Apr 8, 2012
The Harvard Classics - What's it good for?
This continues yesterday's piece on the Harvard Classics, that I also have improved today by correcting a few typos and adding rather a lot of links, mostly to Wikipedia articles on the authors I named, to provide background.
Now to the topic of today: What's it good for? O... the link is to the song "War - what is it good for?!" from 1969, but that's an aside, though perhaps a timely one.
But to pose the question not about war, but about reading books, and especially reading the classics: What is that good for?!
The brief answer is:
It informs and teaches you about what it is to be a human being, and about what sort of reality human beings live or lived in, and if this reading is indeed done in the great classical authors, it gives a selection of what the best minds have thought and said about many of the most important human questions, often also in the best prose, for these things generally go together. And that last fact assures that, provided you do have the mind for it, and perhaps some relevant knowledge, much of it should be enjoyable, interesting and enlightening writing.
Then again, what is the good of that? Especially given all the joys of freely obtainable great music, movies, videos, and recreational drugs from marihuana to viagra these great modern times provide for all who have a decent computer?
Well... there is no cure for stupidity, and if your own mind is not up to it, there's an end of it, as indeed with anything worthwile that humans can do on a high level of attainment and talent.
Also, I certainly do not want to force people to read the classics:
All I want to do is to suggest to intelligent people that by far the best answers to any question an intelligent man or woman might ask have been given other intelligent men - and generally not in a definite, final, true and best formulated form, but in some form that is in fact tentative, guessed, partial, and also partially blinded through ignorance or prejudice, that even so is one of the best answers to important questions.
But once more: Granting all that, what's the point of looking into the prose of the best minds of past generations?
Answers: To start with, it often is enjoyable, and if not that at least impressive. Besides, there are not many of the best mind of one's own generation one can meet:
First, who was the best generally is settled not in the generation a man lives, but by later generations, who are less prejudiced and better informed.
Second, there are not many great human minds, and here I mean: Great in capacities and great in works, as were Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Shakespeare, Newton, Leibniz and Von Neumann, for example. Such persons are in fact rare, both in art and in science; they show the heights a human mind can reach; and there work is always first class, exemplary and enjoyable on its own merits for whoever has the wit and background knowledge to understand it.
Third, all human creation is individual, and the best minds usually are interesting persons in themselves, whatever they excel in: Reading the classical authors does not only teach about a field of knowledge or art, but about human personalities and characters, and also often about rare courage and great individuality.
Fourth, while it is true that in some sense the latest real science and mathematics have overtaken, improved upon, or refuted or reoriented part of previous science and mathematics, the classical authors of a field or art created the field or art, or made fundamental contributions to it, and were certainly not less intelligent than those who now live, if not so well informed, perhaps: To read the classical authors shows one the men and the works that founded a field or art, and provides background, perspective and context for what there is now such a field or art.
Fifth, the great authors in any field, whether science or art, are generally more interesting persons than anyone that one can meet in one's personal life, also if that life one leads is spend in a modern university: It may have a few brilliant folks with tenure, but they only very rarely are like or come close to really great minds like Euler, Newton, Hobbes or Shakespeare.
Sixth, reading the great authors not only gives one as close and as good a connection to a great mind, it also does them justice and enables one to have in some ways a better understanding of what they really achieved, also in the light of what happened since they died.
Seventh, the truly great authors - including those in mathematics and physics - generally provide the best examples of creative thinking and good writing in their fields, that very few living men match or can improve on.
Eight, most of the truly great authors were truly great at least in part because their talents allowed them to preserve more of their own individuality and character than most men do and can, who feel themselves often forced to give up what makes them unique in order to survive financially and without being bothered by authorities, and thus tend to be, for the most part, grey conformists and false characters who pretend to be a success or a person, but who are mostly empty shells of role-playing.
Ninth, the great dead are generally not one's competitors, colleagues or close contemporaries, and therefore can be judged more objectively than those still alive, while there often are biographies available about them that show to some extent what it is like to be a character, a wit, a genius, and a human being. (Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson is a good example.)
Tenth, by all means do something else than read Shakespeare, Euclid, Montaigne or Ockham if you can't see what makes their kinds of prose, ideas and works so special. Indeed: Do not read authors that bore you or who you can't really make sense of (unless you have to, for money or a degree).
Eleventh: If you are truly intelligent, you do have to acquire most of your knowledge yourself. Even a good university education cannot teach you much more than some of the foundations of some field - nearly everything of real value you have to find yourself, or through tips of others.
And in these times of nearly universally bad and shallow university education, the best living minds need to turn to what's available on the internet to give themselves most of the education and backgrounds their universities did not supply - which means mostly that they must turn to the works of the best non-living minds, at least if they want to understand backgrounds and contexts of ideas and technologies and get some grasp of how civilization, science, art and human beings interact and interdepend.
Twelfth and last: Let me comment on Hutchin's quoted saying that "The best education for the best is the best education for all", that - in this day and age - may strike many as "elitarian":
Nobody has any difficulty with the fact that some are more beautiful than others; some stronger than others; and some better soccer players than others. It is similar with intelligence, and even the most relativistic postmodern bulllshitter wants the best doctor money can buy when he or she gets seriously ill, and the best lawyer if he or she must go to court.
Moreover, as I wrote when treating The age of ignorance and degeneracy we live in: There is no real civilized modern society, nor a really free society, without an intellectual elite of the highly educated best minds of their generation that is provided to defend it. (*)
There may be a highly effective authoritarian state or dictatorship, and indeed either seems not an unlikely expectation for the strongly declining West, but it will be "civilized" only in the sense that fakes generally look somewhat like the real thing, but miss being really it, and free societies will disappear or collapse because the great majority of human beings, history teaches, have been proud and willing tools of the despots who strangled most freedoms so as gain power and profit for themselves at the costs of the dumb majorities they deceived, and generallwell-educated individualsy could deceive for lack of sufficiently many brave and courageous.
Finally, of course a list like that of the Harvard Classics is by no means the only summary classic authors. Two better ones are Everyman's Library and the Great Books series, from both of which I have quite a lot of paper volumes, and of which I like the Everyman's Library best (effectively 994 titles published in 1239 volumes).
And equally of course: one does not need to read all or most of such a collection, if indeed one has the time and taste for it, but it is good to know about such collections, as summaries of the best things written through the ages, and to have an idea why the works on it are or were important for human civilization, science, mathematics, philosophy or art.
(*) Here I could grow melancholic or angry or somewhat desperate.
As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
Short descriptions of the above:
1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understa, but nds ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.
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