The Western Canon is a collection of literature, philosophy, and other works that have influenced the Western world’s culture, values, and ideas. Non-fiction works have played a crucial role in shaping the Western Canon, providing a window into the ideas, events, and people that have shaped our society. Here are 36 non-fiction books that have had a significant impact on the Western Canon:
“The Republic“ by Plato (c. 380 BCE)
“The Republic“ is a seminal work of political philosophy that explores the nature of justice, the ideal form of government, and the role of the philosopher in society. Plato presents a dialogue between Socrates and a group of interlocutors in which they discuss the nature of justice, the structure of the ideal state, and the education of the citizenry. He contends that the philosopher-king is the ideal ruler, and that the pursuit of knowledge is the key to a just and virtuous society. His work has had a lasting influence on political theory and has inspired debates on the nature of democracy and the role of the intellectual in society.
“Nicomachean Ethics“ by Aristotle (4th century BCE)
“Nicomachean Ethics“ is a work of ancient Greek philosophy by Aristotle, one of the most influential thinkers in Western history. The book is a comprehensive exploration of the nature of morality and human flourishing, drawing on Aristotle’s ideas about virtue, happiness, and the good life. Aristotle argues that moral virtue is a matter of habit and practice, rather than innate disposition or knowledge. He also emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between excess and deficiency in one’s actions and emotions, and advocates for a conception of happiness that is grounded in the cultivation of virtues such as courage, wisdom, and justice. “Nicomachean Ethics“ has been a seminal work in the history of ethics and has had a lasting impact on Western moral philosophy.
“The Prince“ by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532)
“The Prince“ is a seminal work of political philosophy that explores the nature of power and the art of governance. Machiavelli argues that the ultimate goal of the prince is to maintain his own power and the stability of the state, and that he must be willing to use any means necessary to achieve these ends. He contends that the prince must be both feared and loved by his subjects, and that he must be able to adapt his policies to changing circumstances. His work has been widely debated and has inspired both admiration and criticism.
“Essays“ by Michel de Montaigne (1580)
“Essays“ is a collection of personal essays by Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher and writer. The essays cover a range of topics, including friendship, education, love, and human nature. Montaigne is known for his skepticism and his emphasis on self-knowledge and introspection. His work has had a lasting impact on the development of the essay as a literary form, and has influenced writers and thinkers across the centuries.
“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding“ by John Locke (1689)
“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding“ is a work of philosophy by English thinker John Locke. The book explores the nature of human knowledge and the limits of our understanding, arguing that all knowledge comes from experience and that the mind is a blank slate at birth. Locke also explores the relationship between ideas, perception, and language, and argues that clear and distinct ideas are necessary for true knowledge. Additionally, he discusses the role of reason in human affairs, advocating for a view of political power that is based on consent and limited by the natural rights of individuals. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding“ has been a highly influential work in the fields of epistemology, philosophy of mind, and political philosophy, and has shaped the thinking of subsequent generations of philosophers.
“The Spirit of the Laws“ by Montesquieu (1748)
“The Spirit of the Laws“ is a seminal work of political philosophy that presents Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers. Montesquieu argues that the best way to prevent tyranny is to divide the powers of government among different branches, with each branch serving as a check on the others. He also presents his famous distinction between different types of government, such as republics, monarchies, and despotisms, and argues that the best form of government depends on the specific circumstances of a society. The book has had a significant impact on political theory and has shaped debates on the nature of democracy, the role of the state, and the separation of powers.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (1759)
This book explores the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, best known for his economic theories in “The Wealth of Nations“. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,“ Smith argues that human beings have an innate sense of sympathy and that our moral decisions are shaped by our emotions and social interactions. Smith believes that moral behavior is essential for a flourishing society and that individuals should strive to balance self-interest with concern for the well-being of others.
“The Social Contract“ by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)
“The Social Contract“ is a political treatise that explores the idea of a social contract between citizens and the government. Rousseau argues that individuals should give up some of their freedoms to form a collective government that promotes the common good. He believes that the government should be formed by the people and that it should be responsible for protecting their rights and interests. “The Social Contract“ is considered a foundational work in modern political theory and has had a significant impact on the development of democratic societies.
