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Why We Should Read Great Books

Over on his Substack, Richard Hanania has a piece arguing that the “Great Books” are not worth reading. I am a Ph.D. student in political theory, so my job is to read the classics, and naturally enough I disagree with Hanania’s view. Yet too many people would unfairly dismiss his arguments as philistine, when in fact they deserve a charitable hearing and a serious response.

Hanania is skeptical about the value of reading old books primarily on the grounds that human thought has made progress over time and thereby rendered many of the arguments of the past irrelevant for the modern world. He sees human thought as having progressed along two axes: (1) We today have access to far more empirical data than premodern people, and (2) we have access to better modes of thinking, such as the scientific method, which had not been discovered in premodern times. Thus, Hanania writes, “one might read old books for historical interest, but the idea that someone writing more than say four hundred years ago could have deep insights into modern issues strikes me as farcical.”

Hanania does not say that the literary works of the past (epics, novels, etc.) are necessarily worse than the literary works of today, so when he argues that the Great Books do not contain much insight, he must be referring to books about moral or political philosophy. And in his account, the classic works in moral or political theory no longer speak to us because we now have superior explanations of human behavior, whereas the old authors fumbled around in the dark, making prescriptions for how humans should live without adequate knowledge of why humans behaved as they did.

I do not think the premise of Hanania’s argument is true. Although we now have a vast number of theories that purport to explain human behavior, we cannot in seriousness claim that we have entirely figured out how humans work. It’s not as if the social sciences provide us with clear and unambiguous causal accounts about the actions of individuals or the outcomes we observe in society. Instead, the social sciences are rife with disagreements, not just about fundamental questions such as “What are the ultimate causes of human behavior?” but even with more mundane, practical questions like “Which government programs do best at reducing poverty?” To a significant degree, human social life remains mysterious to us, and we cannot be certain about our explanations of it.

But let us grant for the sake of argument that Hanania is right that we have made great advances in our understanding of human behavior and that our causal explanations of social life are far superior to those of the classic authors. (Hanania himself is a social scientist, and he may be confident that he has waded through the various social scientific theories and identified the true ones.) Does our increased causal knowledge rule out or defeat the normative theories expounded in the classic texts?

In some cases the answer might be yes. To give a crude example: If a classic normative theory depends on the claim that human beings are inherently selfless, and contemporary social science proves definitively that humans are not inherently selfless, then that normative theory would no longer work. Yet something like this has probably never happened in the history of philosophy. It is very rare for an empirical discovery to completely refute a normative theory.

The canonical normative theories almost never depend on precise empirical claims that, if proven wrong, would discredit the entire argument. Indeed, certain texts have persisted as long as they have precisely because their normative claims don’t rest on a lot of empirical observation. Canonical texts get much of the staying power from the fact that they address questions that all human beings as such have to confront.

What are some examples of such perennial questions? Here are a few. What sort of argument might succeed in justifying the power some humans hold over others? Does objective moral truth exist, and if so, how might we go about discovering it? How are we supposed to act when our obligations conflict with each other—when, for instance, our religion tells us to do one thing, our family tells us to do another, our country demands a third thing, and our conscience a fourth? How should society handle inconvenient truths—truths that may undermine the stability of the social order?

Or consider the example of Plato’s Republic, justly celebrated as a philosophical masterpiece. In that work Plato attempts to answer a question that confronts all people, namely the question of why we should be just rather than unjust. Is it really worth being a good person—Plato wonders—when being a bad person might allow you to obtain wealth, power, and influence? Suppose you could lie and cheat your way to great wealth: Wouldn’t that be worth it? If we are honest with ourselves, Plato goes on, wouldn’t we all prefer to be unjust and powerful than just and helpless?

His suspicion is that most people would choose a life of injustice if it came with influence and power over a life of justice if it meant obscurity and material scarcity. He thus tries his best to come up with an argument that shows why it is always better, all things considered, to lead a just, not an unjust, life. (That argument is complicated, so I shall leave out the details, but I hope my outline of his project encourages you to read the work!)

Plato’s defense of the just over the unjust life may not be convincing, but his argument speaks to a universal human problem. All of us know what it feels like to have to choose between what we know to be morally required and what we believe will advance our selfish interests. Plato gives us reasons to think that we are better off, again all things considered, choosing what’s right over what’s expedient. It strikes me as farcical to say that Plato’s ideas on this matter cannot speak to us because he was innocent of modern social science.

There are a certain number of deep, difficult, and important questions that arise inevitably out of the human experience, and these generally are the sorts of questions the classics sought to answer. Such questions will always be with us: No amount of social-scientific knowledge will give conclusive answers to them or render them irrelevant. The canonical authors give us insight into eternal questions, and in the final analysis, this is the main reason why it would do us well to listen to what they have to say.


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