OGB Podcast #16: Brett McKay (Art of Manliness) on Dante’s Divine Comedy

By Katie King


Ever wonder where your conception of hell comes from? You know, the fire and brimstone version? It’s probably less from Revelations and more from Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

Our Reader-in-Chief Scott Hambrick talks all things Dante with Brett McKay, owner of Art of Manliness and a founding member of the Tulsa Home Group. 

The duo explores Dante’s notion of sin and atonement. For example, how the idea of purgatory allows us to deal with things that take us farther away from that which is good, but doesn’t necessarily condemn us to eternal suffering. 

In the midst of all this Dante talk, Aquinas makes an appearance, along with American pragmatist William James, and, of course, Plato. Because all roads lead to Plato. 

Tune in to hear their discussion! 

Show Highlights

  • Scott opens with Dante’s seven story mountain of redemption 
  • Scott and Brett ponder why Dante picked Virgil as his guide
  • Scott and Brett discuss the character Beatrice 
  • Discussion of the biblical sense of hell in Revelations versus Dante’s version 
  • Connection between Dante and Aquinas’ work on virtue 
  • Brett and Scott pick which book they enjoyed the most from the trilogy 
  • Brett’s interview with John Kaag 
  • Scott’s “the more the more” idea 
  • Whether Dante’s Divine Comedy is useful 
  • How to keep reading through difficult passages 
  • Plato’s Seventh Letter 
  • Language’s ability to construct reality 

Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in the Podcast: 

Show Transcript

Trent: Today we have a very special guest, our good friend Brett McKay from Art of Manliness is with us today to talk a little Dante. if you’re not familiar with Brett, he runs a site called Art of Manliness, which is all about manhood, manliness, and culture. He writes a lot of very thoughtful articles and think-pieces which are definitely worth checking out on the website artofmanliness.com. He also has a great podcast where he interviews authors in a variety of fields and that’s worth checking out as well. In the meantime, we’re going to talk some Dante. Here we go. 

Scott Hambrick:  We gather here today to talk about Dante. We read in our home group the first two books of his Divine Comedy and we already ended up talking about Plato, cause you always end up asking about Plato.  

Brett McKay: Ya, all roads lead back to Plato.  

Scott Hambrick: You just said it. I’m not a Dante scholar. 

Brett McKay: Ya, I was like, “why is Scott asking me to come on Online Great Books and talk about Dante?”

Scott Hambrick: Because the whole thing is just about regular people getting what they can from these books, and I wanted to talk to you about it and see what you got from it. So I was thinking about it in the shower-

Brett McKay: You were thinking about me in the shower? 

Scott Hambrick: You and Dante.

Brett McKay: Ok great. 

Scott Hambrick: Dante has got all these levels of hell. He’s got the 7 story mountain of redemption, and purgatory, and he puts all these different crimes and sins on this whole gradient. You can look at the charts at the front of almost every edition of this where you can see what the different classes of sins are and how they stack up in Dante’s mind against each other. So, you went to law school?

Brett McKay: Right. It was like 10 years ago. 

Scott Hambrick: You’ve forgotten a lot about law school?

Brett McKay: I don’t remember anything.

Scott Hambrick: I don’t know anything about it. And, we know there are different sentences: there’s murder 1, murder, 2 murder 3, there’s manslaughter… How are those different sentences justified, can you describe that from you 10 year-old-law school education? 

Brett McKay:  Right, so it’s all about the mindset. A lot in murder, like the murder 1 murder 2, it’s a matter of intent. Like what’s going on in your mind. That all separates what’s murder and manslaughter. 

Scott Hambrick: That’s very Kantian, bringing intention in. 

Brett McKay: Right, so if you’re a drunk driver hit someone and kills somebody, it’s not murder because you weren’t intending to kill that person but it could be manslaughter. 

Scott Hambrick: Right.

Brett McKay:  You killed them but you weren’t intending to. Murder 1, Murder 2 are the differences is like a crime of passion. The example they always give is a husband walks into his bedroom and catches his wife having sex, having an affair, and he kills both his wife and the other guy. Well, they would say what’s different from a guy who planned for months who killed somebody? So ya, in our common law system, we do make distinctions with crimes. And that can change how the sentences. 

Scott Hambrick: So that is from common law, and it’s emergent. it’s like this is the system that has emerged over the years. 

Brett McKay: If I remember correctly, I’m sure a lot has been codified and statutory. But in America at least, a lot of common and civil law comes from emerging based on judges opinions 

Scott Hambrick: Normative, really. 

Brett McKay: And we’ll make changes based on new situations or how things have changed. 

