Jeffrey Brenzel: The Essential Value of a Classic Education

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Jeffrey Brenzel: The Essential Value of a Classic Education

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.

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?  

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.  

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. 

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.

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.

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
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.

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.  

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.

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

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

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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.  Ultimately Kierkegaard 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.  

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

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.

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.

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?  

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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.  

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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.  

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