That article got quite a reaction, as people added their own nominees to the list or, as in the case of the leftists who crashed the comments section, to subtract — can you believe it? — the likes of Margaret Sanger and Muhammad from mine. That is, I suppose, the fun of top-10 lists, be it best quarterbacks (no, Brady is not the G.O.A.T.) or worst movies. They are fodder for endless debate.
This time we take a crack at the top 10 most influential books of all time. This list intrigues me even more than the last because I love literature. Do bear in mind that such a list is necessarily subjective and self-limiting. Like the College Football Playoff Committee, most of the lists I have consulted seem very confused about their criteria. To make this list, the book need not be great, good, or even intelligible — just extraordinarily influential. I include no books published after 1900 simply because it is too soon to judge their enduring influence. As with our Evilest People column, we start in reverse order:
My first entry will surprise some readers. It is also the most recent work to be included on our list. But Mahan’s thesis had a brief, yet vast, influence on world events. Mahan, a professor at the Naval War College, put forth his theory that national greatness is inextricably linked to the strength of one’s navy. The book found an eager readership in Britain, Germany, and America. Mahan urged a strategy of guerre d’escadre (capital ships, fleet engagements) as a path to national supremacy instead of the less costly guerre de course (commerce raiding, hit-and-run tactics) strategy. Practically overnight, Captain Mahan became naval power’s leading advocate and his thinking the basis of foreign policies and naval strategies worldwide. Heeding his implicit counsel, Theodore Roosevelt built the Great White Fleet and sent it on a world tour as an expression of American might, and the Great Powers began a naval arms race that dominated strategic thinking through two world wars. Kaiser Wilhelm II was so impressed by Mahan’s thesis that he required all of the ships of his High Seas Fleet to carry a copy of the book.
It would be easy to complete our list with Greeks of the Classical era: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, and others. But in the name of diversity, I include only two, the first of whom is the great historian Thucydides. The exiled Athenian general’s history of the war between Athens and Sparta set the standard for how subsequent histories would be written, and we may thank him for it. In this sense, that we know what we know about our past may be attributed to Thucydides, who showed us how to properly record it and analyze it. “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time” — in this Thucydides succeeded.
A Polish astronomer, Copernicus is generally regarded as the father of the theory of heliocentricity, and, as a consequence, he is likewise regarded as the father of modern astronomy. Although Copernicus was not, in fact, the first to posit the theory of heliocentricity — Aristarchus of Samos had suggested as much in the 3rd century B.C. — he gave it credibility and popularized it. On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres was published while the great man was on his deathbed. Even so, it helped launch the Scientific Revolution and would influence the subsequent contributions of scientific giants like Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton.
Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer once told me that he didn’t think Nietzsche was a very good philosopher. He is not alone in this opinion. Classical scholar Edwin Rohde, Nietzsche’s contemporary and friend, said the angry man “needed to get a real job.” For his own part, the broom-mustached German had a higher opinion of himself. Rohde says Nietzsche had a “gigantic vanity.” While both opinions are probably true, Nietzsche’s influence on subsequent generations — especially those of German origin — cannot be denied. If Virgil was Dante’s guide through his inferno, Nietzsche might well serve as our guide through the inferno of the 20th century. According to biographer R. J. Hollingdale, the primary influence on Nietzsche was not Schopenhauer or Wagner, as many have erroneously supposed, but Charles Darwin. “Darwinism completed the view of reality that Nietzsche had been constructing in his mind since youth,” writes Hollingdale. “[T]he consequences were momentous.” Nietzsche well understood the implications of Darwin’s materialistic explanation of life: “God is dead.” This much-quoted and even more misunderstood statement in Thus Spake Zarathustra is not shouted with the glee of a Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, Nietzsche was alarmed by what this meant for civilization. Man stood on the edge of an abyss; he needed to find something to replace God — and he needed to find it quickly. With Thus Spake Zarathustrahe substitutes God with the Superman and divine grace with Will to Power. Eternal life? Well, no one, reasoned Nietzsche in his agonized atheism, gets that. It is only the great man, the Superman, who can face life’s harsh realities and construct his own morality. Nietzsche would become to the Nazis what Ivan was to Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov. In short, a motive and an inspiration, applying a crude (but consistent) understanding of Nietzsche’s thought with ruthless efficiency.
