Strange Beauty: How Reading the Classics Will Change You
Professor Brenzel argues that not only can reading the great classics enrich your education, it can actually make your life better.
Jeffrey Brenzel is Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University and a Lecturer in Yale's Philosophy Department. He has worked as a nonprofit executive, a private sector entrepreneur, a scholar and a university administrator. In this capacity as the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Brenzel is responsible for worldwide outreach to talented students, the selection process itself, and the development of university admissions policy and practices. Brenzel earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, while at the same time founding and developing InterLearn, Inc. an investor-backed venture that used new media and technology to produce career education and liberal arts programs for adult learners.
What is the best sort of life for a human being? Socrates claimed in 400BC that a man lives a happier life if he’s just, even if he is thrown starving into prison for the rest of his life than if he is unjust and he is celebrated and honored all of his days and is never caught for his crimes. Could that possibly be correct? If not, why not and what difference should the question make to us now?
What moves the human heart? Shakespeare’s characters throw us into the depths of lust, envy, greed, pride, ambition. What do those characters have to say about the way that we act or that we behave or that we believe? And if so, what difference would it make to read about them in Shakespeare and why Shakespeare whose Elizabethan English is very difficult for us who speak modern English to understand? Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 a book called Leviathan, one of the two or three most influential works in the history of thinking about government and politics in western society. He was writing from the midst of a raging civil war and he argued that unless we gave all the power, unless we surrendered all ultimate control to a legitimate king that we would all rob and kill each other. Was he right about that? Is that the way things actually work and is the question relevant to us today when we no longer believe in kings?
Hello. My name is Jeff Brenzel and I'm the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University. I'm also the master of something called Timothy Dwight College, which essentially means that I live with 400 of the very undergraduates that I picked myself and yes, it is unusual for an admissions dean to live 24/7 with the outcomes of his own decisions. I also lecture from time to time in the philosophy department at Yale and my work in philosophy centers around ethics and also the history of the ideas that we’ve had about something we like to call human nature. Speaking of human nature, one of my personal heroes, Aristotle, claimed that by nature everyone seeks to know, everyone desires to know. For the purposes of this talk I'm going to assume that you are already an intellectually curious person and that you’re not only chasing after knowledge as hard as you can. You’re also trying to build up the skill sets and acquire the kind of capacities and abilities that you’re going to need to become a better learner overall.
Also I'm going to assume that you’re not only trying to increase your stock of knowledge, but that you’re seeking to grow in wisdom as well and wisdom is something distinct from knowledge and I'm going to come back to that a little later.
If these things are in fact true about you then here is my advice in a nutshell. Make a choice in college to read some old books, even a substantial number of old books. My argument will be that reading the right old books in the right way is better than reading only new books, much less using only new ways of learning that have nothing to do with books at all. So yes, I'm a throwback. I have a somewhat unpopular view of what you should do with your college education. What I'm going to try to persuade you is that my advice is going to make a difference to your education or at least that you should test my advice to see if it’s worthwhile and determine for yourself. But let’s be careful about what I'm claiming and what I'm not claiming. I'm not claiming that you should read only old books or that old books are better because they’re old or that you should never read any new books or that new books are worthless. Only that you should read and learn how to read some old books, but which ones would those be? How do you learn how to read them in the right way? Why should you read them in college and how could doing that change your life for the better? How is that going to make you smarter and moreover, how is it going to make you wiser?
The Dialogues of Socrates, Aristotle’s Ethics, Oedipus Rex, the City of God, Leviathan, Dante’s Inferno, King Leer, Paradise Lost, War and Peace, there are a lot of these books, but why spend a significant amount of your time on books that by definition are outdated? Why not go after the books that bring every up to date? Don’t we know those people already knew and much, much more?
So a little personal background here, I went off to university in 1971. No one in my family had ever graduated from college, much less a place like Yale. I was from—I had gone to an all Catholic, boy’s high school. I had never visited across the state line. I never had even been on an airplane before the one that swept me off the New Haven, Connecticut.
My folks assumed that I was going off to become one of two things, a doctor or a lawyer. That is the sort of thing that happened to you when you went off to a university like the one I attended. Doctor, lawyer, there is nothing wrong with doctors or lawyers, far from it. The point was that you go to college in order to find paying work. College equals a job.
Now when I actually showed up at Yale I applied in total ignorance and almost by accident to a special freshman year program called Directed Studies. So what is Directed Studies? In Directed Studies you take three four-year courses in the history of western thought and philosophy, in literature and in politics. You start with what the classic Greeks had to say and then you roll forward with the centuries until you end up about a century behind where we are right now.
There are no textbooks. There are no summaries. There are no Cliff Notes. You read only the original works and it was both the single most difficult and the single most transforming educational experience that I've ever had. About 15 years ago I came back to Yale after founding companies, managing organizations and after earning a PhD in philosophy and I'm having the opportunity there today to teach in this very same program that I took over 30 years ago.
So I've’ gotten to know these classic works fairly well. I've become familiar with them. I've seen their effects on students and I've had the chance to stack them up against my own life experience and stuff that I've read from lots of modern books, so here I am ready to give you some good reasons to look into the classics yourself.
Now the first thing to point out is something that I think you already know, but that you might not have noticed that you know. There are a lot of books out there and you don’t have much time. The Library of Congress has over 20 million volumes. That is the largest library in the world. That is not counting the journals, the publications. That is not counting the internet. It’s not counting the blogs. It’s not counting Wikipedia. It’s not counting the entire Googleplex. Meanwhile down here on the personal level I'm 58 years-old. I've been a pretty strong reader for about 40 years. Back home I've got a personal library of about 2,000 books, volumes and if you do the math that is about 50 books times 40 years, about 50 books a year. It’s about a book a week. I hope you can see the problem. My problem, which is also your problem, which is we aren’t going to make it through the Library of Congress, not only that, we’re not going to get to 99.999% of everything that has ever been written.
You know Mahatma Gandhi said live as though you’ll die tomorrow, but learn as though you’ll live forever. Now Gandhi was as aware as you and I are that we’re not going to live forever and of course that means that you are going to have to be extremely picky about what you choose to read, even if you live according to Gandhi. You literally have no other choice, but now it seems I've only made my job harder because I have to persuade you that with this precious time that you have for learning and study, which is dwindling all the time that you’re going to take some of it and devote it to things that are outdated. So I've enlarged, you might say, my task.
