Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Eighteeth Century

My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose

My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose
Robert Burns

One of the most famous poems of the great Robbie Burns was not, in fact, really written by him. “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” is actually a song, collected by Burns in the last decade of his life as he sought to gather, print and preserve old Scots folk songs. Burns himself collected some 300 tunes (the most famous being the New Year’s standard “Auld Lang Syne”) on behalf of the Scots Musical Museum and, too, a book project under the editorship of George Thomspon, who would publish five volumes of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. So why do we associate “Red Red Rose” with Burns rather than Thompson, or even folksong generally? Cause Thompson didn’t care for Burns’ find. Robbie Burns noted that this “simple old Scots song which I had picked up in the country” seemed to him beautiful and important, simple and wild, while to Thompson’s mind it represented nothing but “the ludicrous and the absurd”. And so Burns passed the words on to his friend Pietro Urbani to set to music and publish in his smaller collection, Scots Songs – directly attributing the find to the “celebrated Scots poet”, who had heard, transribed, and re-worked the traditional piece into the version we now know.

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Critique of Pure Reason

Critique of Pure Reason
Immanuel Kant
1781 (revised 1787)

Kant’s “First Critique” – before those of Practical Reason and Judgement – is not only his most significant, but one of the most important books in all of western philosophy. A reaction to the rational skepticism of David Hume, Kant’s work seeks to explore and understand knowledge that is independent of experience. We do understand the world through experience, but that isn’t the whole of it.¬† We also know the world a priori – meaning, in the words of contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson, “you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.”

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A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift

“A burlesque of projects concerning the poor” it has been called. Swift’s little satire on commodification of human life, the ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’, ‘can-do’ attitude to social ills and the political economy of emergent industrial capitalism has become a standard cultural reference point, its title a part of everyday parlance. It’s the name of a student newspaper in Dallas, it is referenced in books and films and journalism regularly, and it even provided a major source of inspiration for the classic slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Continue reading “A Modest Proposal”

Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe

Though we now think of him principally as the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe was first and foremost a political writer and social critic, a Whig activist who moved from circles of power to prison, who pamphleteered the public and petitioned parliaments and kings. But he was also an early champion of the novel, a relatively new form in the English language of his day. And Moll Flanders is the work that brings all this together.

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Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Frail opium addict Coleridge certainly left his impact on literature and literary criticism. He helped to bring ideas associated with German idealism into English thought, he had a profound influence on the rise of transcendentalism,¬† and the phrase “suspension of disbelief” was coined by him. And, of course, he and friend William Wordsworth are credited with founding one of the most significant¬† schools of English poetry, the Romantics. Emotionally unstable, politically radical, the “giant among dwarves”, as he was known, was more the craftsman than his peers, meticulously editing and wordsmithing his work, influencing those like Shelley and Wordsworth whose fame out-shone his own.

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Marquis de Sade

“The most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” – Napoleon Bonaparte sure took note of this little book by Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, written during a stint in jail in 1787, edited into various shapes (some more graphic than others) and finally ordered destroyed in 1815 after its author died in the jail/ insane asylum that had been his home for a number a years. The legacy? C’mon. The guy gave us the term sadism. That is some impact.

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Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft

One of the earliest of feminist political statements, Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the political rights of women and investment in women’s education sought to extend the principles of republican democracy associated with the French and American revolutions to the question of gender relations, and proved a foundational text not only of early feminism but of democratic theory more generally.

Much of the basis of Wollstonecraft’s argument is the common good – women, excluded from education and public life, can not adequately educate their own children nor contribute fully to the society at large; indeed, to not educate women poses a fundamental danger, weakening their ability to reason and making them a problem men must manage rather than a citizenry capable of managing its own affairs. But a moral argument is provided as well – that women and men are equally human in the eyes of God, both endowed with the capacity for rational thought, and therefore subject to the same moral laws.

An active player, with her husband William Godwin, in the debates around democracy and republicanism that raged at the time, Mary Wollstonecraft was well-placed to influence some of the leading liberal thinkers and politicians of the day. And her book was indeed well-received at first, becoming a central reference point in the wider debate around sex and gender that was a regular part of political discussion. Following her death, however, Godwin published his own memoirs of life with Mary Wollstonecraft, celebrating (he thought) her unorthodoxy and revealing in the process her multiple love affairs, her illegitimate child, and her struggles with depression. The result was a backlash against Wollstonecraft’s work as the revelations of her personal behaviour overshadowed the arguments she had put forward. For decades Vindication remained out of print, and it was only in the twentieth century, as the suffrage movement grew and writers such as Virginia Wolfe began returning to Wollstonecraft for inspiration, that her memory was rehabilitated and her historical importance recognized.

The Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith

The definitive theory of the free market, the basic economic premise of the current order, the very foundation of what we call economics – if all of sociology is a dialogue with Karl Marx, all of economic theory is dialogue with Adam Smith. An economist and philosopher of morality, Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations analyzed the emerging industrial revolution and its attendant economic framework to produce the theory of the free market as we know it and to situate that particular economic arrangement in a broader analysis of human nature and human morality.

The few-sentence summary? We have natural instincts of both duty and self-interest that together cause us to behave, overall, in ways that are socially-beneficial; economically-speaking, the ideal arrangement is one free of domination by either monopolies or the state, in which the creativity of and competition among producers allows for a stable and expanding economy. In pursuing our own individual interests and allowing our produce/ skills to be judged and assigned a value by the free operation of the market, we achieve a society that grows stronger as a result of natural competition. The market is, in effect, an ‘invisible hand’ guiding productive development, and by which the pursuit of individual ends brings positive collective results. (Or, as Keynes put it, critically and somewhat unfairly to Adam Smith, at least, though less unfairly to his followers – “the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.”)

Increasing complexity in the division of labour, the centrality of industrial technology for boosting production, the role of exchange and development of currency, the relationship between labour and scarcity in determining prices of commodities in the marketplace, the relationship between capital and labour, the role of the state in economic activity, debt, taxation, the opportunities and inequalities produced by the market – it’s all here in Adam Smith, who with David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus forms the great triumvirate of neoclassical economic theory.

Discourse on Inequality

Discourse on Inequality
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

One of the foundational texts of modern democracy and of political thought more generally, Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality seeks to examine the origin of social inequality and make the case that structural inequities are a violation of natural law. Civil society, as we understand it, is a creation of property relations, themselves the creation of those rich and powerful few who sought to institutionalize their privilege in law.

Arguing for a human nature that is inherently good and seeks only those basic needs of security, food, sleep and companionship/ reproduction, Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ is explicitly opposed to that other human nature which underlies modern political and economic philosophy – the natural man of Thomas Hobbes, for whom the starting point of society is a state of fear and anxiety, of fierce competition among self-interested individuals. Hobbes, he argued, misses one key feature of human nature in his portrayal – compassion. And to miss compassion is to miss the core of our humanity.

Rousseau’s liberalism is a radical human liberalism fundamentally at odds with the conservative economic liberalism of Hobbes which underpins so much of what we call classical liberal political-economic thought. But he is clearly of the liberal school rather than the conflict-based tradition of Marx. Despite their shared emphasis on the fundamental anti-human nature of property, they differ substantially. Where Marx posits a human nature that is profoundly social in its goodness, for Rousseau the human being is first and foremost an individual, property being the origin not only of evil, but of society.

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