Reading the Classics: An Illustration

If I were setting up a dissident reading list for the Classics, I’d do something like this.  I’d break it down by the five W’s: Who, What, When, Where, and Why, with a total difficulty rating and a further breakdown of “what” by “necessary” vs. “nice to have,” and probably a “you probably think this is necessary, but it isn’t” section.  Here’s an illustration.

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.

Difficulty: Easy.  You can beneficially read Meditations even if you know next to nothing.  You’ll get more out of it the more you know, of course, but it’s the closest thing ancient philosophy had to a how-to manual.

Who: Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor in the mid-late 2nd century AD.  The last of the “Five Good Emperors,” Marcus spent much of his time dealing with barbarian incursions and plague.  There are some good biographies of the man, but Wiki covers the high points.

What: Because of the above, the Meditations were something like Marcus’s private self-help manual.  He’s reminding himself to remain literally Stoic in the face of serious, seemingly unsolvable problems.

When: Late 2nd century AD.  Greco-Roman philosophy was well-developed at this point; Stoicism was part of the classical tradition.

Where: In general, the European part of the Roman Empire.  Specifically, on campaign against the barbarians – Marcus wrote a lot of the Meditations at the front.

Why: Because this man was the richest, most powerful individual in his world… and hated it.  As a Stoic, he believed that virtue was its own — and, indeed, the only — reward, but as Roman Emperor he was forced to do un-virtuous things all day every day.  It’s good instruction for how to live with yourself — how to be a man in a world that so often forces you to act like a snake.

Essential Background: Not much beyond the above.

Nice to have: The basics of Stoic doctrine.  Specifically, their belief that “living virtuously” and “living according to nature” were basically synonymous, and that they were the only way to true happiness.  A little Stoic epistemology, too — as their way of life depends on seeing the true nature of things, their standards for knowledge (what we’d call “justified true belief”) are extremely high.  A statement like “pain is indifferent” is clear, and useful, on its own, but knowing the Stoic view of knowledge helps one appreciate just how prevalent the “indifferents” are, and how tough being truly indifferent is.  Also nice to know: The wholesale adoption of Marcus by medieval Christians.  There’s a very strong Stoic streak in Christianity’s first 1500 years; Marcus is always up there with the very best of the “virtuous pagans.”

None of these are necessary, though — you could lightly edit the Meditations (taking out the “thank you’s” at the start of Book One, explaining a few allusions) — and publish it today as a self-help manual. Also not necessary: Any real background in ancient philosophy.  Back then, “philosophy” meant “a way of living,” not “a system for investigating the world.”  Since Marcus is convinced of Stoicism’s truth, he doesn’t spend any time engaging the doctrines of other schools.

That’s an easy one.  Here’s a hard one:

Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes.

Who: English Royalist during the Civil Wars (his side lost).

What: A defense of unlimited royal power as the only defense against violent anarchy and civil war.

When: The nastiest phase of the Period of the Wars of Religion, 1517-1648.  Specifically, right after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48).

Where: Early Modern England.

Why: What’s government for, anyway?  Are we doomed to keep fighting forever if we can’t figure out the One True Faith?  What makes a government legitimate, and what happens if the government loses its legitimacy?

Necessary background: The Wars of Religion.  What divine right monarchy is.  The basic issues at stake in the Reformation.  The background of the Scientific Revolution, as Hobbes’s method doesn’t make sense without it.  The political background leading up to the Civil Wars.

Nice to know:  Basic Aristotelianism (Hobbes is against it).  The context of international law (e.g. Grotius).  Contemporary continental thought about legitimacy (Bodin etc.).  Machiavelli, both the Prince and the Discourses (the great-grand-daddies of all modern political thought).  The course and outcome of the Thirty Years’ War, especially the end stage (Richelieu and raison d’etat).  How and why Hobbes came home under the Protectorate.

Unnecessary: The details of contemporary science (as opposed to the method, which is essential knowledge).  In other words, you don’t need to know the specifics of Hobbes’s mechanical worldview, since they’re wrong — sight and memory don’t work like he says they do — but you absolutely have to know that he considered himself first and foremost a natural scientist.  The military details of the Civil War, or the politics of the Protectorate.

Overall difficulty: Pretty hard.  Hobbes is a clear writer; his language is a bit archaic, but you’ll get used to it fairly quickly.  As Hobbes is the pivot point for an entire worldview, though, it’s hard to grasp the background material.  You’ll need to have a lot of outside information… and, of course, the ideas themselves are quite challenging.

Feel free to add your own in the comments.  Let’s start compiling the list!


