Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Tao te Ching

Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu
Approx. 600 BCE

Lao Tzu – or Laozi – may or may not be a real dude. He’s often said to have been a court record keeper during the period of the Zhou dynasty, though a signficant number of historians believe he’s actually a philosophical character, a composite of real historical figures and mythological ones. Doesn’t really matter, either way, for our purposes – the Lao Tzu we know is the recognized founder of Taoism, and to many a near-deity.

Continue reading “Tao te Ching”


The Characters

The Characters
319 BCE

Student of Plato, student of Aristotle, Theophrastus was chosen by the latter as his philosophical successor and inheritor of his writings. As with the other great thinkers of his age, Theophrastus’ writings run the gamut from biology and ethics to grammar and logic to physics and metaphysics, each informing the other. It is his botanical work that has been most influential in scholarly terms. But The Characters is the one of more general significance. Continue reading “The Characters”


458 BCE

The only trilogy of ancient Greek plays in existence, the Oresteia combines Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides to tell the tale of King Agamemnon, his wife and murderer Clytemnestra, and their children Electra and Orestes, who kills his mother and her current lover to avenge his father.

The subject-matter of the Oresteia is familiar enough in Greek literature – betrayal, revenge, deceit in familial relationships. Its significance is far greater, however, as the play traces a profound transition in the history of western civilization – that shift from a kin-based justice of vengeance to a more formal and impersonal standard and process to assess innocence vs guilt and to order what compensation or punishment is appropriate. It reveals, then, the philosophical and moral debates that underpin the administration of justice in kin systems and those that come to predominate with the rise of the state. Continue reading “Oresteia”

The Symposium

The Symposium
385-380 BCE

If you are looking for an entry point into Greek philosophy but worried that nothing could be more dull, this short little book is not a bad place to start. Philosophy as so much philosophy happens – with intellectual sitting around, drinking and talking about sex. Continue reading “The Symposium”


Approx 442 BCE

One of three plays concerning the city-state of Thebes during and immediately following the reign of Oedipus, Antigone is one of Sophocles’ best-known plays and by all accounts a classic not only of Greek literature but of western civilization in general. In the aftermath of the Theban civil war and during the reign of Creon, two brothers are dead – they are sons of Oedipus, killed in battle, fighting for opposing sides. Creon orders a burial of honors for the brother who fought on his side, and subjects the body of the other to public shame, forbidding any burial whatsoever and condemning his body to lie untouched, to be fed up on by vultures while it rots. Antigone, sister to the two brothers, is determined to provide her shamed brother with full traditional burial rites, despite Creon’s order of death for anyone attempting to touch the disgraced corpse.

Antigone deals with a moment of profound transition in Greek society and, in particular, the competing demands of traditional law as reflected in custom and state law as embodied in the rule of the king. Where does the authority of the monarch end? What constitutes legitimate civil disobedience? What is relationship between natural or traditional law and the state? What is citizenship, and on what terms can it be revoked? These are common questions and themes in classical Greek literature, and provide insight into the reconstitution of political order during a transition from traditional to state-based  forms of governance.

A contemporary of such important playwrights as Aeschylus and Euripides – who with him are the trio of Greece’s great tragedians –  Sophocles was the most-celebrated dramatist of his day, and is said to have written well over a hundred plays, though only seven have survived intact to the present. A politician and military leader, his life – some ninety years – spanned a remarkable period in Greek history, including the Persian and Pelopponesian Wars. His contributions to Greek culture and governance were well-recognized in his own day, and his impact upon Greek theatre lasting and profound – most notably for the use of additional characters to reduce the reliance on narration through a chorus, and for his more-detailed and in-depth drawing of his dramatic characters as individuals.

Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita
compiled by Vyasa
500-200 BCE

One of the most important works in the history of literature and philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu text of 700 verses that offers wisdom for living beyond the Hindu tradition and intended to speak to humankind as a whole.

