Oct 10, 2012 by

Do not get lost in books. Find books that discomfort you. Find books that remind you who you are.

Philosophy as it was practiced in Greece and Rome bears little resemblance to the practice of contemporary philosophers. Socrates saw himself as a “midwife” of the soul and a “healer.” Throughout the dialogues the medical analogies fly thick and fast. The Hellenic schools of philosophy “…practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an immersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. They focused their attention, in consequence, on issues of daily and urgent human significance – the fear of death, love and sexuality, anger and aggression…” (Nussbaum 3-4).  These areas are often considered to personal, too messy by academic philosophers.

The goals of philosophy then are to analyze one’s own soul, to judge if we really mean what we say, to question our intellectual commitments and consequently to get at what really drives our appetites and our spirit. The obdurate therapeutic, questioning of a Socrates or the implacable analysis of Aristotle is not available to us first hand. We can only access them through books: Books are so often the gateway to the soul.

Over the years I have put books into the hands of many friends and students which I thought they would enjoy or would profit by reading; sometimes I have handed them out nearly like prescriptions. But it is damn near impossible to recommend a book to anyone. The volume that expands the limits of your own soul can leave someone else in a vacuum, wondering just what you saw in it and why you ever thought to inflict them with Beyond Good and Evil.

Yet the right book in the right hands at the right time is a powerful moment.  By the late Roman period, philosophy as ‘consolatio’ had been transformed into “a kind of moral medication…It was only necessary to open the drawer corresponding to the illness in question in order to find at once the remedies most appropriate for a cure” (Boethius 19). We can only wish that it was that easy to soothe the aggravated soul!

“A man who does not read great books has no great advantage over the man who can not read at all.” - Mark Twain

There are books that I have thought of reading or attempted to read but which would not have meant much to me without reading other books first or without having certain prior experiences. School very often tries to leave a positive trace of literacy on you but just as often miscarries. My grandmother for instance, was made to read Mill on the Floss in her little country school house. She positively refused to ever touch another novel. Not every book, not even every great book is for everyone.

We live in a profoundly illiterate age. The more people have the capacity to read the less they do. Even as literacy rates have expanded we have to recognize the truth of Twain’s lament that “a man who does not read great books has no great advantage over the man who can not read at all.” More than not reading books of quality, we do not very often reflect on why we read. There are certain things schools or work forces us to read. But apart from those things how often have you considered why the books that give you pleasure do give you pleasure? Or what in you has changed that your favorite book no longer pleases you? The best books remind us of whom we are and when we stray from our path those books can help remind us where we intended to go.



What Book(s) inspires who you are?

What book do you read to help you refocus?



Works Cited

Boethius.The Consolation of Philosophy. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Nussbaum, Martha Craven. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.

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  1. Catherine

    I tend to like dramatic and deep books. Jane Austen always hits home with me because of its balanced pace and real characters. So many of Austen’s books have timeless situations of life-marriage, money, that annoying person next door. It is therapeutic and humorous to know that even 200 years ago people still had these situations.

  2. Jason

    A Happy Death, by Albert Camu
    The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
    The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    The Man who was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton
    Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton

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