Online Great Books: A First-Year Retrospective and Plug for Classical Education

By Jason McGinty

“We take the ideas of ancient Greece, follow them through their evolution in Rome, the middle ages, the enlightenment, right up to our own time.”

— Scott Hambrick, onlinegreatbooks.com

I’m not so sure about the “right up to our own time” part of that introductory quote because sometimes I’m pretty sure I’ll be dead before we get that far. There’s just so much to read and understand, but mostly, it seems, to read and not really understand.

Online Great Books is a community of folks interested in stretching themselves intellectually and philosophically by participating in the great conversation of the Western tradition. The conversation is one that stretches all the way back to the Greek poet Homer sometime in the 700-800 BC range and includes such greats as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Aurelius, Augustine, and more. By reading all of the writings of these men in roughly chronological order, we’re able to listen in on the conversation, on the development of the cultural and philosophical ideas of our civilization, right from as near as we can get to their very roots.

You can forget about stuffy professors and dry lectures in this community. The folks here come from all walks of life. We are software developers (such as yours truly), lawyers, managers, machinists, writers, military members, paramedics, teachers, homesteaders and homeschoolers, stay-at-home moms, retirees, parents and grandparents, accountants, and even a few college students. There are even a few hardy folks in Alaska, Australia, and the UK who somehow deal with the usually continental US based time zone scheduling.

How it works around here is that you have a reading assignment for each month, and you get together with your seminar group for two hours after each month to discuss what you read. That’s it. There are no teachers, no lectures, no MLA formatting, and no censorship. There is a seminar host, but he is there not to teach or lecture, but mostly to simply be another participant in the discussion and keep the discussion going if it falters. If you’re lucky enough to get a seminar like mine (shout out to Seminar 050), you’ll never have trouble filling up a two-hour window with discussion and the host will have an easy job.

In addition to the main seminars, there are many other side groups, and also opportunities to organize your own groups to read whatever you think would be valuable. I’ve gotten into an existing seminar covering Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and one covering the works of J.R.R. Tolkien starting with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’ve also helped to start two other groups, one delving into the roots of chess theory with Wilhelm Steinitz’s The Modern Chess Instructor and another group unofficially dubbed the Completionists covering all of the Greek tragedies not covered in the main seminars (with the plan of eventually covering everything from Mortimer Adler’s reading list not covered in the main seminars).

Typically, I oscillate between soaring over the heights of some incredible insight gained from my latest reading of Plato, back down to the depths of hopelessness when I realize that the insight was fleeting and hard to hold onto and that in a few days or weeks I’ll be left with only a pale shadow of it. Then it’s back up onto the mountaintop in the seminar when everyone bounces their ideas off of each other and we come up with a whole new set of insights that no individual among us would have come up with on their own, and then after the seminar ends I get that sense of hopelessness again in the seeming certainty of my own inadequacy, and that I’ll never be able to measure up to the standards of the rest of the folks around here.

Every time I feel that hopelessness though, or doubt my own ability to grasp the material at hand, it helps to remember where I was just a mere year ago before joining. Probably one of the biggest barriers to entry for a project like this is the sheer volume of material that exists and the feeling of personal inadequacy to the task, but as the poster on the wall of my gym says, the best way to suck at something is to keep not doing it. You could keep believing the story of your inadequacy, keep not starting on the project, and a year from now still have accomplished nothing worthwhile. Or you could just get started anyway, dedicate yourself to the task, and a year from now you’ll still feel inadequate but you’ll be able to look back and see all the distance between the starting line and where you are now.

Here’s a list of everything I’ve read in the last year of participating in this program:

  1. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
  2. Homer: The IliadThe Odyssey
  3. Aeschylus: The Oresteia (AgamemnonThe Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), The PersiansThe Seven Against ThebesThe Suppliant MaidensPrometheus Bound
  4. Euripides: AlcestisMedeaThe Children of HeraclesHippolytusAndromacheHecubaThe Suppliant WomenElectraThe Trojan WomenIphigenia among the TauriansHelenThe Phoenician WomenOrestesIphigenia in Aulis
  5. Sophocles: AntigoneOedipus the KingOedipus at ColonusElectraPhiloctetes
  6. Euclid: Elements of Geometry Book One
  7. Plato: ApologyCritoPhaedoPhaedrusProtagorasGorgiasMeno
  8. Aristophanes: The AcharniansThe CloudsLysistrata
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien: The HobbitThe Fellowship of the Ring

This month, the main seminar is covering Plato’s Symposium and Euthyphro, the Completionists are reading Euripides’ The Cyclops and Rhesus and Sophocles’ Ajax, the Tolkien group is reading The Two Towers, and the chess group is covering the second half of Steinitz’s The Modern Chess Instructor.

