[Crossposted from my Medium blog]
A few years ago, I was asked by a friend what news sources they should follow to understand the Syrian Civil War. I replied they shouldn’t follow any news at all. My recommendation instead was a six month break from Syrian news, supplemented by leisurely reading through six books on Syrian politics, economics, and culture. I pointed out they could read them on their phone just as conveniently as they could read tweets or articles. My friend was taken aback but followed the advice.
Critiques of news media are much more in vogue now than they were in 2015. People bemoan the poor factual accuracy or manifest political bias of today’s media, whether that means established newspapers like The New York Times or social networks like Facebook. But there is a more fundamental problem with news: it can provide information, but isn’t structured to educate you into someone who could understand this cherry-picked information. Formal education often fails to provide this vital foundation.
After six months, my friend thanked me. They said they now barely follow any news on Syria, but when they do it has gone from perplexing to understandable. The fragments of information no longer landed only as emotional bursts of excitement or anxiety, but rather helped contribute to a solid picture of the region. They asked me a more difficult question: what books should they read to understand not just Syria, but global society as a whole?
Books are incomplete instruments for instruction. They don’t respond to the reader and cannot directly answer questions, and they require a strange and systematic process of study that goes beyond mere reading. In physics education, for example, one will pair up the mastery of theories with tests of solving mathematical puzzles as well as a course of practical experiments that tie those to one’s senses. For the study of society, there would have to be analogues.
Further, true autodidacticism is a rare gift. To maintain motivation over a few months, learning has to be its own reward. This reward of learning must somehow be tied to understanding the world as it is, rather than pursuing theories for the sake of entertainment.
Much has happened throughout human history, and much is happening right now. Too much to ever fully catch up on. The focus should rather be on equipping someone with the theory and skills needed so they will process, absorb, and retain the information they encounter throughout their intellectual lives. This merits a methodological approach tailored to individual investigation and practical application.
The order in which one reads also matters. Important parts of certain books are unlocked by the understanding gained from another. This is obvious for disciplines like theoretical physics, but the same goes for a serious study of society.
While I have made it my core area of research, I can’t claim to fully understand society. All I could do was try to think of the most efficient way to acquire a measure of competency in the areas I pursued.
So with those caveats, I gave him a list of the sequence of books I recommend reading:
How to Read a Book — Mortimer Adler
This book convinced me that while skimming was perhaps useful for mining information, it would never be a viable path to rigor. Adler advocates a disciplined and deep reading of challenging books. The book lays out a systematic method that, if followed, notably increases the skill of reading comprehension to the level of most graduate programs, improving one’s ability to learn from books. You can then afford to read more slowly because you gain more information from each reading. This is a necessity for the systematic study of society. Examples of books you’ll want to read in such an intellectual pursuit are primary sources for case studies, books laying out political theory, economics, as well as the other books on this list. He wrote this book in the 1950s as his attempt at an antidote to shortening attention spans. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, we need his remedy much more than he could have possibly imagined.
2. The Republic — Plato
A design for the creation of a new ideal society, the ultimate aim of sociological investigation. Plato’s work is a nice example of both the strengths and the limits of a theory-driven approach. The book not only lays out the major research tasks needed to engineer such a society, but lays out a plan to construct it.
He introduces a decent theory of psychology, allowing for some basic predictions of how people will respond to changes in their social and material circumstances. The model of learning introduced is among the best I’ve found.
The quality of his models is sufficient to be worth knowing and occasionally using. His variant of the theory of cycles of social transformation, of how city states change between regimes of status- and emotion-driven regulation and their related political constitutions, remains predictive. The theories of psychology, education, and society are tied together into a theory-driven design for an elite.
The practicality of this book as a manual for such efforts is underrated. As an example, it illustrates how to dialogue under adversarial circumstances. This is useful for both for your own ability to manage information, and your ability to successfully interpret texts produced under such circumstances.
3. History of the Peloponnesian War — Thucydides
The ultimate primary source. Thucydides fought as a general during the Peloponnesian war and was ultimately exiled from Athens due to political machination. After the end of the war, he spent his energies and wealth to follow up on the connections, both friend and foe, he had built. He thought the role of a historian was to chronicle and competently navigate the era in which he lived to preserve its lessons for the future. Because Thucydides was a practitioner, and one who played a critical role in the events described, his account should be taken seriously.
A clear enough demonstration of excellent analysis, such that one can productively use his approach as a prototype. He successfully combines information sources such as interviews, texts, and personal experience of war and politics. This is then paired with the skilful application of theoretical constructs to analyze a concrete circumstance.
