1. Life of Johnson by James Boswell–Hilaire Belloc calls it the book one can read “in pretty well any circumstances…save shipwreck.” Johnson himself put a high value on the “history of manners” and everyday life. A good biography is not hagiography. Samuel Johnson was a flawed figure, yet one clearly deserving of our admiration. It is hard to imagine a more truly humanist work. The Life covers all the really important subjects—religion, friendship, politics, philosophy and literature—with lively anecdotes and conversational extracts. Over time the reader will become just as much a part of Johnson’s circle as Boswell, Goldsmith, Reynolds and Mrs. Thrale.
2. Heloise and Abelard by Etienne Gilson–Though well known for his histories of philosophy, my favorite work by Gilson’s is this concise study of the fateful twelfth century lovers. Subsequent generations have tended to play up the sordid aspects of their lives. But there is much more to Peter Abelard than historical gossip. The final humility and repentance of the once proud and immensely popular logician (a true Medieval “celebrity”) is moving and edifying. Like any great biography, Gilson’s volume tells us about the world these people inhabited, and the civilization which we have inherited from them.
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens–A good Dickens novel is more than just fiction. His stories have the cadence of great drama. And while his narrative may not be “realistic” in the modern sense, there is something that is universal and enduring in Dicken’s depiction of life’s mystery. As the main character puts it: “Imagine one selected day struck out of [one’s life], and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” Pip’s story deals with the disappointments engendered by pride and the gradual maturation and contentment that come with true humility.
4. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev–One of the shortest and most popular of Russian novels, this is a brilliant study of the conflicts of age and youth, wisdom and idealism. It is a deceptively easy book, yet its many layers of meaning and complexity will unfold over time with multiple readings. I have read this book probably six times since I was introduced to it in college and never tire of Turgenev’s beautiful and believable depictions of people and places on the eve of Russia’s apocalypse.
5. Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman–No library of biographical works can be complete without the greatest of English intellectual memoirs; a work acknowledged for its power and beauty even by those who do not share the author’s principles. The book requires patience on a first reading. A well annotated edition (like Penguin Classics) is also helpful in understanding some of the now obscure references. Though Newman appears the quintessentially reserved Victorian cleric—a master of philosophy and dialectic–there are times when his strong mystical feelings burst through: “I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of ‘lamentations, and mourning, and woe.’”
6. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis–The Imitation is a book I started reading over a decade ago and have never really put down. A good spiritual guide is more than a metaphysician; he must be a sharp observer of human psychology: “A man of peace does more good than a very learned man. A passionate man turns even good into evil, and readily listens to evil; but a good and peaceable man turns all things to good…. There are some who remain at peace with themselves and also with others. And some neither have peace in themselves nor allows others to have peace. Such people are a trouble to others, and an even greater trouble to themselves” (II.3).
7. Euthyphro by Plato–Western philosophy is said to start with Plato and any well-rounded humanist education will start with one of his Socratic dialogues. I have chosen this one somewhat at random. It is typically lumped in with accounts of Socrates’ trial and death—the Apology, Crito and Phaedo—all of which are interesting and accessible. Perhaps it is fitting that one begin with Socrates’ death, which was the surest trial of the philosopher’s life and beliefs. In Euthryphro Socrates challenges a rather pompous young man, who is putting father on trial for impiety, to answer the question: “Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” It is a good way to begin the discussion of ethics, which Plato presents in a humorous and dramatic fashion, before embarking on the more systematic studies of Aristotle. Students will enjoy the challenge, and perhaps even want to turn the question back on Socrates—something he no doubt would have approved of.
8. The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc–Set around the time of All Saints, the things that haunt a man—the transience of life, the presence of death and decay—feature heavily beneath the story’s boisterous and whimsical surface. The visual power of Belloc’s writing is in evidence, eliciting a primal sense of life, experience and truth. Take this excerpt: “I woke the next morning to the noise, the pleasant noise, of water boiling in a kettle. May God bless that noise and grant it to be the most sacred noise in the world. For it is the noise that babies hear at birth and that old men hear as they die in their bed, and it is the noise of our households all our lives long; and throughout the world, wherever men have hearths, that purring and that singing, and that humming and that talking to itself of warm companionable water to our great ally, the fire, is home.”
9. The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides–“Many and terrible things happened to the cities because of [political] faction,” writes the ancient Greek historian, “such as happened and always will happen so long as the nature of human beings is the same.” To read about the costly and drawn-out struggle between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC is, in a way, to learn about all human conflicts. While the details may change, how wars start and the impact they have on character (for good or evil) have not changed. “History is philosophy teaching by examples,” said Thucydides. Unfortunately, the lessons of history are seldom appreciated since “ignorance is bold and knowledge reserved.”
10. The Purgatorio by Dante–Most people who read the first volume of the Divine Comedy will seldom venture into the other two. Much of the Inferno’s appeal frankly lies in it being a work of horror. We are fascinated by evil and death. The Purgatorio has less “action,” but it is nevertheless a drama of great beauty as well as consolation. Because it lies midway between the journeys through Hell and Heaven, the reader can relate to the struggles and frailties of the dramatis personae, while still holding out hope for the spiritual closure that so often eludes us in this life. It is a spiritual fulfillment often alluded to in the best literature but never so convincingly as in Dante’s poetic cosmology.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.