So let’s focus on the principle of necessity and that means the principle of having to make these difficult and time consuming choices. I’d like to give you five reasons, five rough and ready criteria for identifying a classic of literature or philosophy or politics. Now no one or two of these criteria are going to be decisive, but I think if you put them altogether they’re going to prove actually to be quite useful. So my five criteria or marks of a great book, a great classic in the sense that I'm using the term are these.
So first, the work addresses permanent concerns about the human condition. From a philosophical perspective it has something to say about the way we should live. From a literary perspective it has something to say about imagining the possibilities for how we could live and from a historical perspective it tells us how we have lived. That’s mark number one of a classic.
Mark number two is that the work has been a game-changer. It has created profound shifts in perspective and not only for its earliest readers, but for all the readers who came later as well.
Mark number three is that the work has stimulated or informed or influenced many other important works, whether directly or indirectly. Mark number four is that many generations of the best readers and the most expert critics have rated the work highly, one of the best or most important of its kind, even if those experts and readers shared no other views than that and even if they violently disagreed with the work.
Mark number five is that the work usually requires a strenuous effort to engage and understand, but it also rewards the hard work strongly and in multiple fashions.
Before we think about what these criteria rule in let’s think about what they rule out. You might say, as my wife said to me the other day. “Jeff I've just read this classic on cat breeding.” But that book however good it is would not fit the criteria that I've laid out for you here. Why? Even though my wife would be upset and I'm rather fond of cats myself, why? A book on cat breeding does not address permanent and universal concerns about the human condition. Most broadly informed readers and critics are not going to see it at the top of their book list and it’s not going to require a strenuous effort of the kind that I'm imagining here.
So let’s contrast that book with an acknowledged classic, perhaps the greatest of the American novels, Moby Dick. That was all about whales wasn’t it? Bigger than cats obviously, but otherwise it’s the same sort of thing. Well no. Herman Melville does use a story about whale hunting, which includes an enormous amount of material about whales to weave a mighty fable, a fable about good and evil, about the human will, about the mysterious connections that bind people together or the differences that drive them apart and about the human struggle with nature in the very largest sense of the word and our struggle with our own natures as well.
Though virtually ignored when it was published—though virtually ignored when it was published Moby Dick later became a game-changer. It has continually grown in the estimation of the best readers and critics. No significant American writer is unaware of its influence or doesn’t take account of it in their own work. It’s a superb challenge to read. It becomes the more rewarding the more effort that you put into it and the older you get typically the more you get out of it, though even less experienced readers often find it extremely moving if they make the good effort to persist with it to the very end.
So here is the narrator Ishmael describing—so here is narrator Ishmael describing mad Captain Ahab who is locked into an obsessive hunt for the whale Moby Dick, the whale that cost him his leg: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.”
Well aren’t people always advising you to pursue your passions? What if some passions are worse than others? And here is Ishmael thinking about life and fate. Now he is sitting in the whaling boat where the long lines are attached to harpoons and the lines snake all around your feet. When the harpooner spears the fish with the harpoon the line jumps out and if you slip or you get caught up in the coil of the rope it yanks you out of the boat to a virtually certain death.
So Ishmael says: “The graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale lines.All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. But if you be a truephilosopher, though seated in a whale boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, not a harpoon, by your side.”
So what is Ishmael telling us here? At one level he seems to be saying that a wise person, someone who fully and completely understands the ever-present possibility of death is going to be no worse off and no less calm sitting amid a bunch of whizzing harpoon lines than she is sitting home by the fire. Now that’s an interesting and perhaps a debatable proposition. Well there is that and much, much more in Moby Dick.
But let’s say that you run up to me with a novel that you picked up just last week. You wave itin the air and you say: “Professor Brenzel, I've got a great book here for you. It’s an instant classic, even be better than Moby Dick, maybe even better than Moby Dick.” What am I likely to respond? It may be in fact very good and your recommendation may persuade me to read it, particularly if I have a high opinion of you as an expert reader. Your new favorite book may in fact become a classic someday, but it hasn’t changed the game as yet for other writers and readers. It hasn’t provoked or influenced lots of other works. How could it? You don’t know how experts and other readers are going to evaluate it over time. You’re not even sure how you’re going to see the book over time. In fact, you’ll notice that the higher we put the bar for these criteria that I've been talking about not only are the books that make the grade going to be fewer in number. They’re actually going to get older and you might think no fair. You’re just defining classics or you’re just defining great books in such a way that there can only be a few of them and they have to be pretty old. Not only that, you haven’t made any effort yet to persuade me. What is the benefit of actually reading these books? What is my payoff going to be for all this effort that you say I have to put into them? So hang onto your question about benefits for a moment. I do promise to come back to it, but let’s remember the critical problem that we all have, way too many books and not nearly enough time. So where are you likely to get the biggest bang for your reading dollar and for your reading hour, something published last week or something that stood the centuries of tests by tough readers and that has in fact spawned a great deal of what you’ll be reading today?
So I'm sort of defining a classic as an old book that has been through generations of readers, big game-changing ideas and something that you can expect to find to be a considerable challenge to tackle. You sort of knew this already right, so let’s flush it out with just a few examples before we talk about what good it’s going to do you to read such a book in a college course.
Socrates was a philosopher who lived in Athens, ancient Greece about 400 years before the birth of Christ. You’ve probably heard his name even if you know nothing else about him. You may also know that the other citizens of Athens put him to death because he went around asking a lot of challenging questions, needling people, irritating them with questions about their actions and their beliefs that they didn’t care to answer. Well it’s a remarkable fact that for the past 24 centuries very few thinkers in the western tradition have been able to avoid having to come at some point to grips with Socrates and his life and his death.
It’s even more interesting that Socrates himself never actually wrote down a single word. He was apparently a very plain and ugly man who lived in poverty. He lived a very simple life as he walked around embarrassing the prominent citizens with his questions. He liked to say that the only superiority that he understood himself to have over the other citizens of Athens was that while he was absolutely certain that he was completely ignorant they all thought they actually knew something. They imagined that they had acquired some kind of knowledge and he was forever trying to find out what it was and if they actually understood what they said they knew.
Now one of the young aristocrats who got a big charge out of following Socrates around the town was a young wrestler named Plato, maybe the first scholar athlete, so Plato wrote a series of dialogues after Socrates died that featured his hero in the principle role. The early dialogues do seem to reflect for us this business of walking around asking these difficult questions that no one can answer. Later, in the later dialogues Plato begins to use Socrates as a mouthpiece or as someone who represents the kinds of new questions that Plato himself began to ask under Socrates’ inspiration.