The Gita is structured as a conversation  between the Lord Krishna and the Prince Arjuna, the former providing guidance and insight to the latter, and revealing to him Krishna’s status as the supreme deity. Compiled somewhere between 500 and 200 BCE (though some recent analysis place the date later, in the first century AD), the conversation it details – the teaching of Krishna to Arjuna – is said to have taken place some 3000 years BCE.  It introduces the notion of Yoga – a serenity and a wholistic outlook which allows for the active living of human life while remaining mindful of and devoted to the divine. Different aspects of the yoga are articulated and explanations provided for a wide range of spiritual beliefs, ritual practices, and philosophical approaches to human life and human action.

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita goes far beyond the boundaries of Hindu religious tradition, being felt widely in the western canon as well. Such diverse western thinkers and writers as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Albert Einstein, and Ralph Waldo Emerson have named it a major influence. Within the Indian tradition it has served as unifying text among a diverse range of Hindu traditions and was a foundation for the spiritual practice of Gandhi and his work to build the Indian independence movement.

Aesop’s Fables

Aesop’s Fables
Approx. 580 BCE

The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and the old saying “sour grapes” – these are only a few of the many many everyday references passed down for some 2500 years since they were first told to children in Greece by a local storyteller and slave.

Though some of the stories are undoubtedly much older, with origins in India, Sumer, and Egypt, it is Aesop who is remembered for his gathering of existing stories and composition of new ones to provide a moral education to children. Indeed, he was praised for his particular adherence to moral truth, held by many above the greatest of Greece’s poets and philosophers for his ability to capture the essence of wisdom without the need to dress it up in epic verse or lengthy philosophical ramblings.

You know the stories, many of them. But go back, read them all, and read them aloud. It’s worth it.


Approx. 330 BCE

Where does one even begin? Student to Plato, instructor to Alexander the Great, and the first in the western tradition to develop a truly comprehensive philosophy of the world. Science, logic, physics, theology, morality, aesthetics – if you are tracing the history of knowledge you are going to confront and be humbled by Aristotle, full stop.

Aristotle sought to explain the everything, the universal, the fullness of the natural world, human existence, and the physical properties of the universe. Where his master, Plato, began from the premise that everything existing was only a pale imitation of its metaphysical essence, Aristotle reversed the process, looking for answers to the universal by the study of the real-world particular. Not a materialist, in the sense that we use the term; but certainly the basis for materialism and for the scientific method that would develop in later centuries.

A giant is Aristotle, such that he was so well-regarded, his insight and wisdom so profound that approaching two thousand years later – well into the Renaissance – he remained the definitive authority on vast fields of knowledge – the correctness or incorrectness of his theories notwithstanding. And even in so short a summary it bears repeating – still today, if you are studying pretty much anything in depth you’re gonna have to deal with Aristotle. And you’re gonna be humbled.

The Book of Optics

The Book of Optics
Ibn al Haytham

Over a ten-year period, under house arrest for his refusal to follow state orders, scientist and philosopher Ibn al Haytham (known also as al-Basri) produced a monumental seven-volume work covering mathematics, psychology, physics, optics and more. The Book of Optics not only opened up optics as a whole new area of scientific enquiry; it is a foundational text of the scientific method, and the role of experimentation in particular, and was a major influence upon Europe’s scientific and philosophical revolution some centuries later.

Rays of light travel in straight lines? He’s the guy who proved it. The invention of the camera obscura? His. The variability of the speed of light? Yup, that’s him, too. And the first magnifying glass, and the method of hypothesis, experimentatation, analysis, conclusion which is the very basis of scientific scholarship. It’s all here in Ibn al Haytham. Outside of academic circles, his name is not widely known in the Euro-American tradition today, but to conduct a cursory review of those influenced by his work is to trace the wide arc of Europe’s most enduring thinkers – Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and on and on and on.

If ever there was an example of how much knowledge we miss by limiting ourselves to the European tradition, and how much that tradition itself owes to others, and the intellectuals of the Arab world in particular, it’s Ibn al Haytham. OK, you may not want to read the seven volumes of The Book of Optics. But read about this guy, and learn his name, We owe him that much.

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