The history of human thought and its derivations, both analytical and creative, metaphysical or ideological – sciences, arts, religions, politics – is a complex process of constant evolution that cannot be understood without the great texts that, at each stage of history, gave rise to the main currents of said thought or marked its dominant tendencies. Simply put, our world wouldn’t have been where it is without the most influential books in history.
They are works that exerted a multilateral influence – in various fields – and whose validity as models of thought or representation of reality has endured over time far beyond their initial impact. Thus, ending up significantly influencing the course of history and the body of knowledge of humanity. And not only that: some of these books exerted a direct influence on society by institutionalizing the beliefs they contain (case of the Bible, axis of two universal religions) or applying their postulates in a practical way (Communist Manifesto).
For all these reasons, it is important to approach these works if you want to understand as well as possible some of the fibers that largely define the sociocultural reality that surrounds us.
Obviously, there is no consensus on which have been the most influential books in human history, and that is why the lists are as diverse as the attempts to limit the matter.
Thus, according to a recent study by the prestigious British publisher Folio Society, the Bible is the book that has had the greatest impact on modern society. The survey, in collaboration with the demographic firm YouGov, gathers the opinion of more than 2,000 people.
Another example was the attempt to determine the 20 most influential academic works of all time that was carried out within the framework of the British Academic Book Week festival in 2015. Several specialists drew up a list with 200 aspiring titles and, from that preselection, the public attending the event chose twenty of them as the ones that had “changed the world” the most. The result, beyond an interesting reading list, revealed curiosities such as the fact that they were considered strictly literary books such as the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Here are the most influential books in human history that changed the world in chronological order.
The Most Influential Books in the Western History
1. The Dialogues of Plato
Dialogues, by Plato (4th century BC), is one of the most influential books in western history. Moreover, it is one of the foundations of Western culture.
All subsequent philosophy in Europe stems from this work by the disciple of Socrates, although calling the Dialogues a “book “is not exact: there are 36 texts usually published in nine volumes. He had a decisive influence on Aristotle, Saint Augustine, psychology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and science.
2. The Holy Bible
The Bible (750 BC-110) is among the most influential books of religious decorum, whose influence is so remarkable today – this is the one that has changed the face of the planet the most.
Based on two of the great monotheistic churches (Judaism and Christianity), put an end to the paganism of the Roman Empire. It was also the first printed book – Gutenberg’s Bible (1454) in the world. Moreover, with 6 billion copies sold, it is the most translated and sold book in the world.
3. Magna Carta by John I of England
Magna Carta, of John I of England (1215 is considered to be the foundation stone of modern democracy and constitutionalism. However, it is a document from medieval England, but we can consider it a book now.
The book is so powerful that it convinced nobles to force the king – John the Landless – to sign in order to limit his power. It is in this book where habeas corpus arises (to avoid arbitrary arrests), the separation of Church and State, etc.
4. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
The prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532) is another book to name among the most influential books in western history. It is the quintessential Renaissance treatise on political theory and its influence.
Having the power to go far beyond its time is still recognized today as a seminal work on the nature of power, the opposition between authoritarianism and liberalism, etc.
5. Complete Works by William Shakespeare
Complete Works, by William Shakespeare (1594-1634), is from the fictional and poetic world that influenced the literature world. Why not, the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon is considered the most important writer in the English language and one of the most influential in world literature.
His dramatic works – among the most famous, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet – have been staged, studied, adapted, and rediscovered on many occasions.
6. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, by Isaac Newton (1687) is better known as the Principia and it is considered by many to be the most important scientific work in history.
In this book, we find Newton’s three famous laws of motion ‒the basis of classical mechanics‒, the law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws on the movement of the planets. Its influence reached the end of the 18th century.
7. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
Among the most influential books in western history, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776) has a strong position. It is the book that founded modern economics and laid the foundations for capitalism and also for liberal thought.
Having been born in the context of the industrial revolution, Smith’s work marked the economic theory of the 19th, 20th, and even 21st centuries. It also remarks on the concepts such as the division of labor, the free market, and the accumulation of capital.
8. Critique Of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (1781) is a transcendental inquiry that greatly influences philosophy. The book’s central objective is to achieve a definitive answer as to whether metaphysics can be considered a science. Besides, it also establishes the validity of both ordinary experience and the mathematical and physical sciences.
So, we can easily say that in western culture and history, is one of the most influential books with great integrity. It won’t be wrong if we say that he has changed the concept of philosophy; without him, there would have been no Hegel or Marx.
9. Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
We all know about Karl Marx and the influence of Marxism is widely recognized everywhere in the world. Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was published in 1848 and to date, it has remained one of the most influential books in western history.
The book is one of the most important political treatises in history, for better and for worse. Marxism gave rise to the workers’ struggle that in the West endowed workers with rights against capitalist exploitation. But it was also the seed of the 1917 Soviet Revolution and many dictatorial socialist regimes.
10. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859) is the greatest scientific bestseller and, with respect to biology and the natural sciences, as historically decisive as Newton’s work with respect to physics and mathematics.
Though according to modern science, Darwin’s theory is in many ways wrong, his theory of evolution and natural selection revolutionized scientific practices. Besides, it has also revolutionized society, philosophy, and religion and gave rise to a debate that is still alive in some quarters.
11. The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud
Like Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams has contributed to western society in the philosophical realm. Although some of the ideas of the Austrian neurologist have been superseded, his concept of psychoanalysis has marked the last two centuries.
In this essential book, he develops the theory of the unconscious and the Oedipus complex, among other issues. His influence was felt in many fields: psychology, sociology, plastic arts, and literature.
12. Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
The Theory of Special and General Relativity by Albert Einstein (1916) is considered to be one of the most influential books in history. In this book, the fundamentals of relativity are exposed with the greatest possible clarity for the lay public in the matter.
Talking about its influence, it changed how we think about the universe as a whole. And without any doubt, it is one of the greatest scientific revolutions after Newton’s and Darwin’s.
13. The Second Sex by Simon de Beauvoir
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949) is another book on this list you must know about. In this book, Beauvoir’s remark on the feminist movement is a cornerstone for the establishment of the theory.
While the much earlier works of Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) and Marie Carmichael Stopes (1935) are considered antecedents of the feminist movement, its founding modern work is this essay that reviews the role of women from the point of view of psychology, history, anthropology, biology, and reproduction.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking (1988) is one of the best-selling and best-known popular science books of the last thirty years. And it is also considered to be one of the most influential books in western history that gave so much hope for humanity.
It is an essential work to learn about the thought and contributions of the brilliant British theoretical physicist, astrophysicist, and cosmologist who died in 2018.