To give you some indication of how expert readers over time have understood Plato’s thought and its central importance in the tradition, the great twentieth century philosopher andmathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said that all of western thought is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato. Quite a claim and remember that it was Plato’s encounter with Socrates that inspired all of Plato’s thought.
Now Plato’s single most important dialogue with Socrates as the hero is a dialogue called the Republic and in it Plato tries to formulate two basic fundamental and universal questions. What is the best sort of life for a human being and beyond that what is the best society for producing the conditions under which human beings could live that kind of life? These two questions give the book the first mark of greatness that I was discussing, which is the Republic addresses permanent and universal questions, ones that might puzzle you as much as they did Socrates and Plato.
The book opens with a really terrific argument about justice and about whether the just—whether it’s the just or the unjust person who gets the better of it in life. Socrates confronts a very sarcastic and very aggressive young man named Thrasymachus who attacks the common notion that justness is a virtue: “Listen then, says Thrasymachus. I proclaim that might is right and that justice as you call it is whatever happens to be in the interest of the stronger. There are different forms of government, but they all make laws according to their own interests, which they deliver to their subjects calling it justice and they punish whoever breaks these laws and they call that person unjust and that is what I mean to say when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is neither more, nor less than the interest of the government and as the government necessarily has the ultimate power the only reasonable conclusion is that everywhere there is only one principle of so-called justice, which is that justice turns out to be whatever happens to be in the interest of the stronger.”
So have you ever heard someone make this argument before, that might makes right, that justice has no fixed meaning, that what is considered just in a society is just whatever the people running the society say it is? I’d be surprised if you hadn’t because it’s a universally recurring argument, not only throughout the dorms of any good colleges down through time, but also down through the centuries in the debates of the very best philosophers.
Now I can’t do justice in this short talk to even this relatively simple opening framing argument of the Republic between Thrasymachus and Socrates, but essentially Socrates tries to answer Thrasymachus by pointing out that we distinguish between good rulers and bad rulers just like we distinguish between good shepherds and bad shepherds or good boat captains and bad boat captains. The good shepherds act in the best interests of the sheep and the good boat captain act in the best interest of their boats and passengers, so a ruler, if he is rightly named a ruler or she is rightly named a ruler is someone who acts in the best interest of the subjects and the bad ones don’t. So it’s the same for rulers as it is for boat captains and for sheep and shepherds. A ruler who is rightly called a good ruler will be just and we mean by this that the ruler rules in the interests of the subjects, not in the interest of himself or herself.
Thrasymachus calls this dribble. He points out that the shepherd hardly cares for the sheep. He is simply fattening them for the slaughter: “Consider further most foolish Socrates, he says, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private matters wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that the unjust man always gains more and the just man always gets less. Next, in their dealings with the government when there is an income tax the just man will pay more and the unjust man less on the same amount of income and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing, the other gains much. Observe also that when they come into office there is the just man neglecting his own affairs, perhaps suffering other losses, but he will not compensate himself out of the public purse because he is just. Moreover, he is hated by his friends and acquaintances for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. Now all of this is reversed in the case of the unjust man.”
“By this standard, Thrasymachus goes on to say, the best life is actually the one to be had by the absolute tyrant who can take anything that he wishes by force and make everyone else pay honor and obedience, so not only is being a tyrant the best kind of life, all people would become tyrants if only they could.” Now Socrates at this point knocks Thrasymachus down with some verbal and logical tricks that I'm not going to take you through in this talk and outwitted Thrasymachus stalks off from the conversation not to return. So actually what Socrates does at that point in the dialogue is that he gets Thrasymachus to redefine justice, look away from justice in the State, but look at justice in the soul, that is kind of the internal integrity of a person and he gets Thrasymachus to agree that justice is something like self control, that if you’re not in control of your own passions and emotions and vices and so forth that you can’t be just even to yourself. So once he gets Thrasymachus on the path to the notion that justice is some kind of right order in the soul then he brings it back to the example of the State and he said, “So Thrasymachus, if you believe that this is how justice works in the individual person, in the individual soul as a virtue then you have to agree with me that the tyrant doesn’t have the best life.” “It’s the best ordered State or the State that is governed by a good ruler in the way that we’ve discussed.”
But the young friends of Socrates are not satisfied with this outcome and they take up the core question, but in a much harder form. They ask Socrates to prove to them the just person is always happier and always has a better life than the unjust person no matter how poor, deprived, disgraced or reviled the just man might be and no matter how wealthy, honored and completely unharmed an unjust man might be.
So the rest of the Republic is Plato’s attempt to answer this question along with a number of other questions. In the course of it he draws a surprisingly compelling picture of human psychology. He speculates on the nature of knowledge. He presents a proposal for the ideal State and he polishes it all off with a theory about enlightenment and about the ultimate nature of reality. Along the way he speculates about the relations men and women, how to raise and educate children to be good citizens and the right way for human beings to investigate questions of all kinds. It’s good stuff.
Now Plato himself had a brilliant student named Aristotle, who for my money actually surpassed Plato in a number of different ways, but was certainly heavily influenced by Plato. So let me just give you a very quick notion of how things play out in the history of thought for Plato’s and Aristotle’s thinking and in fact, for your own.
Classical Influence on Christianity and Modern Philosophy
First, their thinking stays very much alive in Greece and Rome for 400 years, until the coming of Christ and beyond that for many centuries more. If you happen to be a Christian what you think of Christianity, the very concepts and ideas that form the basis for Christianity actually turn out to owe a great deal to Plato and Aristotle.
Virtually everything that Christianity teaches about God, about human nature, about human fulfillment arises from what the historians of religion like to call the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens that is the marriage of Greek and Jewish thinking. One big moment for this process comes about eight centuries after Plato and Aristotle, four centuries after Christ when a man named St. Augustine writes a truly monumental work in the history of western thought, a real classic, The City of God. He writes this book just as the Roman Empire is collapsing around his ears from invasion of barbarians. Augustine was very influenced by platonic thinking even though he wasn’t all that familiar directly with Plato’s works and he sets the course of Christian thinking for a very long time. In fact, if you’re knowledgeable about the history of Christian doctrine or Christian theology you’ll know that Augustine is influential right up to the current moment.
