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  • 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 weve

  • 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 youre not only chasing after knowledge

  • as hard as you can.  Youre also trying to build up the skill sets and acquire the

  • kind of capacities and abilities that youre going to need to become a better learner overall.

Also

  • I'm going to assume that youre not only trying to increase your stock of knowledge,

  • but that youre 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 theyre 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'vegotten 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, were

  • not going to get to 99.999% of everything that has ever been written.  

You know

  • Mahatma Gandhi said live as though youll die tomorrow, but learn as though youll

  • live forever.  Now Gandhi was as aware as you and I are that were 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 youre 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 theyre 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 publishedthough

  • 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 describingso

  • 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.  Youre not even sure how youre going

  • to see the book over time.  In fact, youll 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.  Theyre actually going to get older and you might think no

  • fair.  Youre just defining classics or youre 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 youll 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.  Youve 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 Socratesinspiration.  

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