Scott Hambrick: For Dante, it seemed to me that the graduation of crime was based on who was aggrieved. If you offend God directly, you’re one of the deeper lower levels. 

Brett McKay: You’re getting chewed. 

Scott Hambrick: But if it’s a victimless crime (crime against yourself, gluttonous, lazy,) those kinds of things are more redeemable. You’re more likely to be able to atone for those. They’re in purgatory. So who’s aggrieved is maybe where Dante is going there. 

Brett McKay: Ya, it was interesting- we discussed that quite a bit. How do we make sense of this? I don’t think we came to a super clear conclusion. That was one of the ideas we came down to. Who was aggrieved depends what level of hill or whether you go to purgatory?

Scott Hambrick: Was that your reading too? 

Brett McKay:  I didn’t really pay attention to the gradient, I read it more as a novel. That’s what I typically read something like this, i read it straight through once, first glance-

Scott Hambrick: Adler would call that an inspectional reading.

Brett McKay: Right, I was doing an inspectional reading i was trying to get the whole picture since this was the first time i read Dante’s  Divine Comedy. It’s a good read- it’s the first fantasy trilogy. 

Scott Hambrick:  There’s monsters and journey…

Brett McKay: There’s a Gandolf the wizard in the character Virgil.

Scott Hambrick: Virgil is his guide.

Brett McKay: What does it mean that Dante picked Virgil? What was the conclusion we came down to?

Scott Hambrick:  I don’t know why, we can’t dig him up and ask him. Virgil is a pagan. He’s pre-christian. He leads him all the way down to the bottom of the underworld and then they climb up satan’s back to get back out which is crazy. And then when he gets to purgatory he turns around and Virgil is gone. So Virgil can’t take him all the way, it’s so interesting. He clearly admired him. We read it in the Lombardo translation from Hacker Press, and in the beginning of the Inferno, he says some really lovely praiseful things of Virgil. You could tell that Virgil was super influential on him. I can imagine him reading a 14-year-old kid and just being enthralled with the Indian. It’s a little bit of fan fiction. Like, who would you pick? 

Brett McKay: I think both you and i said Aristotle. But have you changed your mind? 

Scott Hambrick: No i was going to say would you pick Jack London or Teddy Roosevelt? 

Brett McKay: I don’t know if I’d pick those guys. I think Aristotle would be my guide. I don’t know why, he has a beard. 

Scott Hambrick: He has a beard so you can trust him- he’s going to be rational. Socrates would be a good one too, he has all that military history.

Brett McKay: He’d be kind of annoying. The whole time he’d be kind a troll. Virgil wasn’t like that, he was kindly, he got stern when he had to get stern. Socrates is a troll. 

Scott Hambrick: He is. Ya, a heckler. The whole journey idea where he has to go down first before he comes back up, I haven’t read Paradisio yet. we just finished purgatory. 

Brett McKay:  It’s not as fun as hell and purgatory. Paradise is kind of boring. 

Scott Hambrick: That’s one of the problems with it. 

Brett McKay: I’m learning insights about Catholic doctrine and things like that. I got to the part where they talk about monks or nuns who make a vow but then they go back on those vows. Or the vow changed. Like what happens? Do they make some sort of sin, or not? I never really thought about it growing up in America in a  heavily protestant state. So it’s interesting. 

Scott Hambrick:  I guess maybe we should recap what this darn thing is about. So, Dante kinda wakes up in the middle of the dark wood. He’s about 32 or 33 year old- that’s when this stuff happens. And he’s lost. He’s probably near death and Virgil appears and leads him out. Virgil appears at the behest of his childhood girlfriend. 

Brett McKay: I’m reading this book called American Philosophy by John Kaag and he’s writing about the American pragmatist. the pragmatist loved Dante. Williams James loved Dante. He talks about Beatrice. She was an actual person, she was very influential, rich, but complete out of Dante’s league. What do young artists do when there’s a woman out of his league? The woman becomes his muse. This is what Dante did with Beatrice.  

Scott Hambrick: She died young. And so she’s gone. In his early 30s he writes this story. 

Brett Mckay: And he was married too! He’s holding the flame. 

Scott Hambrick: She is going to the intercessor and she’s going to send a guide to lead me through hell and redemption and this whole journey. so Virgil shows up and they go make the journey. Like I said, I haven’t got to Paradiso yet, and he ’s reunited with Beatrice in purgatory. And you were talking about purgatory in our home group and it hit me because I’m slow, it shares a root with like “to purge.”

This is a place where the sins are purged, a place of atonement. And this is where she’s reunited with him- she’s pretty tough on him. She’s a nag, she’s terrible!

