The case for reading Great Books
Good ways of thinking are in flux throughout history.
The next book club is on 9th July 19.00 UK time. We are reading Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte. Some people can’t make it so I will organise a mid-week session also. Email me or leave a comment if you have a preference. I will produce an extra subscribers’ only video and essay about Jane Eyre in the interim.
Not all of you are using Substack Notes, so I am putting up here some thoughts that I originally put on Notes about why reading the Great Books is valuable, in response towriting on his Substack.
Richard is smarter than me, and a better blogger, and I was semi-persuaded by his case: but since my blog is more or less dedicated to reading old books, I thought I’d offer some thoughts.
the idea that someone writing more than say four hundred years ago could have deep insights into modern issues strikes me as farcical. If old thinkers do have insights, the same points have likely been made more recently and better by others who have had the advantage of coming after them.
But you don’t just read old books for content: you read them for method. The point of reading old works is to see what arguments are made and in what ways and to realise how continuous most disputes are. Richard is confident that ways of thinking have improved over time. I agree—we had the Enlightenment!—but there’s more variation in this than you might expect.
In Genius Creativity & Leadership Dean Keith Simonton estimated the extent of material vs non-material ideas throughout history. You might not trust his numbers, but at the time of the Enlightenment, it was about 50/50. There was a good blog recently showing the emergence of empirical thinking in Ancient Greece. Good ways of thinking are in flux throughout history.
You don’t just read old books for content: you read them for method.
This matters because, as J.S. Mill said in his essay on Genius, true genius is not really about the production of original ideas. All ideas are new to someone. The true genius is the person who keeps finding new ideas and is able to think for themselves rather than learning the same things as everyone else and ending up with the same badly thought-out opinions. The more you read only new work, the less chance you give yourself to discover new ideas and be original in the way Mill means. I am glad to have read that essay by Mill because I have not discovered that idea expressed in quite that way anywhere else.
This is an argument for the content of old books being useful to individuals in a very local, tacit, Hayekian way. This remains true even while Richard’s broader point stands that, e.g., Aristotle is not going to be the guiding light of modern science. We cannot predict, as Richard does, what books will be most useful to a given individual. Many times, the most useful books will be old. Many time they will not.
That is why I would read the work of the Amazonian philosopher in Richard’s thought experiment. I don’t know what I might discover there that could be useful to me in some way.
Richard also makes a point that I think argues for reading Great Books. He writes, “Things that seem obvious today were beyond the grasp of most humans throughout history.” You can only know this by being somewhat familiar with the Great Books. This is what I mean by reading for method. Just knowing what people thought, how they thought, etc., is useful beyond the actual content.
Finally, this is an example of the error I think Richard is making.
I’m 100% certain that if you gathered some passages from Marcus Aurelius and hired a halfway intelligent blogger to produce content made to sound like Marcus Aurelius, nobody would be able to tell the difference.
Maybe. People do read a lot of self-help books that more-or-less repackage ancient wisdom into modern cliche. But the fact that Marcus Aurelius wrote that book so long ago, and it has been read by so many people, and has proved its worth, gives it a credibility that most modern writers don’t possess, and can’t possess.
All messages gain their validity from three things: the credibility of the speaker, the logic of their argument, and the emotional effect they have on their audience. Richard is talking mostly about the second two points without acknowledging that Marcus Aurelius has a credibility simply unavailable to most other writers. Hence he is still read. (Also he uses metaphors, journaling, and other techniques that give his ideas more resonance than their boilerplate equivalent.)
I learned this idea about what makes a message viable, by the way, by reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, a book I recommend to you all.
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The next book club is about Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte.