How can anyone think?

SocratesWhenever you hear somebody proudly declare that they find [viewpoint opposite theirs] so absurd that they don’t even understand how anybody could think otherwise, big warning signs should go off in your head. For any given issue on which more than a quarter of the population disagrees with you, if you are unable to defend the opposition’s position in terms they would accept, then you know nothing about that issue. You are so ignorant you don’t even know what you don’t know, which is far more dangerous than just the regular kind of ignorance. As C.S. Lewis once put it, if your mind is closed to opposing views, then let your mouth be as well. And in the meantime, don’t vote.

It is this more than anything else that makes the reading of Great Books so important. If you want to really expand your mind, you need to look at the world from as many different viewpoints as you can. It is not enough to simply read writings by both modern conservatives and modern liberals (though again, if your news sources are filled with only one or the other you are not merely uninformed, you are self-brainwashing). To really get a fresh perspective, you need to break out of the modern era altogether, and look at the world through a lens that stretches back millenniums.

I cannot emphasize enough what a turning point in my life reading Plato’s Republic was. I came away with two important lessons: 1. The works of the greats actually make for pretty easy reading, instead of the long difficult slog I had been expecting. 2. I enjoyed reading this kind of stuff.

This was very close to a conversion experience for me. I actually felt (and still feel) a little anger at not being introduced to this sooner. This treasury of wisdom that has been accumulated through the ages is one of our greatest inheritances, and it was stolen from us by our poor excuse for an education system. I rediscovered it, but most people have not been so fortunate. After that I gobbled up all the classics I could. I started with other Socratic dialogues but soon branched out into Aristotle, then Aquinas, then the writings of Eastern religions, then back to the old Church Fathers, and basically any philosophical tome of at least a few hundred years old. My reading has slowed down since I had a kid, but the craving remains.

Now, the classics are not great because they were right all the time. You cannot step back even a single century without encountering some very strange notions. Go further and you’re in alien territory. Plato thought atoms were made of geometric shapes (on the other hand, the fact that he realized there were atoms at all is amazing). In Copernicus’ day, the empirical evidence supporting a geocentric universe was genuinely stronger. Aristotle, the greatest polymath in history, defended slavery as the natural order of things. Keynes, post-Nazi atrocities, considered eugenics the “most important branch of sociology.” This is clearly all crazy talk, but this is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Watching the greats stumble constantly is a pretty good way of learning humility. You are not smarter than Aristotle. If he, with all his careful and in-depth thought, got so many things wrong, how much more have you missed?1 It can be very easy to build a cocoon2 around ourselves of only like-minded individuals, and Great Books strip that away nicely. Besides, the Greats actually managed to be right about a lot of things, too, and these are very often things we are wrong about now. Merely managing to survive for a thousand years probably means they hit on some important truths. If you want to be a seeker after truth, you have to go through the Greats.

1 Don’t say “well now we have Science.” That just shows you need to read more of the great scientists. Scientific consensus has been consistently wrong about most things through the ages; do you really believe we are so unique? We can’t even count the planets right.

2 For example, if you consider yourself a liberal, I’d be willing to wager you haven’t heard about Kermit Gosnell, or Patrick Moran.