Brett Mckay:  She’s kinda mean. She’s like, “quit being lazy, you’re a bum!” And he’s like, “my darling you’re right. I’m sorry.” 

Scott Hambrick: There’s definitely this 14th-century chivalry in the way he portrays her. 

Brett Mckay: But maybe he needed that. Maybe that was the thing that helped him get his life in order. 

Scott Hambrick: Right. So, again, all of these choices that he makes I always assume when I read anything the author could have written anything, they could have used any words, they had a blank page. And they did what they did, and my assumption is that they always did it on purpose. and I know that’s not true all the time.

Brett Mckay: They just needed something.

Scott Hambrick: But on the big beats from the story. Like why Virgil? Why Beatrice? I’m assuming they did that on purpose. And then, he gets to the part where he’s actually writing about him, Dante, the character in the story, being reunited with Beatrice and he portrays her as really harsh. And that’s not what I expected. Beatrice shares a root with beauty or beatific so I expected her to be different. We have some words that are similar, that have the “ress” actress, mistress… it’s a female, beatific, beautiful creature. So I was expecting this… romantic creature. And she’s just a ballbusting him. 

Brett Mckay: Maybe love has to be harsh. The REAL love is like that. 

Scott Hambrick: Tough love! 

Brett Mckay: Right. 

Scott Hambrick: She dishes some out. He ascends the 7 story mountain in purgatory.  I was reading the thing again this morning knowing that we were going to meet, this 7 story mountain. that’s the name of Thomas Murton’s autobiography.  You have Murton called his autobiography, I’m assuming, after this journey through purgatory towards atonement for all of his wrongs. Dante is so influential. 

Brett Mckay: This is why you start reading the Great Books, make these connections. What we talked about is how Dante in Inferno, has shaped our ideas of hell. A lot of this picture of hell, this is what we think of. Like punishments, there are lairs in hell, that stuff not in the bible. So Dante wrote this thing. As a consequence, it shaped the West’s conception of hell. 

Scott Hambrick: A lot of the images that people carry in their minds that they think might be in Revelations or something, but they haven’t really read revelation, is really out of this. the boiling, the torture, that stuff’s really here. There’s a fire in Revolution, but not like this. In the Inferno, the deeper you get, the colder it gets. In the very center of the thing- it’s frozen. 

Brett Mckay: I guess, hell is cold and then heaven is hot in Dante’s version because you’re getting close to the sun. It’s a symbol. Here’s a big question- how has our conception of hell thanks to Dante influenced our culture? Do we still see ramifications of that today? I’m not just talking about just in terms of religion but also the broader culture? This place of hell, eternal punishment, different radiations…

Scott Hambrick:  It just effuses everything, this idea that there’s actually a place in a state that is hell. It’s just this idea that almost everyone carries around in their minds. I don’t see it in the 4 Gospels, it’s not portrayed like this. Almost every preconception we have of hell and the punishment therein, and the length of the stay, all those ideas really seem to come from here. I haven’t seen it in other places. we’re here in Oklahoma, there are some fire-breathes, snake-handling’ churches around here. And, a lot of talk of fire and brimstone. And the imagery used in those sermons in those places is from Dante. There’s the Brad Pitt movie Seven.

Brett Mckay: I haven’t seen Seven.

Scott Hambrick:  I’ve seen like 11 movies, it’s a great movie. I don’t even know who directed that, it’s clearly a secular work, they are very interested in the idea of the 7 deadly sins. They make good sense even to secular people. Why gluttony and slothfulness and wrath aren’t good for us. In that movie Seven, it’s what they call Dante’s punishments. Dante’s punishments always fit the sin. Right at the very beginning of the thing, there are all of these dissolute people, they are just cursed to constantly chase slogans. there’s a banner with a slogan that they just chase for eternity. In Dante, the punishments fit the crime. And in Seven, the punishment fits the crime. An eye for an eye kind of idea. We talk about that. Punishments fitting the crime. I was a kid, somebody catch their kid smoking then they go smoke a carton of Winstons as their punishment. 

Brett Mckay: Bobby just ended up addicted to cigarettes. Another thing I enjoyed about reading these, talking about the Great Books the Great Conversation, how many times Aristotle came up. You got name-dropped. Or Plato got named dropped. An idea from those guys- if you haven’t read the previous stuff, you would have completely missed it. 

Scott Hambrick: Dante is full of these contemporary references too. He talks about political figures from his city. References that are now obscure. Those are tough to follow. But, he makes all these references to these thinkers that came before him. Well, luckily, I’ve read most of that stuff and it made good sense to me. I think that he sort of seems to be trying to resolve Aquinas’ work on virtue and if not theology at least dogma of the day to make sense of church dogma in some sort of rational way. And then puts it in the story form so then people who aren’t thinking about it as hard as he can start to absorb some of his ideas about sin and atonement. It’s just about sin, it’s also about how to clean up your messes, how do you make things right. 

