The best books for deep thinkers about politics, democracy, and philosophy

Matt Qvortrup Author Of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict
By Matt Qvortrup

The Books I Picked & Why

Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History

By Immanuel Kant, David L. Colclasure

Book cover of Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History

Why this book?

Immanuel Kant is often seen as a pure philosopher, one who was interested in abstract principles. He was that, but his essays on "Perpetual Peace" and especially his essay "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective" are literally the best things I have ever read, and have so much resonance for us today.

Democracies tend not to go to war as much as dictatorships because the people are likely to be the ones who are killed on the battlefield. In Kant’s time Frederick the Great was able to go to war whenever he wanted. Today, Vladimir Putin can go to war without asking anyone and the people, and Russian conscripts too – suffer the consequences. Kant’s experience of living in a militarised state governed by a single man is eerily relevant today. Reading this thinker tells as much about contemporary politics as it teaches us about 18th Century Prussian warfare.

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Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought

By Hannah Arendt, Jerome Kohn

Book cover of Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought

Why this book?

Hannah Arendt is a political theorist who is quite insightful. She always had a certain fascination with men and women of action, the ones who could shape history by interacting with other people. As she put it in one of her essays, “The Greeks always used such metaphors as flute-playing, dancing, healing, and seafaring to distinguish political from other activities…Political institutions, no matter how well or how badly designed, depend for continued existence upon acting men; their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into being.” 

At a time when we see true heroes in Ukraine, it is worth reading these essays which make clear that, “true greatness was understood to reside in deeds and words, and was rather represented by Achilles, the doer of great deeds and the speaker of great words, than by the maker and fabricator, even the poet and writer.”  

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The Prince

By Niccolò Machiavelli, Tim Parks

Book cover of The Prince

Why this book?

The Prince is a brutal book. It sets out to be advice for a would-be tyrant. But the book is so much more than that. Machiavelli, was a democrat, a man who believed in popular participation. And he arguably wrote this book as a kind of warning. I love this book and quote it all the time, not least because it contains timeless insights, such as that the greatness of a leader depends on the quality of their advisors, and the maxim that once you take over a new state, you need to “make a list of the crimes that need to be committed, and let others do them immediately for you.” Yes, this is brutal, but we need to look at the world as it is if we want to improve it.

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On Liberty

By John Stuart Mill

Book cover of On Liberty

Why this book?

While the cover only lists John Stuart as the author, he acknowledged in his autobiography that the book was “directly and literally our joint production” with his wife Harriet. And certainly, the book has a different tone than ‘his’ other works; less academic, and more lively. Anyway, what they wanted to show was that the “only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” This is so relevant today when autocrats from Beijing, through Moscow, to Budapest are muzzling voices with different degrees of severity. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. And the evidence shows that dictators and despots are fallible. Democracy works. Dictatorship does not. This book is a classic statement of an idea that we need to remember.

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Aristotle's Politics

By Aristotle, Carnes Lord

Book cover of Aristotle's Politics

Why this book?

Reading Aristotle is easier than you might think. Even those who are not able to read him in the original Greek cannot fail to be enamoured by his enthusiasm. What is so fascinating about Aristotle’s Politika (in English normally translated as The Politics) is the way this enormously erudite man got carried away babbling and digressing in his lectures. Aristotle, simply, could not help but tell his students about a certain Hippodamus (“the son of Eryphon”). This 5th Century BC Athenian was, “the first man not engaged in politics to speak on the subject of the best Constitution,” and, according to Aristotle, this first philosopher of politics, was, “somewhat eccentric in his general mode of life owing to his desire for distinction [he] lived fussily, with a quantity of hair and expensive ornaments and a quantity of cheap clothes – not only in winter but also in the summer.” Wonderful isn’t it?

Of course, this is not the reason this book is a classic. Those interested in democracy will find in this book the best argument for government by the many. Like modern political scientists who have found that terrorism is caused by disenfranchisement, Aristotle recognised that the lack of political influence breeds anger, aggression, and ultimately violence. For “men…cause revolutions when they are not allowed to share honours and if they are unjustly or insolently treated.” Aristotle was probably also a bit of a liberal, at least he wrote that “measures must be contrived that bring about lasting prosperity for all,” and even had a policy that suggested how the ‘needy’ should be “supplied with capital to start them in business.” 

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