The best books about liberty

5 authors have picked their favorite books about liberty and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

Spinoza on Human Freedom

By Matthew J. Kisner,

Book cover of Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life

Continuing on the theme of how to make Spinoza accessible to non-specialists, this is an excellent study of the many dimensions of Spinoza’s moral philosophy. For a long time, most of the literature on Spinoza was devoted to his metaphysics and epistemology, essentially Parts One and Two of the Ethics. Kisner’s was one of the first books devoted to the work’s moral dimensions in Parts Three, Four, and Five --  the ethics of the Ethics, so to speak. He covers all the right ground: freedom, happiness, responsibility, benevolence, and so on, and does so in an engaging and illuminating way.


Who am I?

I have immersed myself in the study of seventeenth-century philosophy for almost forty years. Over that time, I have become particularly devoted to Spinoza. This is because, first, I think he got it all pretty much right; his views on religion, on human nature, and especially on what it is to lead a good life have always struck me as correct and relevant. You can be a Spinozist today, three and a half centuries after his death, and it would make perfect sense. Second, Spinoza is endlessly fascinating. I find that every time I read him⎯and I’ve been reading and re-reading him for a long time now⎯it gets more difficult. Just when you think you know him, there are always new questions that arise and new puzzles to solve.


I wrote...

Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

By Steven Nadler,

Book cover of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

What is my book about?

In 1656, after being excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community for “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” the young Bento (Baruch) de Spinoza abandoned his family’s import business to dedicate his life to philosophy. He soon became notorious across Europe for his views on God, free will, the Bible, and miracles, as well as for his critique of organized religion and his uncompromising defense of freedom of thought and expression. Yet the radicalism of Spinoza’s views has long obscured the fact that his primary reason for turning to philosophy was to answer one of our most urgent questions: How can we lead a good life and enjoy happiness in a world without a providential God?

In this book, I discuss Spinoza’s ideas in the context of his life and times and show how his work can provide us today with a guide to living one’s best life.

Four Essays on Liberty

By Isaiah Berlin,

Book cover of Four Essays on Liberty

I mention this book as a way to listen to some old hour-long video talks by the sage Isaiah Berlin. He did, in fact, hate to write, but he loved talking. After reading any of his several essays, go right to the meat. Which will give the political, philosophical How-to Guide to leading a Nazi, Marxist or Terrorist revolution. I give talks and podcasts on the biological psychiatry of such evils and he is my go-to guy.


Who am I?

Philosophy is defined as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” Put another way, it is not so much the study of things and phenomena, but the derivative question below the veneer of what things are. I am interested in everything, how everything works, but also why it, and all of nature, including the mind and eyelashes, exist in the first place. I can remember back to childhood always thinking like this. This involves grasping for knowledge of both the details and global contexts of everything, whether it’s biology, chemistry, religion, neuroscience, horticulture, violence, goodness, hockey, or even what Plato was trying to say.


I wrote...

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain

By James Fallon,

Book cover of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain

What is my book about?

For his first fifty-eight years, James Fallon was by all appearances a normal guy. A successful neuroscientist and professor, he'd been raised in a loving family, married his high school sweetheart, and had three kids and lots of friends. Then he learned a shocking truth that would not only disrupt his personal and professional life, but would lead him to question the very nature of his own identity.

While researching serial killers, he uncovered a pattern in their brain scans that helped explain their cold and violent behavior. Astonishingly, his own scan matched that pattern. And a few months later he learned that he was descended from a long line of murderers. Fallon set out to reconcile the truth about his own brain with everything he knew as a scientist about the mind, behavior, and personality.

Liberalism

By Domenico Losurdo, Gregory Elliott (translator),

Book cover of Liberalism: A Counter-History

Italian philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History represents one of the most ambitious attempts to conceptually and historically tie the liberal tradition to the politics of slavery, empire, and genocide. What I find to be most evocative about Losurdo’s “counter-history” is both his sweeping narrative of the liberal tradition balanced against a close reading of key figures in that tradition. Losurdo provides an important critique of liberalism, and provides us with the analytic and methodological tools to interrogate its legacy, its past, its future.


Who am I?

Dillon Stone Tatum is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Francis Marion University. His research interests are on the history, development, and politics of liberal internationalism, international political theory, and critical security studies.


