The Floating University


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 we’ve 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 you’re not only chasing after knowledge as hard as you can.  You’re also trying to build up the skill sets and acquire the kind of capacities and abilities that you’re going to need to become a better learner overall.

Also I'm going to assume that you’re not only trying to increase your stock of knowledge, but that you’re 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 they’re 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've’ gotten 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, we’re not going to get to 99.999% of everything that has ever been written.  

You know Mahatma Gandhi said live as though you’ll die tomorrow, but learn as though you’ll live forever.  Now Gandhi was as aware as you and I are that we’re 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 you’re 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 they’re 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 published—though 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 describing—so 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.  You’re not even sure how you’re going to see the book over time.  In fact, you’ll 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.  They’re actually going to get older and you might think no fair.  You’re just defining classics or you’re 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 you’ll 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.

Plato's Republic

Socrates was a philosopher who lived in Athens, ancient Greece about 400 years before the birth of Christ.  You’ve 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 Socrates’ inspiration.  

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 the first mark of greatness that I was discussing, which is the Republic addresses permanent and universal questions, ones that might puzzle you as much as they did Socrates and Plato.

The book opens with a really terrific argument about justice and about whether the just—whether it’s the just or the unjust person who gets the better of it in life.  Socrates confronts a very sarcastic and very aggressive young man named Thrasymachus who attacks the common notion that justness is a virtue:  “Listen then, says Thrasymachus.  I proclaim that might is right and that justice as you call it is whatever happens to be in the interest of the stronger.  There are different forms of government, but they all make laws according to their own interests, which they deliver to their subjects calling it justice and they punish whoever breaks these laws and they call that person unjust and that is what I mean to say when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is neither more, nor less than the interest of the government and as the government necessarily has the ultimate power the only reasonable conclusion is that everywhere there is only one principle of so-called justice, which is that justice turns out to be whatever happens to be in the interest of the stronger.”

So have you ever heard someone make this argument before, that might makes right, that justice has no fixed meaning, that what is considered just in a society is just whatever the people running the society say it is?  I’d be surprised if you hadn’t because it’s a universally recurring argument, not only throughout the dorms of any good colleges down through time, but also down through the centuries in the debates of the very best philosophers.

Now I can’t do justice in this short talk to even this relatively simple opening framing argument of the Republic between Thrasymachus and Socrates, but essentially Socrates tries to answer Thrasymachus by pointing out that we distinguish between good rulers and bad rulers just like we distinguish between good shepherds and bad shepherds or good boat captains and bad boat captains.  The good shepherds act in the best interests of the sheep and the good boat captain act in the best interest of their boats and passengers, so a ruler, if he is rightly named a ruler or she is rightly named a ruler is someone who acts in the best interest of the subjects and the bad ones don’t.  So it’s the same for rulers as it is for boat captains and for sheep and shepherds.  A ruler who is rightly called a good ruler will be just and we mean by this that the ruler rules in the interests of the subjects, not in the interest of himself or herself.  

Thrasymachus calls this dribble.  He points out that the shepherd hardly cares for the sheep.  He is simply fattening them for the slaughter:  “Consider further most foolish Socrates, he says, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust.  First of all, in private matters wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that the unjust man always gains more and the just man always gets less.  Next, in their dealings with the government when there is an income tax the just man will pay more and the unjust man less on the same amount of income and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing, the other gains much.  Observe also that when they come into office there is the just man neglecting his own affairs, perhaps suffering other losses, but he will not compensate himself out of the public purse because he is just.  Moreover, he is hated by his friends and acquaintances for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways.  Now all of this is reversed in the case of the unjust man.”

“By this standard, Thrasymachus goes on to say, the best life is actually the one to be had by the absolute tyrant who can take anything that he wishes by force and make everyone else pay honor and obedience, so not only is being a tyrant the best kind of life, all people would become tyrants if only they could.”  Now Socrates at this point knocks Thrasymachus down with some verbal and logical tricks that I'm not going to take you through in this talk and outwitted Thrasymachus stalks off from the conversation not to return.  So actually what Socrates does at that point in the dialogue is that he gets Thrasymachus to redefine justice, look away from justice in the State, but look at justice in the soul, that is kind of the internal integrity of a person and he gets Thrasymachus to agree that justice is something like self control, that if you’re not in control of your own passions and emotions and vices and so forth that you can’t be just even to yourself.  So once he gets Thrasymachus on the path to the notion that justice is some kind of right order in the soul then he brings it back to the example of the State and he said, “So Thrasymachus, if you believe that this is how justice works in the individual person, in the individual soul as a virtue then you have to agree with me that the tyrant doesn’t have the best life.”  “It’s the best ordered State or the State that is governed by a good ruler in the way that we’ve discussed.”

But the young friends of Socrates are not satisfied with this outcome and they take up the core question, but in a much harder form.  They ask Socrates to prove to them the just person is always happier and always has a better life than the unjust person no matter how poor, deprived, disgraced or reviled the just man might be and no matter how wealthy, honored and completely unharmed an unjust man might be.  

So the rest of the Republic is Plato’s attempt to answer this question along with a number of other questions.  In the course of it he draws a surprisingly compelling picture of human psychology.  He speculates on the nature of knowledge.  He presents a proposal for the ideal State and he polishes it all off with a theory about enlightenment and about the ultimate nature of reality.  Along the way he speculates about the relations men and women, how to raise and educate children to be good citizens and the right way for human beings to investigate questions of all kinds.  It’s good stuff.  

Now Plato himself had a brilliant student named Aristotle, who for my money actually surpassed Plato in a number of different ways, but was certainly heavily influenced by Plato.  So let me just give you a very quick notion of how things play out in the history of thought for Plato’s and Aristotle’s thinking and in fact, for your own.

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