6 May

Martin Seymour-Smith's The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought From Ancient Times to Today [1998] is one of the best list of "great books," and perhaps the most provocative. Moreover, the book makes for an excellent read in and of itself. Clifton Fadiman's, also a list-as-book, is a fine read, but Seymour-Smith challenges received wisdom, addresses complex philosophical and scientific issues in depth, and takes the task he sets out—defining the "most influential" of booksvery seriously. As with Kanigel's inclusion of Mein Kampf (which Seymour-Smith argues is actually not especially influential), books most humans would not want to read are included. As Seymour-Smith notes in his Introduction, "what is evil has on the whole, though by no means always or unequivocally--a balance is somehow achieved--been more influential than what is, shall we say, better."

Only a few works of fiction are included. Seymour-Smith's explanation of this, again, rests on the question of influence, but he falters in focusing on Gone With the Wind as an example of fiction's deficiency in this regard and in not considering serious countering arguments (we know at least that Harold Bloom, with his notion of Shakespeare's "invention of the human," would disagree). Seymour-Smith argues, "If some women thought they modeled themselves on Scarlet O'Hara [...] then, since Scarlet O'Hara was herself based [...] on a stereotype rather than on a real character, those women would have modeled themselves on another version of that stereotype." First, the term, "real character," is awkward: is he suggesting all non-fiction makes characters out of persons, yet whom remain real? More important, what of fictional characters not based on stereotypes (that is, why the hell did he choose Gone With the Wind as his example)? Also, what of poetry, largely ignored here? 

The few works of fiction he does include, Seymour-Smith acknowledges, "changed or colored the way in which people, even whole nations--as well as individuals--think of themselves." Ultimately, though, he sees philosophical and religious texts as primary: "Writers of imaginative literature are themselves, in any case, inevitably, initially influenced by a certain sort of predecessor." A supposition fair enough, but again his brief exposition does not satisfy. Such predecessors (Plato, Kant, etc.) "made ii their first purpose not to express their personal vision but to determine what kind of a world it is that we live in." But that is precisely what poets and novelists do. If anything, in this day of a glut of non-fiction titles from university presses (even in the liberal arts)--not to mention the post-structuralist, "deconstructionist" perspective on philosophical texts, countering their non-personal, objective nature--Seymour-Smith's position is in the minority. Still, the short essays accompanying each entry I've read so far serve as excellent overviews of their many pertinent subjects, and one only has to review the list below to see the breadth of Seymour-Smith's knowledge.

Unlike Van Doren's, Fadiman's, Dirda's, and Newman's list-as-book projects, in his explication of each choice Seymour-Smith does not recommend other works; when others are mentioned, they are meant to explain the author's overall work or context. In a few instances, Seymour-Smith does suggest that other works are superior. For example, the Evgeny Zamyatin novel We "is far above even Nineteen Eighty-Four at an imaginative level," but he's not satisfied with its translations to English. He acknowledges that Thoreau's Walden might be as important as 'Civil Disobedience' "in the long run"; Jan Amos Komensky's The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart [1631], compared to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, is a "priceless masterpiece"; and Anna Karenina "is perhaps a greater novel than War and Peace." He too speaks very highly of Sartre's Nausea and Cervantes's Exemplary Novels. However, given the book's purpose, the inclusion of these other works is not appropriate. Van Doren's, Fadiman's, Dirda's, and Newman's lists, first of all, do not give a precise number like Seymour-Smith does; and, compared to other listmakers who give a precise number to their lists, Seymour-Smith mostly actually lists books, not vague selections of texts or excerpts. Second, the works not listed in Van Doren's, Dirda's, or Newman's chapter or section headings that I've included in the transcribed lists here are often recommended as highly as the works those four authors do list. Seymour-Smith, on the other hand, lists, for example, Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson instead of P D Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, and Spinoza's Ethics instead of his correspondence, precisely because of his focus on the question of influence; We is not picked for the same reason, as Orwell's novel has obviously been more influential.

