“Here is the classic Oxford shot of the Radcliffe Camera with the Bod library on the left behind it and All Souls’ College on the right, all draped in snow.” - Fr. Lawrence, OP.

Listers, certain “Great Books” have shaped the course of the Western world. Mortimer J. Adler, a Roman Catholic philosopher and professor, presented three criterion for a book to be considered “great,” he stated:

  1. The book has contemporary significance: that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times.
  2. The book is inexhaustible: it can be read again and again with benefit.
  3. The book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.1

While over one hundred universities and colleges in the United States and Canada have some form of a Great Books program, SPL has relied on three to compile this list: Thomas Aquinas College, the University of Dallas, and Ave Maria University. Thomas Aquinas College (“TAC”) - whose entire four year liberal arts program is a Great Books only program - explains the purpose of the Great Books tradition:

Yet the great books are not the objects of study at the College. Students here do not read these works — Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Euclid, St. Augustine, Descartes, Newton, and so many others — as outstanding examples of the creativity of the human spirit (though that they certainly are). Nor do they read them to become more familiar with Western culture and civilization (valuable though that is). Rather, Thomas Aquinas College students read the great books because, more than any other works, when studied under the light of the teaching Church, they can open up the truth about reality.2

Reading the Great Books of the Western tradition imports an insight into our modern culture that is completely unparalleled. Advocacy of the great books, however, suffers from a fatal flaw. For example, a Roman Catholic and a secular humanist may both agree Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes should be included as a great work; however, they would differ significantly on why that book is great. Was it a great contribution to the West? - or was it a great mistake? Notice in their statement on the Great Books, TAC states, “when studied under the light of Church teaching.” Many of the “great” books are incredibly anti-Catholic. Some times they are explicitly anti-Catholic, like Hobbes mocking the scholastics and transubstantiation. Often times they present a theory and praxis that has led to today’s crisis of modernity.3 In fact, the entirety of modernity may be said to have started as a rejection. Consequently, a Catholic institution that recommends the Great Books, but does not present them through the lens of Truth, Jesus Christ, may in fact be undercutting its own commitment to the Church.4 The what to study is just as important as how to study it.

The following list is drawn from faithful Catholic institutions that present the Great Books under the Truth of the Church. TAC is a four year liberal arts college that centers its entire eduction on a Great Books program.5 The University of Dallas (“UD”) offers a very unique Great Books Program. The University offers doctoral degrees in Literature, Philosophy, and Politics, but places all of these students together for the beginning of their studies; thus, they have a Great Books core curriculum for when their students are together, and then they have a Great Books program tailored for each individual program.6 The graduate theology department of Ave Maria University (“AMU”) has found a unique way to present the Great Books. Instead of having a flat list, AMU presents them within the “Dialogue of the Ancients & Moderns,” which orders the books to show the interrelation. For example, the dialogue approach will list several works that build off each other, and then offer a “clarification by contrast” by listing the works that took a different path.  In other words, the dialogue of Ancients & Moderns method attempts to adopt a pedagogical prudence into the very listing of the works themselves.

The following is a synthesis of the lists from all three Catholic institutions. The footnotes indicate not only the source of each recommended reading, but also which institution recommended the linked translation. Following the example of AMU, the list is divided into “ancients” and “moderns,” but is otherwise simply presented as a flat list. The list is geared toward Catholic thinkers in the United States, since it recommends certain core U.S. political documents. Finally, only the UD Politics Phd program is tailored specifically to politics. The political contributions of TAC & AMU are pulled from their general Great Books lists. For those seeking Catholic commentary on how to understand these Great Works, please note the footnotes for suggested works that could serve as primers not only to the individual suggested works but also to Catholic political thought overall.7


