Foundational Literature of Western Civilization
I’ve reproduced his list below, along with my own parenthetical recommendations on some translations, editions for kids, etc.
Of course, the Scriptures are not included in the list of twenty-five books. The Bible is necessarily in a class by itself and forms the center of every class a student takes. But at the same time, the Bible is an important part of our broader literary heritage, particularly in the Authorized Version, popularly known as the King James. . . .
Written by Homer (c. 750 B.C.), this great work is about the fall of Hector in one sense, as well as the tragic fall of Achilles during the siege of Troy. The Trojan War is the setting, but this is not what The Iliad is about. Homer’s poetic gifts were great, but we should remember C. S. Lewis’s comment that it was his giftedness that made his granite despair shine as though it were marble.
[See Robert Fagles’s translation. For kids, see Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling, The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey—or wait until July 2014 for a new edition of this retelling with illustrations by Alan Lee. For a Christian literary guide to the book, see Leland Ryken’s work.]
Mark Twain once quipped that we now know that Homer was not the author of these works, but they were rather to be attributed to another blind Greek poet with the same name. The Odyssey, more accessible to many modern readers than The Iliad, is about the return of Odysseus from a life of freebooting to his home country and his adventures on the way.
[See Robert Fagles’s translation. For children, see Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of ‘The Iliad.’ Or wait till August 2014 to get her version with Alan Lee’s illustrations.]
Aeschylus was the father of Greek tragedy (525-456 b.C.). The Oresteia is a trilogy of three plays (458 b.C.)—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers (Choephoroe), and The Kindly Ones (Eumenides). The apostle Paul’s language indicates his familiarity with these plays. The plays are about the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War, his murder by his wife, and the unraveling of his dynastic order followed by the rise of another, more balanced order.
[The link is to the Fagles translation.]
History of the Persian Wars
Herodotus (484-c. 424 B.C.) was a great storyteller. He was first called the father of history by Cicero, but the appellation has stuck. Modernist historians want to qualify this somewhat, thinking that he has insufficient quantified boredom in his footnotes to be called a true historian. Nonetheless, he is a lot of fun to read.
Sophocles (c. 497-406 B.C.) wrote this play about a man fated to kill his own father and marry his mother. Aristotle used the play as his model for tragedy, and it has had a great influence on the definition of tragedy. Oedipus Rex also serves as a good springboard for discussions about fate and free will.
[The link is to the Fagles translation.]
Plato (c. 428-c. 347 B.C.) was great because he raised great issues. Of course, he also answered them from within his pagan worldview. This book should be read because it is important in the history of ideas, not because the ideas therein represent anything that Christians would want to adopt. Karl Marx was an intellectual who suffered misfortune because people tried to put his ideas into practice. Had Plato suffered the same misfortune, the world would still be talking about that totalitarian hellhole.
[For serious study, see Alan Bloom‘s essentially literal translation and notes.]
As Plato’s greatest student, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) served as a tutor for Alexander the Great. His Nicomachean Ethics has had a major influence in Western moral philosophy, much of it problematic for the Christian. The pernicious influence comes more from the basis of the standard (reason versus revelation) than it does from what Aristotle praises or blames. When Paul asks, “Where is the wise man?” he is almost certainly talking about Aristotle. Man through all his knowing does not know God.
Virgil (70-19 B.C.) was the court poet for Augustus, the Caesar when Jesus was born. He retold the story of the founding of Rome, connecting it to the fall of Troy. Trojan refugees fled after the fall of their city, and after many adventures, they settled in Italy. Aeneas, their leader, is a man in the first part of the Aeneid, but as the poem progresses, he becomes a personification of Rome itself.
On the Incarnation
Athanasius (A.D. 295-373), the bishop of Alexandria, was the orthodox champion against the heresies of Arius, who denied the deity of Christ. The testimony of C. S. Lewis on this point should be sufficient: “When I first opened his De Incarnatione, I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece.”
[You can read an online version, including Lewis’s introduction, here.]
The Confessions of St. Augustine
Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was one of the greatest thinkers the church has ever produced, and it would be hard to overstate his influence. His Confessions are autobiographical, devotional, philosophical, and everywhere rich. The Protestant Reformation should really be understood as Augustinian Christianity coming into its own, and Protestants would do well to get reacquainted with their spiritual father.
[See Tony Reinke’s translation comparison. Peter Kreeft says that F.J. Shedd’s translation opened up the book for him like no other. I usually use Maria Boulding’s translation. For more commendations of this book and why you should read it, go here.]
The author was an unknown Christian poet from the eighth century (c. A.D. 700-750). The story is of a great hero who slays the monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and who at the end of the epic lays down his life for his people in a fight with a dragon. This is a wonderful poem.
[There are several recent publications of this classic. The best-known is probably the NYT bestseller by Seamus Heaney. Last year Douglas Wilson published a new alliterative verse rendering. And this year has seen J.R.R. Tolkien‘s translation and commentary. For younger readers, see Ian Serrailier‘s rendering in modern verse narrative (sixth grade and up).
The Divine Comedy
In this work many believe that Dante (A.D. 1265-1321) produced the supreme Christian literary work. Throughout the course of this “sacred poem,” Dante as pilgrim is escorted through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and comes finally to the Beatific Vision.
