The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written

The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith

Published in 1998

The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written is a recent addition to the Letters Republic project, brought in because it affirms important early works of the BCE and early Common Era, particularly fundamental religious and philosophical texts that were undervalued by other Great Books lists (Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the work of Maimonodes, and the Qur’an, for example). 

The list considers each early work for its formative importance: did it form the backbone of a major human culture? Or, likewise, did it formalize an art or science like history or astronomy. Literary works, on the other hand, are given short shrift. You won’t find Aesop or Aeschylus here. Fiction accounts for only 13 of the 100 authors, and many are just social allegories (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress, Candide, 1984). In short, Influential Books is not a list of beautiful art or brilliant ideas, but a list of movements. What books lit the fire of our major revolutions?

After breezing through antiquity and the middle ages in its first third, Influential Books settles into a run of  philosophy and social science giants from the last 500 years, occasionally interrupted by a hard science breakthrough. It makes you wonder what we mean when we say a book is influential. Influential in how we think, how we socialize, in what we know of our world? Sure, fine. But what about influential in how we feel? Where is Crime and Punishment or Wuthering Heights? How about Tristram Shandy or Beloved? By keeping the categories broad, author Martin Seymour-Smith tries his darnedest to get it all in, but quickly runs out of space.

Chinese classic texts I Ching
2 Jewish scripture Hebrew Bible
3 Homer Iliad and Odyssey
4 Hindu scripture Upanishads
5 Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching
6 Zoroastrian scripture Avesta
7 Confucius Analects
8 Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War
9 Hippocrates Works
10 Aristotle Works
11 Herodotus Histories
12 Plato The Republic
13 Euclid Elements
14 Theravada Buddhist scripture Dhammapada (Path of the Dharma)
15 Virgil Aeneid
16 Lucretius De Rerum Natura
17 Philo of Alexandria Allegorical Expositions of the Holy Laws
18 Christian scripture New Testament
19 Plutarch Parallel Lives
20 Cornelius Tacitus Annals, From the Death of the Divine Augustus
21 Valentinus Gospel of Truth (Gnostic text)
22 Marcus Aurelius Meditations
23 Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism
24 Plotinus Enneads
25 Augustine of Hippo Confessions
26 Muslim scripture Quran
27 Moses Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed
28 Text of Judaic mysticism Kabbalah
29 Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae
30 Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy
31 Desiderius Erasmus In Praise of Folly
32 Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince
33 Martin Luther On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
34 François Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel
35 John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion
36 Nicolaus Copernicus On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
37 Michel de Montaigne Essays
38 Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote
39 Johannes Kepler Harmony of the Worlds
40 Francis Bacon Novum Organum
41 William Shakespeare First Folio
42 Galileo Galilei Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
43 René Descartes Discourse on Method
44 Thomas Hobbes Leviathan
45 Gottfried Leibniz Works
46 Blaise Pascal Pensées
47 Baruch de Spinoza Ethics
48 John Bunyan Pilgrim’s Progress
49 Isaac Newton Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
50 John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding
51 George Berkeley Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
52 Giambattista Vico The New Science
53 David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature
54 Denis Diderot (ed.) Encyclopédie
55 Samuel Johnson A Dictionary of the English Language
56 Voltaire Candide
57 Thomas Paine Common Sense
58 Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations
59 Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
60 Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason
61 Jean-Jacques Rousseau Confessions
62 Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France
63 Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
64 William Godwin An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
65 Thomas Robert Malthus An Essay on the Principle of Population
66 George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit
67 Arthur Schopenhauer The World as Will and Idea
68 Auguste Comte The Course in Positive Philosophy
69 Carl von Clausewitz On War
70 Søren Kierkegaard Either/Or
71 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Communist Manifesto
72 Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience
73 Charles Darwin The Origin of Species
74 John Stuart Mill On Liberty
75 Herbert Spencer First Principles
76 Gregor Mendel Experiments on Plant Hybridization
77 Leo Tolstoy War and Peace
78 James Clerk Maxwell A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
79 Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra
80 Sigmund Freud The Interpretation of Dreams
81 William James Pragmatism
82 Albert Einstein Relativity
83 Vilfredo Pareto The Mind and Society
84 Carl Jung Psychological Types
85 Martin Buber I and Thou
86 Franz Kafka The Trial
87 Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery
88 John Maynard Keynes General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money
89 Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness
90 Friedrich von Hayek The Road to Serfdom
91 Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex
92 Norbert Wiener Cybernetics
93 George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
94 George Gurdjieff Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson
95 Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations
96 Noam Chomsky Syntactic Structures
97 Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
98 Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique
99 Mao Zedong Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (Little Red Book)
(attributed)
100 B. F. Skinner Beyond Freedom and Dignity

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