On the Classics

This book club thing is starting to look like a go — 33 votes!  That’s like 7 votes per regular reader.  I thought I set it so that each IP could only vote once, but since we must assume WordPress is as converged as the rest of the tech industry, this must be Chicago-style voting — you, your ancestors, your ancestors’ pets…. If one of Obama’s many autobiographies “wins” the first selection with 115% of the vote, we’ll know for sure.

Anyway, given the way we roll around here, I’m going to make a few assumptions about potential participation.

First, while “the Canon” is a good jumping-off point, I don’t think too many people are eager to discuss, say, The Divine Comedy.  Not that it isn’t good, or worth reading (the Inferno, anyway, which is the only part anyone actually reads), but books like that really have to be “done” in person, in some kind of purpose-built room, under the guidance of a person with specialist training who knows and loves his subject… alas, there’s nothing like that in contemporary America, so Dante’s out.

Which means the reading would focus, of necessity, on things like History and Philosophy.  You can take it from me that History is best studied by amateurs — each year of graduate History study raises your enstupidation by a factor of five.  The professional verdict on any phenomenon, anywhere on the globe, in any period of recorded History, is: Malfeasance by the Pale  Penis People.  Which makes acing your finals a cinch, but it’s the pits if you actually want to learn something.

All of which is a long way of saying, let’s do it, no matter the topic.  I venture to guess that none of us reads Attic Greek, but Thucydides isn’t beyond us.  Secondary reading lists like they’d assign on a college syllabus are mostly recondite bullshit: Trangendered Trireme Commanders, a Marxist Interpretation, etc.

Which brings us to Philosophy, of which Political Philosophy/”Science” is a subset.  I’ve said this before, and they’d fire me for saying it if I weren’t retired, but: There’s no need to read “the Classics” in their entirety.  In fact, you don’t need to read them at all.  Reading about a great thinker is perfectly fine (with the obvious caveat that you’re reading something like Roger Scruton’s Kant, and not Kant for Dummies).

For one thing, philosophical prose is tough.  Most of it is a slog, even if you read the language, which I’m assuming most of us don’t.  I can’t read German, but even if I could, Kant wouldn’t be worth the effort, as (I’m told by field specialists) his prose is as clunky and opaque in the original as it is in translation.

And translation itself is another thorny problem.  Hegel’s whole thing, for instance, rests on the notoriously untranslatable word aufheben:

Aufheben or Aufhebung is a German word with several seemingly contradictory meanings, including “to lift up”, “to abolish”, “cancel” or “suspend”, or “to sublate”.  The term has also been defined as “abolish”, “preserve”, and “transcend”. In philosophy, aufheben is used by Hegel to explain what happens when a thesis and antithesis interact, and in this sense is translated mainly as “sublate”.

Clear as mud, right?  Here’s “sublate:”

To negate, deny, or contradict.

Which are — or can be —  three very different things.

That’s why those Intro to ___ works are lifesavers.  The Philosophy biz as a whole is pretty clear on what Hegel was trying to say; except around the edges, the main problem is explaining it to us laymen.  More importantly, the Biz is pretty clear on what Karl Marx thought Hegel was trying to say, which is the only real reason to read Hegel in the first place.

They also do us the enormous favor of cutting through historical baggage.  We all could stand to read some Aquinas, but that disputatio style — “it would seem that X is not the case, for as Augustine says….” — will grind down even the most patient reader in about five minutes.*  The further back in time you go, and the further away from the West you get, the worse the problem becomes.  De rerum natura, for instance, is important for the history of philosophy, and it’s a poem.  But at least it’s a Roman poem.  Nagarjuna knocked out all the Postmodernists’ most precious arguments 2000 years ago, but I don’t think any one of us could even pronounceMūlamadhyamakakārikā.”**  

And then there’s the fact that a lot of thinkers, both great and “great,” are just plain wrong about so many things.  Marxist “economics” is the easiest example, but consider Aristotle.  His Physics is important for all that “form and cause” stuff, but it’s equally important because of all the stuff he got wrong — about “void,” motion, etc., that dominated pre-Modern “science.”  Unless we’re doing History of Science in its own right — a fascinating field, but politicized out the wazoo — we can ignore the “physics” and skip straight to the metaphysics.

In short, I’d recommend that the only books we read in their entirety are History, or Intro to ____.  In the end, I’m down with whatever — the customer is always right — but if we want to get this thing off the ground, shorter is better.


*There’s a lovely “concise translation” of the Summa Theologiae available in paperback.  It’s certainly not an easy read — I’ve been chipping away at it for years — but it’s tough because it deals with tough material, not because of the writing.  When we finally get a Pope that isn’t a goddamn Marxist, he should at least beatify Timothy McDermott.
**Though if you want to give it a go, I recommend this.  Turns out there’s no such thing as a fact, because all things are empty of inherent existence.  Take that, Stanley Fish!
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12 thoughts on “On the Classics

  1. Unwashed Mass

    My head has already exploded from this synopsis, hence my abstention with the vote.
    Lead on, I will try to follow.

  2. Frip

    I suggest The Life of Johnson by James Boswell, in the Penguin abridged edition. Historical. Humorous. 384 pages. Touches on many of the great men of the time. For those who don’t know, it’s not so much a biography as it is the recorded conversation between two interesting buddies. There’s lots of good bits from Johnson to chew on, since he’s pretty much one of us. I’ve been skimming it since high school. Johnson is the man. He is, The Doctor.

    Just a suggestion.


  3. Pickle Rick

    I’d suggest something from the pens of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin or Washington, or for the viral meme of 1776, Paine’s short, powerful pamphlet that kicks popular support for independence into overdrive, and forces a wavering Continental Congress to take the leap, “Common Sense”

    1. Frip

      “Common Sense” is not at all a crappy idea. Something short like that at first, since we don’t even know if this is going to work. (it’s not)

  4. Pickle Rick

    Start with something short and punchy from the 18th century by the big pens of the 1770s- Adams (Sam and John), Jefferson, Franklin or even Paine.

    Secondary works has to begin with George Washington.

  5. Echo Foxtrot

    History/biography works for me. Boswell’s bio of Johnson or something akin sounds good. I agree about reading philosophy from the horse’s mouth. William Briggs has a wonderful blog on statistics, and does the occasional column on Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles. Love his blog but those lengthy passages of Aquinas are tough going.

  6. Stephen Worboys

    I humbly suggest two books, or rather three, one a classic in the ‘Harvard Classic’ sense, the others delightful and nowadays obscure overviews of social disintegration:

    (01) Gulliver’s Travels.
    (02) Samuel Dill’s ‘Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire.’
    (03) Johann Huizinga’s ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages’.

    Not sure what the parameters are here. These aren’t tractates on the nature of knowledge or anything so grand; they’re just books that, once read, can’t be unread – they shape your views.

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