Brett Mckay: He’s creating this simulation of Aquinas in action. Here’s what happens, what could happen if you put this stuff into action. 

Scott Hambrick: He makes a narrative out of this fusion of Aquinas’ rational approach. And then probably more popular, like scary church dogma stuff. 

Brett Mckay: I think that’s useful. When we read the Great Books, i don’t really enjoy the hardcore philosophy. 

Scott Hambrick: Why is that? 

Brett Mckay: it’s just so dry. I like Aristotle, I’m a big Aristotelian. but I hate reading Aristotle. This stuff we have is basically his lecture notes. They weren’t finished, they weren’t refined. If a then b and you’re like “oh jeez this is so boring.” But I’m not a platonist but I enjoy Plato. It’s so good! it’s like a polished piece of literature. Aquinas, you know, that was hard to get through. It’s like mixing concrete with your eyelids sometimes. but Dante.. fantastic. I loved reading it. 

Scott Hambrick: The Dante kinda reminds me of the stainless windows. You have these windows that tell the stories because not everyone was literate. Even though this was written, I might imagine people would gather around and read it outlawed. And people would hang onto every word. This is fun, it would stand up to many, many more readings. 

Brett Mckay: Did you enjoy inferno or Purgatorio more?

Scott Hambrick: Do I have to pick?

Brett Mckay: Ya imma make you pick. 

Scott Hambrick: I enjoyed them both for 2 different reasons, but I’m going to go with Purgatorio if I had to pick one. there’s a lot of entertainment value in the Inferno, there are all these crimes. 

Brett Mckay: It gets salty towards the end. 

Scott Hambrick: He’s burying popes upside down… he’s pretty nasty to his foes. The message of atonement and that you can come back from some sins, that is lovely. I’m a secular kind of guy, but I buy the notion of sin. there are things that move us farther away from that which is good. and, you know, society is creating some new categories of sin that you can’t come back from. Like the public apology won’t redeem you. 

Brett Mckay: Right, they pile on even more. 

Scott Hambrick: And the idea that we can make honest mistakes, or even less than honest mistakes, and there is a way to atone for those things is appealing. All of the imagery in there, the moving stone murals that tell these stores. I loved the story of the reuniting of Beatrice and Dante. it’s lovely. 

Brett Mckay: Ya, I like purgatory better. I related to it more. I mean, by the grace of God, I don’t plan on committing murder or adultery- 

 Scott Hambrick:  But you might eat too much once. 

Brett Mckay: I’m envious, that stuff. It’s like now there are things you can do now to get rid of, you can refine yourself for purge yourself. 

Scott Hambrick:  If you don’t have some sort of device like purgatory then the world is too binary. overeating at thanksgiving is just like murder, you know? You have to have some sort of device to deal with these things that take us farther away from that which is good, but don’t just condemn us to eternal suffering. I’ve always thought that for a lot of crimes you can insert any word you want there, the very doing of the thing is punishment. Unless you’re a complete and total crazy person, to want to hit someone with your automobile, it’s going to ruin your life. Just to deal with that would be an enormous punishment. Maybe there needs to be more. But in the doing of the thing is it’s own punishment. But, I like the idea, the way atonement is treated. 

Brett Mckay: I think so too, I agree with you. It’s interesting when Dante comes up, I’m interviewing this guy John Kaag. Anyways, he just wrote a book about Hiking with Nietzche where he goes, like when he was doing the graduate studies he wrote this paper on Nietzsche or something and he went to the Alps where Nietzsche went when he was writing a lot of this stuff and kinda went crazy and hiked where Nietzsche stayed. In the process he almost committed suicide, staring into the abyss. Now he’s like a 30-40-year-old guy, and now he walks where Nietzsche walks, it’s an exploration of Nietzschean philosophy. He wrote this book called American Philosophy. It’s about the American pragmatist. What happened, he found this library in the middle of New Hampshire out in the woods owned by this guy Hockings is his last name? He was one of the last of the pragmatists. It’s abandoned, the family is in charge of it. This library is full of all of these first edition books of like the Leviathan, Inferno, Dante’s Divine Comedy from the 1400s. He’s like “this is crazy that all of these books are in the middle of New Hampshire!” So he spends a summer trying to catalog it. He talked about how William James loved Dante, particularly purgatory because the people/spirits/shades in purgatory are like us. They can make progress, and it’s not like huge BIG things that they’re making process on. But it’s like little by little they are refining themselves. You can climb up that mountain faster the more self-aware you are, as you acquire more virtue you can go faster and faster. James saw the same thing in life, that’s how life is. As you gain more self-knowledge, more self-awareness, as you become a more virtuous person, life speeds up a little bit. You start moving forward in life a lot faster than if you were sort of mired in your own personality.