While Michelangelo was bespattering himself with paint atop a scaffold in the Sistine Chapel and Martin Luther was as yet an obscure professor of theology at Wittenberg University, the Medici were returning to power in Florence and Machiavelli, an on-again-off-again Florentine politician, was publishing a dangerous little handbook for would-be tyrants. In it, Machiavelli essentially argued that the end justifies the means. It is in vain that Machiavelli apologists try to redeem the man and his book. He was misunderstood, they say. It is true that Machiavelli makes numerous references to rulers doing good, but only enough to offer some deniability for the book’s true purpose. Besides, it is hard to misunderstand a book full of such pithy counsel as “therefore, the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge” and “A Prince must possess the nature of both man and beast.” With just that sort of reasoning, Machiavelli armed genocidal nutjobs from Lorenzo de’ Medici to Josef Stalin.
British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that all Western philosophy was but a footnote to Plato. Karl Popper, another British philosopher, hated Plato but reluctantly agreed with this assessment. Whatever your opinion of this dead Greek, Plato is rightly regarded as the father of Western philosophy. The Republic, his most influential work, has been interpreted and reinterpreted as a playbook for both benevolent rule and dictatorship, and that is because the author’s own opinion is often obscured by the literary device he employs: dialogue. What is clear, however, is Plato’s contempt for democracy, and this has endeared him to elitists on both the left and the right for centuries. Some believe, for instance, that the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was tutored in the principles of The Republic, created an Iranian state modeled on Plato’s ideal ruler, the “Philosopher-King.” Meanwhile, Vox (think leftist), which shares Plato’s disregard for democracy, inexplicably sees President Trump as the dark fulfillment of Plato’s prophecy of democracy’s end result. (Vox would do better to pay attention to the doings of Google, a real existential threat. That subject has been addressed here.) Plato is in fashion once again with European and American globalists. With Boris Johnson’s sweeping victory, “populists” — a buzzword for the vulgar masses since the two staggering losses globalists suffered in 2016 in Brexit and Trump — are once again on the forefront as the enemies of reason and right rule. Unable to win in these popular elections, the American Left has instead sought to do an end-run on democracy and govern the people through their own brand of philosopher-king: federal judges.
In the London of Charles Dickens, there lived a real life Ebenezer Scrooge, and he was writing a philosophy of stingy materialism that would make the Scrooge of Dickens’ novella look like Andrew Carnegie. So monstrous were Marx’s ideas, distorting as they did history, economics, and human nature, that they would later wreck half the world and presently threaten to wreck the other half. Since the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848, Marx’s writings have become to unscrupulous elements within the proletarian and bourgeois classes what Machiavelli had been to the bloodthirsty among the ruling class. But where The Communist Manifesto (1848) is short, easy to read, and quotable — “Workers of the world, unite!” — Das Kapital is a massive three-volume work full of abstruse factory data. This led Russian censors to underestimate its potential readership. Since these censors let almost nothing through, Das Kapital was released into an ideological vacuum where, says historian Orlando Figes, there were no viable competing ideologies. As a consequence, it was almost instantly embraced by would-be revolutionaries and attained something of an ideological monopoly. “From start to finish,” writes Paul Johnson, “all of [Marx’s] work reflects a disregard for truth which at times amounts to contempt.” This is to say nothing of its violent undertones, in which his contempt for human life is laid bare. None of this was lost on those who sought to implement his unworkable ideas. Marxist regimes killed more than 100 million people in the 20th century.
There are years in history that are easily identifiable as watersheds: 1066, 1215, 1588, 1776, and so on. Then there is 1859: and the years preceding and following we might call before Darwin and after Darwin. In On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, the British naturalist set forth ideas that would change our subsequent understanding of the biological sciences. But Darwin’s influence extends well beyond textbooks and laboratories. He is, perhaps more than any other, the author of the 20th century and beyond. Whatever Darwin’s intentions, his conception of biological history was readily applied to other human endeavors. As already noted, Darwin had a profound influence on Nietzsche, and through him, on philosophy. The aforementioned Nietzsche biographer R. J. Hollingdale says that upon reading Darwin, Nietzsche, who accepted his ideas in toto, concluded that the British scientist had “reduced man to worthlessness.” And Darwin’s influence on Karl Marx cannot be overstated. Marx applied Darwin’s theories to history and economics. He even wanted to dedicate the first volume of Das Kapital to Darwin (who wisely refused the dubious honor). Darwin’s influence didn’t stop there. “Social Darwinism” was championed by Margaret Sanger’s creation, Planned Parenthood, giving an institutional expression to the worthlessness Nietzsche quite rightly perceived. And as the late historian Jacques Barzun points out, echoes of Darwin may even be heard in the Nazi conception of most favored races and their struggle for supremacy.