I wrote...

Liberalism and Transformation: The Global Politics of Violence and Intervention

By Dillon S. Tatum,

Book cover of Liberalism and Transformation: The Global Politics of Violence and Intervention

What is my book about?

Liberalism and Transformation is the first scholarly work that explores the historical, philosophical, and intellectual development of global liberalism since the nineteenth century in the context of the deployment of violence, force, and intervention. Using an approach that includes interpretive and contextual analysis of texts from writers, philosophers, and policy-makers across nearly two centuries, as well as historiographical and historical analysis of archival documents (some of which have been recently declassified) and other media.

Liberalism and Transformation narrates the messy history of emancipatory liberalism and its engagement with issues of war and peace. The book contributes to both a rethinking of liberal democracy and its relationship to world politics, as well as the effects of liberal internationalism on global processes. 

Freedom

By Orlando Patterson,

Book cover of Freedom: Volume I: Freedom In The Making Of Western Culture

I have met Orlando only once, alas, at the university where he has taught for many years (Harvard), he is both a novelist and historical sociologist. For a Black scholar originating from Kingston, Jamaica, to write approvingly of forms of freedom that he believes ‘made’ Western culture, when that culture arguably in both its ancient Greek and its modern Euro-American modes was also based on slavery, is in itself very remarkable. This is the first of a two-volume study.


Who am I?

My Democracy book was the summation of my views to that date (2018) on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as a political system, in both its ancient and its modern forms. I’d been an activist and advocate of democracy since my undergraduate days (at Oxford, in the late 1960s – interesting times!). As I was writing the book the world of democracy suddenly took unexpected, and to me undesirable turns, not least in the United States and my own U.K. An entire issue of an English-language Italian political-philosophy journal was devoted to the book in 2019, and in 2021 a Companion to the reception of Athenian democracy in subsequent epochs was dedicated to me.


I wrote...

Democracy: A Life

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Democracy: A Life

What is my book about?

Democracy today, globally, is in crisis—both in the liberal democratic West and in the vast tracts of the globe where authoritarianism or dictatorship are the preferred modes. All democracies today are representative, not direct, and inclusive. The word democracy and the original forms of democracy were invented in Ancient Greece, together with the fundamental concepts of freedom to participate and freedom of political speech. But ancient democracies were direct and exclusive. What if anything can we learn from an accessible study of the ways ancient Greeks did democratic politics? What has immediately prompted me to choose this book and theme is, of course, the near-murder of Salman Rushdie, a victim of the frighteningly illiberal current that dominates especially in non- or anti-democratic cultures today.

The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece

By Kurt A. Raaflaub, Renate Franciscono (illustrator),

Book cover of The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece

Kurt, a Swiss-German scholar who spent much of his career in Germany and the United States (Brown University), is an old and beloved friend of mine but I would have chosen this book even if he had not been. Its origins go far back, to the author’s Habilitationsschrift (Free University, Berlin, 1979), but it was completely updated for its English reincarnation. Its seven chapters take the story of Greek freedom, both internal and external, both political and cultural, from its origins in the 8th century BCE down to the Roman conquest and occupation of Greece in the 2nd century.


Who am I?

My Democracy book was the summation of my views to that date (2018) on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as a political system, in both its ancient and its modern forms. I’d been an activist and advocate of democracy since my undergraduate days (at Oxford, in the late 1960s – interesting times!). As I was writing the book the world of democracy suddenly took unexpected, and to me undesirable turns, not least in the United States and my own U.K. An entire issue of an English-language Italian political-philosophy journal was devoted to the book in 2019, and in 2021 a Companion to the reception of Athenian democracy in subsequent epochs was dedicated to me.


I wrote...

Democracy: A Life

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Democracy: A Life

What is my book about?

Democracy today, globally, is in crisis—both in the liberal democratic West and in the vast tracts of the globe where authoritarianism or dictatorship are the preferred modes. All democracies today are representative, not direct, and inclusive. The word democracy and the original forms of democracy were invented in Ancient Greece, together with the fundamental concepts of freedom to participate and freedom of political speech. But ancient democracies were direct and exclusive. What if anything can we learn from an accessible study of the ways ancient Greeks did democratic politics? What has immediately prompted me to choose this book and theme is, of course, the near-murder of Salman Rushdie, a victim of the frighteningly illiberal current that dominates especially in non- or anti-democratic cultures today.

