Steven B. Sample’s Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is an excellent book on the art. His book collected dust for several years until I recently rediscovered it on my shelf. I finished it in two days and wished I had read it earlier. If you only have time for one chapter, read Chapter 4: You Are What You Read. Here, Sample discusses the notion of “supertexts”. Supertexts are written works that have endured the test of time. These texts retain wide readership centuries after their initial composition.
The supertexts are enduring because they capture and express fundamental aspects the human condition in ways that continue to resonate with readers. They persist as long as their ideas spark connections with humans across time and culture.
Today, Many Americans are ignorant of philosophical and moral foundations of Western civilization. American educators ought to make a priority of renewing interest in the Western canon lest we loose sight of our robust intellectual foundations and begin to doubt our culture’s future potential.
This list is a combination of recommendations from my West Point instructors as well as a few of my own contributions. I have honed it down to focus on important works from Antiquity through the Middle Ages.
Many ancient Greek and Latin texts are digitally archived with English translations at the Tufts Perseus Digital Library. This is a great resource for scholars!
Additionally, Project Gutenberg offers free digital downloads of many of the classics. I use this site to load up my kindle. Some of the older English translations seem a bit archaic to the modern reader, however.
- The Bible, King James Version
- Homer, Iliad and Odyssey
- Herodotus, Persian Wars
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian War
- I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the power of political persuasion in Thucydides’ speeches. I found this translation particularly useful during my research. In addition to providing cultural and historical context in the margins, Strassler includes wonderful maps and diagrams.
- Aristophanes, The Clouds
- Plato, Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, Phaedo, Gorgias, Phaedrus, Symposium, Republic, Laws, Statesman
- The Gorgias is a particular favorite of mine. It discusses the relationship between politics, philosophy and rhetoric.
- Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul)
- Aristotle has much to say about areté. Read Ethics and Politics as a pair.
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
- This book helped me through a rough period at West Point. Stoic philosophy is especially appealing to leaders, warriors and anyone in the public eye.
- Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
- Another great work of Stoic thought
- Virgil, The Aeneid
- The mythological origins of Rome chronicling the hero Aeneas’ journey after the fall of Troy.
- Tacitus, Germania
- Plutarch, Lives
- Aquinas, Summa Theologica, On Kingship, Commentaries on Aristotle
- Dante, Divine Comedy
- Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
- Give the original Middle English a try!
Another good list that includes later works is located at the Great Ideas Program website.