“Philosophical Dictionary“ by Voltaire (1764)
“Philosophical Dictionary“ is a collection of essays and articles that Voltaire wrote over a period of several decades. The book covers a wide range of topics, including religion, politics, philosophy, and science. Voltaire uses the dictionary format to provide concise and often witty definitions of key terms and concepts, while also engaging in broader philosophical and social critiques. The book is notable for its advocacy of religious toleration, freedom of thought, and opposition to superstition and dogmatism. The “Philosophical Dictionary“ has had a significant influence on the development of Enlightenment thought and has been cited as an important precursor to later works of social and political criticism.
“The Wealth of Nations“ by Adam Smith (1776)
“The Wealth of Nations“ is a seminal work in economics and is considered the first modern book on the subject. Smith argues that a free-market economy benefits society as a whole, promoting innovation, efficiency, and economic growth. He advocates for the division of labour and specialization, arguing that this leads to increased productivity and lower costs. Smith’s ideas on economics have had a profound impact on modern capitalism and continue to influence economic policy around the world.
“Critique of Pure Reason“ by Immanuel Kant (1781)
“Critique of Pure Reason“ is a foundational work of modern philosophy that sets out Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics. In the book, Kant argues that all human knowledge is derived from the sensory experiences of individuals and that there are certain innate categories of thought that structure our understanding of the world. He also presents his famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world, arguing that while we can only know the world through our sensory experiences, there is a world beyond our understanding that is inaccessible to us. The book has had a profound influence on modern philosophy and has shaped debates on the nature of knowledge and reality.
“The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“ by Edward Gibbon (1776-1789)
“The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“ is a monumental six-volume work of history by English historian Edward Gibbon. The book covers the period from the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 180 to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Gibbon’s work provides a comprehensive account of the political, military, and cultural developments of the Roman Empire, and is known for its erudition, wit, and elegant prose style. “The Decline and Fall“ is considered a masterpiece of historical writing and has had a profound influence on the study of Roman history and the writing of history more generally.
“The Federalist Papers“ by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787-1788)
“The Federalist Papers“ are a collection of essays written to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. They offer insights into the founding principles of American democracy, including the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the importance of the rule of law. The essays are considered essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the ideas that shaped the United States.
“The Rights of Man“ by Thomas Paine (1791)
“The Rights of Man“ is a defence of the principles of the French Revolution and advocates for universal human rights and democracy. Paine argues that all individuals are entitled to basic human rights, including the right to freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. He also advocates for the redistribution of wealth, arguing that the wealthy should be taxed to support the common good. “The Rights of Man“ is considered a foundational work in the development of modern democratic societies.
“Democracy in America“ by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835-1840)
“Democracy in America“ is a classic study of American society and politics. Tocqueville examines the strengths and weaknesses of democracy and the potential dangers of majority rule. He also explores the role of civil society, including the media, religion, and voluntary associations, in promoting democratic values. “Democracy in America“ remains a widely read and influential work, offering insights into the strengths and challenges of democratic societies.
“The Communist Manifesto“ by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)
“The Communist Manifesto“ is a political manifesto that outlines the principles of communism. Marx and Engels argue that history is a series of class struggles and that the proletariat, or working class, will eventually overthrow the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, leading to a classless society. They advocate for the abolition of private property and the establishment of a society based on common ownership of the means of production. “The Communist Manifesto“ had a significant impact on political thought and the development of communist movements around the world.
“On Liberty“ by John Stuart Mill (1859)
“On Liberty“ is a classic work of political philosophy that argues for the importance of individual freedom and the limits of government power. Mill contends that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests and ideas, as long as they do not harm others. His work has been influential in shaping liberal political thought and has had a profound impact on discussions of individual rights and freedoms.
“The Origin of Species“ by Charles Darwin (1859)
“On the Origin of Species“ is a landmark work of science and one of the most influential books in the Western canon. Written by British naturalist Charles Darwin, the book presents a compelling argument for the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin argues that species change over time through a process of adaptation to their environment, and that natural selection operates to favor those traits that enhance an organism’s chances of survival and reproduction. The book caused a significant controversy at the time of its publication, challenging long-held beliefs about the divine origin and fixed nature of species. It has since been recognized as a seminal work in the history of science, and has had a profound impact on fields as diverse as biology, anthropology, and philosophy.
