Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Seventeenth Century

Novum Organum

Novum Organum
Francis Bacon

“New Instrument” would be the English title – a new instrument of science, of logic, which would come to be known as ‘the Baconian method’. Observation of phenomena, reduction of those observations to their core similarities or dissimilarities – it is a gradual process, it takes time and commitment and slow, careful study of what is in order to derive what general principles might lie behind the specific. It’s induction, the opposite of deduction, the opposite of assumed truths that take shape in particularities. Scientific method? Not really. But it’s close, it’s in the same order of thinking, and it certainly is important in the development of empiricism and the methodical, observational approach of science. But Bacon is a philosopher not a scientist. He’s not out to discover anything in particular, but to examine the nature of existence, of truth, of knowledge.

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Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost
John Milton

Over 10,000 lines of verse on the fall of man, temptation, knowledge, sin, and exile from the Garden of Eden. Paradise Lost is a tremendous work, and to attempt to summarize it is kinda pointless – you’ve got to read it to get it, and read it we all should, several times in fact. Think you know the story of Adam and Eve? Not this one. It’s not that Milton’s epic version is entirely at odds with the short, canonical version; but it is detailed, nuanced, and tells one hell of a back story. The serpent, the Tree of Knowledge, the shame of nakedness – those are here. But also Satan’s story, his version of the angelic rebellion that led to his expulsion from Heaven, his own experience on the path that Adam and Eve – real people, with personalities, love, and relationship in this account – are about to walk.

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William Shakespeare

Witches, betrayal, ambition and a whole lot of murder – that’s Macbeth. The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies plays fast and loose with Scottish history to paint a grim view of the drive to power and the madness of guilt. Not only stage and screen, but novels and comic books have told this tale that continues to weave itself into our cultural life and serve as perhaps the most important reference point for the theatre community.

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Thomas Hobbes

Written amidst the chaos of the English civil war as Cromwell’s roundheads faced off against monarchists and innumerable radical political and religious communities sprung up in the cracks, Thomas Hobbes’ call for a strong central government to command order and to restore and uphold the social contract remains one of the world’s most influential books on political philosophy.

Hobbes’ politics is explicitly rooted in his conception of human nature and what he deems to be the natural state of human existence – the war of all against all, encapsulated in his most-famous statement that life before the social contract and the state is always and everywhere “nasty, brutish and short”. Competition, selfishness, individual advancement at the expense of others – this is the natural drive of man, and is only held in abeyance by the real and legitimate fear/ knowledge that all others are motivated by the same self-interest and hence that the state of war is unending. Recognizing this, humankind is motivated to compromise – to surrender some of its own perfect freedom for protection against the unchecked freedom of others. The social contract and its political expression, the state, arises, then, from a general recognition of the tension between security and human freedom – “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself“. Selfish brutes that we are, we will kill or be killed unless there is something stopping us. A general consensus forms out of our instinct for self-preservation – I’ll rein in some of my impulses, you rein in some of yours. And we’ll set up someone with strength and power to enforce that compromise. That’s the gist of it.

Democracy, aristocracy, monarchy – whatever the form government takes, it is based on the premise of social contract as a means of protecting us from ourselves, says Hobbes. His preference, of course, was monarchy – not surprising given his dim view of human nature, which leads fairly easily to the conclusion that security and order are paramount (and hence the term ‘leviathan’, the great and sovereign power of enforcement). And so Hobbes pretty consistently takes a beating from those who think of themselves as ‘progressive’ or in any way left-ish, and his name has become synonymous with the most pessimistic view of human potential for goodness and for state policies that emphasize mistrust and discipline. And fair enough. There is no doubt that Hobbes privileged order over freedom, nor that his portrayal of our natural state as selfish and violent and insecure continues to exert dangerous influence in policy-making. But there’s more here, too. There is Hobbes’ call for full legal equality, on the basis that we all equally surrender our freedom to the state; there is Hobbes’ call for public works and social infrastructure – funded by general taxation – to support those in need. But in all, Hobbes thought us petty, pathetic creatures. While the other great theorist of human nature and social contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, presents a political theory that is rooted in the possible, in what-we-ought-aspire-to, Hobbes’ project is a different one, more akin to Machiavelli’s reflections on statecraft – a project grounded in the pessimism that is realpolitik. And politics, of course, exists where these meet, in the tensions, contradictions and compromises between what is what might be, between what we fear and what we hope, between the practicable and the possible.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
1605 – 1615

One of the world’s first novels and considered a foundational text of modern literature, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha follows the comic adventures of a gentleman farmer who decides to live out the fantasy of knighthood, dressing up in an old suit of armour, designating a neighbour his great love and inspiration, and hitting the road to chivalrous heroics with his “squire” Sancho Panza. Quixote sees grave insults and corruptions everywhere around him, battles for justice, glory and honour at every turn. To him, a great steed stands in place of his broken-down horse, a loyal servant is made of a bumbling neighbour, castles arise in the place of local inns, and giants – ferocious, menacing giants – replace the windmills on his journey. The neighbours see a crazy old man who’s just going to get himself hurt, and plot to get him home and safe and quiet once more. But Don Quixote will suffer no such indignation.