Then another 800 years after St. Augustine a priest around the year 1250 named Thomas Aquinas rediscovers many of the lost works of Aristotle. To put this very briefly, he puts together the thought of Aristotle with the thought of Augustine, comes up with a new synthesis for Christian thinking and it turns out to be a game-changer. The result is for the most part, what the Roman Catholic Church teaches to this very day. St. Thomas Aquinas is the primary orthodox theologian of Catholicism.
Meanwhile, the Italian poet Dante who lives one generation after Aquinas reads Aquinas, is influenced by his work and as one of the three or four greatest poets ever to live presents us with his own view of human nature, fulfillment and human destiny when he writes his three epic poems about hell, purgatory and heaven. You’ve probably heard of Dante’s Inferno.
So now fast forward another 250 years and we come to about the year 1500, Martin Luther in Germany. Now Luther gets very angry about a lot of things that are happening in the Catholic Church. He goes back and rips Aquinas apart. He trashes Aristotle and he returns for his inspiration to the game-changing works of St. Augustine and St. Paul. By doing this Luther also starts a process that splinters Christianity into a million pieces, game-changers.
Another hundred or so years after Luther we have John Milton. Milton is an English poet. He takes his inspiration from the reforming of Christianity, the Protestant reformation and he writes the greatest epic poem in the English language Paradise Lost. It gives his own picture, the Protestant picture of human nature, human history, human destiny, God’s will.
So if you happen to be a Catholic and you believe that the Catholic Church teaches the same thing always and everywhere and has from the very beginning or if you’re an Evangelical Protestant and you believe that all of your own views come directly from a plain, straightforward reading of New Testament texts in either case you could not be more mistaken. The very teachings of the Catholic Church or the very ways that a Protestant Christian interprets the words of the Bible, the scripture results from speculations and collisions taking place among ideas that involve Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Paul, Dante, Martin Luther and Milton.
Here is a very small example of something quite specific. Many Christians believe that Satan, the Devil was once a great archangel, in fact, that he was the highest of all the angels and that his name was Lucifer and that he rebelled against God in heaven before the creation of the entire world. Later he successfully tempted our first parents, Adam and Eve to eat an apple in the Garden of Eden and then this sin was passed down as an original sin to all the human race that flowed from those two beginning parents. They also think that these beliefs about Satan are actually taught in the scripture, that you could go into the Bible and find them, but they’re not. There is actually remarkably little in the Hebrew Scriptures about Satan and what is there does not happen to include these beliefs.
Satan as we imagine him, and usually Satan is a he, is actually a much later invention and he is not thought of as either a fallen angel or even fully identified with the serpent in the garden whotempts Adam and Eve to taste the fruit until four centuries after the life of Chris. Augustine has a lot to do with who Satan becomes and the picture that you yourself may have in your mind of a rebel angel, a war in heaven between the good angels and the bad angels well that is something that John Milton imagined for us when he published Paradise Lost in 1667.
It has sometimes been said that we all live on the thoughts of dead philosophers and dead poets. I think this is probably true. So we should stop and remember for a moment our distinction between knowledge and wisdom. It’s one thing to discover, if it is a discovery and if you believe what I've said, that Satan in the way that we think about him entered into our imagination, our collective western imagination in the fourth century as Augustine was trying to work out salvation history and also that Satan went through a significant transformation in the year 1667.
So those, you might you say, are bits of knowledge. Whether and how you take them to be important, whether they make any difference to your own view of religion or your own religious beliefs well that is a matter of wisdom. Knowledge only creates a question about what to do with the knowledge or the question of how that knowledge makes you think about some other things.
So I could go on. Socrates and Plato and Aristotle exert influences in many other threads or conversations or discussions that are taking place in the western history of ideas. For instance, the encounter with Socrates enters very strongly into Soren Kierkegaard’s work in the nineteenth century and Kierkegaard is the godfather of existentialism. UltimatelyKierkegaard produces all these other philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre. Socrates also provoked and gave shape an encounter; a philosophical encounter gave shape to Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought also in the nineteenth century. As Nietzsche actually seeks to try to undo what he considers to be the disaster the Socrates had bequeathed to western civilization.
So you simply cannot study the history of western thought without running into Plato and Socrates just around about every corner. You can’t read a thinker who hasn’t been influenced himself or herself by these ideas in some way as well as the way that they actually posed the original questions, what is the best sort of life for a human being and what is the best kind of society in which that sort of life can be lived. So the Republic is still what I would call a living book. It still fuels encounters. It still provokes us, provokes students in my classroom, I think, just as much as Socrates provoked them in the streets of ancient Greece. It has something to teach us. It has something to connect us very deeply to the ideas of many others. It’s something that has made our society in some very deep respects what it is. You might say that Plato and his inspiration Socrates are the opposite of outdated thinkers.
Now on this rather quick dash through the centuries I've not forgotten the question that I'm supposed to answer, which is, so what. Why does it do you any good to know these things? I haven’t said what good it’s going to do you in particular to read the Republic or why it would be better to read the Republic than the latest book on American politics, particularly given how little time for reading we’ve all agreed that we all have. So I'm trying to get to that. All I've done so far is to give you a sense of what I'm calling a classic and why I'm calling it that. That is I've tried to give you a rough and ready way to define the kind of book that we’re discussing. So let’s revisit briefly my criteria for a classic. Plato’s Republic I think we’ve got the first four nailed. One, the work addresses permanent and universal concerns about the human condition. Two, the work has been a game-changer. It has created profound shifts in perspective in people’s perspectives over time. Three, the work has stimulated or influenced or formed directly or indirectly many other important works. Four, many of the most expert readers and critics over time have valued the work very highly even if they agreed on almost nothing else among themselves at all, but now let’s look at that last criterion I gave you for a classic that the work takes a strenuous effort to engage and understand, but rewards it in multiple ways. What is all this about strenuous effort and what has that got to do with something being a classic? Aren’t there any classics that are easy to read or to cut to the chase in regarding all of this strenuous effort why do I have to dig into Plato’s Republic at all? Why can’t I just hear about it from you or why can’t I read the Cliff Notes version or why can’t I find a summary or a digest or look on my neighbor’s notes? Why won’t Wikipedia tell me everything that is truly important for me to take away from the book? Why can’t I take advantage of the fact that all these other people have read it, commented on it and used it for some purpose or another? What is the takeaway? If I just happen to be a Christian and I happen to believe the things that you’ve told me about Plato so far what difference is it going to make to the way that I practice my religion and if I'm not a Christian why should I care at all?
