Thomas Cahill’s new book is the true-crime tragedy A Saint on Death Row. Here, the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization recommends six great works about justice and injustice.
The Hebrew Prophets The Bible’s harrowing compilation of condemnations is the first and most dramatic articulation of the theme of justice in all of world literature. Try, especially, Amos and Micah for some eyebrow-singeing moments.
The Apology by Plato (Dover, $2.50). The greatest Greek philosopher’s account of the trial of his mentor Socrates by the Athenians is one of the few narratives in all of ancient Greek literature to concern itself directly with political injustice.
Martin Luther’s Bible (from Taschen, $100, in German). What a tsunami of cultural transformation was wrought by the act of translating the sacred Scriptures into the vernacular! To read (or to hear) the condemnations of the Prophets or Jesus’ uncompromising social teaching in one’s own language ensured that the world could never be the same again.
The Declaration of Independence Yeah, it was written by a slaveholder, but there’s nothing else like it this early. And, whether the signers realized it or not, it implicitly spelled the eventual death of slavery (and perhaps of all forms of social oppression). It has inspired many other declarations, such as Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), almost down to our own day.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (Dover, $3.50). This exposé on the exploitation of children is the granddaddy of fiction written to precipitate societal transformation by the shock of its material. From Dickens descends every novelist of social conscience from Émile Zola to Toni Morrison.
Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. (Tale Blazers, $3.50). Inspired partly by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protests, partly by his own Judeo-Christian tradition, King restates for our time the classical articulation by Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas of why we are under no obligation to obey unjust laws.