A while back I started putting together a college dissident reading list for the younger readers (assuming any of you are still around). I stopped, in large part, because at some point one has to start looking at fundamentals. What, exactly, is the point of a college education these days? You can, and should, read something like Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, but there’s only so much one can really do with that information. Either the point of a college education — by which I mean, “self-directed reading at whatever remains of your university library” — is to become acquainted with “the best that has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold), or it isn’t.
If it isn’t — and I don’t blame you at all for this — then read Lifton, Festinger, Hoffer, etc., and be done. Know what’s being done to you, avoid as much of it as you can, and keep your head down while you finish jumping through the job-qualifying hoops. If it is, though…. well, where to start?
I honestly don’t know. I can’t tell you what “a college education” should be, because I never had a real one myself. Mine was better than yours is likely to be, of course, but that doesn’t mean it was good. Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek.” I can’t read a word of either, and because of that, the respectable-but-far-from-elite institution that gave me a PhD wouldn’t have given me a BA in 1960.
Which is why I’m not going to humbug you about “the Classics.” Commanding you to “read the Classics!” would do you more harm than good at this point, because you have no idea how to read the Classics. Context is key, and nobody gets it anymore. Back when, that’s why they required Western Civ I — since all the Liberal Arts tie together, you needed to study the political and social history of Ancient Greece in order to read Plato (who in turn deepened your understanding of Greek society and politics…. and our own, it goes without saying). I can’t even point you to a decent primer on Plato’s world, since all the textbooks since 1985 have been written by ax-grinding diversity hires.
And Plato’s actually pretty clear, as philosophers go. You’d really get into trouble with a muddled writer…. or a much clearer one. A thinker like Nietzsche, for example, who’s such a lapidary stylist that you get lost in his prose, not realizing that he’s often saying the exact opposite of what he seems to be saying. To briefly mention the most famous example: “God is dead” isn’t the barbaric yawp of atheism triumphant. The rest of the paragraph is important, too, especially the next few words: “and we have killed him.” Nietzsche, supposedly the greatest nihilist, is raging against nihilism.
Equally important as the “how” — and equally impossible to convey to a modern student — is the “why” of reading “the Classics.” I know why Matthew Arnold thought it was important to read Plato, but Matthew Arnold was a stuffed shirt in his own day. When he urged “the best that has been thought and said” on the English public, he was grousing about the culture that produced Gilbert and Sullivan. G&S are to modern “music” what Shakespeare is to soap operas — Matthew Arnold’s reasoning, we must assume, has been overtaken by events.
So here’s what I’d do, if I were designing a from-scratch college reading list. I’d go to the “for Dummies” versions, but only after clearly articulating the why of my reading list. I’d assign Plato, for example, as one of the earliest and best examples of one of mankind’s most pernicious traits: Utopianism. The rest of philosophy is not, as Alfred North Whitehead would have it, a series of footnotes to Plato…. but all secular religions are. The most famous of these being Marxism, of course, and you’d get much further into the Marxist mindset by studying The Republic than you would by actually reading all 50-odd volumes of Marx. “What is Justice?” Plato famously asks in this work; the answer, as it turns out, is pretty much straight Stalinism.
How does he arrive at this extraordinary, counter-intuitive(-seeming) conclusion? The Cliff’s Notes will walk you through it. Check them out, then go back and read the real thing if the spirit moves you.
Articulating the “why” saves you all kinds of other headaches, too. Why should you read Hegel, for example? Because you can’t understand Marx without him…. but trust me, if you can read The Republic for Dummies, you sure as hell don’t have to wade through Das Kapital. Marxism was a militantly proselytizing faith; they churned out umpteen thousand catechisms spelling it all out… and because they did, there are equally umpteen many anti-Marxist catechisms. Pick one; you’ll get all the Hegel you’ll ever need just from the context.
Not that this is all fun and games, of course. These are tough thinkers with real ideas. The Summa Theologiae for Dummies, for example, has been sitting on my bookshelf for years; I just don’t have the gumption to wade through it. It’s a lot easier to read without the medieval question-and-answer format and all the dense citations from the Church Fathers… but “easier” is still a far cry from “easy.” But this, too, may well be the “why” of Thomism in our modified system — whether or not you end up agreeing with his argument about God and His nature, simply reading Thomas is a master class in a certain vital style of logical argument. You need the Summa, not the Theologiae.
If you actually want to do something like this, Oxford University Press puts out a whole series of Very Short Introductions. Like all academic institutions, Oxford is SJW central these days… but their publishing arm held the line the longest. Their very short introduction to Kant, for example, is written by the late great Roger Scruton, so you know it’s as blessedly free of social justice bullshit as Kant can possibly be (which isn’t very, actually, but you’ll be the only one on your campus who knows that. The next hardcore campus Leftist I meet who reads anything other than Harry Potter in xzhyr spare time will be the first one I’ve ever met).
If you want a deeper dive, The Routledge Philosophers series is good within limits (those limits being, they over-emphasize 20th century knuckleheads like Adorno, Rawls, and Freud (calling Freud a philosopher is like calling Hugh Hefner a feminist). And there are others, from academic presses and otherwise. Get ’em off interlibrary loan and save yourself some green.Loading Likes...