So let’s try to take these questions one at a time. Let’s see if some specific examples will help, but the bit about strenuous effort actually turns out to be important. So let’s stop for just a moment. Why is Plato so hard to read? So for one thing Plato occupied a very different cultural, moral, political and religious universe than we do. The Greeks lived in these small city states. They believed in lots and lots of Gods. They subscribed to kind of a hero type of morality or public ethic and beyond that these epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey were sort of like their popular culture. That’s where they got all their songs and all their stories and they shared that with each other, but they don’t share it with us. To really understand Plato you have to travel back in time and put yourself in the middle of a very strange world and you have to understand that world to some degree to understand Plato.
Two, Plato was exceptionally clever and his work abounds in these highly detailed arguments, enormous amount of logical give and take. The thing is working on many levels and some of it is actually meant to confuse you. Part of his core purpose in fact is to confuse you enough that he’ll force you to work harder, that he is going to force you to think more deeply about something than you had done up until the point where of course Socrates begins to embarrass you with these questions. He is dealing with complicated and puzzling things Plato is and therefore, his thought can be complicated and puzzling.
So even though Plato is talking about lots of everyday things, there are shepherds. There is boat pilots and there is things like that and even though he can be actually extraordinarily entertaining and humorous as well as from time to time dramatic and moving he is trying to express new thoughts and in order to express new thoughts he has to create new ways of using language and in fact he pushes language up against the limits, that is up against the limits of what you can express and understand, so part of the work of the dialogues is to get you to realize this, but that means forcing you up against the limits of language and giving you strange and difficult things to decipher because you’ve got to follow the path by which Plato creates the language in order to understand what it is that he is actually talking about.
His language also slips around a lot, so a term like justice or the just man it’s used in one sense in one place. It can take on a very different sense in another place. What is he trying to do there? He is trying to make you actually aware of the way that language changes and shifts and that language as you know from listening I hope to your own political leaders can be a very slippery thing.
So of course there, in addition to the language, things going on in Plato there is a lot of other things going on as well. Sometimes the personal relationships that are on display or the relations between people or the emotions that they’re experiencing are actually more important than the discussion that they’re having. It takes you awhile to pick this up in Plato and realize he is not just talking about disembodied people having these rational conversations. He knows that people are situated in lives where they care about all kinds of things other than the answers to philosophical questions. Also like Socrates himself, Plato is extremely ironical. Now what does that mean? That means that he can be saying one thing, praising someone or the beliefs that someone has while meaning actually to mock that person and call their actions or their beliefs or their language into question. So I've taught Plato many times. I've never had a student who thought that Plato was easy, but I've never seen a student finish with Plato without understanding that he is also extraordinary and even wondrous, but think about it for a minute. What do you expect? This tends to be true of every really great work of the human mind just as it is true that is that things are complex and difficult about any important action in the world, whether it’s business or law or government or whatever complicated field you’re going to end up pursuing.
Now recognize that I'm not saying that the classics are good because they’re challenging and difficult. Frankly, there are a lot of very challenging and difficult books that I would never recommend you read in a thousand years, right. It’s the great works, the ones with the lasting influence and the biggest ideas are challenging for a different reason. They’re not challenging because the writers were incompetent. They’re challenging because they’re the best attempts to make the best sense that we possibly can out of a very complicated world.
All right, so Plato is a challenge. Aristotle is a challenge. Dante is a challenge. Shakespeare is a challenge. But why should I have to read them myself? Why can’t somebody just tell me what is in them, summarize them, tell me what is relevant and give me the takeaways? Well the twentieth century philosopher and critic Mortimer Adler put it this way: “But, he says, someone may say that the great books are too difficult for most of us in school or out. That’s why we’re forced to get our education from secondary teachers and from textbooks. I'm not denying that the great books are likely to require more effort than the digest. I am only saying that the digests cannot be substituted for the originals, and this is the important point, because you cannot get the same thing out of them. There is no royal road, Adler says. The path of true learning is strewn with rocks, not roses, but I am still saying, he goes on, that the great books can be read by every person. In one sense of course they are the most difficult to read, but they are in another sense the most readable both for the less and more competent reader because they are the most instructive.” Professor Brenzel’s saying, “You get bigger bang for your dollar.” “Obviously, says Adler, I do not mean most readable in the sense of with the least effort. Even for the expert reader these books are hard. I mean that these books reward every degree of effort and every degree of ability to the maximum.” So what Adler is trying to tell us here is that just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that the time you spend with it is not worthwhile and in fact that any amount of time that you spend with one of these kinds of works will actually be more valuable to you than the same amount of time that you spend on a work of lesser quality. You might different levels of reading ability. You might have gotten further down the road in studying this subject than someone else, but Adler says that for a truly great book it should be something that rewards even a beginning reader, that is a beginning serious reader in some important ways and in fact these books would not be read if they didn’t make those rewards available even to beginning students. Now it’s also important to be in a context where you have a guide and a college course is a wonderful place to obtain that guide, but what Adler wants us to understand is the principle of no pain, no gain and in fact that in the case of works of the mind that whatever the pain you experience, whatever time and study that you’re going to give to these works these works pay a greater return. You might say they have a higher interest rate than the ordinary stocks and bonds that you’re going to be exposed to in the rest of your courses. So Adler has claimed that these books are not just rewarding, but they do something for you that ordinary books simply can’t. That is they’re going to reward every degree of effort to the maximum possible. It’s a big claim. If he is right then you’ve got a reason to exercise your principle of necessity that is the principle of having to choose from a very small number of books with your limited and precious time. You have a reason to make those choices in the way I'm advising, but is he right?
The Value of Reading the Classics
So what I'm going to do now is to try to give you five takeaways that is five valuable things that are specific to you that you can pull out of these books and takeaway with you to the other things that you’re studying and also to your own life.
Number one, the value of forgotten ideas; some old ideas are not actually outdated. The entire period that we call the European Renaissance actually consisted of people rediscovering a bunch of ideas from the ancient world and giving them a new application. So point number one is some of these old ideas are actually valuable.
Number two, the value of making connections between ideas, there is less new under the sun than what you might think and seeing the connections that tie one thinker to another in a tradition also gives you a measure of how far we’ve come on some problems and what problems seem to have heavily resisted the attempts of human beings to give them answers. The one that we’ve been considering from time to time through the course of this talk is one of those. What is the best sort of life for a human being? This is a question that you’ll be asking yourself as you try to figure out things like where am I going to get a job, where am I going to live, who am I going to marry, how am I going to raise my children. These are questions that are permanent aspects of the human condition. You’re also going to discover that this is not the kind of question in which science has suddenly delivered a fantastic new answer. People have been asking and answering this question for a long time and looking at some old thinkers can help you see the connections between the ways people originally asked these questions and the way we do, but also give you a perspective on what has been solved, which in some of these cases is very little and what remains for you to consider and actually determine by the way that you live your own life.
