So I’ve been struck by an idea. I’d like to take charge of my own “Liberal Arts” education and read all 517 classic works; so called “Great Books of the Western World”. Plus or minus a few. These books start from Homeric poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey to other Greek authors such as Aeschylus, Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, wind their way through older philosophical classics from Marcus Aurelius to Aquinas, Machiavelli and Hobbes, meander through Shakespeare and Milton, and end with timeless literary masterpieces from Kafka, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. And that’s not even mentioning the gratuitous serving of mathematical and scientific works including Newton, Fourier and Einstein.
Okay it sounds slightly mad to even consider attempting such a feat, but hear me out. Or rather, listen to Jordan Peterson’s lecture on the “True Purpose of University Education
It sounds trivial, but I’m quite convinced that being able to properly read, write and speak – to be truly articulate – is the equivalent of being an intellectual superpower. I’ll admit, there’s is an egoistic element to the ambition of reading so many books. Ego aside however, I should address why a mathematics/physics student would be at all interested in such an undertaking. I’ll refer again to a particular quote from Peterson, this time on mathematics.
> Is mathematics more powerful than articulated speech?
> Depends on what you mean by power…yes mathematics and computer science makes you powerful, but then the question is, **who has the power?**. Because it might not be you.
That quote has stuck with me like a specter which haunts me every time I open a mathematics textbook. Achieving a fully fledged understanding of the liberal arts, I’m hoping to exorcise it for good. There are additional reasons, however:
I’ve previously discussed a philosophical, moral kind of bedrock for how to act in accordance with others and the rest of the world. Whilst there’s more there to talk about, there’s also the problem of consider what values should society be predicated on?*Perhaps that’s an odd thing to be concerned about it, but over the past year or so we’ve seen time and time again around the world, Western leaders losing sight of what the hell it was all for in the first place. You know what I’m talking about.
If we’re speaking practically, of course, it’s unlikely even if I did have the most expert knowledge, wisdom and understanding of all the relevant philosophy and literature which underpins Western democracy, I wouldn’t be able to impact such global affairs even an inch. Thanks to the naivety of youth, I won’t worry myself with that practical nitpick.
Hidden nuggets of wisdom
I’ve read more than my fair share (as an average science student that is) of classical philosophy and literature now. Specifically, some excerpts relevant to fundamentals of political science (Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, Sophocles), and there’s no denying these books have been distilled over time to be collectively chosen as undying masterpieces of humanity. There’s timeless wisdom in Plato and Aristotle which has impacted our culture at large that even the most average university student has probably directly heard of (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for example). Not only is it food for though, but there’s practical advice on how to live in the world from many of these authors (such as Aristotle’s Golden Mean of virtue ethics).
I’ve no doubt that even more worthwhile nuggets of value can be found in each and every one of the great books.
Language is the medium through which thought expresses itself
Can you have a thought without words?
Sure, you can think about the *feeling* of what an apple feels like in your hand, or tastes when you take a bite. You could ponder the phenomenological experience of a walk in the park, without assigning descriptions or labels.
But you cannot communicate either experiences without words: Thoughts without language can never be articulated into reality, or to another person.
Moreover, I’m a firm believer that one’s discourse with ourselves and others is absolutely limited by the extent of our articulation. I catch myself all the time thinking “damn what’s the word for…”, and trying to grasp some concept, but lacking the word to express it. I’m thinking not only of vocabulary itself, but the power of eloquently spoken or written ideas also. A timeless poet like Shakespeare or Milton are masters of condensing meaning in few lines and several layers. Such works have an almost infinite depth to them; it’s as if they are conduits for an ephemeral well of truth. To read and ponder these kinds of books is worthwhile in and of itself, but I hope also equips me with some of those tools to similarly harness language in its full force.
An informed academic pursuit
Maybe I’m just neurotic, but I can never stop asking myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. I don’t mean that in the existential dread sense, but rather the practical question of why should I take that course? or is it useful for me to participate in this research?. Generally speaking it’s easy to dismiss and observe that such questions are answered automatically by self-evident facts of the institutions to which I am bound; namely that I must acquire knowledge, get good grades and graduate. But there are many paths through this forest. Moreover, after I graduate, I can’t escape my own requirement of having a really robust method of choosing which way to go in life. I’m not satisfied with the idea of blindly taking every opportunity which arises, even if simple heuristics such as “take the opportunities which give you more opportunities” or “go with your gut” work, I can refined that further.
There’s an overall narrative to satisfy, that’s one way to say it. With respect to scientific research, it’s easy to find many projects worth doing, but this is within a larger cultural context. Moreover, as the entrepreneurial and scientific crowds intermingle even more (a brilliant thing), there is much greater responsibility on everyone involved to have some moral compass. I’m not after just a moral compass though, I’d like to craft for myself an entire field kit to navigate life with; something I don’t think can be fabricated from just a few nifty quotes on the internet, or even one or two works of philosophy or literature. The entirety of the Western canon though? That should work.
Plan of Attack
Just as one buys stationery in preparation for a semester, there are physical, mental and organisational tools I need to get sorted before I even take the first step lest I get myself twisted in a didactic knot.
Since my goal is not just a milestone of “number of books read”, but rather true understanding and proper articulation, there are two more processes other than reading which I need to consider: writing, and speaking. Writing regular essays means I need to really hone my time management if I want to keep up with regular university work. Moreover, I need a good note taking system while reading to keep track of everything. I’ll probably use a notebook for on-the-go sort of organization, and Evernote to sort essay ideas.
Speaking is trickier however. Since I’m not enrolled in relevant courses, there’s no opportunity for class presentations or anything of the like, so I’ve decided I’ll use YouTube to upload short presentations of my own thoughts on whatever I’m reading at the moment. To be honest, that’s the most nerve-wracking part for me.
Let me summarize the steps I’ll take.
1. Get a decent notebook and use a bullet-journal like system to keep myself organised, collate ideas and notes as I read
2. Create a tracking spreadsheet
3. Fix my sleep schedule and set a time every day to read (30 minutes?)
4. Finish reading the books I’m in the middle of right now (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Into the Cool by Schneider and Sagan, Prometheus and Atlas by Jason Reza Jorjani).
5. Test the waters with essays and videos on those books
6. Read Mortimer Adler’s (one of the curators of the Great Books list) books, “How to Read a Book”, “How to Speak, How To Listen” and “How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization”)
7. Summarize those books, make videos about them
8. Start reading the Great Books
Knowing myself, I’ll be sure to not start reading the Great Books (starting with the Iliad) in accordance with my set reading schedule until the start of Semester 2, so that I weave that habit in alongside my regular university studying.
We’ll see how this goes…