The I Ching
c. 1500 B C E

The Old Testament
c. 1500 B C E

Homer
The Iliad
The Odyssey
c. 9th century B C E

The Upanishads
c. 700 B C E-400 B C E

Lao-Tzu
The Way and Its Power
3rd century B C E

The Avesta
c. 500 B C E

Confucius
Analects
c. 5th-4th century B C E

Thucydides
History of the Peloponnesian War
5th century B C E

Hippocrates
Works [the Hippocratic Corpus is being counted as a single work]
c. 400 B C E

Aristotle
Works
4th century B C E

Herodotus
History
4th century B C E

Plato
The Republic
c. 380 B C E

Euclid
Elements
c. 280 B C E

The Dhammapada
c. 252 B C E

Virgil
The Aeneid
70-19 B C E

Lucretius
On the Nature of Reality
c. 55 B C E

Philo of Alexandria
Allegorical Expositions of the Holy Laws
1st century C E

The New Testament
c. 64-110 C E

Plutarch
Lives
c. 50-120 C E

Cornelius Tacitus
Annals, From the Death of the Divine Augustus
c.120 C E

The Gospel of Truth
c. 1st century C E

Marcus Aurelius
Meditations
167 CE

Sextus Empiricus
Outlines of Pyrrhonism
c. 150-210 C E

Plotinus
Enneads
3rd century C E

Augustine of Hippo
Confessions
c. 400 C E

The Koran
7th century C E

Moses Maimonides
Guide for the Perplexed
1190

The Kabbala
12th century C E

Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologiae
1266-1273

Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy
1321

Desiderius Erasmus
In Praise of Folly
1509

Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince
1532

Martin Luther
On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
1520

Francois Rabelais
Gargantua and Pantagruel
1534 and 1532

John Calvin
Institutes of the Christian Religion
1536

Nicolaus Copernicus
On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs
1543

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Essays
1580

Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote
Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615

Johannes Kepler
The Harmony of the World
1619

Francis Bacon
Novum Organum
1620

William Shakespeare
The First Folio [because Seymour-Smith designates this particular edition instead of a general "complete works" or "plays" entry, all of the plays in the First Folio are being counted here]
1623

Galileo Galilei
Dialogue Concerning Two New Chief World Systems
1632

René Desartes
Discourse on Method
1637

Thomas Hobbes
Leviathan
1651

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz
Works
1663-1716

Blaise Pascal
Pensées
1670

Baruch de Spinoza.
Ethics
1677

John Bunyan
Pilgrim's Progress
1678-1684

Isaac Newton
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
1687

John Locke
Essay Concerning Human Understanding
1689

George Berkeley
The Principles of Human Knowledge
1710, revised 1734

Giambattista Vico
The New Science
1725, revised 1730, 1744

David Hume
A Treatise of Human Nature
1739-1740

Denis Diderot, ed.
The Encyclopedia
1751-1772

Samuel Johnson
A Dictionary of the English Language
1755

François-Marie de Voltaire
Candide
1759

Thomas Paine
Common Sense
1776

Adam Smith
An Enquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
1776

Edward Gibbon
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
1776-1787

Immanuel Kant
Critique of Pure Reason
1781, revised 1787

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Confessions
1781

Edmund Burke
Reflections on the Revolution in France
1790

Mary Wollstonecraft
Vindication of the Rights of Woman
1792

William Godwin
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
1793

Thomas Robert Malthus
An Essay on the Principle of Population
1798, revised 1803

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Phenomenology of Spirit
1807

Arnold Schopenhauer
The World as Will and Idea
1819

Auguste Comte
Course in the Positivist Philosophy
1830-1842

Carl Marie von Clausewitz
On War
1832

Søren Kierkegaard
Either/Or
1843

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Manifesto of the Communist Party
1848

Henry David Thoreau
'Civil Disobedience'
1849

Charles Darwin
The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
1859

John Stuart Mill
On Liberty
1859

Herbert Spencer
First Principles
1862

Gregor Mendel
'Experiments With Plant Hybrids'
1866

Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace
1868-1869

James Clerk Maxwell
Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
1873

Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spake Zarathustra
1883-1885

Sigmund Freud
The Interpretation of Dreams
1900

William James
Pragmatism
1908

Albert Einstein
Relativity
1916

Vilfredo Pareto
The Mind and Society
1916

Carl Gustav Jung
Psychological Types
1921

Martin Buber
I and Thou
1923

Franz Kafka
The Trial
1925

Karl Popper
The Logic of Scientific Discovery
1934

John Maynard Keynes
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money
1936

Jean-Paul Sartre
Being and Nothingness
1943

Friedrich von Hayek
The Road to Serfdom
1944

Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex
1948

Norbert Wiener
Cybernetics
1948, revised 1961

George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four
1949

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff
Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson
1950

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations
1953

Noam Chomsky
Syntactic Structures
1957

T S Kuhn
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
1962, revised 1970

Betty Friedan
The Feminine Mystique
1963

Mao Zedong
Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung
1966

B F Skinner
Beyond Freedom and Dignity
1971