Intellectual Linear Progression. What’s That About?

Intellectual Linear Progression or Online Great Books?

By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host

You may have seen mention around here of an intellectual linear progression. It’s still the name on our Facebook page. In fact, it was the original name of the whole thing, until we decided that Online Great Books was easier to understand. It’s still the name on my email. But what does it mean? We changed the name for branding purposes, not because an intellectual linear progression is a bad idea. In fact, it’s a very good idea.

But what is it?

The idea originally comes from the world of strength training. Mark Rippetoe writes in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training of having novice lifters progress up in weight every workout, for as long as they are able. You squat three sets of five, three times a week, adding weight every time, until you can’t do it anymore. This is a linear progression. If you graph the weight versus time, the graph is linear, a straight line. It is a linear progression.

This is the most efficient way to get stronger.

It is quite challenging as well. The workouts get hard, but they make you stronger very quickly. Rip also focuses his program on basic, high-value exercises that give a stress to the whole body. Only squats, presses, bench presses, deadlifts, and power cleans are prescribed. And yet, it works for novices better than anything else.

Rippetoe’s novice linear progression seems obvious- why not get strong as quickly as you are able? – but it was a revolutionary idea. I have been lifting weights since the Reagan administration, and it was news to me when I discovered it nine years ago. It takes a new lifter, gives him or her achievable but difficult tasks, and takes the lifter from weak to strong.

What, then, is an intellectual linear progression? It’s intellectual in that it involves the mind rather than the body. The word intellect comes from inter-legere, to choose between. This is what minds do, and it’s what we want to get better at. Most people skim the surface. We want to dive deep and get to the roots of things. But how can we become the sorts of people who pluck out that which is deep within things? How can we become more discerning? We read books.

We progress or move forward by reading and discussing books in a certain order. You could read books randomly or according to interest, reading Sartre one day, Shakespeare the next, finishing up the week with a bit of Plato or Nietzsche–whatever grabs you. You could read the top books on the bestseller lists, or join Oprah’s book club. But what you would find is that later writers, if they are any good, refer back to earlier writers.

Aquinas refers to Augustine, Milton refers to Euripides, Dante to Virgil, everyone refers back to Plato. You may find, as OGB founder Scott Hambrick did, that you can’t understand what’s going on by starting at the end. You need to start at the beginning. The authors are taking part in a Great Conversation, but you are only coming in at the end. It’s like trying to deadlift 500 lbs on your first day in the gym. You may be able to do it eventually, but you haven’t done the prep work. So, we go back to the beginning and read the early works before the later ones, just like you deadlift 135 lbs before 500. We don’t read everything, but concentrate on the Great Books, the works that play the biggest role in the conversation, just like we focus in strength training on the main lifts. Beowulf, for example, is very good, but isn’t really part of the Great Conversation. It’s like barbell curls: perhaps useful at some point, but not nearly as essential as Homer or the squat.

We are linear, that is, chronological. We read Homer before Plato, Plato before Aristotle, Augustine before Aquinas, Machiavelli before Marx. A non-chronological reading leads to a failure to understand the later works. It can also led to a caricatured view of the earlier thinkers. If you just take Kierkegaard’s word for it, you’ll have an opinion of Socrates that doesn’t necessarily match the Socrates of Plato. Kierkegaard may have missed the point.

At the end of our course of reading and seminars, we should be intellectually strong, with few gaps or weak points, just as if we had undergone a well-designed strength program. It’s not an overstatement to say that we envisioned this as Starting Strength for the mind. Or, as Scott Hambrick puts it, Online Great Books describes who we are. Intellectual Linear Progression is the method.