The Great Books Politics


The Ancients

  1. The Holy Bible[^fn008]

    1. Thucydides, _The Peloponnesian War._[^fn009]

    2. Plato, _The Republic._[^fn010]

    3. Aristotle, _Nicomachean Ethics._[^fn011]

    4. Aristotle, _Politics._8

    5. Plutarch, _Parallel Lives._9

    6. Augustine, _Confessions._10

    7. Augustine, _City of God._11

    8. Thomas Aquinas, Selections of the _Summa Theologica._12

    9. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship.13


The Moderns

  1. Machiavelli, _The Prince._14

    1. Thomas Hobbes, _Leviathan._15

    2. John Locke, _Two Treatises of Government_16

    3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First and Second Discourses.17

    4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract.18

    5. Articles of Confederation.19

    6. Declaration of Independence.20

    7. United States Constitution of 1787.21

    8. Virginia (1776) and Massachusetts (1780) Declarations of Rights.22

    9. Northwest Ordinance of 178723

    10. The Federalist Papers24

    11. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.25

    12. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.26

    13. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals27

    14. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto28

    15. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America29

    16. Abraham Lincoln, Various Texts.30

    17. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates31

    18. John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action32

    19. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”33

    20. Leo Strauss, Selections indicating his approach to political philosophy.34

  1. Mortimer List taken from Wikipedia, citing Adler, Mortimer J. “Selecting Works for the 1990 Edition of the Great Books of the Western World,” page 142. ↩︎

  2. TAC Website, The Great Books↩︎

  3. See 4 Steps to Understand the Crisis of Modernity↩︎

  4. See, Against Great Books by Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen on First Things. ↩︎

  5. TAC Great Books List↩︎

  6. UD Great Books: Core Curriculum & Other Curriculums↩︎

  7. Catholic Political Thought: For those seeking an introduction to Catholic political thought, _see 6 Books for Proper Introduction to Catholic Political Thought_. [^fn008]: The Bible is not a “political” text per se, but it arguably colors almost all thought in the West. Whether a Great Books list focuses on politics or literature, the Bible remains a must-read text. AMU suggests an emphasis on Genesis, Exodus 1-15, 19-14, Deut. 5-11, 28-30, Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Job; in the New Testament, Matthew, John, Galations, Ephesians. UD PhD core curriculum recommends a focus on the following biblical texts: Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms (1, 2, 22, 23, 29, 37, 47, 51, 53, 73, 95, 110, 130, 146-150), Isaiah, Matthew, John, Romans, Corinthians I and II, Revelation; TAC lists the entire Bible on their syllabus. [^fn009]: The linked edition is recommended by TAC; Recommended by UD Phd Politics. [^fn010]: The linked Allan Bloom edition is recommended by TAC and also the preferred edition of AMU; Recommended by UD Phd Core Curriculum. [^fn011]: Recommended by TAC, AMU, and the UD PhD Core Curriculum. TAC recommends the Oxford edition of Nicomachean Ethics. A common edition at AMU is the linked Irwin translation. ↩︎

  8. Recommended by TAC, AMU, and UD Phd Politics; the Lord’s translation is widely regarded as the best English translation (explicitly recommended by TAC & AMU. SPL has a list of Aristotelian definitions - taken from the Lord trans. - that may be helpful, along with numerous lists tagged under Aristotle↩︎

  9. TAC recommends the edition linked and an emphasis on the following: Lycurgus, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, Marcellus, Caius Marius, Sylla, Tiberius Gracchus, Caius Gracchus, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Marcus Brutus, Comparison of Dion and Brutus; UD Phd Politics recommends: Theseus, Romulus; Lycurgus, Numa; Alcibiades, Coriolanus; Alexander, Caesar. ↩︎

  10. Recommended TAC, AMU, and UD Phd Core Curriculum. AMU heavily recommended the linked Frank Sheed translation. ↩︎

  11. The linked Cambridged edition recommended by TAC; UD Phd Politics; AMU suggestions Book XIX. ↩︎

  12. UD Phd Core Curriculum recommends Summa Theologiae I, 1-5 (Questions on Theology and God) II.1, 90-110, 112-113 (Questions on Law and Grace); the UD Phd Politics Curriculum recommends St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law,” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Questions 90-101, 104-108); TAC recommends similar corresponding Summa selections; SPL has written extensively on St. Thomas Aquinas, especially on his Treatise on Law and virtue, see Aquinas’ Catechesis on the Virtues and Aquinas’ Guide to Natural Law↩︎

