Becoming Civilized

According to the ancient Greeks, anyone who didn't know Homer was considered uncivilized, a barbarian. Inasmuch as the liberal arts are a powerful force for making us more human, they had a good point. If we want to become more human, we need to read the great works of our civilization. Knowing about peoples and cultures from the past can give us empathy, understanding, and appreciation both for our ancestors and for people that we encounter today who are very different from us. For those of us who did not receive a liberal arts education, looking at the list of Great Books can be intimidating. How would we ever find time to read them all, much less achieve a good understanding of them? This could discourage us from even beginning. Alex Stepanov, primary designer and implementer of the C++ Standard Template Library, understands this problem. In order to encourage his fellow programmers at the company A9 to begin the process of becoming civilized, he taught a truly outstanding course entitled "Civilizing the Barbarians," in which he gave an introduction to the great works and ideas of the West and also promoted his Short Canon, that is, the absolutely essential works of Western civilization. While still requiring years of reading, this shorter list is much more achievable.


Short Canon

  • Homer
    • The Iliad
    • The Odyssey
  • Plutarch
    • Parallel Lives
  • Plato
    • Symposium: On love
    • Apology, Crito, Phaedo: Trial, imprisonment, and death of Socrates
    • Gorgias: On justice
    • Republic
  • Euclid
    • The Elements
  • Bible
    • Old Testament
      • Genesis
      • Exodus
      • Samuel 1 and 2
      • Kings 1 and 2
      • Jonah
    • New Testament
      • Luke
      • Acts
  • Shakespeare

Note: This is a work in progress, since the course is not yet complete. Books will be added here as they are covered in the course.

For the specific editions of each work that Mr. Stepanov recommends, please click here.