Listifying of Classics
This is really a META thing … it’s not about individual classics but rather the process over the ages for how classics become favorite classics and perhaps even lose their favored status, but still have influenced other writers, commentators, educators.
Studying the Classics is really about studying how networks of scholars work asynchronously over generations to think and build knowledge.
A large population of scholars have been compiling reading lists of the Classics for at least 500 years … but it started well before that, well before the advent of the printing press, a few scholars with access to the hand-copied materials have been doing the same for thousands and thousands of years … and, as with the rabbinical study of the Torah, the annotated curation of the reading list itself adds insight to the study of the classics … so when we study the Classics, it’s really a meta-thing.
As with today’s modern AWESOME pattern for code repositories, book clubs and reading lists show us that a PUBLIC reading list becomes much more than just a list of things to read … people become INVOLVED in the process or sharing ideas with others and THINKING about ideas, rather than just turning on the television and swallowing content.
Readers think; readers who discuss what they think are the leaders who friends look to.
The world is full of new thinking leaders and new social groups of reading, thinking leaders … it’s possible to rapidly surmise whether someone is a thinker worth paying attention to. I think I will try to follow along with Tommy Collison’s Great Books Program … I will not exactly promise to even try keeping up with Tommy, but I will admit to expecting big things from him and those around him at LambdaSchool.
As an old guy, I have my ways to cheat at reading and grokking not just the material, but the context … my old ways of cheating on the reading assignments have evolved over my life to now involve spending a lot more time looking over what others have thought and how it has effected others, ie I care a lot more about the impact upon others now, much more than the idea itself. So I will start with the Wikipedia entries and then google certain keywords and keep following where the references and links lead me to read others’ critique/commentary. Of course, I understand why there’s no substitute for one’s own reading BUT … after a lifetime of ADHD, ie’s not just a recent thing I picked up from the interwebs, I know some things about my attention span now.
So I will TRY to read these works … particularly since I am really quite taken with the ludicrously ambitious goal of the four year program [for anyone who is also working hard, doing other BIG things] … so, I will start with the impossible goal of having the first year’s list finished by December 31, 2021 and reassess where we are on January 1, 2022.
- Homer was the presumed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey which are THE two epic poems which are seen as THE foundational works of ancient Greek literature. The Homeric Question – concerning by whom, when, where and under what circumstances the Iliad and Odyssey were composed – continues to be debated. Modern scholarship considers that the two works were written by different authors. It is generally accepted that the poems were composed at some point around the late eighth or early seventh century BC. From antiquity until the present day, the influence of Homeric epic and the reactions to it, the way that these epics influence Homeric scholarship through the centuries and that influences Western civilization has been great, inspiring many of its most famous works of literature, music, art, film … as well as comedy, cartoons, memes and other especially pithy forms of literary expression … which might be said to represent the lowest of low COMMON populist denominators, but are the unexamined cultural idioms which drive all mass movements, politics and the laws that lesser men use to coercively govern us.
- Asechylus: The Oresteia trilogy concerning the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra [who, incidentally, was the sister of Helen of Troy], the murder of Clytemnestra by their son, Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and the pacification of the Erinyes and Prometheus Bound.
- Sophocles first plays were written later than, or contemporary with, those of Aeschylus; and earlier than, or contemporary with, those of Euripides. Sophocles wrote over 120 plays, but only seven have survived in a complete form: Ajax, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes and the three Theban play: Oedipus at Colonius, Oedipus Rex and Antigone.
- Ovid: Metamorphoses Comprising 11,995 lines, 15 books and over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework not only significant in its own right, but Metamorphoses is also deemed to be significant because of who it inspired, including such authors as Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare.
- Thucydides was an Athenian General, who founded what we now think of as Scientific History with his account of the History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides is one of the first western historians to employ a very strict standard of just facts, with chronology, recording events by year, with each year consisting of the summer campaign season and a less active winter season. This method contrasts sharply with Herodotus who is known for having written The Histories which is a detailed account of views regarding the Greco-Persian Wars. Herodotus is widely considered the first writer to treat historical subjects using a method of systematic investigation but he has been criticized for also including “legends and fanciful accounts” in his work. In fact, it is Thucydides who, perhaps first, accused Herodotus of making up stories for entertainment purposes.
- Hesiod was around, at more or less the same time as Homer and is generally regarded as the first written poet in the Western tradition to regard himself as an individual persona with an active role to play in his subject. Ancient authors credited Hesiod and Homer with establishing Greek religious customs. Modern scholars refer to him as a major source on Greek mythology, farming techniques, early economic thought, archaic Greek astronomy and intensely practical technologies like ancient time-keeping. Something like time-keeping we now take for granted – but it’s worth thinking about the utility of timekeeping or why inventing reliable time keeping devices was necessary, not only for people to have some concept of time/project management and prioritization of work for the productivity necessary to have the wealth to wage wars – but also for the culture to be able to arrange public meetings so that large groups of others can meet regularly at a designated, common time to work as a group on group activities, eg democracy. Three works have survived which were attributed to Hesiod by ancient commentators: Works and Days is s a farmer’s almanac, Theogony describes the origins and genealogies of Greek gods [which sets the stage for the anthromorphized language of talking about deities in other theistic religion], and Shield of Heracles which might not make reading lists, since it mainly serves as an comparative example of an epic poem, for study other works of ancient periods. Only fragments exist of other works attributed to Hesiod.
