"And what there is to conquer/By strength and submission, has already been discovered/Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope/To emulate - but there is no competition -/There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again: and now under conditions/That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss./For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." - T.S. Eliot, East Coker
Here's a (by no means comprehensive) sketch of the writers, thinkers, and cultural artifacts that have shaped the way I see the world.
Who can fully say what different snippets of thought have influenced their worldview? Still, here's a list, chronologically situated, of those figures who have done the most to sharpen my thoughts.
A lot of my thinking regarding society revolves around concepts of duty, and little can be said with regards to theories of duty without referencing Confucius. His thought is so clear, his expression so elegant, that none have topped him since. Key works: The Analects.
I'm using Plato here to designate the Socrates/Plato complex, since disentangling the thoughts of one from the other is quite a task. However you parse their relationship, the ideas of these two are simply foundational for me. Even when I disagree with them, I find myself constantly challenged by their rigor. Key works: The Apology; Euthyphro; The Symposium.
Poor Aristotle has suffered from a diminished reputation recently thanks to his often wildly incorrect speculations about science. Taken as an ethicist, however, there's no one like him. He sinks deep truths into the heart of his writing, and follows his logic wherever it leads. Key works: The Nicomachean Ethics; Poetics.
Like Confucius, Marcus Aurelius specialized in writing about virtue, especially the virtue of duty. Though heavily indebted to those who came before him in the Stoic school of philosophy, Aurelius stands as the apotheosis of that movement thanks to his crystal prose and quiet contemplation. Major bonus points for being the only serious philosopher to rule the Roman Empire successfully. Key works: The Meditations.
If I had to pick one person who has influenced me more than any other, it would be the Bishop of Hippo. He has been so foundational for my thought that I often find myself thinking an idea, then realizing I stole it from him. The grandfather of psychology and the memoir, he's a towering influence on those with ears to hear. Key works: The City of God; The Confessions; On the Trinity.
I'm a big defender of the Middle Ages as a flourishing time of intellectual pursuits; that being said, I haven't dived as deep as I would wish into the individual thinkers of the era. So, though I owe some debt to people like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm, my foundational influences jump ahead to the early modern era. Among the giants of that period, one stands out for me: the reclusive, difficult Blaise Pascal. He lacked the output and influence of others, like Descartes, but his insights into human nature are much more penetrating that those of his contemporaries. Key works: Pensees.
After the disastrous experiment of the Enlightenment, and the dialectic innovation of Hegel, philosophy sorely needed someone to come along and deflate the party. Though ignored in his own time, Kierkegaard provided the pin prick. His devastating critique of modern ennui and systemization feels fresh 150 years later. Key works: Either/Or; Fear and Trembling; Philosophical Fragments; The Present Age.
A criminally misunderstood genius, Marx's key contributions lie not in economics but in social criticism. Like Kierkegaard, Marx saw beyond the facade of "progress" trumpeted by the bourgeoisie, and instead examined the rotted foundation on which modern society has been built. Key works: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; Estranged Labor; Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Along with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche dared to make philosophy fun again. His wit and anger make reading his prose a delight, not a chore. And though he had some ideas with disastrous consequences, his thought is crisp, clear, and vital. Like Kierkegaard and Marx, his best work comes on the offensive, as he tears into the complacency of 19th Century Europe. Key Works: The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music; Ecce Homo; Twilight of the Idols.
I guess I have a thing for misunderstood geniuses. People these days casually dismiss Freud (despite never having read him) because modern psychoanalysis has tried to distance itself from him. Read as a culture critic, though, Freud is profound, poking around in corners of human culture that most people want to avoid. Key works: Civilization and Its Discontents; The Uncanny.
Marshall McLuhan predicted various elements of technological society, like the Internet, decades before they happened. His insights into the way technology and media shapes the human mind and society have never been matched. Occasionally a tad optimistic for my tastes, he nevertheless has radically influenced my ideas about technology. Key works: The Gutenberg Galaxy; Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
Though I suppose I should prefer Malcolm X's counterpart, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have always found myself more drawn to Malcolm. I admire the clear, searing ways in which he exposed the plight of African Americans in society, and the moral integrity which drew him through his embrace of violence to a more nuanced understanding of enacting social change. Key works: The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
A sociologist who emerged initially as a key interpreter of Freud, Philip Rieff began to branch out and comment on what he saw as the imminent decline of Western civilization. As I'm a sucker for Cassandra types, I relish Rieff's insights into what has gone wrong, particularly the abandonment of the concept of sin, which has eaten away at the cohesiveness of society. Key works: Triumph of the Therapeutic; Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How It Has Been Taken from Us.
An appropriate pairing with Philip Rieff, Lasch, a historian and culture critic, probed into the problems of democracy in an age of diminished community. A vocal champion of the local, he also disdained elite culture and its obsession with "progress", a bugbear which we share. Key works: The Culture of Narcissism; The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics; The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
Rene Girard is a French literary and cultural critic whose main intellectual contribution, mimetic theory, has had a huge influence on me. Essentially positing that human desires arise not on their own, but through prompting by witnessing the desire of others, mimetic theory has shaped my understanding of capitalism, religion, and literature. A true original. Key works: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel; Violence and the Sacred.
In this case, by authors I mean writers of fiction, essayistic non-fiction, drama, or poetry. In alphabetical order:
W.H. Auden; Jorge Luis Borges; Ray Bradbury; Robert Browning; Frederick Buechner; Robert Farrar Capon; G.K. Chesterton; Charles Dickens; John Donne; Fyodor Dostoyevsky; George Eliot; T.S. Eliot; Euripedes; Graham Greene; Seamus Heaney; Homer; James Joyce; Franz Kafka; Czeslaw Milosz; Flannery O'Connor; Thomas Pynchon; Marilynne Robinson; Muriel Spark; Tom Stoppard; J.R.R. Tolkien; Sigrid Undset; Sheldon Vanauken; P.G. Wodehouse; W.B. Yeats
Too many to mention adequately of course, but here are some absolute essentials, again in alphabetical order:
American Movie; Annie Hall; The Battleship Potemkin; Beau Travail; The Conversation; Days of Heaven; Duck Soup; In the Mood for Love; Make Way for Tomorrow; Night of the Hunter; The Palm Beach Story; Sherlock, Jr.; Singin' in the Rain; Sunset Boulevard; The Thin Blue Line; The Third Man; There Will Be Blood; Yojimbo
I was raised in a home where classical music was just about the only thing we listened to. Since I grew up playing the cello, this stuck with me, and classical music still means more to me than any other type. A few of my favorite composers include:
J.S. Bach; Bela Bartok; Ludwig van Beethoven; Johannes Brahms; Anton Bruckner; Philip Glass; Charles Ives; Gustav Mahler; Sergei Prokofiev; Dmitri Shostakovitch; Ralph Vaughan Williams
I do of course love popular music as well, though I'm much less well versed in it. For me, above all others, two acts stand out as formative influences. The first is Paul Simon, the most important pop figure in my life. The second is the Allman Brothers Band. Beyond these two, a list of acts I really dig includes:
The Beach Boys; The Beatles; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; The Dirty Projectors; Randy Newman; Radiohead; Cat Stevens; Sufjan Stevens; TV on the Radio