Why Libertarians Should Read the "Great Books"


If you are reading this blog, then you have probably read The Federalist Papers, Human Action, End the Fed, Constitution of Liberty, etc. I would even guess that you name-drop them in discussions on politics and economics. These books frequently pop up on lists of the “Books Every Libertarian Should Read” variety. It is safe to assume that libertarians—of different backgrounds, representing different strands of libertarianism—are generally bookish. We are conversant in economic theories, political philosophy, and the mechanics of local and federal politics.

What about Metamorphoses, Nicomachean Ethics, The Divine Comedy, and House of Mirth? If you went to a small liberal arts college or if you are an avid reader, some of those titles may be familiar to you. At the very least, the authors of these works—Ovid, Aristotle, Dante, and Edith Wharton—sound familiar. They do not constitute any movement, school of thought, or literary genre. The authors come from disparate epochs, cultures, and ways of thinking. Ostensibly, none of these works convey libertarian ideas or themes—though we can glean something from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

These works appear on Harold Bloom’s list of the Great Books—indelible works of the Western Canon. What is the “canon?” Defining the “canon” (of any category) is as vexing as defining “Western Civilization.” There are as many variations of this list as there are of the "Books Every Libertarian Should Read” list. Bloom’s list is predisposed towards literature, whereas a less publicized list such as this is wider in its scope.

Regardless of which "Great Books" list you peruse, you are looking at works that have—in myriad ways—contributed to the intellectual foreground of cultural, social, and political institutions of the West (past and extant). I argue that libertarians should read the “Great Books” a chance for two distinct reasons. One is that we can further enrich our grasp of the human condition by studying the “Great Books.” The second is that we have a stake in the ongoing—and arguably volatile—debate about Western civilization.

What does it mean to be human?
I envisage the "Great Books" as an ongoing conversation about what it means to be human—touching on every facet of the human experience. Whether it’s through Homer’s poetic prism or through the backdrop of the English Civil War in Hobbes' Leviathan, we can cultivate a more robust grasp of the human experience. Works of literature—unlike manifestos, political theory, and economics—have a way of poignantly illustrating the human experience and the plurality of human desires and goals. For example, Homer’s Iliad is a vivid illustration of the values and ethos of a culture driven by the Heroic Code.

As libertarians, we may be inclined to view the narrative of the West—or the human condition, more broadly— in terms of a “ceaseless struggle for liberty.” The sheer breadth of any “Great Books” list exposes you to the lives (fictitious and real) and minds that echo—and, in some cases, challenge— the values and aspirations of a culture or locale. These works are thumbnails for different stages of our “ceaseless struggle for liberty.” Because of the eclectic standpoints of these works, we grapple with ways of life and ideas that are starkly antithetical to our own.

Reclaiming the idea of the “West”
A debate about the "Great Books" or "Western canon" is an offshoot of the larger debate about the "West." FEE's Jeffrey Tucker penned an excellent piece in which he argues that the ideas of liberty, markets, and rights grew out of certain institutions—not from "blood and soil." Yes, these ideas sprang from a specific part of the world. But they can be imbibed and actualized by anyone, regardless of their heritage. As Nathaniel Blake argues (reinforcing the point), the Western legacy is not the exclusive prerogative of the so-called "White cultural heritage”—contrary to the claims of so-called White Identitarians.

Do an about-face and we end up in another corner of the political landscape, one in which the legacy of the "West" is seen as heavily blotted by racial supremacism, oppression, and exclusion. The gist of this view seems to be that the “Canon”—specifically, college curricula that center on the “Great Books”—are Eurocentric and discount the contributions of non-Western peoples. Earlier in September, the student group Reedies Against Racism forced the cancellation of an introductory humanities course, charging that it is “simply too white, too male and too Eurocentric.” This is an example of how, from one perspective, the “Western Canon” is an extension of this legacy of oppression and exclusion.

Tucker and Blake are exhorting the rest of us to wrest the Western legacy from the Alt-Right and, by extension, the so-called “School of Resentment.” If the overarching narrative of the West is one of "the ceaseless struggle for liberty,” we need to be effective in defending it as such. We cannot do so without being versed in the intellectual underpinnings that made and the trends that gave way to the actualization of liberty. Engrossing ourselves in the “Great Books” would be a great way to start.

Now go and read Homer!