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Approaching Great Books

Dear Professor Arguelles,

Given the inherently literary nature of polyliteracy as a scholarly discipline, acquiring the ability to intelligently approach classic books from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, as well as works of different genres, and develop a deep understanding of them is obviously of great importance. I am wondering whether you could expound on how best to approach a classic, with regard to the series of “great books” courses you taught while in Lebanon. I am curious about the kinds of things one ought to consider when reading an important piece of scientific or political non-fiction (such as The Origin of Species or The Communist Manifesto to name two such examples from your list), as opposed to a classic work of East-Asian fiction for example.

I am aware this topic is probably quite a wide and general one, but I would very much appreciate it if you could provide some general advice on the issue of reading across genres and cultures, with respect to how you taught and discussed such works in your “great books” classes and how you personally go about reading and coming to appreciate and understand such diverse works of literature.

Thank you, as always, for your time,

Christopher Button

(Here is the Professor’s list of great books, taken from the Ideal systematic training in polyglottery thread)

In Lebanon, I designed and taught eight sequences of “great books” courses, whose reading lists were:

Western Civilization: Antiquity (Homer’s Odyssey, Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Plutarch’s Histories, Plato’s Phaedo, Aristotle’s Categories, Cicero’s On Duty, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations)

Western Civilization: The Middle Ages (The Nibelungenlied, The Mabinogian, Chrètien de Troyes’ Lancelot and Yvain, Dante’s Inferno, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica)

Western Civilization: Renaissance & Enlightenment (Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, More’s Utopia, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Rabelais’ Gargantua, Montaigne’s Essays, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Spinoza’s On the Improvement of the Understanding, Leibniz’ Discourse on Metaphysics, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’ Elements of Law, Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws).

Western Civilization: Modernity (Turgenev’s Lear of the Steppes, Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarasthustra, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Spencer’s First Principles, Darwin’s Descent of Man and Origin of Species, Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Jung’s Psychological Types

Middle Eastern Civilization: Arabic Texts (Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima, Al Ghazali’s Mysteries of the Human Soul, Averroes’ Incoherence of the Incoherence & Harmony of Religion & Philosophy, the Fables of Kalilah and Dimnah, Nagib Maghfuz’ Midaq Alley

Middle Eastern Civilization: Persian Texts (The Shahnameh, Zoroastrian texts (Kârnâmag î Ardashîr î Babagân, Chidag Andarz i Poryotkeshan, Zadspram, Arda Viraf, Menog-i Khrad, Shkand-gumanig Vizar), Sa’di’s Golestan, Hedayat’s Blind Owl)

Indic Civilization: (The Mahabharata, selections from the Vedas, the Upanishads, Yoga and Vedanta Sutras, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavada-Gita, stories by Tagore and Premchand)

East Asian Civilization: (Confucius’s Doctrine of the Mean & Great Learning, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Lao Tsu’s Tao de Ching, Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasure, Kakuan’s 10 Bulls, Korean Buddhist Legends & Tales of the Zen Masters, Kim Man Jung’s Cloud Dream of the Nine, Natsume Sosei’s Kokoro)

My reply:

Dear Mr. Button:

I apologize for having neglected your interesting and important request for so long. Truly, your question goes right to the heart of polyliteracy, which is not merely the learning of many languages, but also inherently involves using those languages to read the classic texts that have been written in them.

So, you want to know how to best approach a “great book,” what kinds of things you ought to consider when reading an important expository argument or entering an exotic imaginative landscape. Although these are two different kinds of mental journeys, in as much as they involve delving into a work substantive and rich enough to be deemed a classic, they are akin in requiring a very different and more serious style of reading than you might employ either to get information out of a textbook or a newspaper, or to immerse yourself in a work of popular or even “middlebrow” contemporary fiction.

Thus, the first step in developing a taste for and an enjoyment of reading more difficult texts is to be aware of this difference. If you expect and attempt to read classics in the same relatively passive and automatic fashion that you read “normal” books, then you will almost certainly fail to appreciate them or to extract even a modicum of their true content. No, you must read them in a far more active fashion, which involves two main aspects:

In the first place, while there are some works into which you can simply and fruitfully plunge, in general it is always helpful to get an overview of the intellectual context in which the work was written, and of its overall historical and cultural backdrop. Thus, it is helpful to progress, at least upon first reading, through a chronological reading list, as these works tend to lead into and build upon each other.

In the second place, you must read in a more consciously engaged fashion (particularly to be sure that you are getting all you can and should get out of philosophic texts). This may mean taking notes as you go, or pausing from time to time to summarize the main arguments to yourself. Obviously, you can do this on your own, but in reality the best way to approach such texts is by not simply reading them, but also by discussing them in a round-table seminar format.

Thus, in the course of study that I designed in Lebanon and whose reading lists you provided in your post, I saw my role not as a “teacher” (although I did provide the historical and cultural context), but rather as a discussion leader, and so I sat in a circle with the students and stimulated and guided conversations by asking questions rather than by talking myself about what I thought was going on. Indeed, the beauty of such an educational style is that, since these kinds of books inherently yield a new layer of richness upon each rereading, even as a “professor,” one is able to remain a “student” forever.

I hope this begins to answer your question?

Yours with best wishes,

Alexander Arguelles

15 October 2008

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