The Fiery Trial

By Eric Foner,

Book cover of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Historians and popular writers typically come either to praise or to bury Lincoln. The author of a seminal 1970 study of the political culture of the early Republican Party, Foner here examines Lincoln’s thoughts and actions as he grew from being a young free soiler—who held some unfortunately characteristic Midwestern attitudes toward race—into the far wiser president who advocated voting rights for black veterans in his final speech.

Lincoln’s defenders and detractors too often cherry pick his statements on civil rights, as if the Lincoln who debated Stephen Douglas was the same man who invited Frederick Douglass to his second inaugural, but Foner’s careful attention to context reveals a complicated yet ever evolving wartime leader.


Who am I?

My father’s ancestors had deep ties to the South, owning slaves in North Carolina and fighting for the Confederacy. Raised in a household that was also home to a paternal grandmother born in Nashville in 1885, I grew up fascinated by the troubled, complicated world of the Old South. Over the years I have written nine books, all of which chronicle the intersections of race and politics in the nineteenth century. Since 1987 I have had the pleasure of teaching about the Civil War era to students in my home institution of Le Moyne College, but also at Colgate University, Cornell University, and the University College Dublin. Those classes never witnessed a dull moment.


I wrote...

Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

By Douglas R. Egerton,

Book cover of Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

What is my book about?

Many Americans are familiar with the fabled Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first African American regiment to be raised in the North during the Civil War, thanks to the 1989 film Glory. Because that movie ended with the July 18, 1863, attack on Battery Wagner, filmgoers mistakenly believed that was the end of the regiment’s story, or that all of its soldiers perished during that battle.

My book, which was the co-recipient of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize, told the story of fourteen soldiers, including two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who served in the three pioneering Massachusetts regiments. Although few of them were flawless individuals, their heroism both in the face of battle and, in some cases, during the Reconstruction battles, humbled me as I sought to recover their lives.

Tropical Freedom

By Ikuko Asaka,

Book cover of Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation

This is transnational scholarship at its best. Asaka tells the story of how the history of emancipation in Canada and the United States is intertwined into the history of efforts to exile freed people to tropical climates around the world where they could be used to create a monopoly over indigenous lands. This is a tale of hemispheric proportions, taking the reader from North America to the Caribbean and the East Coast of Africa, but of global importance – telling as it does the history of the racialization of freedom in the Age of Empire. Just as important, and told here in arresting fashion, are the ways in which black activists contested and remade those spaces.


Who am I?

I am a historian of the United States' global pasts. What excites me most in both research and teaching is approaching familiar topics from unconventional angles whether through unfamiliar objects or comparative perspectives. To do so I have approached the US past from the perspective of its emigrants and the global history of gold rushes, and am doing so now in two projects: one on the ice trade and another on the United States’ imperial relationship with Africa between the Diamond Rush of 1867 and the First World War. I currently teach at the University of Oxford where I am a Fellow in History at St Peter’s College.


I wrote...

Made in Britain: Nation and Emigration in Nineteenth-Century America

By Stephen Tuffnell,

Book cover of Made in Britain: Nation and Emigration in Nineteenth-Century America

What is my book about?

The United States was made in Britain. For over a hundred years following independence, a diverse and lively crowd of emigrant Americans left the United States for Britain. From Liverpool and London, they produced Atlantic capitalism and managed transfers of goods, culture, and capital that were integral to US nation-building. In British social clubs, emigrants forged relationships with elite Britons that were essential not only to tranquil transatlantic connections, but also to fighting southern slavery. As the United States descended into Civil War, emigrant Americans decisively shaped the Atlantic-wide battle for public opinion. 

Blending the histories of foreign relations, capitalism, nation-formation, and transnational connection, Stephen Tuffnell compellingly demonstrates that the United States’ struggle toward independent nationhood was entangled at every step with the world’s most powerful empire of the time. With deep research and vivid detail, Made in Britain uncovers this hidden story and presents a bold new perspective on nineteenth-century trans-Atlantic relations.

Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves

By Kirk Savage,

Book cover of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America

Kirk Savage’s book was one of the first critical monographs focusing on the presence and problems of race representation in American monument culture. Written well before monument removals in the 21st century, Savage identified what would become one of the central issues of our time: how Americans have created and sustained racial injustice in the public square via monuments and memorials. This book elevated the study of monuments in American classrooms—and society. The recent controversy over whether to remove the Emancipation Monument by Thomas Ball from public squares in Boston and Washington, DC indicates that Americans have been wrestling with the problems of monuments for a very long time.


Who am I?

Laura A. Macaluso researches and writes about monuments, museums, and material culture. Interested in monuments since the 1990s, the current controversies and iconoclasm (monument removals) have reshaped society across the globe. She works at the intersection of public art and public history, at places such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon.


I wrote...

Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World

By Laura A. Macaluso,

Book cover of Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World

What is my book about?

Monument Culture brings together a collection of essays from scholars and cultural critics working on the meanings of monuments and memorials in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a time of great social and political change. The book presents a broad view of the challenges facing individuals and society in making sense of public monuments with contested meanings.

From the United States to Europe to Africa to Australia and New Zealand to South America and beyond, the contributors tackle the ways in which different places approach monuments in a landscape where institutions and ideas are under direct challenge from political and social unrest. It also discusses sharply changed attitudes about the representation of history and memory in the public sphere.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism

By David Harvey,

Book cover of A Brief History of Neoliberalism

This is the book that put “neoliberalism” on the map in contemporary debates. Published years before the Global Financial Crisis, it offers a global and historical perspective on the neoliberal order. I have some questions about Harvey’s definitions—especially his claim that China is a neoliberal country—but no one can beat him for mastery of economic data and trends.


Who am I?

I grew up outside of Flint, Michigan, which during my lifetime went from being a pretty nice place to live to being a perpetual basket case that still doesn’t have clean water. I’ve always been very concerned with the question of what went wrong, and very early in my graduate education, it became clear to me that the neoliberal agenda that started under Reagan has been at the root of the economic rot and destruction that has afflicted Flint and so many other places. That personal connection, combined with my background in theology, makes me well-suited to talk about how political belief systems “hook” us, even when they hurt us.


I wrote...

Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital

By Adam Kotsko,

Book cover of Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital

What is my book about?

Most books on neoliberalism focus on public policy and economic statistics, without really addressing the core question: if neoliberalism has failed so spectacularly to deliver economic stability and shared prosperity, why do we keep going along with it? My answer is that neoliberalism is not just a political or economic system, but a moral one based on the value of free choice. But the freedom it offers is a trap – the system gives us just enough freedom to take the blame for bad outcomes, but not enough to really change our circumstances.

The Giver

By Lois Lowry,

Book cover of The Giver

The Giver is close to my heart, as it played a huge role in my development as an author and was one of the first book recommendations my mother gave me. This novel shows you what it could take for humanity to reach perfection, and makes you question whether perfection is something really worth reaching for. It also introduced me to the wonderful dystopian genre, and showed me that literature is much more than entertainment: it’s a whole world of important messages that the world needs to hear.


Who am I?

I am a dystopian author who loves using writing to spread awareness about different social issues in society. As an avid reader, I feel like nowadays, the quality of literature has decreased. Authors have been focusing more on how close to trending topics and easy-to-read a book is than on its depth, themes, or any kind of element that is crucial in storytelling. This is why many recently published books have been difficult for me to connect with. As an author myself, I want that to change. Here’s a list of books that are so well written that it’ll feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster—of emotions.


I wrote...

A Gleaming Shard of Glass

By Sowon Kim,

Book cover of A Gleaming Shard of Glass

What is my book about?

Every six months on Regulation Day, children from the honorable city of Nepenthe take a required intelligence examination. Those who pass resume their lives as valuable students, but those who fail are imprisoned, no longer considered human.

When fourteen-year-old Grecia Rivera fails the examination—despite being one of the best artists of her age—her life is turned upside down. To avoid her prison sentence, she must abandon everyone she loves and escape from Nepenthe. But Grecia soon discovers that the outside world is just as brutal as the city she left behind. Now trapped within a society of runaways, Grecia must risk her life for freedom once again.

Or, view all 29 books about liberty

New book lists related to liberty

All book lists related to liberty

Bookshelves related to liberty