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3 thoughts on “Reading the Classics: An Illustration

  1. Maus

    I really like Sev’s 5 Ws schema; but having said that, I still have some thoughts on the prologue to the project. First, with respect to MBlanc46, Aristotle is not a footnote to Plato. They have quite distinctive metaphysics, which inform their views on politics, ethics and the nature of reality. Neither should be read in detail for their scientific (in the modern sense) theories. Empirical method was crude, practically nonexistent; so their understanding of how heat or gravity worked is deeply flawed. But each had a cosmically encompassing system that orders their thoughts. The bottom line is that a student of the classics ultimately has to decide whether he is a Platonist or an Aristotelian. You simply cannot be both. Modern philosophy tries to resolve this dilemma through indifference. It simply begins with Descartes Meditations and the skeptical method and washes its hands of almost two thousand years of philosophical riches.
    For Plato, read the Dialogues and the Republic. Then, consider some of the neo-Platonists like Augustine’s City of God or Boethius’ Consolations to see how Plato’s thoughts were developed. For Aristotle, the reading list is more challenging: the Metaphysics, De Natura, De Anima, the Physics, the Nichomachean Ethics. Again, the sharpest contrast with Plato will be found in the Metaphysics and De Anima. To see how Ari’s thought is developed, consider Aqinas’ Commentaries. They are much more readable than the Summa and benefit from Thomas’ consideration of the Arabic Islamic commentary as well.
    As an aside, Sev noted that the Summa’s Q&A format can bog down readers and devolve into a fruitless exercise. First, don’t read the Summa unless you are a Theist who accepts the authority of divine revelation in Scriptures. To do so otherwise would be pointless. The whole purpose of the Summa was to create a training manual for clerical candidates of average intellect. Nonetheless, the Summa is replete with an Aristotelian world view; and the key to reading it successfully is to understand that the entire text is governed by Thomas’ understanding that all of Creation flows out from an uncreated eternal God whose essence is nothing but Being and who is the only necessary (as opposed to contingent or caused) Being. This outward flow from God (the exitus) leads to an inward flow in which all of Creation is drawn back to God (the reditus). This atemporal flow is apprehended as a series of ordered causes by we created, time-bound, and contingent beings. The Summa is nothing more than an exhaustive study of every aspect of the flow. To truly appreciate it, it must be read systematically and with an awareness of the fundamental internal self-referencing. In other words, you have to eat and digest the whole enchilada. Nibbling here and there will be unsatifying both nutritively and aesthetically.

  2. Pickle Rick

    Sooo many words.
    Here’s mine.

    The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli.

    Who- Florentine Republican diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, writer, playwright and poet.

    What- Practical politics from an era where politics was a deadly game.

    When- The High Renaissance, 1513. After the half a millennia long medieval period and before the early modern world, the Renaissance was a extraordinarily short time period in between where everything changed radically.

    Where- An Italy that doesn’t exist yet, a fragmented collection of republican city states, dukedoms, Papal States, and client states or occupied territory of foreign kings, with roving free companies of condotterie adding more chaos. It’s Diversity!

    Why- Because if you want to play the game with the wolves without getting eaten, you’d better come prepared to play for keeps, because your enemies aren’t concerned about God, rules, morality or justice.

    Necessary Background. A basic understanding of the Latin Catholic Church and the Pope as a secular, political and military power before the rise of Luther and Protestantism. In practice, the Borgias. A understanding of feudalism and the early days of gunpowder warfare. Roman (Republican and Imperial) history, as the Renaissance is deliberately rediscovering everything alla antica in every single human endeavor, including politics and war, and reapplying it as models in practical contexts.

    Nice to know-
    The Roman historians Machiavelli drew from (Livy, Plutarch, Suetonius, Vegitus) because he likes to name drop.

    Catholic theology, heretics like Luther or Calvin, the reason why everyone is acting like it’s Game of Thrones on steroids and cocaine.

    Overall difficulty- Easy. Nicky in translation avoids archaic English, and he wrote like a modern. He’s also a practical man writing like his Roman muses, and he’s deliberately writing to laymen, not nerds with 10 pound heads.

  3. stanFL

    Why would someone want to read the classics? They are all pre-scientific. Wouldn’t it be better just to distill anything useful in the top 100 ancient philosophies, winnow out the scientifically incorrect or scientifically unprovable, and then just have people read whatever, if anything, is left? Just because some ancient guy wrote his some ideas down and, for lack of anything better, some collection of followers preserved it, doesn’t mean it has any practical use in the modern world whatsoever. Modern celebrities, like these antique ones, don’t have much useful to offer, either.

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