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 pronounce “Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.”**
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.