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  • What is the best sort of life for a human being?  Socrates claimed in 400BC that a

  • man lives a happier life if he’s just, even if he is thrown starving into prison for the

  • rest of his life than if he is unjust and he is celebrated and honored all of his days

  • and is never caught for his crimes.  Could that possibly be correct?  If not, why not

  • and what difference should the question make to us now?  

What moves the human heart?

  •  Shakespeare’s characters throw us into the depths of lust, envy, greed, pride, ambition.

  •  What do those characters have to say about the way that we act or that we behave or that

  • we believe?  And if so, what difference would it make to read about them in Shakespeare

  • and why Shakespeare whose Elizabethan English is very difficult for us who speak modern

  • English to understand?   Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 a book called Leviathan, one of the

  • two or three most influential works in the history of thinking about government and politics

  • in western society.  He was writing from the midst of a raging civil war and he argued

  • that unless we gave all the power, unless we surrendered all ultimate control to a legitimate

  • king that we would all rob and kill each other.  Was he right about that?  Is that the way

  • things actually work and is the question relevant to us today when we no longer believe in kings?


Hello.  My name is Jeff Brenzel and I'm the dean of undergraduate admissions

  • at Yale University.  I'm also the master of something called Timothy Dwight College,

  • which essentially means that I live with 400 of the very undergraduates that I picked myself

  • and yes, it is unusual for an admissions dean to live 24/7 with the outcomes of his own

  • decisions.  I also lecture from time to time in the philosophy department at Yale and my

  • work in philosophy centers around ethics and also the history of the ideas that weve

  • had about something we like to call human nature.  Speaking of human nature, one of

  • my personal heroes, Aristotle, claimed that by nature everyone seeks to know, everyone

  • desires to know.  For the purposes of this talk I'm going to assume that you are already

  • an intellectually curious person and that youre not only chasing after knowledge

  • as hard as you can.  Youre also trying to build up the skill sets and acquire the

  • kind of capacities and abilities that youre going to need to become a better learner overall.


  • I'm going to assume that youre not only trying to increase your stock of knowledge,

  • but that youre seeking to grow in wisdom as well and wisdom is something distinct from

  • knowledge and I'm going to come back to that a little later.

If these things are in

  • fact true about you then here is my advice in a nutshell.  Make a choice in college

  • to read some old books, even a substantial number of old books.  My argument will be

  • that reading the right old books in the right way is better than reading only new books,

  • much less using only new ways of learning that have nothing to do with books at all.

  •  So yes, I'm a throwback.  I have a somewhat unpopular view of what you should do with

  • your college education.  What I'm going to try to persuade you is that my advice is going

  • to make a difference to your education or at least that you should test my advice to

  • see if it’s worthwhile and determine for yourself.  But let’s be careful about

  • what I'm claiming and what I'm not claiming.  I'm not claiming that you should read only

  • old books or that old books are better because theyre old or that you should never read

  • any new books or that new books are worthless.  Only that you should read and learn how

  • to read some old books, but which ones would those be?  How do you learn how to read them

  • in the right way?  Why should you read them in college and how could doing that change

  • your life for the better?  How is that going to make you smarter and moreover, how is it

  • going to make you wiser?

The Dialogues of Socrates, Aristotle’s Ethics, Oedipus

  • Rex, the City of God, Leviathan, Dante’s Inferno, King Leer, Paradise Lost, War and

  • Peace, there are a lot of these books, but why spend a significant amount of your time

  • on books that by definition are outdated?  Why not go after the books that bring every

  • up to date?  Don’t we know those people already knew and much, much more?  


  • a little personal background here, I went off to university in 1971.  No one in my

  • family had ever graduated from college, much less a place like Yale.  I was from—I had

  • gone to an all Catholic, boy’s high school.  I had never visited across the state line.

  •  I never had even been on an airplane before the one that swept me off the New Haven, Connecticut.


My folks assumed that I was going off to become one of two things, a doctor

  • or a lawyer.  That is the sort of thing that happened to you when you went off to a university

  • like the one I attended.  Doctor, lawyer, there is nothing wrong with doctors or lawyers,

  • far from it.  The point was that you go to college in order to find paying work.  College

  • equals a job.  

Now when I actually showed up at Yale I applied in total ignorance

  • and almost by accident to a special freshman year program called Directed Studies.  So

  • what is Directed Studies?  In Directed Studies you take three four-year courses in the history

  • of western thought and philosophy, in literature and in politics.  You start with what the

  • classic Greeks had to say and then you roll forward with the centuries until you end up

  • about a century behind where we are right now.  

There are no textbooks.  There

  • are no summaries.  There are no Cliff Notes.  You read only the original works and it

  • was both the single most difficult and the single most transforming educational experience

  • that I've ever had.  About 15 years ago I came back to Yale after founding companies,

  • managing organizations and after earning a PhD in philosophy and I'm having the opportunity

  • there today to teach in this very same program that I took over 30 years ago.  


  • I'vegotten to know these classic works fairly well.  I've become familiar with them.

  •  I've seen their effects on students and I've had the chance to stack them up against

  • my own life experience and stuff that I've read from lots of modern books, so here I

  • am ready to give you some good reasons to look into the classics yourself. 