It’s the last great hurrah of chivalry, a laughing glance at the myths we live by, and still a nostalgic reflection – if not on what we’ve lost, on what we believe we’ve lost. And now, Cervantes’ book itself has entered history in the same way – as myth, as nostalgia, as a work of literature emblematic of worlds that collide, the death of the middle ages, the rise of modernity, a new literary form for a new cultural age and yet entirely occupied with what was lost even if it never really was to begin with.

Discourse on the Method

Discourse on the Method
Rene Descartes

A cornerstone of modern philosophy, Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth roots itself in the importance of skepticism to the pursuit of knowledge, the attempt to doubt everything, question everything, presume nothing at the outset of scientific or philosophical investigation. The book applies this method to a couple of different cases, most notably the existence of God, the physics of nature, and the functioning of the body, but it is not his insights into any of these but rather his fundamental premise that has proved of such lasting significance. Thus while the work’s most famous line – “I think, therefore I am” – comes from a hugely problematic reflection on the existence of God, it is a less-remembered premise that underpins the book, and indeed is considered by many to provide the cornerstone for all philosophy since: “[To] never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such”.

Discourse extends the principle of scientific inquiry based on doubt, logic and proof to the question of philosophy and general knowledge. In place of initial hypotheses, which depend themselves upon assumption, it is only logic, the careful application of human thought, which can ultimately be relied upon in learning. It is only the rational human mind that can surpass all received wisdom and can make reliable observations of the physical senses. It is no small contribution. With Descartes, European philosophy breaks with the near-hegemony of Aristotle which had previously held sway. With Descartes, we begin to enter what is called the Age of Enlightenment. With Descartes, the world changes.

Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots
Charles Perrault

The Master Cat, the Booted Cat – these the traditional French terms for the character we all know as Puss in Boots. In the last years of the seventeenth century, Charles Perrault produced the now-world-famous tale of the trickster cat who wins wealth, fame and the hand of the princess for his all-too-common and all-too-broke master.

One in a collection of stories that also may have introduced the figure of Mother Goose to the English-speaking world, “Puss in Boots” has its origins in Italian stories of the mid-1500s and pops up in a wide range of other stories and productions, including Tchaikovsky’s ballet version of Sleeping Beauty.

Puss is a tricky one – as deceitful as he is playful, as much a rogue as a role-model, master of theft and lies and manipulation, he’s much-loved by the kids who hear the tale but has been often-condemned as a terrible influence upon young minds and young morality. Others, though, praise the story as a fairy-tale of the emerging middle class, a story in which it is not birth but work that gets the goods of wealth, power, prestige. Hmmm. Perhaps. But not the master’s work. Puss does it all for him, the efforts of the servant and the liberal use of theft and deceit being the means to transfer wealth from one undeserving layabout to another. Yeah, maybe it is a fairy-tale of the rise of capitalism after all.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Pilgrim’s Progress
John Bunyan

The early evangelical work – The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come – concerns the journey of one man (Christian) from his state of sin through his path to salvation and onto heaven. Early in the book, Christian flees from home burdened by the knowledge of his graceless state which arises from his reading of the Bible, and sets out to alter his path which he is sure will take him to hell (Tophet). Along the way his faith is tested by obstacles and ordeals which he must survive and he meets many archetypal characters (Evangelist, Pliable, Help, Goodwill, Beelzebub, Hypocrisy etc) who shed light on right and wrong in the Christian tradition. With this moral guidance and his own inner strength, the protagonist manages to reach the Celestial City and be granted admission and everlasting life.

The second part of the book, which didn’t appear until 1684, concerns the pilgrimage of Christian’s wife (Christiana), their sons and the maiden, Mercy. They too make the valiant journey and encounter many of the same scenes and obstacles, but take a longer time to allow for the marriage and childbirth in the lives of the four sons. This later addition to the tale is seen as a reinforcement of the first part, in attesting to the fact that children and women can also be brave pilgrims in undertaking a Christian life. Each part of the story is narrated as a dream.

Geographical travel as a route to spiritual movement, knowledge as attained through the bible, and a community of family and friends are all emphasized as key to attaining the ultimate success of reaching the Master and the Celestial City, thus shrugging off sin.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is argued to be one of the “most significant works of religious English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print”. It was largely written from prison where Bunyan was serving time for preaching without a license (breaching the Conventicle Act). During Bunyan’s lifetime, there were eleven editions of the first part and two editions of the second part printed.

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