The interesting thing is that I can clearly identify ways that I’ve personally changed due to this project over the past year, and I’m not talking about vague bullshit like “I’m more happy and fulfilled in life”. Some of these things were expected and some not. Let’s take a look.

I’ve read a lot of great books. This is the obvious one, but it’s worth mentioning. Once you start reading the books of the great conversation, you start noticing references to them that just exist in the culture at large but no one knows the origin of. For example, the way Tolkien’s heroes like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli turn the tide of battle almost singlehandedly is downright Homeric, and the same goes for the heroes of any other modern battle epic. More importantly, you notice when references to the classics have been bastardized by us moderns, either accidentally or on purpose. For example, have you ever heard it said that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he knew that he knew nothing? What if I told you he didn’t actually say that, and that what he said was, “I do not think I know what I do not know” (Apology 21d, emphasis added by me). It’s a subtle but important difference, and the kind of subtlety you just won’t ever see if all you do is hear modern cultural references to great books instead of reading the great books themselves.

I’m noticeably more articulate. Hard to measure, but I can notice. I have recordings of myself from before my OGB days trying to talk to a friend of mine about philosophical topics, and I cringe to listen to myself. My speech is filled with “uhs”, “ums”, and long pauses, and is generally an inarticulate mess. Learning to think well, while at the same time composing your thoughts into intelligible speech on the fly, is incredibly difficult if you’re like me and don’t have a natural talent for that kind of thing, and the deliberate practice of this through the seminar discussions is incredibly helpful. Granted I haven’t heard any recordings of myself in a while, but I’ll trust the feedback of my fellow seminar participants on this point.

I’m much more detached from day-to-day drama, politics, and other nonsense. I used to be the guy who would go through social media and get into fights over the latest outrageous thing that was happening in the news or pop culture. I could be the guy who would OWN THE LIBS WITH FACTS AND LOGIC and do it in a sometimes biting and scathing way, as I’ve always been much more articulate in writing than in verbal speech. It doesn’t take very many discussions about real, important, enduring topics with folks who truly want to understand a thing before one realizes how vacuous and pointless social media fights are. I think I was about 6 months into OGB when I got off social media almost completely, except for the OGB Slack channel and a couple of Discord servers based around my interests. Discussions on the political news cycle are to philosophical discussions as Doritos and Mike’s Hard Lemonade are to a steak and shrimp dinner with a nice glass of Laphroiag 10-year single-malt scotch. The only reason you’d pick the former over the latter is if you just haven’t experienced the transcendent goodness of the latter.

I don’t hate writing anymore. My hatred for writing probably had more to do with my education in the garbage American school system than anything else. I’ve always been more inclined towards numbers than words in the first place, but these days I sometimes find ideas bubbling up from within that I just have to write down somewhere, and that’s a big part of the reason for starting this blog. I think reading because you’re intrinsically interested in the material is far different from reading because a midwit English teacher told you to and you’re a brainwashed 15-year-old who thinks grades are everything. The former leads to those ideas bubbling up within that I mentioned a minute ago, and you write because you want to and you care about what you’re writing. The latter leads to nothing worthwhile and you end up writing for the same reason you did the reading: because your midwit English teacher told you to and you want the grade. I feel like I’ve spent the last year mostly undoing the damage of high school, and there’s a long way to go.

I have a much better picture of the direction I want to go next in life. That direction is founded on something like stoic philosophy, and we haven’t even gotten to the Stoics yet. The direction is pretty simple: get a piece of land and a house that is mine, get a wife, have a mess of kids, and build a future. Forget about “pOlItIcAl AcTiViSm”, or “InFlUeNcInG tHe FuTuRe Of OuR sOcIeTy”. Those things are out of the realm of my control, which makes them not worth spending too much time worrying about if the Stoics are correct. Instead, I can spend my time focusing on things that are much more within the realm of my influence: myself, my immediate family, and a community of like-minded people.

I’m more aware of what I don’t understand. This is both depressing and encouraging. The downside to the above point of having a better picture of what’s next is that I’ve now realized I have no idea how to make any of it happen, and as a result it seems like the most impossibly daunting task I’ve ever thought about taking on. The same goes for every time I read a new Platonic dialogue. They always seem to clarify or bring into sharper focus something from a past dialogue, and I can’t help but wonder what I’m missing from the current dialogue because of the fact that I haven’t yet read the future dialogues. I’ll keep working at it though, because as the gym poster said, the best way to suck at this is to keep not doing it.

Scott always says that reading these books will ruin your life, but give you a new one later. I think that’s about right. And now it’s time to go for a walk and read some more Plato.

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