Common Ground: Longer Public Domain Works

Continuing my "Common Ground" project, the following are all in the public domain and can be downloaded for free. I've included links to the Wikipedia articles for these documents as a starting point for understanding their context, history, influence, etc. The articles generally offer a summary as well, though it's Wikipedia, so I can't guarantee they're good summaries. I've also linked the Wikipedia pages for the authors.

In addition, here are some good websites that carry free versions of many public domain works:

  • The Internet Classics at MIT has 441 classics available, mostly Western but with a handful of non-Western works as well.
  • Library of Economics and Liberty 
  • The Online Library of Liberty has many works and includes essays about them and biographies of the authors. This appears to be an excellent site. 
  • The Mises Institute focuses on the Austrian school of economics, but seems to have a good online library available in various digital formats. It seems to have scholarly introductions to the works as well.
  • Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University has online collections for ancient Greek and Roman history, including an art and archaeology artifact viewer; Arabic materials; Germanic materials; 19th century American history; Renaissance materials; the Richmond Times Dispatch; and Humanist and Renaissance Italian poetry in Latin.
  • Project Gutenberg (of course)
All of these seem very useful for reading and learning about the various sources below and hundreds of others. (Or thousands and thousands and thousands in case of Project Gutenberg.) Now, on to our free longer works of common ground. The links in the authors' names are to their pages on Wikipedia.

Classic Works

Plato (and Socrates via Plato)


In addition to the above, I would like to recommend a book Grim linked some time ago, Mortimer J. Adler's Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. It is an introduction to Aristotle's thought written for his sons when they were 11 and 13. Written with simple language and examples, it deals with some very deep subjects in a way I've found very accessible. That said, the first two chapters seemed too simple to me; I almost stopped reading because it seemed over-simplified and I wondered if I would get anything out of it. After that, however, it picks up and I'm glad I kept on.

Tao Te Ching (Wikipedia), Lao Tzu (In pinyin, these are Daodejing and Laozi. The old Wade-Giles spelling is how they were first introduced in English, and it has stuck for many.)

The Art of War (Wikipedia), Sun Tzu

Medieval Works

There are also some important medieval works, but they appear to be rather inaccessible without some amount of preparation. I'm afraid I cannot do justice to them here at this time, but I would like to offer the following links as possible starting points.

Grim suggests Aquinas as a starting point, so:

Thomas Aquinas's page at Wikipedia gives a brief overview of his life and thought, and includes good links to a number of other resources.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a number of entries on Aquinas, but the page on the man himself is probably the best starting point at the SEP for his philosophy (that I have seen, anyway). It is a lengthy article that ends with a bibliography that includes 10 different introductions to Aquinas, numerous other works about him, links to his own works in Latin and English, and more.

A philosophy course at Vasser University offers this 5-page guide to reading Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, which seems useful.

Here is a highly-hyperlinked version of the Summa Theologiae at New Advent. (The top of the page is an ad to buy the paper version, but you can read it online there for free.)

Although not free, Grim also recommends Sidney Painter's Feudalism and Liberty, which he discussed in a post in 2010.

Some additional sources he offers to get started, with the caveat that they have weaknesses in the very area we are trying to work with, include Anthony Kenny's Medieval Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Medieval Political Philosophy.

Enlightenment Works

Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) (Wikipedia), John Locke (The link goes to the second of Locke's treatises, but the website has put them both on the same page, so you should land about halfway down the page. The top of the page has some good commentary, and here is the beginning of the first treatise, for the curious.)

The Law of Nations (1758) (Wikipedia), Emerich de Vattel

The Social Contract (1761) (Wikipedia), Jean-Jacques Rousseau

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (AKA, The Wealth of Nations) (1776) (Wikipedia), Adam Smith

The Federalist Papers (1787-1788) (Wikipedia), Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison
(If you want to download them, the Library of Congress recommends the files at Project Gutenberg)

The Law (1850), Frederic Bastiat. There is no Wikipedia article on this work, but it is only about 55 pages long.

The Progressive Era

The Promise of American Life (1909), Herbert Croly.

If you have any other public domain works that you think I should add to this post, please let me know in the comments. Also, this was a lot of copying and pasting. I've tried to get it all right, but if you notice any errors, bad links, etc., please let me know.

I have tried to go through all the comments in the Common Ground: Sources thread and pick out all of the ones that seemed to fit here, but if I have missed one of yours, please let me know so I can add it.

If you are interested in the rest of the Common Ground series, I'm tagging them all with that term. You can click the tag on any of these posts to get the whole series.

UPDATE 2/10/16: I have added sources suggested in the comments up to this date.


Grim said...

You might add the Perseus Digital Library ( Also, I would add in some Medieval sources -- though they tend to be harder to read because they are usually much more complex arguments than we usually engage today. The ancients are hard because they are simple: they want to know really basic questions that turn out to be nearly impossible to answer (e.g., 'What is justice?' 'What is the nature of numbers?' 'How can we talk about anything being one thing?' 'What happens if we don't?').