The third thing is that great books of the past are going to engage you with a number of great minds who don’t share any of your assumptions just as we were talking about with Plato. It’s a different culture, a different morality, a different religion, a different politics. Call this the value of strangeness, which is not only an additional perspective on what you believe, but I'm going to claim it’s also a primary source of human creativity.
So the fourth value here is very straightforward. It’s simply building up your intellectual muscle power. You are not going to get to be a better wrestler, right, by whipping all the little kids in your neighborhood and sending them home crying. If you’re going to be a better wrestler you’re going to have to get your own nose bloody by going up against people who are bigger and stronger and better than you are.
And then finally, five, there is the value of forming better judgment, making more discerning choices. Once you’ve encountered and wrestled with the greatest minds of all time you’re going to be in a much better position yourself to tell the trash from the gold and to pick out what is worthwhile for your time from what you can safely discard with the other 99.99% of the reading material and you’re going to be able to do this without being able or having to consult past experts. You don’t have them to consult for contemporary books. You’re going to be able to do it without deciding what other books has this book influenced or will it influence. You’re going to be in a better position to make that judgment on your own.
So let’s dig down a little bit into the value of some old and outdated ideas, forgotten ideas. A couple of examples, a man name Malthus in 1798 published a classic work in political economy. It’s called An Essay in the Principle of Population. Now the basic idea is that populations can only grow up to the point where the necessary collapse because of limited resources, famine and disease, but the essay explores the ideas in a lot of very interesting ways and actually it was a major influence on Charles Darwin and the development of the theory of evolution. So Malthus, Thomas Malthus.
Despite the game-changing nature of this work economists and scientists of the industrial age have generally held that Malthus was wrong. Why, because he predicted we were all going to die back in the eighteenth century. He thought that we were going to outrun the food sources with our population and that nothing could stop a head long rush over the cliff. What he did not take into proper account were the game-changing aspects of human ingenuity and creativity that would find a way around resource bottlenecks.
Now during the oil shocks of the 1970s and if you go back and look for this you’ll see that the ideas of Malthus came very much back into view. Why, because people were seeing resources begin to run out. The world’s population had doubled over a period of about 30 to 60 years and it was going to be set to double again, so Thomas Malthus and his ideas about what happens when you increase the population past the carrying load came around for more currency.
Today if you Google the name Malthus you’re going to get over three million hits on the internet. His fundamental ideas are once again at the center of debates about peak oil, environmental damage, global population, the prospects for global catastrophe. There are books out with titles such as The Future in Plain Sight, Collapse, Peak Everything. Malthusian ideas are everywhere and his work is being invoked as people wonder if the world is about to prove Malthus right in the end.
Here is another example of old ideas being mined for new insights. In ancient Greece Aristotle wrote a book called the Nicomachean Ethics or for short the Ethics. It’s actually a book about human happiness about what it takes to be a happy person. Now we don’t ordinarily associate the idea of ethics with a work on happiness. We think about ethics as being things like moral obligations, duties, what we’re called upon to perform despite our desires to do other things.
So Aristotle had a different perspective on this. He was an original proponent of the idea and you may have heard this idea that virtue is its own reward, that in fact, the things that make you an excellent parent, the things that make you an excellent citizen are also the things if pursued consciously and done well make you a happy human being. In other words, that there is a dedication to excellence where excellence consists of the virtues that are required for us to live well and do well with one another that is the foundation for human beings to be happy. This goes these days by the name virtue ethics and philosophers and psychologists all over the world are studying in fact and I'm sure that you’ve probably encountered some of this material, perhaps some in this very lecture series of what makes for human happiness. Aristotle actually has something extremely contemporary to contribute to that debate.
This same example about Aristotle can help me illustrate the point I was making about takeaways, that you can measure how far we’ve come with certain ideas, so ideas of human happiness and psychological research into human happiness you might say is a big industry these days and I've made the note that I think Aristotle actually has something to contribute and from a different direction than most psychologists look. However, Aristotle was also a biologist. In fact, he founded the study of biology. He went around dissecting animals. He made lots of observations. But guess what? We’ve come a very long way since Aristotle and our understanding of biology and no one is going to go to Aristotle except as a historian of science that is an academic who is interested in this story to learn something about biology. So again reading these works gives you a very different sense of what progress consists of in one whole area of human thought and what even our notion of progress might mean when we start to talk about some like human happiness. Are there really new messages coming from the cosmos about what it takes to be happy?
My third value or takeaway involved what I call the value of strangeness. Now this one is a little harder to explain, so let me use an analogy. You’ve probably traveled. People like to travel. Some people travel a great deal. What do people feel like they learn from traveling, particularly travel to another society? One of the things that good travelers, people who have done this well and spent enough time in a foreign society to really learn something about it they generally say that what they bring back from that are two things. One is that they’re struck by the ways that that society is different from our own and they’re struck by the different kinds of answers that people give to questions that we suddenly discover we’ve made a lot of assumptions about. That is we’ve made an assumption about our lifestyle or an assumption about what people want out of life or an assumption about how people are going to get those things that actually isn’t operating in this other society at all and of course it might make us stop and think is our way of doing this actually the best way of doing it, might I pick up some idea from this other place.
You wouldn’t notice what was going on so strongly if it didn’t appear strange to you because what is strange pops out to us, but the intriguing thing is that when people return to their own society from a significant encounter with another society they generally find that suddenly their own society looks a little strange. Some of the things that they took for granted, some of the assumptions that they were making, the unquestioned assumptions about what they were doing or how they were living suddenly come to the surface and some travelers have said I never really understood America until I visited Europe and Japan, when I came back and visited or I never understood China until I went to Africa and South America, why, because I didn’t realize that people could think so differently about something than the way that I do and this gave me a new perspective on what I myself find most familiar.
This is something, by the way, that Americans are actually quite notorious for, having blind spots, not being able to see how many assumptions that they’re making about politics, about government, about the world in part because Americans don’t learn other languages generally speaking and Americans don’t travel, don’t have to travel in the ways that people in some parts of the world do. Well great books can have some of this same affect through the value of strangeness.