“Thus Spoke Zarathustra“ by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883-1885)
“Thus Spoke Zarathustra“ is a philosophical novel that presents Nietzsche’s vision of a new, post-religious world. The book is structured around the character of Zarathustra, a prophet who announces the death of God and the arrival of the Superman, a new kind of human being who is free from the constraints of morality and traditional values. The book presents Nietzsche’s critique of traditional morality and his call for individuals to embrace their own will to power and to create their own values.
“The Interpretation of Dreams“ by Sigmund Freud (1899)
“The Interpretation of Dreams“ is a foundational work in psychoanalysis, a field of psychology that focuses on the unconscious mind. Freud argues that dreams are a product of unconscious desires and conflicts and that the analysis of dreams can reveal insights into a person’s psychological state. His work has had a significant impact on psychology and popular culture, and his ideas continue to shape our understanding of the human mind.
“The Souls of Black Folk“ by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
“The Souls of Black Folk“ is a seminal work in African American literature and social commentary. Du Bois explores the experiences of African Americans in the United States, including issues of race, identity, and social inequality. He argues that African Americans must fight for their rights and demand equality in order to fully participate in American society. Du Bois’s work had a significant impact on the civil rights movement and continues to influence debates around race and social justice.
“The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism“ by Max Weber (1905)
“The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism“ is a seminal work of sociology by German sociologist Max Weber. The book explores the relationship between religion and economic behavior, arguing that the rise of capitalism in the West was facilitated by the Protestant work ethic, which emphasized the virtues of hard work, frugality, and self-discipline. Weber’s ideas have had a significant impact on the development of economic sociology and the study of the intersection of religion and society.
“The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money“ by John Maynard Keynes (1936)
“The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money“ is a seminal work of economics that argues for the importance of government intervention in the economy to stabilize employment and promote economic growth. Keynes contends that market economies are subject to fluctuations and that government policy can be used to mitigate the effects of economic downturns. His work has been influential in shaping macroeconomic theory and has had a significant impact on economic policy in the 20th century.
“The Road to Serfdom“ by Friedrich Hayek (1944)
“The Road to Serfdom“ is a book by Austrian-British economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, in which he argues that government intervention in the economy ultimately leads to totalitarianism. Hayek contends that the planned economies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were not aberrations, but rather the inevitable result of a centralized government controlling the means of production. “The Road to Serfdom“ is considered a seminal work in the history of economic thought, and has been influential in shaping contemporary debates about the role of government in the economy.
“The Open Society and Its Enemies“ by Karl Popper (1945)
“The Open Society and Its Enemies“ is a seminal work of political philosophy that presents Popper’s critique of totalitarianism and his defence of liberal democracy. Popper argues that the pursuit of a utopian society is dangerous and that any attempt to create a perfect society will inevitably lead to tyranny. He contends that a free and open society, in which individuals have the freedom to express themselves and to criticize those in power, is the best safeguard against tyranny. His work has had a profound impact on political theory and has shaped debates on the nature of democracy and the role of the state.
In “The Open Society and Its Enemies,“ Popper also offers a critique of historicism, the belief that history follows a predetermined course and that the future can be predicted based on past events. He argues that historicism is inherently flawed, as it assumes that human actions are determined by historical forces rather than by individual choices and agency. Popper’s critique of historicism has had a lasting impact on the philosophy of history and has influenced debates on the nature of historical knowledge and understanding.
“A History of Western Philosophy“ by Bertrand Russell (1945)
“A History of Western Philosophy“ is a comprehensive survey of Western philosophical thought, written by British philosopher Bertrand Russell. The book covers the major philosophical traditions of the Western world, from ancient Greece to the 20th century, and provides a critical analysis of the ideas and arguments of key philosophers. Russell’s approach is highly accessible and engaging, with a focus on the historical context and intellectual background of each philosopher’s work. The book also incorporates Russell’s own philosophical views and arguments, making it a valuable contribution to the discipline of philosophy in its own right. “A History of Western Philosophy“ has been widely read and influential, serving as an introduction to philosophy for generations of students and general readers.
“The Second Sex“ by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
“The Second Sex“ is a foundational work in feminist theory and gender studies. De Beauvoir argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but rather that gender roles and stereotypes are socially constructed. She advocates for women’s liberation and the creation of a society that values gender equality. De Beauvoir’s work had a significant impact on the feminist movement and continues to inspire scholars and activists around the world.
