This is part of my ongoing series on reading the Western Canon. See here for an introduction to the series.
Although Bloom’s ‘ core 26’ authors start with Shakespeare (and chronologically starts with Dante), his full list of books in the Canon starts with ‘The Theocratic Age,’ with works spanning from The Bible to The Iliad to Beowulf ( the full list can be found here). Although none of these authors are among the ‘core 26’, they seemed important to read to understand later works of the Canon. So, I set out to read a handful of these books, mostly ones where I recognized the author or title. Alas, I read these before I endeavored to seriously blog about them, so my notes are not as fleshed out as I would like. Still, I will write my memories and thoughts on all of the books that I have read. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy my reviews and interpretations of some of the oldest literature in The Canon.
Today: Plato and Aristotle.
Plato’s astonishing influence is best summarized by Alfred North Whitehead: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Considering that much of the modern world has been shaped by “The European philosophical tradition,” it follows that Plato’s influence is still reverberating in all of our lives today. It seemed natural, then, to try and read some Plato and see what all of the fuss is about.
Plato’s works, collectively called the Dialogues, span an enormous range of topics in philosophy. They’re all written as conversations between various recurring characters, most notably Plato’s teacher, Socrates. Socrates acts as the driving force in many of the dialogues, showing us how to reason and ask piercing questions to arrive at deeper and deeper meanings. Of the 41 dialogues, I read six: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Euthyphro, The Symposium, and The Republic. I unscientifically chose these by googling around for “most essential Plato dialogues” and looking for recurring names. I’m happy with the breadth of these dialogues, but I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot in the other 35 works.
I read these and took some notes, but I certainly did not give them their due, given their sheer brilliance and influence. I don’t think I’ve done enough work to truly dive into the heady topics discussed throughout the Dialogues, and such work is beyond the scope of this project. Rather, I’ll comment on my favorite portions and ideas and leave the intense debates to the professionals.
I found much of this reading to be very enjoyable purely from an aesthetic or “literature” perspective. Socrates as a character is marvelous: brilliant, glowing, piercing, needling, ever-seeking. Here’s Socrates in The Republic, at his wisdom-loving and cheerful best:
Adeimantus: You mean, I suspect, to ask whether tragedy and comedy shall be admitted into our State?
Socrates: Yes, but there may be more than this in question: I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.
Adeimantus: And go we will.
The spirit of following an argument wherever it leads is a sign of a good thinker, and Socrates does just that here. I also love Adeimantus’ response - you can tell he’s thrilled to be engaging with Socrates on this level.
One of the ways I conceptualize the benefit of reading classic literature is “gaining voices in my head,” which I realize may sound a bit crazy. What I mean is that after reading enough of one character, I feel as though I can reasonably understand how that character would react to something in my everyday life. This is immensely valuable for gaining perspective and insight in new ways, and I think is a key reason why reading great books is important. The best books impart meaningful and dynamic characters into our heads, so that we can consult with them and get their interpretations of observations that we make every day.
After The Dialogues, I can hear Socrates reacting to my beliefs with constant skepticism and doubt, asking seemingly-innocent questions that threaten to unravel my arguments. I can hear his sense of wonder and sheer desire to learn and understand, and his suicidal commitment to truth.
Of the six dialogues I read, I would most recommend The Symposium and The Apology. They’re short and give an excellent sense of what Socrates is all about. The Republic is probably the most intense and “complete” of all of the dialogues, but I really don’t think many of its conclusions stand up to today’s political philosophy (do we really want to ban poetry from society?) Besides, I wasn’t reading these works for a rigorous study of philosophy, and I think it’s easier to understand and learn from Socrates’ method of thought in other volumes.
Aristotle was a student of Plato and a true polymath. Besides writing on ethics and politics, he made significant contributions to mathematics and science. Indeed, his work on animal biology was some of the best in the field until the 18th and 19 centuries. I wanted to read the Ethics because of a great Econtalk episode with Leon Kass.
After reading it, I was a tad underwhelmed. Or, maybe just appropriately whelmed, because I did really enjoy pieces of the book, but I may have over-hyped it ahead of time.
Aristotle spends a lot of time elaborating on the “golden mean” idea, where the right action is generally in between two extremes of action. Rather than being a complete sloth or a workaholic, you should do something in the middle. While this generally makes sense, I felt a lot of ink was wasted on delineating all of the different types of extremes and their appropriate means. Aristotle loves breaking things down into smaller parts to define them, but I don’t know how useful that ends up being in this book.
Also, the writing itself is quite difficult to follow. I first used some random translation online, and I could barely get through a paragraph. I searched around and found that people recommended Joe Sachs’ translation, so used that instead. The translation seems fine, but I think the writing itself is just convoluted. I found myself re-reading paragraphs many times.
The best parts are the inspiring and very realistic discussions on building habits and improving one’s character. For Aristotle, ethics is nearly completed separated from consequences, and is instead focused entirely on character. That is, an action is judged as good if it aligns with a set of desired virtues. This is pretty hard to swallow for a staunch utilitarian like myself, but I found myself admiring what this looks like in practice in Aristotle’s view. His view of morality is very forgiving and practical, always advocating for doing better rather than seeking perfection. He understands that many things in life are uncertain, and that we are all just trying our best to act well, and that it won’t always work out.