Some religions and philosophies restrain man’s darker impulses while others exacerbate them. Islam unquestionably exacerbates man’s innate evil. And I do mean man, because Islam is a religion that gives religious justification to the carnal appetites of men: sex, violence, misogyny, theft, deceit, destruction, tyranny, you name it, so long as it advances the cause of Allah. In this way the Quran and the Hadith are consulted like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Of course this doesn’t mean that all Muslims are terrorists or would-be terrorists. Certainly not. But those Muslims who model their lives on the life of Muhammad, as all Muslims are commanded to do, are cause for concern. Where Jesus said, “For all who take the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) and modeled a life of peace, Muhammad said, “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” (Quran 8:12) and modeled a life of violence. In 627 alone, some 600 to 800 Jews of the Banu Qurayza tribe were beheaded on his order. The Quran makes this very clear: non-Muslims must convert, pay a tax, or die.
At this point, some will maintain that there is no appreciable difference between Christianity and Islam on the question of violence. This is what is called the fallacy of false equivalence. Consider Charlie Hebdo. That the magazine was bombed in 2015 everyone knows. What few know, however, is that between 2005 and 2015, the magazine devoted 38 covers to obscene and offensive depictions of religion or religious figures. Of those, 21 were aimed at Christianity, while only seven targeted Islam. Yet those seven covers netted two terrorist attacks and 12 people dead. According to a 2015 BBC poll, 27 percent of British Muslims were “sympathetic” with the attacks. These are the Muslims who have supposedly been “Westernized.” When Netflix released a “Christmas Special” portraying Jesus as gay, I expected no Christian suicide bombings of Netflix. Nor does Netflix. I wonder, do you suppose the producers at the online entertainment behemoth have a similar film in the works on Muhammad set for release during Ramadan? Me neither.
As for blaming Christians for the Crusades, there is a simple matter of chronology: the first Crusade was in 1095; the Muslim invasion of Europe predated that by some 400 years. I offer no moral assessment of the Crusades, but Obama might have born this fact in mind (assuming he knew it) when he chided Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2015 for the Crusades and suggested the kind of false moral equivalence to which I have referred. There is none. To put it another way, when people kill in the name of God — as Jesus predicted many would do (John 16:2–3) — such killing is inconsistent with Christ’s teachings. But when Muslims kill in the name of Allah, they are often acting with complete consistency with Muhammad’s teaching.
Progressives hate this, but the extraordinary influence of the Bible on history — and Western civilization in particular — is undeniable. The Bible gave rise to Western law, government, art, literature, and science. According to sociologist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Rodney Stark, because the West believed in a God of logic and order, they believed his creation was likewise logical and orderly and should be explored, subdued, and studied. Stark writes, “Most non-Christian religions do not posit a creation at all … it is without beginning or purpose, and, most important of all, having never been created, it has no Creator. Consequently, the universe is thought to be a supreme mystery, inconsistent, unpredictable, and arbitrary. For those holding these religious premises, the path to wisdom is through meditation and mystical insights, and there is no occasion to celebrate reason.” Eminent mathematician, philosopher, and agnostic Alfred North Whitehead is again instructive here on what set the West apart: “When we compare the tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source of its origin. It must come from the Medieval insistence on the rationality of God.” This faith in rationality catapulted the West ahead of the rest of the world culturally, militarily, technologically, and economically. So intrinsic is Christianity to the fabric of the West, wrote T. S. Eliot, that “It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning.… I do not believe the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.”
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There is a kind of absurdity in reducing history’s most influential books to a list of 10. I readily acknowledge this. A list of 25, 50, or 100 would not afford sufficient space for such a list. But there are editors to consider, and they like brevity, so 10 it is. For a similar list, I point you to Benjamin Wiker’s clever and informative Ten Books That Screwed Up the World. It would make a nice stocking stuffer.
And your 10 books are … ?
Larry Alex Taunton is the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation and freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, First Things, the Atlantic, CNN, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Grace Effect and The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.