Reviews | Yes, great books make us better people
The question, then, is whether what we consider to be the normal state of affairs has been a dignified development. Examining this question seems, quite clearly, to be some kind of self-improvement, even if you don’t get conclusive answers, which you probably don’t.
And this understanding is a tool for dealing with today’s dilemmas: for example, anthropologists also told me that depression and anomie are unknown among the earliest societies they studied, because it was so clear what was the place and purpose of each in the structure. of these companies. Yet few of us would want humanity to return to those little bands being our universal condition.
But this leads to the question of whether the hierarchy is inherently bad. Is there some sort of large-scale hierarchical civilization that would be more just? It is here that a student can understand that Marxism, despite its intrinsic problems, despite its deserved bad reputation in our market society, is not crazy. Just knowing that the kinds of questions Rousseau stimulates are, indeed, questions makes you a better person in the very sense of understanding the complexity of the real world, something that escapes ideologues of all kinds.
I particularly enjoyed teaching Immanuel Kant’s “Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morality”. One of its categorical imperatives proposes an ultimate ethical obligation, “to act only according to this maxim by which you can at the same time want it to become a universal law”. This is not, you notice, the old rule of thumb, because “Do to others what you would like them to do to you” could mean that you decide to be lazy and to be okay with it. others who are also lazy. It fails under the categorical imperative because it would be a bad universal law – a lazy society would be a starving and threadbare society.
However, the categorical imperative leaks when you try to apply it, for example, to suicide (is it wrong because we wouldn’t want everyone to do it?) And lying (a lie meant to avoid disaster. inherently bad?). What we ultimately get from Kant is how elusive any truly universal principle is, especially when we consider that different peoples around the world may have different views on such matters.
Menand, certainly, does not think that contemplating these questions is of no value. But how is it that equipping himself to debate it hasn’t improved his or most people’s sense of preparation for this vale of tears that is life? My mother was teaching at a university, and when I was about 10 years old I asked her what college was for, given that even at that age I felt that students, at least outside of science, were not. not filled with amounts of basic knowledge in the same way they were in elementary, middle and high school. She said that after four years in college, students have, or should have, a sense of the complexity of the world, that it doesn’t all easily boil down to common sense observations of the kind you preface with “Well , all I know is… ”
Mom had that right, I think, and the Great Books lend precisely that perspective. Get an idea of how to decide what your life is for out of all the possible choices in front of you; understand that the ethics of the functioning of civilizations and of power are complex rather than reducible to easy binaries and instant judgments; taste the elusiveness of the unique and compelling answer and thus truly appreciate the spirit of Douglas Adams’ famous proposition that the answer to everything is “42. “We are surely a better person with this prospect under his belt.