The Floating University


I. Brenzel’s Advice: Read the Great Classics

A. Reading the right books the right way and for the right reasons is better than

reading only new books or no books at all

B. Great books are old, but not all old books are great

C. Too many books, too little time

1. We can’t possibly read all of the books in the world, so we might as well

read the ones that are the most worthwhile to read

2. Gandhi: “Live as though you’ll die tomorrow, but learn as though you’ll live forever”

II. The 5 Marks of a Great Classic

A. It addresses permanent, universal human concerns

1. Philosophically it discusses how we should live

2. Literately it expands our ideas of how we could live

3. Historically it teaches us how we have lived

B. It has been a game-changer

1. It created major shifts in perspectives across the ages

C. It influenced  and continues to influence other great works, directly or indirectly

D. Experts across the ages have vetted it

1. Even if the experts don’t agree with the work, they still agree that it should be highly rated

E. It is a challenge to read, but the effort is strongly rewarded in multiple ways

F. Differentiating the Classics

1. A new book can’t be a classic because it has yet to change the game for other writers and readers

2. A new book hasn’t had time to influence other great works, you don’t

know how it’s going to be evaluated over time/if it will stand the test of time

III. The Origins of the Great Classics

A. Socrates, Plato, and The Republic

1. Socrates lived in Athens around 400 BC 

2. He was put to death because he challenged people’s beliefs through persistent questioning

3. He has influenced almost every great Western thinker for the last 24 centuries

4. He never wrote down anything

5. He said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, and he

was therefore superior to all people who think they know anything

6. One of his followers was an aristocratic wrestler named Plato

7. Plato wrote a series of dialogues after Socrates’ death featuring Socrates’ thinking

8. Plato was so influential on Western thought that 20 th century philosopher

Alfred North Whitehead said all of Western thought is nothing more than footnotes to Plato

B. An Example of how The Republic fits the characteristic of a classic that it

addresses universal questions of human concern

1. It addresses permanent and universal questions including

a. What is the best sort of life for a human being?

b. What is the best society to produce that best sort of life?

2. The Republic opens with an argument between Plato and a young man

named Thrasymachus who says that “might is right," that justice is “whatever happens to be in the best interest of the stronger,” governments act in their own best difference, and anyone who breaks these laws is “unjust”

3. This argument is heard today in the form that might makes right

4. Socrates counters that we differentiate good and bad rulers just like we

differentiate good and bad shepherds, good shepherds act in the best interest of the sheep, therefore the just ruler acts in the best interest of his subjects

5. Thrasymachus counters that just rulers don’t exist, the unjust man

always comes out on top, therefore being a tyrant is the best kind of life

6. Socrates counters that the just person is always happier than the unjust person

7. The Republic addresses this universal question as well as others that

involve human psychology, the nature of knowledge, the ultimate nature of reality, the relations of men and women, how to raise and educate children to be good citizens, and the right way to investigate questions… in other words, plenty of “permanent and universal human concerns”

IV. The Influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

A. Christianity

1. Socrates’ and Plato’s ideas fulfill the characteristic of great classics in that

they “influenced other great works and ideas”; for example, they go on to influence all of Christianity

2. Plato’s student Aristotle is heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates and

he goes on to influence many other great thinkers

3. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle influenced St. Augustine in the 4 th century

A.D. to write The City of God during the collapse of the Roman Empire from invading barbarians; St. Augustine was extremely influential to the development Christian theology and still is relevant today

4. Thomas Aquinas, a priest, rediscovers the works of Aristotle and in 1250

A.D. comes up with new ideas for Christian thinking that are a game-changer, he becomes the primary orthodox theologian of Catholicism

5. A generation later, the Italian poet Dante is influenced by Aquinas and

writes the poem Infero, part of The Divine Comedy, which has profound views on human nature, destiny, heaven and hell

6. In 1500 Martin Luther, in anger at the Catholic church, criticizes

Aquinas and Aristotle, and gets inspiration from St. Augustine and St. Paul; in the process he jump-starts the Protestant Reformation and divides Christianity into many pieces, a big game-changer

7. About 100 years later the English poet John Milton is inspired by the

Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther started and writes the epic poem Paradise Lost, illustrating human nature, history, destiny, and God’s will from the Protestant perspective

8. So the ideas of Christianity aren’t just from the New Testament texts, they

are the result of the collaboration of thought for centuries, involving Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Paul, Dante, Martin Luther, and Milton

