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Sartre was the best-known twentieth-century exponent of existentialism, and, together with Simone de Beauvoir, had a considerable influence on French intellectual life in the decades following the Second World War. La Nausée was Sartre’s first novel, published 1939. It is an attempt to capture in fictional form the human experience through the lens of Phenomenology and Existentialism. The novel’s hero, Antoine Roquentin, undergoes an existential crisis in the course of which he loses confidence in the old‐established values and identities of ordinary social life. The protagonist comes to realize that he is a free agent and must find his own purpose in a world devoid of meaning.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Simone de Beauvoir was a French existentialist philosopher and author of The Second Sex. It is a foundational text of feminism which looked at women’s oppression under patriarchy. In it she argues that ‘one is not born but one is made a woman’ which suggests that being a woman is not an essential, biological condition but is the effect of socialization and acculturation.
The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault (1926–1984)
Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, and theorist. His work showed in particular how nineteenth-century obsessions with classification led to the construction of sexual identity categories and how social, political and economical forces sought to influence and control attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviors.
Featured image credit: Book-covered walls by Eugenio Mazzone. Public Domain via Unsplash.