4. Politics — Aristotle
Classical sources credit Aristotle with 170 “constitutions”, that is, research papers describing the political structure and society of various Greek city-states. Many of these constitutions were likely written or drafted by his students. Of this extensive empirical research done in preparation for the Politics, the only constitution preserved is that of Athens. This marriage of empirical data and philosophy proves hard to beat.
Aristotle’s observations on Greek society should round out what was learned following Thucydides’ exhaustive account and help complete a basic understanding of a period of history one can then reason about. Further, an alternative frame of analysis of Greek politics allows for comparison with Thucydides’ often cynical explanations.
Aristotle critiques a number of Plato’s ideas, which should improve your understanding of the Republic, help you learn how to identify potential sociological reasoning flaws, and illustrate how to refute a sociological theory.
He demonstrates how to translate the analysis of social roles and professions into a generalized analysis of a society. Sociologists and economists have divorced the two, but they are inseparable when done well. This forms the basis of class analysis as used by later thinkers like Smith, Marx, and Veblen.
It is rare for a social scientist to examine social technology as lucidly. For example, the Aristotelian account of hierarchy and why it arises is superb. The conceptually clean distinctions between the different forms of interpersonal coordination can greatly augment one’s ability to navigate and study such patterns.
Finally, as an example of a good scientist and philosopher, he can be used to help understand scientists and philosophers in general.
5. On War — Carl von Clausewitz
Clausewitz was a Prussian staff officer in the wars against Napoleon and later became an influential military theorist. Good military theory is rarely spread publicly, but Clausewitz’s wife was a prominent noblewoman who published his magnum opus after his death.
His work provides a demonstration of excellent theoretical sociological methodology, especially as regards the proper use of case studies, how to tell the general from the particular, and how to tell the fundamental from the subordinate.
Clausewitz’s model of how armies function provides a foundation for understanding the methodology and conclusions of Great Founder Theory as applied to the military.
This book shows how an essentially philosophical approach can be brought far enough to be practically useful.
6. Great Founder Theory — Samo Burja
A work in progress, but a decent introduction. This explains my current sociological paradigm.
7. The Evolution of Civilizations — Carroll Quigley
This book provides a good macro theory of civilization. Much of the pre-historical speculation can be skipped, but the overviews of historical civilizations provide an example of first-rate institutional analysis.
Quigley’s career demonstrates an excellent piece of sociological methodology around gathering information to test your theory: he builds a theory that emphasizes the importance of elites, and subsequently goes and talks to members of the elite to test and apply the theory. Note, however, that he is not a practitioner, so his usefulness as an exemplar who tests and acts on their theory is somewhat limited.
8. Persecution and the Art of Writing — Leo Strauss
Thinkers can provoke social or legal penalties in all societies. An important way to avoid attack that can derail a career, intellectual project, or a life is to learn to write between the lines. Leo Strauss’ work helps you learn improved text interpretation procedures by teaching you to read between the lines, representing a good upgrade on what you learned from Adler. It is a very good practice to attempt a ‘Straussian’ reading of a text even when there is no hidden message, since it entices to a higher level of information processing.
At this point, you can continue on your journey or recurse to reread Quigley, Plato, and Thucydides. Quigley writes obliquely and at a distance regarding Anglo-American elites. Thucydides is a political exile from Athens. While Thucydides is significantly freed from constraints and retribution, he will continue to have notable conflicts of interest and messaging agendas. Plato writes trickily for pedagogical purposes, intentionally setting challenges and puzzles for the reader, hoping the reader uses his text as an obstacle course to grow stronger.
Someone who makes it through this list, if they approach the texts with the rigor advised by Adler, will have the foundational understanding necessary for interpreting social events. They will be better equipped to do so than the vast majority of people.
The most important thing to be gained from these texts is a set of methodological tools, a way of thinking about and interpreting social events, that one can then use to generate one’s own insights about society. These authors try to bridge the gaps between the practitioner, the theorist, and the empiricist. This is something a great sociologist must do. One of the most tragic flaws a historian can have is a myopic interest in events, rather than societies. The most tragic flaw of a social scientist is the ignorance of history that trivially rebuts the most beautiful statistically-derived or philosophically-derived theory of society.
Secondarily, these authors provide superb examples of what good sociology looks like, which can then be used to construct one’s model of real expertise in this domain. This is critical for evaluating the host of supposed experts who claim to have an understanding of society that gives authority to their interpretations of events. Separating the wheat from the chaff is necessary for navigating the contemporary discourse without being misled.
Many others have since asked me for such lists, so I’ve kept it around and shared it whenever my friends or acquaintances have asked for book recommendations. Now you have it. Will you take a break from the news to read and think?