A few weeks ago I read a post at the daily howler that got me thinking about just how well one’s time is spent reading dead philosophers, particularly long dead ones. Are there limits to how much of value can be gleaned from the thoughts of a person whose conception of the structure of the universe wouldn’t match up well with that of a contemporary fourth grader? Will reading Plato’s Republic provide any real, useful insight for a contemporary reader into how the world works in the 21st century?
This is not to say that there is no value in persuing the thoughts of antiquity. Certainly it’s possible that dsiciplines like the history of science can provide some insight into how valuable ideas take hold, inspire, and evolve into practical tools that can improve our lives. But we all have finite hours, and finite attention, and I find it doubtful that slogging through old texts is the best way to understand our world.
And let’s be honest. For the most part, when old, venerable philosophers are mentioned, when a line or two of their writings are laid down, at best it is just to provide an imprimatur of profundity to what would otherwise be a banal point. It’s little more than name dropping. The daily howler post was prompted by an op ed by a associate professor of philosophy on the nanny state. In discussing the “harm principle” and how we (and the state) can be justified in stopping someone from doing something in ignorance that will harm themselves and that they will regret, John Stuart Mill is brought up. But did he need to be brought up to clarify the point? It doesn’t seem so.
Anyone who has waded through a comments section has seen the phenomenon in action. Did you know that David Hume once wrote that you can’t get an ought from an is? QED I guess.
The daily howler post ends with a lament that Ta-Nehisi Coates took the advice of Chris Hayes and began to read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. That book happens to be on my shelf. The back reads “The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading”, but I hope it’s not essential because I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. Here is the first sentence of Chapter V “Of Reason, and Science”:
When a man reasoneth, hee does nothing else but conceived a summe totall, from Addition of parcels; or conceive a Remainder, from Substruction of one summe from another: which (if it be done by Words,) is conceiving of the consequence of the names of all the parts, to the name of the whole; or from the names of the whole and one part, to the name of the other part.
There are well over 500 pages of that. The blurb on the back of the book describing Hobbes ends that the book “cemented Hobbes’ philosophical reputation as the pre-eminent modern theorist of secular absolutism”. The book was published in the middle of the 17th century, so I’m not quite sure what “modern” means here, modern for when it was written? And anyway, “secular absolutism” doesn’t sound very enticing.
Between the gulf of time and culture, and the run-on, Rube Goldberg prose it’s hard to see the book having any value for the casual reader, especially when you consider the cost in time to read it. I could slog through it, and I might even remember a sentence or two (beyond the “nasty, brutish, and short” bit) that, if I ever went to one, I might be able to bring out at a cocktail party and impress a person or two. But that’s likely to be about it.
Which has led me re-asses my long delayed project to read Wealth of Nations. I still plan to read the abridged version, I do think it has some value to understanding the current picture of economics, and the prose is certainly more approachable than that in the Leviathan. But I think I’ll try and push through it a bit more quickly and with the help of the companion book “On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A philosophical Companion” to get the broad strokes and important arguments, without getting lost in unnecessary detail.