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer (A.D. 1343-1400) belongs to the high medieval period. His greatness as a poet is generally recognized. Pilgrims on the way to Canterbury tell one another stories to pass the time, and the stories reveal many of the tensions and contradictions of medieval life—from sacred to profane, from holy to bawdy. With regard to the bawdy aspect, Chaucer himself believed that he sometimes got carried away, and much to the consternation of modern liberated scholars, he said he was sorry. Chaucer was almost certainly influenced by his contemporary, Wycliffe, and was probably numbered among the Lollards, followers of Wycliffe.
[For a retelling for children, see Geraldine McCaughrean’s version.]
Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare presents us with some difficulties. The first is the question of dates, which depend on who Shakespeare was. Since I follow Joseph Sobran’s arguments for the Oxfordian authorship of the plays, I simply refer you to him. The other difficulty is that of selecting which plays should represent his genius, whoever he was. The five above will have to do. Since they are plays, they were meant to be seen, not read. Good videos of some of these are available.
[For a critical complete set of Shakespeare’s works, see the Pelican edition. Leland Ryken has a guide on Macbeth and on Hamlet. For children, see Ten Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.]
Institutes of the Christian Religion
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a strong personality who still evokes strong and sometimes passionate responses, both for and against. Nevertheless, the stubborn historical fact remains that he was the single greatest systematizer and organizer of the Protestant theology and faith. He was a truly great man, and this great work was published in its first form when Calvin was still a young man.
[The definitive two-volume edition is edited by John McNeill; unfortunately it seems to be currently in print only in paperback. For help, see A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, by Anthony N. S. Lane.]
Vindicae Contra Tyrannos
Junius Brutus is a pseudonym for an unknown Huguenot writer of the sixteenth century. This book represents a Protestant marriage of medieval and modern thinking about political civil order. The book was enormously influential in the American colonies prior to our War for Independence.
George Herbert ( 1593-1633) was a devotional Anglican poet whose great theme was the authority of grace. Like his contemporary John Donne, he was a poetic craftsman of the first order. The catholicity of his writing has given him a broad appeal among Christians.
[See Leland Ryken’s guide to the devotional poetry of Herbert, along with Milton and Donne.]
John Milton (1608-1674) was a genius of the first rank. One astute observer said that the English language collapsed under the weight of that genius. Paradise Lost is an artistic monument, but it is not an easy one to apprehend at a first reading. Taking a class on it or reading some companion volumes would be very helpful.
John Bunyan (1628-1688) was an unlettered tinker turned preacher who wrote a book that continues to astonish the world. The allegory is straightforward, but the book nevertheless has depths that account for its incredible staying power. C. S. Lewis said of this work: “The greater part of it is enthralling narrative or genuinely dramatic dialogue. Bunyan stands with Malory and Trollope as a master of perfect naturalness in the mimesis of ordinary conversation. . . . In dialogue Bunyan catches not only the cadence of the speech but the tiny twists of thought.”
[If you like things in the original, I don’t know of anything better than Banner of Truth’s deluxe edition. See Leland Ryken’s literary guide. See also Derek Thomas’s Ligonier class, “The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Guided Tour.” For children, the two most famous versions are Dangerous Journey (an illustration-rich abridgment, using a lot of original wording) and Helen Taylor’s Little Pilgrim’s Progress, a full retelling with the characters as children.]
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a Jansenist, part of a movement within the post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church trying to turn Rome back to an Augustinian foundation. The Jansenists are best understood as “Protestants” who never left the Church of Rome. Pascal was a great mathematical genius as well as a devotional mystic. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways.”
[I have used Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees, which intersperses Pascal’s Pensees with Kreeft’s helpful commentary and application.]
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote one of the finest examples of a comedy of manners. Her writing displays an understanding of great psychological depths without becoming pathological about it, as more recent writers have done.
Johann Goethe (1749-1832) created in this drama a work that is archetypical of the great Romantic themes of his era. Many German legends told fantastic stories of the fifteenth-century magician Georg Faust, who sold his soul to the devil. Christopher Marlowe wrote a play about Faust in the late sixteenth century, at the end of which the soul of Faustus is lost. Goethe ends the story differently, and in that difference we can see the desolations of our modern era. Instead of salvation by grace, we have salvation for free.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain published this book in 1885. The fact that just about every- one reads it in high school and that it is a really good story enjoyed on the surface tends to obscure for us just what a great book it is. Hemingway said that all modern literature descends from Huckleberry Finn. H. L. Mencken praised Twain to the heights.
The Brothers Karamazov
This novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) is in the minds of many one of the contenders for the title of the greatest novel ever written. This is a strange way to talk about a novel, too reminiscent of People magazine’s tendency to declare someone or other the sexiest man alive. Nevertheless, this kind of praise does give some idea of the novel’s reputation, and it is fair to say that it represents “a consummate work of Christian imagination.”
[According to Joseph Frank of Princeton University, the 2002 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is “Heartily recommended to any reader who wishes to come as close to Dostoevsky’s Russian as it is possible.”]
The Lord of the Rings
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) wrote what is already being called the novel of the twentieth century. While it is far too early to make this judgment, it is certainly not too early to hope that the judgment proves correct. The story of the one ring, of Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and every other creature in Middle Earth will no doubt be read for centuries to come.