Scott Hambrick:  That’s one of the little devices Dante uses in purgatory. At the beginning of the story, there’s a 7 story mountain. At the beginning, it’s really slow, arduous work. the higher he goes, the faster he climbs the better it goes for him. The first time I encountered this idea, I thought, I think that’s true. Hambrick says-

Brett Mckay: Is this the doctrine of Hambrick, the book of Hambrick? 

Scott Hambrick: Yes. “The more the more.” Right, the more you mess up, the more you’re probably going to mess up. The better you’re doing, the easier it is to do better. If you think of someone whose life has been ruined by addiction (debt, home, relationships)  to turn all of that around now that the home is gone, the relationships are gone, they are completely solitary is incredibly, incredibly difficult. But, if they can stop using, start to repair those relationships, the more of that stuff they put back together the farther they get from the depths, the better their life goes. that seems to be the way that it works. Gosh, I agree with William James what’s going to happen now. 

Brett Mckay: The baked American thought we have today. 

Scott Hambrick: The pragmatists say that the core idea is that we can figure out how useful something is by how much it helps people. 

Brett Mckay: Well, how true something is. Truth claims as to how useful it is. And so that’s what William James is trying to get at. 

Scott Hambrick: That’s what Peterson does. He’s strictly a pragmatist. 

Brett Mckay: William James is with the book he wrote on a variety of religious experiences. James was a skeptic. but he was also a skeptic that wanted to believe because he saw that people who did believe in an afterlife, or metaphysical reality, life seemed to be better. Compared to someone who didn’t. 

Scott Hambrick: That’s one of the questions I ask about this book. Is this book useful? Is it good for us to be rereading this book? There have been times in my life, all of this hell talk is just scary, it’s not good for people, it is probably from my baggage of being in Katusha, OK where all of these crazy, charismatic churches and they’re out there scaring the crap out of little kids. it’s like, is this a useful book then? 

Brett Mckay: I think so. 

Scott Hambrick: Even if it’s not true. 

Brett Mckay: It’s like asking if The Lord Of The Rings is useful even if it’s not true. That book has inspired lots of people to do courageous things, do a new career, end a relationship maybe they shouldn’t have been in. 

Scott Hambrick: The noble lie. 

Brett Mckay: Right, we’re going to get into the pragmatist later on. We read William James, right? That’s going to take like 5 years. Maybe we’ll be there in 2023. 

Scott Hambrick: Ya, time will pass. 

Brett Mckay: We got time. 

Scott Hambrick: The question as to how useful is it, that’s a serious question. This book is old, it’s about weird stuff, and-

Brett Mckay: Talking about people we have no clue about.

Scott Hambrick: Although it’s pretty easy to change the name from this Italian frugal prince to Schumer or McConnell, or whatever you want to do. But, that’s one of the big questions that people have. Like why would I read it? It’s so old, it’s so strange. we’ve got this idea we have better living through science, that we’ve somehow progressed passed it. I don’t see it we’re dealing with these things all the time. 

Brett Mckay: It’s like is the idea of sin still useful fault in our modern world where we’re sort of taken things. anything can be treated with therapy! you do something because you’ve got some sort of neurotransmitter disruption or- Dante uses purgatory, even inferno, is like no you own that. it’s not like, you have free will. you can exercise that to your benefit or to your detriment. And I think that’s useful. 

Scott Hambrick: There’s something more respectful towards humans to ascribe free will to them too. You know you can do these things. good or bad. you have the power, you have the sufficiency to make decisions for yourself. you’re not just a bio robot. if, at some point, we find out that we’re just this cascading bunch of chemical reactions, and proteins and DNA, and that we are deterministic I still think-

 Brett Mckay: It’s useful! 

 Scott Hambrick: It’s useful to think we’re not. 

Brett Mckay: I think you’re a pragmatist now Scott. 

Scott Hambrick: Oh no! I mean I am. I’ve got two kids, you’ve got two kids. When they were born, they were distinctly who they are immediate. I mean they were not blank states. They didn’t know the multiplication tables but their proclivities, and their talents were already there. so, as a parent, I don’t have that much control but I have to act as i do. otherwise they’re going to be feral! so I have to act like everything I do matters and counts. Even though I know that it probably doesn’t.