The Medievals are hard because they are complex. I often like to start with Aquinas, but to do Aquinas you have first to explain what the technical language he uses means; then to explain what he's responding to in the pre-Aristotelian (often neoplatonoic) church tradition; then to show how he incorporates Aristotelian insights; and only then can you talk about how plausible the answer really is. (We get around this in the modern academy by passing over the period with a handwave -- 'those were Dark Ages when people couldn't read or write mostly though there were universities and Churchmen who preserved texts or recovered them from the ancients sometimes' -- that allows the majority of professors to avoid admitting that they aren't remotely qualified to do justice to the philosophy of the period.)

Still, there are very important political works from the Middle Ages that set the ground for the modern republican (small-r) program by giving grounds for arguing that kingship ought to be elective, and that rulership can only be exercised justly according to moral standards. De Charny has a section on this, and of course the documents I've mentioned before, but more work should be done to create a section. It might be worth starting here to get a sense of what you're looking for in the Medieval writers.

Grim said...

Another favorite text that I don't think is online is Sidney Painter's Feudalism and Liberty, which I discussed briefly at the link.

E Hines said...

You might also add Locke's First Treatise, if only to see why the other was Second, and to the Second.

Separately, this is a cool series of posts. Thanks for doing it.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

The first is largely a Biblical argument, which is why it doesn't gather much interest today. It's not unworthy of attention, but it won't convince anyone who isn't in a similar position to Locke's contemporaries.

Tom said...

Thanks for the tip on the Perseus Digital Library! I'll certainly add it.

On the medieval sources, I am very ignorant about what should be there. In grad school, I took one course in medieval history and was amazed at all of the remarkable thinkers and achievements that I had never heard of before, but I could tell the course was just the tip of the iceberg. I finished it with a clear understanding that I knew almost nothing about the period.

For this project, would it be best just to put links to the works up with a caveat that readers need to understand the things you mention?

If you have a program of reading that makes sense, e.g., read X, then Y, then Z, then Summa Theologica, maybe we could address it that way.

Are there any good, simple introductions like "Aristotle for Everybody"?

Also, since this series is an attempt to make the works that have influenced you and your guests at the Hall more accessible to all of us, which medieval works have influenced your thinking? Maybe we could start there.

Tom said...

Eric, thanks! I hope it's helpful. I'm enjoying doing it, as well. I haven't read a lot of this, so it's helping me prioritize my limited reading time.

Grim, with Painter's book, I plan to get to works still in copyright next, and I can put that there. Or, like Adler, I could add it here if it helps explain the medieval texts I add.

On Locke's first treatise, I see no harm in adding it, maybe with Grim's caveat as well.

Also, what about Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality? Wikipedia claims it and The Social Contract "are cornerstones in modern political and social thought." Has anyone here read it?

Cassandra said...

The Federalist Papers are another set of works I meant to mention, but forgot to.

Grim said...

The best general introduction to Medieval philosophy that I've encountered -- which won't save you from doing the hard work, but can at least help you to understand what some of the hard work to be done is -- is Anthony Kenny's Medieval Philosophy. But it is actually quite weak just where we are most interested, i.e., in political philosophy.

Stanford's encyclopedia of philosophy has an online introduction, here, but it is too focused on churchmen. Some of the best political thinking was done in the Church, but the very best was not: it came out of the traditions of rebellions against tyrannical authority and violations of the feudal bond that the Church tended to try to suppress. You won't get a feel for that, really, if you only read the writers from religious orders.

Tom said...

Thanks, Cass!

Grim, so when is your book on this coming out?

Grim said...

I'm not sure, but the clock will start when someone cuts me an adequate advance for the time it would take to write.

douglas said...

Crowdsourcing? Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a society where that might actually work?

Tom said...

Grim, I see you've played this game before. :)

Ymar Sakar said...

It's a kind of treatise on metaphysics and rightful authority, a combination of spiritual guidelines combined with Machiavellian political tips.

I cross referenced two translations together, because Chinese, like Japanese, has a lot of connotations in the kanji that get lost when anyone picks a "word" to replace a concept idea form. That's not even mentioning the historical and cultural background which has been lost over time. Such as for example, when the ancients talk about holding a stance like you're riding a horse. That doesn't make much sense to people who don't even know how to put their foot in a stirrup, let alone how to ride a horse. It's the picture absent the idea and the details.

Ymar Sakar said...

The Art of War has many things in common with the Tao Te Ching.

The Way of the Tao can be interpreted as the Way of Harmony or the Way of the Infinite. Instead of bifurcating good and evil, light or darkness, bad water from pure water, it instead compresses them into balls of swirling chaos, and then the user has to somehow juggle these balls in the air without being destroyed.

The Art of War or the Tao as applied to warfare, vis a vis warriors, was something I surmise Sun Tzu wrote for his colleagues and students. Something that would easily allow them to see the method behind his skill and goals, by using the martial education many warriors and diplomats received during that time period.

Miyamoto Musashi did something similar in his Book of Five Rings. Japanese business students still utilize that, except for business, not swordmanship. Musashi failed to confer his skill set to his students, but he could distill down his ideas to something usable.

Tom said...

I believe I have added all of the updates suggested, but have only been able to give a few suggestions for starting points for the medieval material.

Thanks for the suggestions and comments, everyone.