Essential Knowledge: Part VIII

The great inflection point in Western history is probably the Renaissance, which was the start of the great flowering of European culture and intellectual life. There are endless arguments to be had on this topic, but there is no denying that in the 16th century, the West began to rocket past the world, moving from the “dark ages” into the modern intellectual era. When people talk about the Western canon this is the starting point.

It is impossible to be an educated man without having a familiarity with the important figures and events from the Renaissance through the 19th century. I say familiarity, because you can, and people do, make a career out of studying just one man or one period. The Scottish Enlightenment, for example, produced a library full of important texts that still resonate today. The Scots, arguably, gave the world empiricism, which is no small contribution.

Unless you intend to be an academic, a familiarity with the important people and texts is enough. One way to dive into these very deep waters is to examine the intellectual traditions in which our modern intellectual movements are rooted. A good place to start is with old Karl Marx. He was not some evil weed that sprang from the void. He was, in many respects, a result of the intellectual revolution that begin with the Reformation.

The first proto-Marxist book on the list is Utopia by Thomas More. In addition to getting himself executed by Henry VIII, Moore wrote one of the great works of political philosophy. It casts a very long shadow, having influenced works like New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, Erewhon by Samuel Butler, and Candide by Voltaire.  It’s also why we have the word “utopia” in our vocabulary and why we have science fiction today. That’s right. Modern science fiction has its roots in the works of a 16th century priest Lawyer.

Another work that influenced Marx and many other communists and socialists is an almost forgotten work written during the age of Cromwell. The Commonwealth of Oceana is not an easy book to read, even in its day. Harrington was, but all accounts, a terribly undisciplined writer. But, like a lot of the great books in the canon, the struggle pays off, even if you just sample it. It offers insights into the fevered mind of the radical egalitarian, that continues to wreak havoc on civilization to this day.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu has one of the greatest names in the Western intellectual tradition. He also wrote one of the great works of the Western canon. The Spirit of the Laws has been relied upon by radical republicans and radical Marxists. Montesquieu introduced two key concepts. The separation of the powers and despotism. He also introduced a different reading of history, one that explains great events in terms of mass movements, rather than just the deeds of men.

Despite what you may think, Marx studied the same political economist that allegedly influenced the free market economists of today. The first name on the list is, of course, Adam Smith. His massive, two volume The Wealth of Nations is actually not bad reading, even for the the short attention spans of today. For those libertarians obsessed with legalizing drugs, Smith’s discussion of the English corn laws is priceless. You can literally do word substitution with “corn” and “drugs” and get a great legalization argument.

Anyone who knows anything about Marx has heard the phrase “labor theory of value” even though Marx never used the term. That’s because the guy who did coin the phrase is David Ricardo. He not only gave us the labor theory of value, he gave us theories of rent, wages, and profits. He’s also responsible for the phrase “comparative advantage.” Ricardo is a giant in political economy, along with Smith, Mill and Malthus. The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation is the book to read.

Marx was not just focused on economics. Read the Communist Manifesto, and no, you will not burst into flames by holding it, and you see it is more than just an economic manifesto. Marxism, like communism and socialism, uses the vehicle of economics as a way to reach the just society. Of course, Marx was heavily influenced by Rousseau so reading The Social Contract is required. You can also read his Discourse on Inequality as it is short and popular with the modern Left.

Rousseau was building on the work of two of the most important philosophers in the Western canon. Thomas Hobbes gave us the term “leviathan” in the book conveniently title Leviathan, which established social contract theory, that has served as the foundation for most later Western political philosophy. To a modern reader, it is a tough slog, but worth it in the end. It’s also important to note that Marx largely rejected social contract theory in favor of utilitarianism.

Similarly, John Locke is a major influence, even to this day. Locke gave us republicanism, the theory of the mind, the concept of the individual, self-derived identity and the big one, the blank slate. Locke maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience. This is now known as empiricism, but it should be easy to see where this eventually led. That’s right, John Locke is responsible for trannies in the bathroom and female Marines.

Locke is a big deal so you have to read a few of his works to appreciate his contributions. Fortunately, Locke was also brief, so his works tended to be more like pamphlets. A Letter Concerning TolerationTwo Treatises of Government and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding are required reading. Luckily, you can get these free on Kindle or for a few bucks as paperbacks. It’s ironic that the most important works in Western history are usually available for less than the price of a trip to Starbucks.