Brett McKay: The most heartbreaking thing the read about is the parents of the columbine shooters. This woman, she wrote a memoir about it, decades later, talking about how we raised them like normal people. People automatically assume the parents must be terrible. But they did everything as you did. But we had kids… it’s shameful, you feel like it’s your fault. 

Scott Hambrick:  If Dante, we could have had him over here and given him a mic, I think he might say demons. Which is easy for us to say, “ohh superstitious ohhh!”  People act in very inespectible, very harmful ways. Oh, we may say it’s a serotonin re-take problem. Dante would be like, you can keep those demons. People act in crazy ways. In purgatory, if they don’t go too far, they got away to come back in Dante’s world. 

Brett Mckay: I haven’t seen Seven, but Kevin Spacey is in it?  Speaking of evil- 

Scott Hambrick: Is Kevin Spacey evil? 

Brett Mckay: I don’t know if he predatory now? I don’t watch the news but I always catch glimpses at the airport when it is on.

I think there’s a line, “the greatest lie the devil ever told was that he didn’t exist.” So like, I think we tell ourselves that evil doesn’t exist. I think there’s something to that. Your enjoinment can divinely shape you, and put you in a position where it’s easier to make the wrong choice compared to the right choice. I’ve grown up in America, I grew up in the suburb, I’m still in a suburb, the choices that are placed in front of me are a lot different of a person in a small town where there’s an opioid problem or even north Tulsa. They’re having to worry about things that I don’t even have to worry about. I think the environment has a great role, but you still have a choice you have to make. A choice might be, get yourself out of that environment. That might be hard because there are families and friends that are all telling you you need to stay here. Just like craps in a bucket, drawing each other down. 

Scott Hambrick: The farther you go in the journey, the easier it gets. 

Brett Mckay:  It’s very hard. that’s why this stuff is important. it’s always hard to make the change in the beginning, as the book of Hambrick says, “the more the more.”

Scott Hambrick: The more you mess up, the more you end up messing up. you don’t end up taking the trash out, then when you finally do take it out the trash bursts. If you’ve taken it out when you should have, now the bag busted, now the kids are going to be late for school. It piles on over and over again. the more the more. Well, I don’t know how much we talked about Dante but this is how our conversations go. 

 Brett McKay: I think all of us come in with questions, but then we ask the question and then it goes somewhere else. and that’s ok. 

Scott Hambrick: That’s ok. Because the discussions are about the books but maybe more than that, they’re about us and about the ideas in the books. The books are a stepping-off place. You just said it, this is the first time you’ve read it, I’ve read it 1.5 times, the 3rd time I read it I might hit me differently. If you go on a podcast and there’s some Dante scholar, they’ve spent their life reading it. that’s not what we do! I don’t want to! I want to read other books, and this level of discourse is where you end up with your first reading of the thing. But it’s still useful. Would you say, if I can’t make a lifetime of stuff of watching starters, then I’m not going to watch it once? No… so we try to pick good stuff with good ideas in it, and take it in. And then move on. Not that we move on and leave it behind forever, but we don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good here. 

Brett McKay: I think that’s the one reason why people stay away from stuff like that. Like Aquinas. Look, I’m a college grad, I graduated from law school where I read arcane legal, that’s all I did, I’m reading this stuff and I’m just like I don’t get this. And that’s ok. I still went through it. When you read, and you get stuck on something, do you like to stay there or do you keep going?

 Scott Hambrick: I keep going. Often times when you keep going it clears it up. 

 Brett McKay: Exactly. 

 Scott Hambrick: When I make notes, I tend to make more notes about the things I didn’t get because that’s the good stuff to talk about in the group. I’ve come to think that the close reading of the material is actually done in the gourd. So I make notes on the things that I don’t get and I move on and I move on again. They’re often cleared up later, even if they aren’t, those notes are the things that I take to the group. and I lead group discussion group discussions at online great books, and I don’t get it all. I don’t want to claim it. And I often will kick off the discussions. Like hey, “on this page, paragraph 3..”  If I don’t get it maybe somebody did. And if they didn’t get it, then maybe we can together. Sometimes, we’ll say, gosh, that guy didn’t get it when you’re having these discussions. But that’s not necessarily the case. He might have gotten something different and I need to hear that too. So there’s no “it” necessarily either. There’s no interpretation that’s exactly dead nuts right. All of these authors are gone, we can’t ask them what the real deal is. 

Brett McKay: I’ve noticed that when people read the great books. I’ve just stopped because I didn’t understand it, I’m not smart enough to read it. Just keep plowing through. 

