The Reading Room

The OLL blog explores the fascinating, vital, and often surprising texts and people that fill our library. Come talk in our library!

A Goodbye to a Good Man

By: Michael Zigismund

The movement for human freedom just lost one of its great champions. The Cato Institute’s “North Star,” David Boaz, passed away on June 7, 2024, at the age of 70. I commend you to read the many heartfelt remembrances already…

Joseph Priestley: “Enlightenment Man”

By: Walter Donway

If anyone does, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) warrants the description “Renaissance man.” But, to avoid confusion, since Priestley lived a couple of centuries after the Renaissance, let me argue here that this “Enlightenment man,” as…

The Market for Liberty in Ancient China

By: Roderick T. Long

In his 1956 book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, free-market economist Ludwig von Mises wrote:
“The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples…

Crouchbackus Contritus: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy as a Chivalric Romance

By: Nathaniel Birzer

Several far-better known and experienced reviewers than I have written on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy, noting the resemblance of its major romantic sub-plot to the prophet Hosea while at the same time generally consigning…

John Milton—Secret Fan of The Crown?

By: Daniel Ross Goodman

For those of you who, like me, became hooked on Netflix’s award-winning drama about Queen Elizabeth II and the modern British monarchy during the Covid lockdown (or, in my case, shortly thereafter), the end of The Crown was somewhat…

OLL’s May Birthday: Friedrich von Gentz (May 2, 1764 – June 9, 1832)

By: Peter Carl Mentzel

This May’s Birthday Essay is in honor of the political journalist and statesman Friedrich Gentz. Though born a commoner, he called himself von Gentz after he was knighted by the Swedish crown in 1804. Gentz made an intellectual…

Shaftesbury’s Theory of a “Moral Sense” Sets the Direction of the British Enlightenment (Part 2)

By: Walter Donway

“T’was Mr. Locke that struck all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world...” Lord Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury’s Theory of a “Moral Sense” Sets the Direction of the British Enlightenment (Part 1)

By: Walter Donway

The moral sense is “predominant...inwardly joined to us, and implanted in our nature...a first principle in our constitution...” Lord Shaftesbury

“Farmer Refuted”

By: Anna Leman

Hamilton: An American Musical features an epic standoff between young, fiery Hamilton and bold, preachy Samuel Seabury in “Farmer Refuted.” In their musical sparring match, Hamilton “tears the dude apart,” with his defense of the…

Bayle’s Dictionary: #1 Bestseller in the 18th Century

By: Walter Donway

“In matters of religion, it is very easy to deceive a man and very hard to undeceive him.” --Pierre Bayle

Decent People, Bad Institutions

By: Bill Glod

Consider the following: a major United States city has witnessed a recent upswing in violent crime. Generally, U.S. crime levels are still much lower than their peak in the early 90’s, but many residents perceive their city has…

The Logic of Desire: From Homer’s Odyssey to Alice in Wonderland

By: Alexander Schmid

When one idly day-dreams one frequently imagines how things might be different. What if the clouds were red? What if I had a million dollars, tax-free? What if I did not have to wake up at 5 a.m. during the week? Generally, one…

OLL’s April Birthday: Hugo Grotius (10 April 1583 – 28 August 1645)

By: Peter Carl Mentzel

April’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of the Dutch political philosopher Hugo de Groot, Latinized as Grotius. Sometimes referred to as “the father of Natural Law,” his writings can be seen as marking the origins of Natural Law…

Some Reading while You Wait for the Eclipse

By: OLL Editor

The Reading Room crew is eagerly anticipating today's eclipse, as watchers of the skies have done for centuries. We've gathered a list of links to the OLL and elsewhere for you to explore while you're waiting for totality.

Social Coercion in Libertopia

By: Bill Glod

James moves to the small town of Libertopia, where property rights are respected with perfect consistency. There is no force or fraud. Contracts are still normally in writing but handshakes uphold deals reliably. One can leave one’s…

Evil In Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Paradiso

By: Alexander Schmid

In Plato's Republic, Socrates confidently asserts to Glaucon, Plato’s older brother, that evil cannot be done consciously, or rationally, for one doing evil believes himself to be doing good, and one cannot do evil to another,…

Why Be Moral?

By: Bill Glod

Philosophers like to ask questions whose answer might seem obvious at first glance but for which satisfactory accounts often prove elusive. One such question is “Why be moral?” You might think there should be some convincing…

The “Enlightened Absolutism” of the Eighteenth Century

By: Gary McGath

The eighteenth century was the age of “enlightened absolutism” in Russia and the German-speaking states. Its noteworthy practitioners included Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, Catherine II (the Great) of Russia, and Maria…

OLL’s March Birthday: William Godwin (March 3, 1756 – April 7, 1836)

By: Peter Carl Mentzel

March’s OLL Birthday essay is in honor of the English journalist, novelist, and radical political philosopher William Godwin. A pioneering figure in Utilitarianism and anarchist thought, Godwin had a profound influence in the…

Oakeshott and Weaver: Two Types of Conservatism

By: William Reddinger

Among the ways in which to classify different species of conservatism, one might consider how different kinds of conservatives seem to be less zealous and ideological than are others. When considered in this light, conservatism has…

A Tale of Two Antonios

By: Lucie Alden

The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night both end in double marriages, featuring the kind of comedy Disney would later seize upon: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. But what of the other boy?…

Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Counsel and Command in the English Civil War

By: Joanne Paul

The period between the Wars of the Roses and the England Civil War has been referred to by scholars as the ‘monarchy of counsel’: an era where advice and advisers were at the centre of political discourse. As concepts of ‘counsel’…

Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Weak Monarchs and Tyrannous Counsellors

By: Joanne Paul

The period between the Wars of the Roses and the England Civil War has been referred to by scholars as the ‘monarchy of counsel’: an era where advice and advisers were at the centre of political discourse. As concepts of ‘counsel’…

Bishop Butler and the Virtue of Self-Love

By: Walter Donway

Most Enlightenment intellectuals united around themes such as passion for science and scientific method (inductive reasoning), human wellbeing as the goal of philosophy, and religious tolerance. But nothing proved more nearly…

America’s Future Doomed by Climate (circa 1778)

By: Walter Donway

In the 1770s, the greatest naturalist in the Western World, the French scientist George Louis Leclerc, comte du Buffon—echoed by many others viewed as the leading scientific authorities of the era—insisted that beyond doubt America’…

The Strained Quality of Mercy in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

By: Lucie Alden

At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock gets himself into quite a legal pickle. Unlike many tragedies (and many proverbial pickles), Shylock’s situation is entirely of his own making –due to his rigid adherence to law, not his…

A Dirty, Filthy, Book Review

By: Tracey S. Rosenberg

Book review: A Dirty, Filthy Book: Sex, Scandal, and One Woman's Fight in the Victorian Trial of the Century, by Michael Meyer, Penguin UK
Publication date: February 8 2024

The Freedom of Poets 2: Thomas Wyatt and Petrarch

By: Garth Bond

Shannon Chamberlain, in her Reading Room post on the character of Thomas Wyatt in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Halltrilogy, offers a lovely reading of the historical Wyatt’s brilliant sonnet, “Whoso List to Hunt.”

If You Like It, (Don’t) Put a Ring on It

By: Bill Glod

In The Republic, the interlocutor Glaucon asks Plato’s Socrates why we should be just. He relates a story of the shepherd Gyges, who discovers a magic ring that allows him invisibility and anonymity. The formerly decent man becomes…

Paradise Now! Milton, Seinfeld, and the Single Life

By: Daniel Ross Goodman

We often associate “I’ll never forget where I was when…” memories with tragic events, like the JFK assassination or 9/11. But sometimes we have these memories about happy occasions and other personally and culturally significant…

Justice and Truth

By: Carlos Alejandro Noyola Contreras

Montaigne wrote that “we owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it”. But why is justice so important? What is it about justice that Montaigne considers it among the most…

The Peasants’ War and Martin Luther

By: Gary McGath

In 1524, rebellion broke out in southern Germany. The uprising, known as the Peasants’ War, grew out of demands for greater freedom for the serfs. It was not, despite its name, just a revolt by farmers. Serious thinkers advanced it,…

OLL’s January Birthday: Samuel Pufendorf (January 8, 1632 – October 26, 1694)

By: Peter Carl Mentzel

This January’s OLL Birthday Essay is dedicated to the German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, whose work on Natural Law built on that of Hobbes and Grotius and subsequently influenced the Scottish Enlightenment and all later thinking…

Marriage, Cake, and the Paradox of Twelfth Night

By: Lucie Alden

It shouldn’t be surprising chez Shakespeare, but whenever I pick up Twelfth Night, I am amazed by the continual invitation to play – the ludic dare to experiment with gender, sexuality, crossdressing, feasting, drinking, and social…

Benjamin Franklin: “First philosopher” of America

By: Walter Donway

"Every man…is, of common right, and by the laws of God, a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty.""All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual… is his natural right which none…

Twelfth Night: Feasting Gone Wrong?

By: Lucie Alden

To drink or not to drink? To laugh or not to laugh? To jest or not to jest? These are the questions that run through Sir Toby Belch’s mind during the entirety of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Yet, beneath his jocular, inebriated…

Thinking about Literature: Not just Good and Evil

By: Carlos Alejandro Noyola Contreras

The story repeats itself every time I teach literature. The discussion about texts, almost inexorably, ends up with students trying to figure out whether the text is 'good' or 'bad'. As if, in the end, as judges on a pedestal, our…

Folks is Folks

By: Christy Lynn Horpedahl

Sarah Skwire doesn’t say YOU MUST READ SHAKESPEARE…but if you do, you’ll probably learn from him. And then you can reread him later to learn more and different things. In this hour-long conversation with Sabine El-Chidiac at The…

Exceptionalism: The Birth of the Idea of America

By: Walter Donway

The term is not politically correct, today, but there should be little doubt that “exceptionalism” applies to the Enlightenment in America. We know that thanks to the Pulitzer Prize–winning history by Harvard University professor…

Burke and the Age of Chivalry

By: Brandon P. Turner

Among the many memorable turns of phrase in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution France (1790), few have proved more striking than its florid descriptions of Marie Antoinette and her treatment at the hands of the October 6th…

Jonathan Swift’s Resolutions

By: OLL Editor

In 1699, Jonathan Swift, one of our favorite writers, made a list of resolutions for his life. While they weren't technically New Year's resolutions, we present them here for the entertainment and edification of our readers.