Let’s consider two women writers for a moment and if you have been paying attention you might have noticed that I haven’t talked about women thinkers or writers up to this point and in that regard it’s important to remember that until very recent times very few women had access to the kinds of education or were given the kind of encouragement to engage in this kind of thinking or this kind of work or this kind of reading as they are today, so you might say it’s only very recently that women have entered this long conversation. Why, because they were excluded from it.
But Jane Austen was a brilliant novelist. She described her writing as being something done with a fine brush on very small pieces of ivory. In part what she meant was that she kept her subject matter very confined and what Jane Austen wrote about were the manners and the ways of life and the marriage and family arrangements of English country gentry of the late 1700s. Now it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have much knowledge about the ways of life that were current among the English gentry in the late 1700s and that is just what makes encountering them valuable and what makes encountering Jane Austen herself valuable for she knows this world and these people inside and out and she is an exceptional, clever and devastating observer of the human heart. You come to know both the world that these people occupied and the ways in which they occupied this world in a way that no other author is ever going to reveal.
Of one of Jane Austen’s male heroines she notes—on one of Jane Austen’s male characters she notes this. Her heroine, the woman, the heroine of the story, was of course only too good for him, but as nobody minds what is too good for them he was very earnest in the pursuit of the blessing or take another example, Emily Dickinson. Now Emily Dickinson was one of the two or three master poets that the United States has produced. She had an even more narrow and an even stranger world to show us consisting primarily of the workings of her own mind and her emotions, which were exceptionally focused and intense.
It was Dickinson, a virtual recluse who said, “Parting is all we need to know of heaven and all we need of hell.” I got that wrong. It was Dickinson, a virtual recluse who said, “Parting is all we know of heaven and is all we need of hell.” She also said, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” And also this, “An ear can break a human heart as quickly as a sphere.” “We wish the ear had not a heart, so dangerously near.” Reading Emily Dickinson will introduce you to a mind and a heart that simply does not work like yours. It doesn’t work like mine, but she knows yours and she knows her own as well. So I would say the same thing about a classic that is outside of western civilization, the Analects of Confucius, which is a foundational work in Chinese civilization and it’s one that the Chinese themselves are returning to, to examine with new eyes. Now Confucius had a profound sense of family and social relationships and the way that those things could construct the world, maybe a more profound sense of family and social relationships than any thinker east or west and not only that. He was capable of quite fresh and startling insights into places and people. You’ve probably noticed that I've actually said very little so far about eastern philosophy or eastern literature, but that is only because very sadly I haven’t had the chance to dip into it in the ways that I would like, but I did want to drink in some Confucius because there are some strong parallels between Confucius and Aristotle who is a thinker that I'm very familiar with.
Here are some of the things that Confucius has to tell us: “People, he said, can be forced to follow a path of action, but they cannot be forced to understand what they do. An inferior person should not be given something important to do, but he can be quite useful doing something small. A superior person may be quite poor at doing elementary things, but extraordinary when something of sufficient importance must be attempted.”
Now Confucius’ mind is, in many ways, so different that his thoughts like Dickinson’s and like Austin’s can dislodge us from the everyday world, the things that we’re familiar with and the ways that we tend to find it natural to think, but isn’t that the value of an education and isn’t one of the most practical things that the world is seeking, the world of business, the world of law, the world government, the world of the arts, even the world of academia? Aren’t they seeking for people who take up new and strange and different and creative perspectives? In other words, isn’t this takeaway from these great and classic works maybe among the most practical things that they have to offer us?
My fourth value involved building your muscles and your reading skills and the ways that you’re going to tackle increasingly difficult material. Now I don’t think this one requires illustration so much as it does a reminder. As we said, you don’t get to the Olympics by training with weaklings and these works have survived in part because they’ve been written be geniuses. That is we know that these are minds worth wrestling with because so many have. The good news is that does mean that you have to be a genius to understand them. Thank God or I wouldn’t have made it very far myself. You have heard the saying “she got to where she is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. So here are the giants. Master the skills that it takes to get up on their shoulders and you’re going to see quite a distance. You’ll see more than they saw. You’ll also be prepared, better prepared to grapple with lesser works that don’t stand as tall.
So for the fifth value I said that to the extent that you encounter and engage classic works successfully you’d be a better judge of modern works and my example here has to be Shakespeare. Now many of the greatest critics and readers of world literature, including across cultures and across boundaries have had the same basic view of Shakespeare and that is whatever his flaws, whatever the weaknesses and whatever the strengths of other writers no one, no literary giant has ever written more profoundly or more inventively or more imaginatively about the human condition than Shakespeare.
Harold Bloom, the great literary critic where I work and teach here at Yale called one of his books on Shakespeare the invention of the human and he meant by this that Shakespeare with these characters like Falstaff and Hamlet and King Leer quite literally created around the year 1600 our modern sense of what it means to be a human being acting and thinking in the world. Many of his hundreds of memorable characters, men and women either vividly or unexpectedly respond to their life situations in ways that we couldn’t predict of typecast or they open up new perspectives on what truly motivates each of us.
So once you have successfully engaged Shakespeare in his comedies and in his tragedies you’re going to very quickly sense in other writers whether or not they’re capable of doing the same thing and if they are you’re going to be drawn onto read them and if they’re not you can safely set them aside because you’ve got a better standard against which to make your choices. Must you read Shakespeare in order to be a better reader of literature in general? No, there are other routes, but there is no better route both for the judgments that you’re forced to make about what else to read or for the kinds of things that you can get out of imaginative literature.
Let’s say that you’re persuaded of these five valuable things that I say you can take away from these works if you include some of them on your course schedule in college. The question still remains. Do I think you can be happy without these works, without ever reading any of them? Of course I do, otherwise, the world would be full of very miserable and unhappy people because most folks don’t dive very far into these kinds of works, but that’s not exactly the right question. Is it? The right question is the one posed to you. Could your life be better personally if you invited some of these authors into it and how so?