Scott Hambrick:  I’ve been telling this story on podcasts lately and I’ll tell it again. I’ve talked to a lot of people that are on our waiting list, who didn’t sign up. so I can contact them and I’ve tried to contact them a lot because I want to know why so I can help better. I’ve got a version of this story: “man when I was in the 10th great we read Hamlet I was super excited about it, I wrote my paper and turned it into ms. jenkins and she gave me a c. “ It doesn’t matter! if you can move from a place of less understanding of the text to a place of more understanding, it’s a win! There are no teachers, there are no arbiters of truth here. You get enough benefit from it to satisfy yourself you win that’s it. Reading is the only thing that you can’t do for someone else, I think. it’s really the only thing I can think of that’s just completely. 

 Brett McKay: You can’t deadlift for someone else. 

Scott Hambrick: I don’t know if you can pick up a car, I don’t know, maybe you’re right. 

Brett McKay: Here’s a question- you read for things that maybe you didn’t get the first reading through, when will you reread Dante?  

Scott Hambrick:  I will probably be back. If some podcast says he wanna do a show about Dante? I’ll reread it. but I’ll probably be back in it in 18 months, we’ll have an Online Great Books group that will move into that and I’ll reread in preparation with those people. 

Brett McKay: I don’t know when I will, but just that I will at some point. I’ve revisited Aristotle multiple times. the Iliad, the odyssey multiple times.  

Scott Hambrick: I’ve reread The Republic three times this year. And it holds, up man. it’s not stale man, not in the least. I’ve probably read it six times in total. I know 8% of that book, it’s just too much. it’s written beautifully and it reads so nicely, it’s wonderful. 

Well, one more thing, I read the 7th letter, and in there he makes an argument for why he loves dialectic. why that’s what he uses. Why Socrates questions of why the questions and he outlines his epistemology as best as he does anywhere. There are 5 ways of knowing. you see the image of the thing, you know the name of the thing, the definition of the thing, and eventually, you know the ting as a concept. You have the object of thought you can hold it in your mind. that might be what people would call the form of the thing. and he says, there’s no way you can write down what the object of thought is. you can’t convey the object of your thought accurately to the other consciousness through the written word.  

Brett McKay: You can do it through talking? 

Scott Hambrick: You can approach it as an asymptote. If you keep asking me questions and I keep answering, then I ask you questions, we can clarify clarify clarify and we can get as close as possible. 

Brett McKay:  Right, that’s assuming there’s a thing.  

Scott Hambrick: Most of what Plato is writing about are these abstractions in truth, beauty, love, justice, and you can’t point to a justice. but he says there’s an object of thought a form of it, and the only thing that we can come to one mind over it is by questioning each other. 

Brett McKay: The dialectic is just basically the social construction of reality? Because you’re just talking about it back and forth and our kinda coming up with something or is there something out there. I’m getting postmodern here. What is going on when you’re doing dialectic, like actually? 

Scott Hambrick: Ya, I don’t know. what is going on? when I read the 7th letter, he talks about his object to thought. so that’s the thing that we’re talking about. 

Brett McKay: Where does the object of thought come from. He would say it the form of the thing. 

Scott Hambrick: He has integrated a bunch of data into something that he calls the object of his thought. he talks about a circle. Let me just read it, it’s really short. 

Brett McKay: I’m always suspicious of Plato, he does that thing with the salve kid. he basically asks leading questions. he knew this stuff before. no, you just asked leading questions. if anyone just had a brain- 

Scott Hambrick: Ya it’s a parlor trick.  For all you nerds out there, here’s the 7th letter, 342b. “Real being it partakes in the form of being.” 

Brett McKay: Aristotle talks about that a lot. What is being? 

Scott Hambrick: There are three things if knowledge is to be acquired. First the name, second, the definition. Third, the image. Knowledge comes forth in the 5th place we meet to put the object itself, the noble and true being. To understand what this means, we must take a particular example and thing of all other objects. There’s a circle and its name is the very word we just used, there’s a definition with nouns and verbs, the figure whose extremities are everywhere equal from it’s distinct to its center. And then the third is what we rub out or draw what is turned out or destroyed. but the circle of which they all refer. and then the 4th place the reason and right opinion about the circle. 5th, you have knowledge of circle-ness, you own circle-ness. So is it social? He’s talking about a real thing there insofar as circles are real. 

Brett McKay: why does the thing have a new though? We all agreed on the name.  

Scott Hambrick: You can call it anything, you can call it a unicorn, it’s still going to represent the thing that is the image, the definition would still be the same. 

Brett McKay: Is the language required for. if human beings could not talk, could you form the thoughts? Language is social, it’s purely social. 

