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
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 Toleration, Two 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.