9. Likewise even the modern views of Satan are more influenced by St.

Augustine’s writings and Milton’s Paradise Lost than the Bible

10. These thinkers’ works both tackle permanent and universal questions and are major game-changers

B. Modern Philosophy

1. In the 19 th century Socrates influenced Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism

2. Kierkegaard in turn influenced modern philosophers like Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre

3. Socrates also influenced Friedrich Nietzsche who tried to undo what he

saw was Socrates’ negative influence on Western civilization

4. So modern philosophy and thought has been highly influenced by

Socrates and Plato, especially since they posed the original question about what is the best life for a human and what is the best society to achieve that life

5. In this way The Republic is by no means outdated, it is very much a

living book, still provoking, teaching, and connecting us to others

V. Why You Must Read the Original Classics and not just CliffsNotes

A. Mortimer Adler – “the digest cannot be substitute for the originals,” “the path of

true learning is strewn with rocks, not roses,” the great books are hard but rewarding because they are “the most instructive”; hence no pain, no gain

B. Brenzel – “more bang for your buck,” you’ll get more out of a great book than

one of lesser quality

VI. The 5 Values of Reading the Great Classics

A. The Value of Forgotten Ideas

1. Old ideas are not necessarily outdated ideas

2. The Renaissance was an entire era of rediscovering ideas from the

ancient world and applying them anew

3. Some old ideas are still valuable

4. For example, in 1798 Thomas Malthus wrote a classic work of political

economy called An Essay in the Principle of Population

a. It  addressed how big populations could get before they

diminished as a result of limited resources, famine, and disease

b. During the Industrial Age many thought Malthus was wrong,

mostly because he predicted we were all going to die in the 18 th century

c. He did not take into account human ingenuity for solving resource limitations

d. However during the energy crisis of the 1970s people reexamined his

ideas, and they are doing so again now in the face of climate change and food shortages

B. The Value of Making Connections between Ideas

1. There is less new under the sun that we might think, so seeing the

connections thinkers have made over time helps us see how far we have come on addressing universal concerns

2. These include questions we ask ourselves every day, like what is the best

life for a human being, where should I work, how should I live, who should I marry, how will I raise my children?

3. These questions are permanent aspects of the human condition

4. Many can’t be answered by science

5. These are questions humans have asked throughout history

6. Looking at old thinkers shows us what has been solved and the progress we’ve made on some of the issues

7. This impacts how you will live your own life

8. For example Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics   

a. Discusses what it takes to be a happy person   

b. Aristotle thinks virtue is its own reward, that doing what is

virtuous in terms of living well and do well with other people will also make you happy

c. This is called virtue ethics and is still very much discussed in modern debates about happiness   

d. Today we are still trying to determine what makes for a happy

human life and Aristotle’s ideas help outline some thoughts that have already been fleshed out on the subject

C. The Value of Strangeness

1. It’s beneficial to encounter ideas, cultures, moralities, religions, and

politics that are foreign to us because they give us new perspectives and are a primary source of human creativity

2. For example, when people travel to other countries and societies they are

often struck by the ways the new society is different from the one they’re used to; they notice differences in the way questions are answered, and this gives them new perspectives and new ideas about how to live their own lives

3. Writers like Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson take us vividly into their

worlds, Austen to the life of the 18 th century English country gentry, and Dickinson into her own intense and focused mind, heart, and emotions that are vastly different, and yet in league with, ours

4. Strangeness can dislodge us from the every day world, help us think

outside the box, which is one of the great values of an education and one of the most practical assets the world, and professions, are seeking: people who can take up different and creative perspectives

D. The Value of Building Intellectual Muscle

1. Just like in order to get better in sports we have to go up against

opponents that are tougher than we are; in order to get better intellectually we have to encounter thinkers that are profound

2. You don’t have to be a genius to understand geniuses

3. By reading geniuses you get to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and be

able to see ever more than they could see

E. The Value of Better Judgments

1. Once you intimately know what types of works are considered the

greatest, you will be able to independently evaluate other works that have not been vetted through the ages to determine if they are worth your time

2. For example, Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of the human

condition, so once you have read him you can evaluate how good other writers are at illustrating the human condition, and therefore whether or not they’re worth reading

VII. The Hike is Worth the View – How Your Life can be Better by Reading the Classics

A. Story about a boyscout who didn’t understand what he could learn from an

arduous multi-day camping and hiking trip that he couldn’t learn from an easier, shorter trip

1. In the end he appreciated the view from the top of the mountain, the

camaraderie and collaboration of the troop, and appreciated what the difficult journey had taught him

2. This is like what Alder said about the great books; the great books are

the most difficult to read but are the most rewarding and instructive

3. You don't always know what you're looking for until you find it, and the

effort of finding it changes you as a person and gives you new perspectives and appreciations

4. So you should undertake the effort to read these books because the reward is the view