 Scott Hambrick: Is it? Norm Chomsky says it’s an artifact of the way your brain works  

 Brett McKay: I’m having a blast to the past of the philosophy of mind and language class I took. we talked about Chomsky there’s ingrained, universal grammar implanted into your brain as soon as you are conceived. but otters people have said no… it’s kinda compelling argument. you can hear nonetheless, and it makes perfect sense. 

I’ll give you the example of the polka-dotted perfect frog lumps over a log. it’s complete nonessential but it makes sense, what’s going on there. 

But there’s another guy, Searle he wrote the social construction of reality. so language, communicating, allows us to construct reality. this bottle is bottle because we all agree it is a bottle 

Scott Hambrick:  Language seems to be like a programming language for the mind. How would you hold a concept of the circle in our mind if you didn’t have language? 

 Brett McKay: A picture! People don’t think in words, they think in pictures. 

Scott Hambrick: But how much cognitive work can you do with “circle-ness” if it’s only the pictures. Plato asks all these darn questions, and he asks a bunch of these questions about cratylus and they talk about naming and he has some theories about how they are named, about how these names seem to have the sounds that have some reaction to what the things are. Probably not right, but it’s an interesting way to think about it. And then Aristotle talks about in his logic, you’ve got the predicates, and subjects and subjects are things that can be predicted. and you can go from there and build a grammar. For me when I go from there, like an Aristotelian logic, in the idea of the tings of the subjects and predicates that grammar is actually constructed so that you can pose a subject, you can predict things about it, and then transmit that knowledge that logical construct to your buddy that you’re talking to. 

Brett McKay: I agree. I think words are powerful. 

Scott Hambrick: But they’re limited. 

Brett McKay: They’re limited, it is efficient. I mean look at that book over there. It’s compact, but within that book, there’s a lot of information there. a ton. But, the sad thing is, more and more people aren’t communicated with words they’re just communicated with images. Like you go on my facebook page, and most of the comments on posts… I don’t really check it out but when I do, they’re animated gifs. that’s how people communicated, through gifs and emojis. How’s that going to change the way people think?

Scott Hambrick: The medium to the messages. I don’t want to be a peepaw, language is imperfect it doesn’t allow us to convey all the meaning we need to convey in a complete 100% way, it leads to misunderstandings and heartbreaks sometimes, but we all know that emails and text messages can be misconstrued. Much more quickly and much more disastrously than just conversation with someone in the same room. using emojis or memes can lead to even worse misunderstanding. more inaccurate communication than just regular conversation. That’s not good. One of the reasons I’m so interested in the Great Books program is that hopefully, we can increase the quality of discourse of people who care about each other. Those things, these memes, which we do all the time on our Instagram account. the gifs the emojis, the LOLs- all this shorthand is moving us farther away from that. If you really want to be authentic with people in your world, it’s really hard to be unguarded and authentic when you’re using these sorts of conventions. 

Brett McKay: The thing about reading and writing, it requires so much of your prefrontal cortex. That’s the human part of your brain. That’s why when people say you should journal when you’re having a hard time. The reason they do that, instead of using the part of your brain which is very emotional driving, the act of writing lets you think clearly and rationally about what you’re going through and it slows things down and it’s because you’re using your prefrontal cortex. If you write less and you read less, you use less of your prefrontal cortex and you rely more on video and imagery which is very emotion-driven, there can be some grave consequences from that. Not only personally, but on a societal level. 

 Scott Hambrick: There’s something about reading and writing. I have a harder time with this then maybe you do, but if I’m reading something and it’s going well, The medium disappears. I don’t realize that I turned the page. I don’t see the edges of the book, and it’s almost like the words are going right in my head. and you kinda get in a flow state, and it’s really about ideas and concepts. there’s some image stuff in there, but it’s more than just raw data. That happens all the time when you go to a movie and watch a movie, it’s more immersive, There’s sound. But what is actually being transmitted? It’s less ideal and more noise. It’s explosions, flashing lights or whatever. And, that has it’s placed but the more time people spend with trying to either receive or transmit ideas in a careful way, it has got to be helpful to everyone. so, I read, and talk about it a whole bunch. I try to. 

Brett McKay: well this has been fun. We started off with Dante, and then we talked about Plato 

 Scott Hambrick: You always end up talking about Plato. That’s why we read books. I really hate when I record one of these and I end up talking about an author that’s not the one at hand 

 Brett McKay: But that’s what happened because they’re all connected 

Scott Hambrick: That’s why you have to read all of them. That’s where this darn list comes from. read Dante, he drops these names. then you stand on the same foundation or at least roughly that Dante did when he wrote it. and you can “get more of the book.” so much fun. thanks for doing another show, man. 

Brett McKay: Thanks for having me. 


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