  • the first thing to point out is something that I think you already know, but that you

  • might not have noticed that you know.  There are a lot of books out there and you don’t

  • have much time.  The Library of Congress has over 20 million volumes.  That is the

  • largest library in the world.  That is not counting the journals, the publications.  That

  • is not counting the internet.  It’s not counting the blogs.  It’s not counting

  • Wikipedia.  It’s not counting the entire Googleplex.    Meanwhile down here on the

  • personal level I'm 58 years-old.  I've been a pretty strong reader for about 40 years.

  •  Back home I've got a personal library of about 2,000 books, volumes and if you do the

  • math that is about 50 books times 40 years, about 50 books a year.  It’s about a book

  • a week.  I hope you can see the problem.  My problem, which is also your problem,

  • which is we aren’t going to make it through the Library of Congress, not only that, were

  • not going to get to 99.999% of everything that has ever been written.  

You know

  • Mahatma Gandhi said live as though youll die tomorrow, but learn as though youll

  • live forever.  Now Gandhi was as aware as you and I are that were not going to live

  • forever and of course that means that you are going to have to be extremely picky about

  • what you choose to read, even if you live according to Gandhi.  You literally have

  • no other choice, but now it seems I've only made my job harder because I have to persuade

  • you that with this precious time that you have for learning and study, which is dwindling

  • all the time that youre going to take some of it and devote it to things that are outdated.

  •  So I've enlarged, you might say, my task.

So let’s focus on the principle of necessity

  • and that means the principle of having to make these difficult and time consuming choices.

  •  I’d like to give you five reasons, five rough and ready criteria for identifying a

  • classic of literature or philosophy or politics.  Now no one or two of these criteria are

  • going to be decisive, but I think if you put them altogether theyre going to prove actually

  • to be quite useful.  So my five criteria or marks of a great book, a great classic

  • in the sense that I'm using the term are these.

So first, the work addresses permanent concerns

  • about the human condition.  From a philosophical perspective it has something to say about

  • the way we should live.  From a literary perspective it has something to say about

  • imagining the possibilities for how we could live and from a historical perspective it

  • tells us how we have lived.  That’s mark number one of a classic.

Mark number

  • two is that the work has been a game-changer.  It has created profound shifts in perspective

  • and not only for its earliest readers, but for all the readers who came later as well.


  • number three is that the work has stimulated or informed or influenced many other important

  • works, whether directly or indirectly.  Mark number four is that many generations of the

  • best readers and the most expert critics have rated the work highly, one of the best or

  • most important of its kind, even if those experts and readers shared no other views

  • than that and even if they violently disagreed with the work.

Mark number five is that

  • the work usually requires a strenuous effort to engage and understand, but it also rewards

  • the hard work strongly and in multiple fashions.  

Before we think about what these criteria

  • rule in let’s think about what they rule out.  You might say, as my wife said to me

  • the other day.  “Jeff I've just read this classic on cat breeding.”  But that book

  • however good it is would not fit the criteria that I've laid out for you here.  Why?  Even

  • though my wife would be upset and I'm rather fond of cats myself, why?  A book on cat

  • breeding does not address permanent and universal concerns about the human condition.  Most

  • broadly informed readers and critics are not going to see it at the top of their book list

  • and it’s not going to require a strenuous effort of the kind that I'm imagining here.


  • let’s contrast that book with an acknowledged classic, perhaps the greatest of the American

  • novels, Moby Dick.  That was all about whales wasn’t it?  Bigger than cats obviously,

  • but otherwise it’s the same sort of thing.  Well no.  Herman Melville does use a story

  • about whale hunting, which includes an enormous amount of material about whales to weave a

  • mighty fable, a fable about good and evil, about the human will, about the mysterious

  • connections that bind people together or the differences that drive them apart and about

  • the human struggle with nature in the very largest sense of the word and our struggle

  • with our own natures as well.  

Though virtually ignored when it was publishedthough

  • virtually ignored when it was published Moby Dick later became a game-changer.  It has

  • continually grown in the estimation of the best readers and critics.  No significant

  • American writer is unaware of its influence or doesn’t take account of it in their own

  • work.  It’s a superb challenge to read.  It becomes the more rewarding the more effort

  • that you put into it and the older you get typically the more you get out of it, though

  • even less experienced readers often find it extremely moving if they make the good effort

  • to persist with it to the very end.   

So here is the narrator Ishmael describingso

  • here is narrator Ishmael describing mad Captain Ahab who is locked into an obsessive hunt

  • for the whale Moby Dick, the whale that cost him his leg:  “All that most maddens and

  • torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks

  • the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil to

  • crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

  •  He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt

  • by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst

  • his hot heart's shell upon it.”

Well aren’t people always advising you to pursue

  • your passions?  What if some passions are worse than others?  And here is Ishmael thinking

  • about life and fate.  Now he is sitting in the whaling boat where the long lines are

  • attached to harpoons and the lines snake all around your feet.  When the harpooner spears

  • the fish with the harpoon the line jumps out and if you slip or you get caught up in the

  • coil of the rope it yanks you out of the boat to a virtually certain death.

So Ishmael

  • says: “The graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen

  • before being brought into actual play- this is a thing which carries more of true terror

  • than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in

  • whale lines.All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in

  • the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils

  • of life. But if you be a truephilosopher, though seated in a whale boat, you would not

  • at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with

  • a poker, not a harpoon, by your side.”

So what is Ishmael telling us here?  At one

  • level he seems to be saying that a wise person, someone who fully and completely understands