The best books to make you rethink modern politics and industrial civilization

Why am I passionate about this?

William Ophuls served as a Foreign Service Officer in Washington, Abidjan, and Tokyo before receiving a PhD in political science from Yale University in 1973. His Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity published in 1977 laid bare the ecological, social, and political challenges confronting modern industrial civilization. It was honored by the Kammerer and Sprout awards. After teaching briefly at Northwestern University, he became an independent scholar and author. He has since published a number of works extending and deepening his original argument, most prominently Requiem for Modern Politics in 1997, Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology in 2011, and Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail in 2013.


I wrote...

Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology

By William Ophuls,

Book cover of Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology

What is my book about?

We are embarked on an industrial Titanic running on fossil fuels that have caused a climate crisis, soon to become a civilizational crisis. Making the deck chairs from recyclable materials and fueling the boilers with biofuels is futile. In the end, the ship is doomed by the laws of thermodynamics and implacable geological and biological limits that have already begun to bite. Thus we are headed for a post-industrial future that will resemble the pre-industrial past in many respects.

I argue for an essentially Platonic politics of consciousness dedicated to inner cultivation rather than the external pursuit of perpetual growth. We might then achieve a way of life that is materially and institutionally simple, but culturally and spiritually rich.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Republic of Plato

William Ophuls Why did I love this book?

This bedrock text is the fons et origo of all Western thinking on politics and is still as challenging and profound as on the day it was composed. It is also a deep critique of civilization, an epistemological guide, and a primer on how to live a good life. A lot in one book! It used to be the one work that every college graduate had to read. Alas, no more.

By Allan Bloom (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Republic of Plato as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Long regarded as the most accurate rendering of Plato's Republic that has yet been published, this widely acclaimed work is the first strictly literal translation of a timeless classic. In addition to the annotated text, there is also a rich and valuable essay,as well as indices,which will better enable the reader to approach the heart of Plato's intention. This new edition includes a new introduction by acclaimed critic Adam Kirsch, setting the work in its intellectual context for a new generation of readers.


Book cover of Walden and Civil Disobedience

William Ophuls Why did I love this book?

Another profound critique of “civilized” values. Thoreau is like Plato in that he always drills down to bedrock truth: What is it that makes for a good life? Individually and collectively?

Be prepared for longueurs. Those who want a pithier critique along more contemporary lines might enjoy the works of the late Ivan Illich, especially Tools for Conviviality.

By Henry David Thoreau,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Walden and Civil Disobedience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Henry David Thoreau reflects on life, politics, and society in these two inspiring masterworks: Walden and Civil Disobedience.

In 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin that he built with his own hands along the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Shedding the trivial ties that he felt bound much of humanity, Thoreau reaped from the land both physically and mentally, and pursued truth in the quiet of nature. In Walden, he explains how separating oneself from the world of men can truly awaken the sleeping self. Thoreau holds fast to the notion that you have not truly existed until you…


Book cover of The First and Second Discourses

William Ophuls Why did I love this book?

Rousseau took up the critique of civilized politics where Plato left off. All later critics of capitalism, technology, and media—e.g., Karl Marx, Jacques Ellul, and Neil Postman—stand in his debt. And many of his most radical insights have been amply confirmed by contemporary anthropologists. In short, a rich playground for the intellect.

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Roger D. Masters, Judith R. Masters (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The First and Second Discourses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As one of the most respected translations of this key work of 18th-century philosophy, this edition of First and Second Discourses contains abundant notes that range from simple explanations to speculative interpretations.


Book cover of Memories, Dreams, Reflections

William Ophuls Why did I love this book?

This memoir by one of the founders of depth psychology is an exemplar of the examined life urged by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. In the process, Jung introduces the reader to the psyche, to the unconscious, and the archetypes that shape our conscious experience. Often accused of being a mystic, Jung is actually quite down to earth, and his subtle critique of modern life is right on the mark. Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents makes a nice complement to Jung.

By C.G. Jung, Aniela Jaffe (editor), Clara Winston (translator) , Richard Winston (translator)

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Memories, Dreams, Reflections as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I can understand myself only in the light of inner happenings. It is these that make up the singularity of my life, and with these my autobiography deals' Carl Jung

An eye-opening biography of one of the most influential psychiatrists of the modern age, drawing from his lectures, conversations, and own writings.

In the spring of 1957, when he was eighty-one years old, Carl Gustav Jung undertook the telling of his life story. Memories, Dreams, Reflections is that book, composed of conversations with his colleague and friend Aniela Jaffe, as well as chapters written in his own hand, and other…


Book cover of Tristes Tropiques

William Ophuls Why did I love this book?

A classic work of philosophical anthropology containing the record of one anthropologist’s search for what it means to be human. Part personal memoir, part vivid travelogue, part scientific milestone, part critique of civilization, and all tour de force, the work defies easy categorization. Another rich playground for the intellect.

By Doreen Weightman, Claude Levi-Strauss, John Weightman

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Tristes Tropiques as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A milestone in the study of culture from the father of structural anthropology

This watershed work records Claude Lévi-Strauss's search for "a human society reduced to its most basic expression." From the Amazon basin through the dense upland jungles of Brazil, Lévi-Strauss found the societies he was seeking among the Caduveo, Bororo, Nambikwara, and Tupi-Kawahib. More than merely recounting his time in their midst, Tristes Tropiques places the cultural practices of these peoples in a global context and extrapolates a fascinating theory of culture that has given the book an importance far beyond the fields of anthropology and continental philosophy.…


You might also like...

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

Book cover of A Diary in the Age of Water

Nina Munteanu Author Of Darwin's Paradox

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Writer Ecologist Mother Teacher Explorer

Nina's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This climate fiction novel follows four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. Told mostly through a diary and drawing on scientific observation and personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Her gritty memoir describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity.

Single mother and limnologist Lynna witnesses disturbing events as she works for the powerful international utility CanadaCorp. Fearing for the welfare of her rebellious teenage daughter, Lynna sets in motion a series of events that tumble out of her control with calamitous consequence. The novel explores identity, relationship, and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

What is this book about?

Centuries from now, in a post-climate change dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, discovers a diary that may provide her with the answers to her yearning for Earth’s past—to the Age of Water, when the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity in hatred—events that have plagued her nightly in dreams. Looking for answers to this holocaust—and disturbed by her macabre longing for connection to the Water Twins—Kyo is led to the diary of a limnologist from the time just prior to the destruction. This gritty memoir describes a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in utopian, political, and philosophy?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about utopian, political, and philosophy.

Utopian Explore 66 books about utopian
Political Explore 3,374 books about political
Philosophy Explore 1,586 books about philosophy