12 CLASSIC BOOKS EVERY CATHOLIC STUDENT SHOULD READ BEFORE COLLEGE

By Christopher Martin

A couple of notes about this list: This is an extremely subjective topic. There are literally hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of classics for which a good argument can be made for their inclusion on this list. If you read through this list and disagree with some of the inclusions or absences, chances are good that I agree, at least partially, with your judgment as well. As an homage to this subjectivity, I have included one or several related books to each spot on this list.

My list is largely based off of the four-year cycle of “Great Books” courses that I have taught (one year each of Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Medieval & Renaissance, and Modernity). In these courses (and therefore also in the list below), I chose the books that I feel are most likely to help my students understand how the world has developed.

THE ANCIENT GREEKS

1- Homer: The Iliad
Homer gives us, among other things, some idea of the notion of sovereignty for the Ancient Greeks. Part of it is the gods’ blessing, part of it is the fealty of subordinates, but mostly it’s a tribal type of organization. Students enjoy the analogy of Achilles and Agamemnon acting like enraged gorillas, pounding their chests to compete for the title of king of the banana pile. It’s easy to dismiss the characters of the Iliad as obnoxiously petty, but Homer’s world is far different than the one we experience today, and discovering how that world and its actors operate stands as one of the enduring attractions of the text.

One could easily place Homer’s Odyssey, or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in this spot as well.

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2- Plato: Republic
I love pointing back to Anne Carroll’s Christ the King as providing signposts to a Catholic interpretation of history. To her, the Ancient Greeks made, primarily, two significant contributions to the development of Western Civilization: the expansion of the West via Alexander’s conquests, and the invention of philosophy. Plato’s Republic provides an excellent introduction to this latter contribution, as it’s one of the best articulations of the Greek’s philosophical achievements, outlining how best to order citizens and the city-state.

While a number of texts by Aristotle could easily fit here as well, the dialogue format of the Republic makes it much more approachable than many philosophical texts.

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THE ANCIENT ROMANS

3- Virgil: Aeneid
Virgil’s text immerses us into the world of the ancients as only a poet can do. Just in terms of the notion of sovereignty, the Aeneid, in many ways, builds directly off of the themes present in Homer. Whereas in Homer, the gods often interfere with human events as a matter of course, Virgil’s text suggests a retreat from this position. The hero vocally expresses his frustration with his goddess mother, and Jupiter/Zeus himself states that human beings should make their own way. Virgil therefore lays the groundwork for the modern man’s independence from fate.

Lucan’s “The Crossing of the Rubicon” (in his Pharsalia) suggests very similar themes, and in no less epic tones for its comparative brevity.

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4- Tacitus: The Annals
Tacitus serves the twofold purpose of giving us a very approachable history of Rome, while also telling us exactly what one Roman thought of its characters. Tacitus made no effort to hide his biases, and especially his disdain for Nero: “Though his heart never knew remorse for the worst of his crimes, his ear, unaccustomed to the voice of truth, shrunk from the sound of freedom, and startled at reproach.”

Livy, Pliny, Plutarch and Sallust all give us worthy histories as well (Livy, in particular, gives a lovely history of Rome’s early era), but Tacitus stands out for his candid and engaging appraisal of Rome’s heroes and villains, victims and tyrants.

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5- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
Marcus Aurelius’ text shows just how far pagan natural law philosophy could go. It is a remarkable achievement on many levels, indicative of impressive understandings of social ethics, metaphysics, and even political theory. To highlight the philosophical compatibilities with Christianity, one might read the Meditations alongside the Gospel of Mathew, where Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism almost seems to pave the way for the notion of an omniscient, intelligent God.

Seneca’s Morals of a Happy Life also includes much of the same natural philosophy, but with more emphasis on proscriptive ethics.

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MEDIEVAL AND RENNAISSANCE

6- Augustine of Hippo: Confessions
Augustine’s Confessions stands one of the most famous stories of conversion, and arguably the best and most important among Christian literature. Augustine literally bares his soul to the reader, and in doing so expresses the beauty and magnetism of pure Christianity to an intelligent man struggling with self-discipline and self-honesty. His story is one to which everyone can relate, and, as it emerges from the early centuries of Christianity, set a precedent of how we “come to Jesus.”