“The Wretched of the Earth“ by Frantz Fanon (1961)
“The Wretched of the Earth“ is a seminal work of postcolonial literature that explores the psychological and cultural impact of colonialism on the colonized. Fanon argues that colonialism is a form of violence that not only exploits the colonized but also destroys their sense of identity and culture. He contends that the struggle for decolonization requires a radical transformation of society and a reclaiming of the colonized’s own history and culture. His work has been influential in shaping postcolonial theory and has inspired anticolonial movements around the world.
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“ by Thomas Kuhn (1962)
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“ is a seminal work in the philosophy of science. Kuhn argues that scientific progress is not a linear process of accumulation of knowledge, but rather a series of “paradigm shifts“ in which the dominant scientific theories are replaced by new ones. He challenges the idea that science is objective and value-free, arguing that scientific research is shaped by cultural and historical factors. Kuhn’s work has had a significant impact on the philosophy of science and continues to shape debates around scientific progress and methodology.
“The Guns of August“ by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
“The Guns of August“ is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of history by Barbara Tuchman. The book describes the events leading up to the outbreak of World War I, including the political and diplomatic maneuverings of the major powers, and the military plans and preparations of the belligerents. Tuchman’s work is known for its narrative style and its vivid portrayal of the key actors and events of the period.
“Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil“ by Hannah Arendt (1963)
“Eichmann in Jerusalem“ is a book by political philosopher Hannah Arendt that explores the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and later wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker that were later expanded into a book. In the book, Arendt argues that Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust was not motivated by personal hatred or ideological fanaticism, but rather by a bureaucratic adherence to rules and orders. She coins the phrase “the banality of evil“ to describe this phenomenon, arguing that ordinary people can commit horrific acts of violence when they are part of a system that makes those acts seem routine and necessary. The book is notable for its controversial portrayal of Eichmann and its broader insights into the nature of totalitarianism and the moral responsibility of individuals in a modern bureaucratic society.
“The Feminine Mystique“ by Betty Friedan (1963)
“The Feminine Mystique“ is a groundbreaking work in feminist literature and a catalyst for the second wave feminist movement in the United States. Friedan challenges the idea that women’s primary role is as a homemaker and argues that women are capable of pursuing careers and fulfilling their potential outside of the domestic sphere. Her work had a significant impact on the feminist movement and continues to influence debates around gender and equality.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X“ by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X“ is a memoir of the African American civil rights activist and leader Malcolm X. The book traces his life from his childhood in Michigan to his conversion to Islam and his work as a leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X’s autobiography is a powerful exploration of race, identity, and social justice and remains a widely read and influential work.
“Discipline and Punish“ by Michel Foucault (1975)
“Discipline and Punish“ is a seminal work of philosophy and social theory that explores the evolution of punitive practices in modern society. Foucault argues that the modern prison system is part of a broader system of disciplinary power that seeks to regulate and control individuals through techniques of observation, surveillance, and normalization. He contends that this system of power operates not only in prisons, but also in schools, hospitals, and other institutions, and that it represents a shift away from the sovereign power of the state towards a diffuse and decentralized form of power. His work has had a profound impact on the fields of sociology, philosophy, and cultural theory, and has inspired critical analyses of power and knowledge in modern society.
“Orientalism“ by Edward Said (1978)
“Orientalism“ is a seminal work of postcolonial studies that examines the Western representations of the East and the ways in which these representations have been used to justify imperialist projects. Said argues that Western literature, art, and scholarship about the East have constructed an image of the East as exotic, mysterious, and inferior, and that these representations have been used to justify imperialist projects such as the colonization of Asia and Africa. He contends that Orientalism is not a neutral or objective study of the East, but rather a discourse of power that reinforces the dominance of the West over the East. The book has had a significant impact on the fields of postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and literary criticism, and has shaped debates on the role of representation in the construction of knowledge and power.
“Guns, Germs, and Steel“ by Jared Diamond (1997)
“Guns, Germs, and Steel“ is a popular work of history and anthropology that explores the factors that led to the rise of European civilization and the subjugation of other cultures. Diamond argues that the success of European societies can be attributed to geographic and environmental advantages, rather than inherent racial or cultural superiority. His work has been influential in shaping debates around the origins of human inequality and the role of geography and environment in shaping human history.