Build your own list: What must people majoring in the humanities and liberal arts know?

I was just thinking the other day that I nearly forgot everything learned at Rutgers. While I was exposed to lots of awesome things, I never really had the chance to put it all together and make sense of the whole.

This post is a prompt – I’m interested in what you think people should know. I’m going to put down a rough list, though, of works I think every undergrad in the humanities should know. The idea is twofold: every humanities major should be able to give a rough accounting of the history of political thought, and should be able to talk about the epochal works and why we consider some names to be such a big deal.

  1. Homer: Illiad
  2. Plato: Apology, Crito, Republic
  3. Virgil: Aeneid
  4. Augustine: Confessions
  5. Machiavelli: The Prince
  6. Shakespeare: Macbeth
  7. Federalist 10 & 51
  8. Rousseau: Second Discourse
  9. Lincoln: Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural
  10. Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto

This sounds like a lot, but it really is nothing. The key to the whole list is being able to discuss basics of each work, what they represent in terms of the history of the time and the history of ideas, and how they relate to each other. So familiarity isn’t the goal – knowing some of these books cold is (that’s very hard with Plato and Homer, those works are very dense). Which means relevant secondary sources need to be addressed.

For Marx, Rousseau, the Federalist, Machiavelli and Augustine, the essays in the Strauss/Cropsey History of Political Philosophy will do fine. Virgil and Homer require John Alvis’ Divine Purpose and Heroic Response in Homer and Virgil. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is pretty much a commentary on Machiavelli’s Prince.

So go ahead – feel free to create your own list and add secondary sources. Quite obviously, this list only addresses how political thought developed. It does not directly address the development of modern science. And there are plenty of other themes: Has the notion of love changed throughout the centuries? What about virtue vs. Christian morality vs. modern day ethics? Etc.

The only thing I’d say is that when crafting a list, the list should be good enough that if an undergrad knows the works on the list alone, and knows the secondary sources, he can be said to have gotten a heck of a lot out of his education.

So let’s see some lists!


  1. Looks like a good list. Why not add Thucydides, Plato’s Alcibiades I, the Nicomachean Ethics, Dante’s Divine Comedy, a couple more Shakespeare plays (e.g., The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar), Milton’s Paradise Lost, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Locke’s Second Treatise, and the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution?

    Of course, you could keep piling on, but you would have to beware making the list so long that you lose sight of the ends of any sensible undergraduate education. This includes pointing toward some kind of self-knowledge, which becomes utterly impossible if you extend your required reading into an ever receding horizon.

  2. I mostly agree with your list, Ashok, but if you don’t include at least a little Nietzsche (I’m thinking Beyond Good & Evil, but The Birth of Tragedy would be good if you could pick two), you can’t expect to understand the 20th and 21st centuries. Yes?

    -Rebecca, with Collegium but not of Collegium

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