  13. Recommended by both the UD PhD Politics and TAC. ↩︎

  14. The Mansfield translation recommended by TAC; Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU. SPL offers: 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli↩︎

  15. The Hackett Classic edition recommended by TAC; Recommended by the UD Phd Politics & AMU. SPL offers: A Catholic Guide to Thomas Hobbes: 12 Things You Should Know↩︎

  16. University of Dallas Phd Politics curriculum recommends: all of the Second Treatise, plus the following selections from the First Treatise: ch. 1, sec. 1-3; ch. 2, sec. 6, 7, 9, 14; ch. 4, sec. 21-27, 33, 39, 42, 43; ch. 5, sec. 44-45, 47; ch. 6, sec. 53-54, 56-59, 61; ch. 9, sec. 86-100; ch. 11, sec. 106; TAC recommends the Hackett Classic edition of the Second Treatise on Government; recommended by AMU. ↩︎

  17. Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU. ↩︎

  18. Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU; the linked Hackett Classics anthology edition recommended by TAC. ↩︎

  19. Recommended by TAC. ↩︎

  20. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics and TAC. ↩︎

  21. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics and TAC. ↩︎

  22. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics. ↩︎

  23. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics. ↩︎

  24. TAC recommends the linked Modern Classics Library edition, and the UD Phd Politics curriculum recommends, No. 6, 9, 10, 15, 48, 49, 51, 57, 62, 70, 78. ↩︎

  25. Linked edition recommended by TAC. ↩︎

  26. Recommended by the UD PhD Core Curriculum. ↩︎

  27. Linked Hackett Classics edition recommended by TAC; recommended by the UD Phd Politics. ↩︎

  28. TAC recommends the linked text; The UD PhD Politics also emphasizes: (The Marx-Engels Reader, 469-500); Engels’ Eulogy (681-82); Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (683-717); “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (53-65); Theses on Feuerbach (143-45); “On the Jewish Question” (26-52); “1844 Manuscripts” (70-93); German Ideology (146-200); Address of the Central Committee (501-511); on non-violent revolution and “Critique of the Gotha Program” (522-541); AMU recommends the Manifesto and Theses on FeuerbachGerman Ideology↩︎

  29. TAC and UD recommend Mansfield edition, linked; UD PhD Politics emphasizes “appropriate selections showing his approach to the topic.” For example: Introduction (pp. 3-15), vol 1, pt 1, ch 2-5 (27-93), vol 1, pt 2, ch 5-6 (187-235), vol 1, pt 2, ch 9 (264-302), vol 2, pt 2, ch 1-8 (479-503), vol 2, pt 3, ch 8-12 (558-576), vol 2, pt 4, ch 1-3 and 6-8 (639-645, 661-676) (page numbers are from the Mansfield translation. ↩︎

  30. The UD PhD Politics recommends: Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), Speech on Dred Scott (1857), First and Second Inaugural Addresses, Address to Congress on July 4, 1861, Gettysburg Address. ↩︎

  31. TAC recommends the linked Douglas edition; The UD PhD Politics recommends the Robert W. Johannsen edition, (New York: Oxford, 1965); UD particularly recommends the selections showing the views of both Lincoln and Douglas. For example, 14-36, 78-79, 86-92, 145-49, 162-63, 195-200, 206-226, 229-39, 242-44. ↩︎

  32. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics. ↩︎

  33. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics, while the Core Curriculum recommends the entirety of Being and Time↩︎

  34. The UD PhD Politics recommends, for example, What is Political Philosophy, Chapter 1, 2, 3, and 9; or, Natural Right and History: Introduction, chapters 1 and 4, and one of the modern subchapters. Along with AMU, SPL highly recommends the essay The Three Waves of Modernity in his Introduction to Political Philosophy. SPL has written a summary list entitled 4 Steps to Understanding the Crisis of Modernity↩︎