There were have an introduction to political philosophy via proto-Marxism.

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27 Comments on "Essential Knowledge: Part VIII"

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I’ve always thought that one of the great ironies of history was this rather strange Hegelian German spending years in the Imperial Library, drinking deeply of the great British political and economic philosophers, and then crapping out something as tediously Hegelian and Continental as Das Kapital.

Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government is a one volume education in application of criticism to ideas about government. I’d put him alongside Montesquieu. A contemporary of Harrington’s and much more well-read. Harrington was smart enough to see that because Venice was the longest surviving republic in the history of the world, something must be of value in studying and possibly imitating her. Unfortunately, he comes across as a prototype of distributivism. An aside regarding a possible influence by Harrington, I think our Hamilton must have read him, although I know of no direct references made by him. But when you… Read more »
A quibble: John Locke is not responsible for trannies in the bathroom or female Marines. To the contrary, the postmodern, feminist tendency to allow emotion-driven political correctness to override Lockean empiricism is what is responsible for trannies in the bathroom and female Marines. Witness the cognitive dissonance on display when a hip, modern, feminist mom in LA confronts the logical end game of the social policies for which her ilk have agitated for years: After a couple paragraphs of the obligatory virtue signaling about how much she loves trannies, she hits her Key Quote: “If this had been 5… Read more »

The no-name U I graduated from in the early ’50s required ancient and modern philosophy survey courses the first two years. They were tough, flunking out about as many as inorganic chem and calculus did. Modern focused on Locke, Kant and Hume. I took to it like a duck takes to water, and believe the principles I picked up were a big help dealing with life the next 65 years.


Just wanted to say serious thanks for these posts. Been sending to friends as well.

Al from da Nort
‘Who lead to Marx_?’, is an excellent (and highly original) organizing principle for understanding renaissance philosophers. If you tweak the question slightly as, ‘Who lead to Marxism_?”, you really cannot leave out Machiavelli as an influential renaissance thinker as well. Machiavelli has unjustly been slanged as simply saying nothing but ‘The end justifies the means.’. This certainly has historically been the ultimate operative principle of Communism and Cultural Marxism. But Machiavelli did edge right up to that idea in the case that if the project were great enough: For him the unification of Renaissance Italy so as to end the… Read more »

I once went to The Karl Marx House in Trier, Germany. It’s where Marx was born and is now a museum. It is great fun eavesdropping on the loonies when one goes there.


Agree with all of that.

One, pedantic point: Thomas More (one’O’) was a lawyer, not a priest. Living twenty yards away from the site of his home makes me feel I have an interest in his memory.



1. Could you make Part X a summary post, with one essential book recommendation from each previous part? Hell, I’m still not done with part one books! It’s getting out of hand, you are becoming like Moldbug, who didn’t link to anything but full books.

2.This favicon is much more stylish than the current one:

It was displayed when the site wasn’t redirecting, that’s how i found it.

3. Will the classic commenting system remain? I hope so.

I even added point 3 via the 5 min edit/fix feature!

Context will also yield a dose of humility. There have been living things on Planet Earth for about 4 billion years; of which bacteria remain the most numerous. Every single human being has more bacteria cells on them and in them than they do the endemic cells of our species. We would not be alive without them. Complex language skill has only been with us for about 200,000 years, and higher order thinking for only about 50,000 years. Civilization began about 15,000 years ago and memetic evolution started in earnest only about 5 millennia ago. The Renaissance is about 500… Read more »
karl hungus

except that progress in science has slowed to a crawl (if not an outright decline)


I worked through these back when studying politics and philosophy in Liverpool university, all in all I’d rather have spent the time planting spuds or something.

Bill Jones

So, Red or Blue?


Red…and what a day today was!

Bill Jones

You omitted- because I’m sure you are not aware of

Oh, Z, you and your commenters are amazingly well read and cogent writers. This article is fascinating and, ashamed I am to admit it, over my head. Or to place the onus where it belongs, on me, reading your work here, I am out of my depth. Strangely, coincidently, I clicked here immediately after having read Patrick J Deneen’s article at First Things, ‘Against Great Books: Questioning Our Approach to the Western Canon.’ The two essays dovetail slightly, and read well together. Although Deneen looks closely at content in order to frame the larger picture of reading the canon… Read more »

What I like about the senior Libertarians is their developing and championing Great Books education, and not just the readings of the West.

In contrast, I read an article recently about how a prog school in NY is getting rid of ALL books.