I have a strong personal belief that people today do not read enough philosophy. Aside from the prolific Slavoj Žižek, there are few-to-no critics who are both popular and non-religious. Where philosophy was in the past seen as a field worthy of universal study, today we find it separates and clusters along denominational lines. Put simply, no matter how polarizing a figure Rob Bell may be, he’s part of a niche market.
For our purposes, the future of philosophy – whether secular or religious – is not important. Instead, this list focuses on seven important works in that field, which are all available for free download through your E-book vendor of choice.
Sigmund Freud – Dream Psychology
Despite psychiatry and psychology’s abandonment of many theories he devised, Freud remains a recognized and influential figure. He is mental health’s pop culture icon, although he may have lost some grip on the title to Dr. Phil in more recent years.
Freud was not the first to believe in or write about the higher importance of dreams, but his theories arguably brought interpretation into the modern age. The next time you are checking out at your local supermarket, look around among the impulse buys for one of those palm-sized, pulp tracts on dream symbolism. Were it not for Freud, that little overpriced book would not be there.
Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince
If you’re planning a career in politics or organized crime, go ahead and make this text your bible. It was born out of a tradition that demanded style guides for nobility: think Miss Manners for princes and kings. But Machiavelli broke with that tradition, writing in the vernacular in order to distribute his treatise to a wider audience, and satirizing those princely manuals to reveal the corruption present in the court.
Perhaps our view of politics as such dirty business today is due to The Prince‘s now-obvious argument made in Renaissance Italy. Whether or not it was ever intended to be a serious how-to manual, the text remains influential. Machiavelli’s argument hinges on the need for disparate public and private faces; so long as the constituents and subjects are confident in their ruler – either in his power or his morality – then that ruler may do what he likes behind closed doors.
Thomas More – Utopia
Like The Prince, this book has shaped political discourse for the last five hundred years. The devaluation of gold, jewels, and other finery, and the prioritization of public health and education were among the most-loved aspects of More’s work. Unfortunately, portraying slavery and labor camps as essential to keeping the perfect country afloat made Utopia less palatable as the years wore on.
Framed as a conversation between a traveler and his friends, More’s book details the social and political problems plaguing Renaissance Europe. These issues, he argues, could be solved if only the European monarchies modeled themselves after Utopian society. The extreme nature of some punishments in the text have left scholars at somewhat of a loss regarding More’s intended meaning; is it social criticism? Satire? Myth? Whatever it was meant to be, Utopia has become so much more through its influence on politics and literature.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche – Thus Spake Zarathustra
During their occupation of India, the British rediscovered an ancient religious tradition lost in Europe for millennia. Based on the teachings of Zoroaster – also known as Zarathustra – Zoroastrianism is a religion centered around what is now Iran, and was, according to many of its followers, the inspirational force behind the mystical development of the Abrahamic faiths. When Europeans translated Zoroaster’s writings, however, religious practice was scrubbed in favor of philosophical softening.
Published in the late-19th century, Thus Spake Zarathustra is Nietzsche’s novelization of the prophet’s life and teachings. Originating in the early days of unified Germany, and emphasizing the philosophy of the Übermensch, or super-human, Zarathustra wielded considerable influence over the fomentation of the Nazi belief system some fifty years later.
Plato – The Republic
Although The Republic is a utopian flight-of-fancy – one which outdates More’s work by roughly 2,000 years – it has yet to fall out of favor. In many ways, Plato’s text is more outrageous than Utopia; it suggests that wives and children, as chattel, be shared among men, and that reproduction should be as automated a process as possible, with no filial ties between parents and their offspring.
Taken to their logical conclusion, many of the points here have been twisted into the most famous features of 20th-century dystopian horror. Because we are so far removed from Plato and his audience, we cannot be certain of his intention. However, scholars default to taking him at face-value, assuming that the philosopher’s treatise was meant, in all seriousness, as a guideline for creating the perfect government.
Sun Tzu – The Art of War
Not to be confused with the Japanese Bushido code, The Art of War is a how-to manual on waging effective – and, some might even say, moral – military offensives. The book consists of thirteen chapters, each of which cover a different aspect of enemy engagement, from time spent off the battlefield to total war. Much like that of Bushido, the focus here is placed on how chivalry may function in a decidedly unchivalrous society.
The exact origins of Sun Tzu’s work, and even those of the author himself, are unclear. There is some evidence to suggest that the manual may be an abridged version of contemporary military texts. Certain scholars insist that the original text was much larger, and was edited to better fit the nebulous concept of chivalry in later centuries. In any case, lessons found in The Art of War can and should be applied to other areas of life.
Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
In spite of being written over 200 years ago, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication continues to ring true today. She argues that women are undermined by patriarchy, which insists that they indulge in frivolous activity, then uses their doing so as a means to discredit them. In her insistence on women’s celibacy – which many have taken as anti-feminist and sex-negative – I find a proto-pro-choice apologetic brewing as Wollstonecraft encourages women to have control over their bodies and avoid pregnancy in order to pursue their personal development.
Although not all of the positions in Vindication may be effectively argued today, its place in early feminist literary history is set in stone. Its importance is not limited to feminism, however; Wollstonecraft’s arguments regarding human rights and civil liberties strongly affected the development of European government, particularly in Britain, at the turn of the 19th century.
Did I miss any great philosophy texts in the public domain? Let me know in the comments!