- Aristophanes, also known as “The Father of Comedy” and “the Prince of Ancient Comedy”, recreated the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries. In Apology of Socrates, Plato singled out Aristophanes’ play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates, although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete. These surviving works provide the most valuable examples of a genre of comic drama known as Ancient Greek Comedy and are used to define the genre. For example, Lysistrata is a comic account of a woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War between Greek city states by denying all the men of the land any sex, which was the only thing they truly and deeply desired. Lysistrata persuades the women of the warring cities to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace—a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes.
- Euripides was a tragedian of classical Athens, along with Asechylus and Sophocles, one of the three ancient Greek tragedians for whom any plays have survived in full. More of Euripides’ work survived intact than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles together, partly because his popularity grew as theirs declined—he became, in the Hellenistic Age, a cornerstone of ancient literary education, along with Homer, Demosthenes, and Menander. The Bacchae, also known as The Bacchantes is characterstic of Euripide’s Greek tragedies, written in his final years in Macedonia, at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC as part of a trilogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth.
- Plato: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).
- Euclid: Elements.
- Lucretius: On the Nature of Things.
- Plutarch: “Lycurgus,” “Solon”.
- Nicomachus: Arithmetic.
- Virgil: Aeneid tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. The poem comprises 9,896 lines in dactylic hexameter.
- Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry.
- Harvey: Motion of the Heart and Blood.
- Enchiridion of Epictetus.
- Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.
- Aurelius: Meditations.
- Confucius: Analects, #1–14 (Translation: Slingerland).
- Chuang Tzu: The Book of Chuang Tzu.
- The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata (Translation: van Buitenen)
- Mo Tzu: Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu.
- Lao Tzu: The Way of Lao Tzu.
The New Testament. (I’m familiar with the Torah -also known as the Old Testament- but if you aren’t, you should read Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Book of Job, and maybe Lamentations.) Plato: Symposium, Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophists, Timaeus, Phaedrus. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Rhetoric. Apollonius: Conics. Beowulf Plutarch: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger.” Epictetus: Discourses, Manual. Tacitus: Annals. Ptolemy: Almagest. Augustine: Confessions. St. Anselm: Proslogium. Aquinas: Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles. Dante: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Des Prez: Mass. Boswell: Life of Johnson Machiavelli: The Prince, Discourses. Copernicus: On the Revolution of the Spheres. Luther: The Freedom of a Christian, “Preface to Romans,” “Concerning Governmental Authority,” “The Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants,” “Friendly Admonition to Peace Concerning the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants.” Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel. Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli. Montaigne: Essays (Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received; Of Pedantry; Of the Education of Children; That It Is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity; Of Cannibals; That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure upon the Opinion We Have of Them; Upon Some Verses of Virgil). Viete: “Introduction on the Analytical Art.” Bacon: Novum Organum. Shakespeare: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Sonnets, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice. Confucius: Analects #14–20 (Translation: Slingerland). The Rigveda. Swift: Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal. Austen: Pride and Prejudice. Eliot: Middlemarch. Chaucer: Canterbury Tales. Mill: Autobiography. Extras:
Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby. Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. Brontë: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. Woolf: To the Lighthouse. Heller: Catch-22.
Cervantes: Don Quixote. Hobbes: Leviathan. Galileo: Two New Sciences. Descartes: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind. Milton: Paradise Lost. La Rochefoucauld: Maxims. La Fontaine: Fables. Pascal: Pensées (Numbers 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194- 195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 273, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525- 531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793). Huygens: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact. Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Locke: Second Treatise on Government. Racine: Phaedra. Newton: Principia Mathematica. Kepler: Epitome IV. Leibniz: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay on Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace. Frederick Douglass: Autobiography. Hume: Treatise on Human Nature, Enquiry, Dialogues on Natural Religion, Essays. Rousseau: The Social Contract, On the Origin of Inequality, Confessions. Molière: The Misanthrope. Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations. Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Mozart: Don Giovanni. Francis Bacon: Essays, Civil and Moral. Dedekind: Essays on the Theory of Numbers. Kālidāsa, Kumārasaṃbhava: in The Origin of the Young God (Translation: Hifetz). “Discourses on the Noble Quest,” “Discourse to Kālāmas,” and “The Greater Discourse on Cause” from Early Buddhist Discourses, edited and translated by John Holder. Vimalakīrti Sūtra, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti (Translation: Thurman). The Tale of the Heike (Translation: McCullough). Kūkai: “The Difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism,” “Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence,” “The Meanings of Sound, Word, and Reality.” Shōnagon: The Pillow Book. Extras:
Morrison: Beloved, Song of Solomon. Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea. Rand: Atlas Shrugged. Hesse: Siddartha.