Though I think I've given you some good reasons to believe that there are some things that you could get out of reading say and author like Plato I don’t think I've been yet able to give you a full sense of what you’re going to get out of reading Plato that you can’t get out of hearing me talk about it in a lecture or reading some summary or some digest, but there is a good reason for that as it turns out. Think about it like this. I shared an experience- So think about it like this. I shared an experience a number of years ago when my son got involved and I got involved as well in the Boy Scouts. We hiked. We camped. We made friends. We had lots of families in the troop, lots of other adults on the trips. It was all fine. It was wonderful, but then we came to a point in the development of these young men and their skills where were prepared to introduce them into something more adventurous and we planned a two week wilderness expedition, something that we hadn’t come close to doing with these young men before. I was very excited. It was something that I had done and I wanted my son to have the same experience as I had, had. “So let me get this straight.” He said. “We’ll have to carry twice the weight on our backs that we ever have before, including the food.” “The food is going to be pretty bad.” “We’re going to have to purify every single drop of water we drink.” “We’ll have to figure out our own trail.” “It’s going to be in rugged mountains.” “We’ll probably spend some time getting lost.” “This is going to take like a couple of weeks, not a couple of days and the hiking is going to be hard work and we could get injured and there is going to be bugs.” “What exactly am I going to get out of this that I can’t get from the hiking and camping that we’ve already done which I've liked perfectly fine and which we did without all this pain and hassle?” Smart boy and good questions, I tried to appeal to his sense of adventure, no go. I tried to tell him he’ll learn useful stuff about surviving in the wilderness and that he would also see nature from a new perspective. He said he never planned on having to survive in the wilderness and that he could get all the perspective on nature he wanted from watching the Discovery Channel. So I finally said you know I don’t think I can really tell you what you’re going to get out of this. You have to experience it for yourself and then you’ll know, so I guess I'm just asking you to trust me on this. So my son Paul certainly had some skeptical company among the other scouts in the troop and sure enough a few days into this expedition, things began to deteriorate. We had some lousy weather. There were blisters. People were hungry. The boys are ragging on each other. No one is really getting along and my son is looking at me with those all knowing eyes of a 16 year-old, but then the boys started to toughen up. The weather cleared. We got higher up in the mountains. They started to rely on each other more. They figured out how to break camp efficiently. They figured out how to make the best of the food, how to fuel up for the day, how to keep from blistering and so one day we get to a really terrific climb during which there was a fair amount of complaining. It was a brutal effort and when we emerged from the tree line we’re on top of the highest peak in the region and we’re down in the New Mexico Rockies. You could see forever. In fact, we could see from where we were and trace the entire path that we had taken from the moment that we started the expedition because of how high we were up. We were exhilarated. The boys were exhilarated and my son came over to me and he said, “Hey Dad.” I said, “What?” He said, “This is fantastic.” I said, “I know.” And he said, “I just want you to know I get it.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “This is by far the most fantastic thing that we’ve ever done together.” So what had we learned by virtue of taking a much more arduous, a much more difficult journey than we had taken up to that point in our scouting experience?
So like me, he has now got an experience of the outdoors that has given him a permanent interest that he can pursue in life and of course there was also the element of the experience that revolved around the connection that he and I made together by virtue of having the experience together.
So remember what Adler said. In one sense of course the great books are the most difficult to read, but they are in another sense the most readable both for the less and the more competent because they are the most instructive and that is the keyword. “Obviously I do not mean, says Adler, most readable in the sense of with the least effort, even for the expert.” “I mean that these books reward every degree of effort and ability to the maximum.”
So here is something else to think about and it’s something that Adler has to say and it goes beyond the five takeaways that I gave you for things of value that you can derive from these books. You’re going to encounter a lot of things in your life that you need to know and things that you need to learn about that aren’t going to change you much at all. You’ve learned many of these things already. You learned how to drive a car, but that didn’t change who you were as a human being. I'm suggesting to you now that you’re going to be in the same position with relation to these works that we’ve been talking about in this lecture as the scout who has done the weekend hiking, taken the daytrip, maybe cooked breakfast at the camp and so forth.
Remember how I said at the beginning that Aristotle said it’s our nature to want to know things. Well just as it’s our nature to work, to play, to find a mate, to live in society remember how I said that wisdom is something different from knowledge. Well here is my final thought for you and it’s a deep paradox of learning. You don’t necessary know what you are looking for until you find it and it’s the effort of finding it that actually turns you into a different person than the one who set out on the journey to begin with and that’s why reading these great works is very similar in fact to the experience that my son had of a wilderness expedition after never having attempted anything more than what you can get on the low lying ground.
So when you finally do achieve a radical new perspective, when it’s not just a matter of taking in bits of information and knowledge, but it’s a matter of changing how you put them together and also it’s a matter of changing who you are as a result you will see a different value in these things, in for instance, these books and you’re also going to see yourself in a new light.
So there is also a reason of course here to start young with these works and in fact to make the choice to include them in some of your college courses. First of all, you’re going to need some serious guidance and some coaching as you learn how to navigate this new kind of mountainous terrain and you’re going to need some support as you encounter these game-changing, person-changing kinds of works and you’re going to need some help trying to make the connections between these works and the other things that you’re currently studying and that you’re learning about in more contemporary kinds of context, but there is another reason to dive into these works when you’re young in addition to the fact that you could use a guide and that’s that you’ll find there is another very strange thing about them, which is as you age they change as books. Macbeth is not going to be the same book for you at age 50 that it was at age 18. Milton and Plato are not going to hit you the same way at age 40 that they do at age 25.
Now it’s sort of odd. We don’t think about going back to books that we’ve already read and you might say acquired or put into our storehouse of knowledge and we certainly don’t expect books to change just because we read them the second time. Isn’t that boring? Well one of the interesting things about the kinds of books that I'll be recommending to you in the materials for this lecture is that nothing about the book changes. The text is just the same as it has always been. The words are there just as you remember them. What has changed is you and what you find is that there is a certain inexhaustible aspect to these books. That is they are operating on so many levels that as you come into a new zone of experience or a new zone of reflection or your own connections expand, the connections that you’re capable of making between things or that you’re creating new thoughts or creating new ways of looking at things yourselves what you find is what makes these authors great is they keep talking to you. They keep opening up new things whenever you go back to them. There is no more inexhaustible source of provocation, stimulation, entertainment, intellectual development and excitement than the great works of the past.
So I give you the only answer that I really can, the best answer I know. Why read these books? It’s the same answer I gave my son. You climb up into the mountains. You make your most strenuous effort. You give it everything you have and what is your reward? It’s the view. It’s the view. Thank you very much.
From "What's the best kind of life for a human?" to "How should governments be arranged?", the great classics tackle some of the most enduring questions that have resisted the attempts of science and the ages to solve. Brenzel will try to convince you that having intimate conversations with these great works will not only build your intellectual muscle but will also help you to grapple with the big questions in your own life and improve your judgment.
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