How to Read “The Classics”

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.

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6 thoughts on “How to Read “The Classics”

  1. Pickle Rick

    No wonder the Spartans considered the Athenians effeminate little wankers. (Which I know, I know is ironic considering they both were into pederasty, but the Spartan homo was more like a prison bull than Anal Pete) Give me Leoniadas over Socrates, and the literally laconic “come home with your shield, or on it.”

  2. Major Hoople

    It might not be a bad idea to put together a reading list, though it’s an idea that probably been broached before. Right now, of what I’ve read lately I’d probably recommend “The 10,000 Year Explosion” by Harpending and Cochran, and “The Age of Entitlement” by Caldwell.

    Those two books would probably give a young guy the background to what’s going on with genetics/evolution and the political economy.

    The idea of reading the classics is not a bad idea but people never seem to get around to it. I know I’ve got books on my shelf I bought out of a foolish sense of duty and never got past a couple of pages.


  3. Maus

    I stumbled into an ideal undergraduate education; so it’s difficult to recommend a systematic approach. It is hard not to argue for STEM, which has the virtue of being grounded in empirical reality. Indeed, I started as a chemistry major at one of the most prestigious universities available. But math higher than calculus was my undoing, and many who are honest with themselves will recognize this obstacle looming large at an earlier moment in their academic journey. So, if you are to be something other than a disciple of the hard sciences, best to focus on course work that strengthens your writing and critical thinking skills. Interdisciplinary programs that draw from history, economics, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology etc. are good. Prefer broad approaches; but select a few narrow, focused topics to learn how to research and write a well-cited paper. Avoid “ism” focused classes that purport to consider material from feminist, queer or POC perspectives. These are useless ghettos. Remember. the goal is to emerge as someone who knows how to research an unfamiliar topic and communicate about it in a clear, insightful manner. The skill set is more important than the name of the major.
    I will say that some courses have proven perennially helpful in honing the skill set. Aside from the fact that many great works of Western Civilization were written in Latin, even a year of studying that language will supercharge your mastery of English grammar and advance your writing ability well beyond the muck offered by the Twitterati. Ditto for the impact of a class on informal and formal logic. Once you know how to spot a logical fallacy, the prettiest writing of the wokest psuedo-intellectual cannot gull you and you’ll know why.
    At the end of the day, you should take classes that you’ll actually enjoy. My favorite course as an undergrad was a survey of Medieval Economics taught by Prof. Carlo Cipolla. We feasted on a banquet exploring the impacts of three-field crop rotation, the Black Death, the invention of clocks and of fractional banking ; all taught by a charming, exquisitely civilized Italian. It made history come alive and provided an analytical framework for contemporary economic history. Good times. Now, I recognize that the cost of undergrad studies is significantly altered from those halcyon days in the 80s; but the books are sitting free-of-charge in the libraries. And I assure you that there are still a few retrograde professors who would be absolutely delighted to discuss these books or direct an independent study class based upon them. Suss those profs out and flash them the OK sign.
    OK, enough nostalgia. I almost wish I was twenty again and could do it all over.

  4. Joseph Moore

    I’m a Great Books grad and still a big fan, but with a couple huge reservations: As one St. John’s tutor put it, these are not children’s books. Yet, as 18-22 year olds, 99% of us were still children. It’s not enough to plow through them once, as context, responsibility, and experience free kids. Do that, and you merely graduate as a glib, smarter-sounding idiot who gets most of the classical references in our culture.

    I was aware of this issue even at the time, and have tried to reread them over my adult life. A related issue, one that has grown on me as I got old: you’re going to get out of the Great Books largely what you bring to them. Exploring great thinking and writing is highly unlikely to make daddy love you, or counteract 18 years of whatever you grew up with. And if you’re stupid, well, you’re still going to be stupid. Every graduating class at St. John’s contained a few fresh-minted Marxists, people who claimed to be existentialists but who couldn’t tell you what that means to save their lives (then again, who can?) and people who thought Socrates’ ‘I only know that I don’t know’ was, like, deeeeep, man, and it’s probably worse now than it was 40 yrs ago when I did it.

    Yet with a little moral and cultural context, the Great Books can be a wonderful help. In the current larger moral and cultural context, they’re just not enough.

    A lesser issue, one more easily fixed: just reading the Great Books in roughly chronological order does little to provide any historical context. Sure, Herodotus & Thucydides help some for a couple particular periods of Greek history, but making any sense out of Dante or Rabalais, say, ain’t happening much from the text alone.

    Fundamentally, thinking a reading list by itself is going to solve much of anything is a little like thinking compulsory schooling can fix broken homes. The problem is perhaps not being defined correctly. And I’m not happy to say this.

  5. MBlanc46

    Definitely some pertinent points here. You can’t learn to do self-directed reading until you can read. And I don’t mean Dick, Jane, and Sally. I sometimes quip that I learned to read on the Critique of Pure Reason. It was the first text (apart from mathematics) that I had to fight my way through, clause by clause, sometimes word by word, to make any sense of it at all. There were certainly other texts that I should have read that way, but I was able to skate by without doing so, so I did. Reading this way, especially when you’re starting out, is always easier, or even only possible, with an experienced reader as a guide. A group of fellow learners is also a benefit. This is the argument for bricks-and-mortar education. No computer-guided-instruction module will ever be able to replace a classroom. For some philosophy intros: For Plato*, I’d suggest Alexandre Koyre’s Discovering Plato. It’s short, a bit more than 100 pages, and as good an into as any that I know of. Kant** wrote his own intros. The place to start is the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. A teacher would be useful for Kant, but, either way, you’ve got to have a foundation in the epistemology of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume to have a clue what problem Kant thinks he’s solving. The latter three, at least, write in relatively plain, if dated, English. If you think that you have to essay Hegel—and all of succeeding Continental philosophy, not merely Marx, derives from him—I’d say, stay away from the Phenomenology of Mind. I’ve tried to read the famous Introduction three or four times, and have retreated, tail between legs, each time. And—I think I can say without too much conceit—I’m pretty far to the right of the philosophy-reading bell curve. I’d say, take a look at the Science of Logic (the Larger Logic). It’s huge, two volumes, and I never finished it, but I got a good idea of what Hegelian dialectic is about from the first hundred pages or so. Fortunately, I was able to read it with a first-rate teacher. Read some analytical philosophy. Russell’s “On Referring” is a classic, and there are a number of rejoinders worth a read. For ontology, I highly recommend W.V.O. Quine’s “On What There Is” in the collection “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. It’s perhaps the best single essay in 20th century American philosophy. None of this will be on the final.

    * Our esteemed host to the contrary, I contend that all of Western philosophy can be read as a footnote to Plato. Because Aristotle can be read as a footnote to Plato.

    ** While Kant is certainly a universalist of a sort, and SJWs claim to be universalists, there’s not a lot of SJWism in Kant. On relevant topics, race, for example, he’s a heretic. Kant’s universe was Western Europe (even though he was writing from far off Konigsberg/Kaliningrad).

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