Articles of Confederation. Declaration of Independence. Constitution of the United States. Supreme Court Opinions. Voltaire: Candide. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison: The Federalist Papers. Darwin: Origin of Species. Hegel: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia). Lobachevsky: Theory of Parallels. De Tocqueville: Democracy in America. Kierkegaard: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling. Wagner: Tristan and Isolde. Marx: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology. Dostoyevsky: Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy: War and Peace, Anna Karenina. Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. O’Connor: Selected Stories. William James: Psychology: Briefer Course. Nietzsche: Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil. Freud: General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents, Mass Pyschology and Other Writings. Valery: Poems. Booker T. Washington: Selected Writings. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk. Heidegger: What Is Philosophy? Heisenberg: The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory. Einstein: Selected Papers. Millikan: The Electron. Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations. Conrad: Heart of Darkness. Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, The Bear, Go Down, Moses. Melville: Benito Cereno, Moby Dick. Jayadeva: “The Gītagovinda” in Love Song of the Dark Lord, edited and translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Roth: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater. Gaskell: North and South. Steinbeck: In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Cannery Row. Questions Can I suggest a book you should include?
Please do! You can send me an email or find me on Twitter.
Can I join for a book or two?
Yes, with the caveat that I don’t know what a group reading session looks like. I have a couple of ideas though – stay tuned.
Are you going to write about the books as you go?
Yes! Check out the blog.
How did you choose which books to include?
I started with the St John’s College list as a base, and then made a handful of additions and subtractions. I also moved around the order a lot – a year full of Ancient Greeks might be a little dry. For the non-Western great books, I used the list offered by the St. John’s graduate program in Eastern Classics.
I also used The Long Now’s Manual for Civilization, Stewart Brand’s list, Dan Becker’s ten year reading plan, Columbia’s humanities syllabus, and the programs at Yale Directed Studies, the University of Chicago and the University of British Columbia.
Thanks to Dallen Allred, Tyler Cowen, David McDougall, Rowan Morrison, Eleanor O’Mahony, Vince Passaro, David Perell, Simon Sarris, Mitchell Stephens, and Lindsey Talley for suggesting individual books for this list. Thanks also to Jack Ambrose for sharing Teddy Roosevelt’s reading list with me and to Steve McGinnis for pointing me to the Eastern classics.
Notes on Translations and Editions I’m occasionally asked which version of a book I read. I’ll note those here.
The Odyssey: I read and thoroughly enjoyed Emily Wilson’s excellent new translation. ISBN 978-0393356250. Antigone: On Lindsey’s recommendation, I read the Fitts/Fitzgerald translation. I need to go back and read the other two works in the Oedipus Cycle. ISBN 978-0156027649. The Last Days of Socrates: I read the Penguin edition, which Amazon tells me is translated by Harold Tarrant and Hugh Tredennick. ISBN 978-0140449280. The Old Man and the Sea: I can’t actually put a hand to my copy of this, but given its comparative recency, you’ll be fine with any edition! The Iliad: Continuing my bias for more recent translations, I read Caroline Alexander’s. ISBN 978-0062046277. Don Quixote: Edith Grossman’s translation on book and occasionally audiobook. The back of the paperback edition compares a couple of the translations, which was interesting. Grossman also has an excellent quote on translation, that “Any time I could, I chose a longer word instead of a shorter word, as if Hemingway had never lived.” ISBN 978-0060934347. Agamemnon: The Fagles translation. ISBN 978-0140443332. Prometheus Bound: I read the Joel Agee translation, which I seem to remember from discussions is an uncommon one. I enjoyed it, and found the introduction quite good, but then again, I don’t know any better. :) ISBN 978-1590178607. Meditations: Playing it safe again with the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Martin Hammond. ISBN 978-0140449334. The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday’s thing, appears to recommend the Hays edition, ISBN 978-0812968255. Elements: I bought three editions of this book, and so I feel I can say with some authority that you want Dana Densmore’s edition, with discussion questions. Densmore is a professor at St. John’s College! ISBN 978-1888009460. Metamorphoses: I didn’t enjoy this book, but people whose opinion I trust love it, so I suspect I didn’t get the optimal translation. I read Lombardo’s, ISBN 978-1603843072. Beowulf: Heaney. How could I not? ISBN 978-0393320978. Canterbury Tales: A translation by David Wright, which was eminently readable. ISBN 978-0307743534. Inferno: Robin Kirkpatrick’s mediculously footnoted version did the job nicely. “When in doubt, go with the Penguin Classics edition” isn’t bad advice. ISBN 978-0141197494. The Prince: This one’s a doozy. St. John’s seems to recommend the Mansfield translation, which I read and enjoyed (978-0226500447). Twitter pushed hard for the George Bull, whose introduction I read and liked (978-0140441079), and David McDougall, my Interintellect cohost, recommends the footnotes/supplementary info included with the Norton edition (978-0393962208).