Selections from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica might also have been in this spot as a wonderful example of the development of Christian philosophy and theology, but it isn’t nearly as approachable as Augustine.

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7- Dante: Divine Comedy: Inferno
Dante’s text evinces just how inherent Christianity had become to Western Civilization, that entertainment, theology, and romance can all be bound up in the same poem. While the entire three-part epic is probably too much for a high-school student, the Inferno by itself paints a compelling and vivid image of the fate of the damned. Students of history will be delighted (and sometimes amused) to identify all of the names who Dante places in hell, as well as the reason(s) why he does so.

De Villehardouin’s Memoirs of the Crusades might also take this spot, though is more medieval than renaissance, and more historical than literary.

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8- Shakespeare: Henry V
Shakespeare has to be on this list, but as I’m not really a fan of Shakespeare, I include the text which I appreciate most. Henry V gives us laughs, action, and (of course) rousing monologues of a martial tone. Beyond its readability, the text’s influence (and therefore Shakespeare’s) on modernity can clearly be seen when encountering such passages as “we band of brothers” and “once more unto the breach.”

A number of Shakespeare’s works might fit into this spot instead, and certainly a close runner-up is Hamlet.

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MODERNITY

9- Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
It’s difficult to pass on a lot of texts ranging from Voltaire and Locke to Defoe and deTocqueville, but Stowe absolutely has to be on this list. Slavery is unequivocally wrong, and yet abolitionists in America struggled mightily for generations to attract more members to their movement. In many ways, it was Stowe’s text which finally provided the movement with the momentum necessary to translate into political power, eventually leading to a split of the Union and the start of the American Civil War. Stowe’s text methodically destroys every defense of slavery then in vogue, but does so with an engaging narrative both emotionally and ideologically compelling.

For further understanding of the ideas and context to which Stowe was responding, one might also read Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government and/or Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All!

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10- Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross
Much like Shakespeare, Chesterton has to be on this list. His importance to the Catholic literary revival, and to Catholics in modernity, is far beyond dispute, and this text in particular is a masterpiece resulting from Chesterton’s attempt to marry a novel with a criticism of modern social norms of “tolerance.” Chesterton’s conclusion leaves few without guilt, ranging from the overzealous Christian conservative to the aggressive hyper-liberal atheist, arguing instead that true Christian virtue is in a type of moderation and sensibility we ought to have noticed the whole time.

For those who prefer a more straightforward, and less narrative presentation of Chesterton’s social criticism and theological expositions, Orthodoxy could be read instead.

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11-Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
In many ways, Harper Lee has updated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but done so in a manner which tells a common story through the uncommon eyes of a child. In so doing, we are forced into a sort of innocence which heightens our awareness of the injustices of the world, the cruelty of adults, and the goodness of which everyone is capable. The importance of this text lies in its ability to communicate in a manner which few other texts have achieved, evoking emotional, as well as ideological responses in its readers.

No less emotionally evocative, and demonstrative of the importance of loyalty and friendship is Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, though this text noticeably lacks much of the social criticism present in Lee’s masterpiece.

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12- Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People / Sheen: Finding True Happiness
In the last 400 years, Western Civilization has endured an immense democratic revolution greatly changing the manner in which people interact with the world. Carnegie understood the dynamics of this new form of communication very well, even giving his text a deceptive title. Really, the text is about teaching people to be sensitive to each other’s selfishness and high sense of self-importance as the key to being an effective communicator and leader.

Sheen’s text is very short, and serves as a Catholic addendum to Carnegie’s treatise. Whereas Carnegie focuses on handling others, Sheen focuses on handling oneself. In the modern world, there can be so much noise and distractions that it’s easy to lose sight of the simplicity inherent to our Catholic pursuit of happiness. As the pre-eminent Catholic communicator of modernity, Sheen well understood and reminds us that happiness needs to be actively sought every day, but inwardly, not outwardly.

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