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The road to freedom

Socrates: by his own admission, a "midwife" for truth and understanding.

Socrates: by his own admission, a "midwife" for truth and understanding.

I've taken it upon myself to start reading the great books of the world - and funnily enough the list includes very few written by people alive today and absolutely none by J. K. Rowling.

I'm using a list published by historian Will Durant, a man whose breadth of knowledge and humanity always seeps through the decades since he completed his most famous works, the 11-volume The Story of Civilisation (the final five volumes co-authored with his wife Ariel) as well as The Story of Philosophy and The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time.

The Durants are no mugs: For the 10th volume of The Story of Civilization, they were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature. In 1977, US President Gerald Ford granted them the highest accolade available to American civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ariel died on October 25, 1981 aged 84. Will, less than two weeks later on November 7, 1981 (aged 96), providing a glimpse into a marriage that was both incredibly productive but, I'd wager, also profoundly loving. 

Anyway, The Durants took it upon themselves to publish a list of books they titled "The Road to Freedom: One Hundred Best Books for an Education."

They calculate the number of volumes in the list at 151 and the time required to read them all to be four years (at seven hours per week, 10 hours per volume).

Say what you will about some of the titles they've included, but I would bet my house, testicles and a case of 50-year-old Macallan single malt that if you took the time to read these books, you'd emerge a vastly more informed, considered, humble and valuable citizen.

It will be virtually impossible to find most of these works in your average chain bookstore because we no longer consider the value of reading to be the acquisition of wisdom, but a mere distraction from TV and stuff.

But if you go to the website I linked to above - The Tree of Knowledge - you should be able to track down many of them, in e-format for FREE because they're now in the public domain.

(Oh, and if any person tries to tell me Eat, Pray, Love or anything written by Osho is "wisdom" you are a moron and you deserve to remain dog-paddling in your thimble of self-delusion and pass it onto to your doomed drooling children). 

Anyway, to kick off my reading, I thought I'd give Plato's Republic a go because it's been a best-seller since before Jesus was born and has been discussed, dissected and desecrated for more than 2400 years.

What's fascinating about the work is its startling relevance, with one early conversation illustrating to me how little people have changed.

If you didn't know, Republic is actually a reconstruction of the conversations of Plato's teacher Socrates, who was murdered by the Athenian state because he thought too much and the big boys didn't dig the implications of his teachings.

Early in the Republic, Socrates is pretty much bullied into going to party at a dude named Polemarchus's home, where Socrates strikes up a conversation with Polemarchus's old and frail father Cephalus.

Socrates' thing was to ask questions - he didn't actually consider himself a teacher but a "midwife" (like his mother was) to help other people give birth to the correct understanding of things; to bring it out of themselves.

Anyway, Socrates asks Cephalus how old age is treating him, whether it's a difficult time.

"Zeus!" exclaimed Cephalus. "Ill tell you, Socrates, just how it appears to me. Often times a group of us gets together, as most people of a similar age are always supposed to do, and most of the group spends its time moaning about how they miss the pleasures of youth, reminiscing about the sex, the drinking, the parties and everything else that goes with that, and complaining as if they'd lost things that were important.

"But my view is they are blaming the wrong thing. If old age were responsible, I would have been experiencing the same thing as everyone else who has grown old as I have. But, in point of fact, I've encountered others, in the past, who like myself don't feel that way; not the least the poet Sophocles.

"I once witnessed someone asking him, 'Sophocles, how is it with you and sex nowadays? Can you still make love to a woman?' 'Quiet man! he replied. 'It's my greatest delight to have got away from all that, like a slave from the raving of a savage master.'

"I thought even then this was a good answer, and I still do. Old age really does bring a lot of peace from things like sex, a lot of freedom; when our desires slacken off and cease to exercise us, it really is as if we're freed from a whole collection of slave masters, all of them raving mad."

So, to recap, 2400 years ago, bunches of old blokes used to stand around complaining they couldn't pull roots anymore, or get on the drink, or go to cool parties. 

Sounds like my RSL most Friday nights.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

148 comments

  • You can bet that if they'd been able to pray to Viagrus, most of them would have.

    Commenter
    Stormy
    Location
    Cumberland Oval
    Date and time
    May 17, 2013, 10:07AM
    • You are wrong

      Commenter
      Old guy
      Date and time
      May 18, 2013, 6:05AM
    • That was damn funny!

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      May 18, 2013, 7:17AM
    • So now I know why my mates consider me an over educated w**k@r, with a sizable chunk of this list completed. And I will qualify with this idea: it is easy to confuse information with intelligence. I.E. - Knowing a lot of stuff might win you a spot on Sale of the Century and yet still be unable to solve world hunger / global conflict / deliver universal health care etc. A road and rubber analogy lurks hereabouts, methinks.

      Commenter
      c-max
      Location
      Darlinghurst NSW
      Date and time
      May 18, 2013, 4:13PM
    • For many of us, as we get older and realise how much of our like has been distorted or misdirected by the sex beast within, the more we want , not Viagra, but some pill to remove the sex drive beast entirely.

      Commenter
      humbug
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      May 19, 2013, 7:22PM
  • Interesting list, there are plenty of similar ones around. I think they've cheated a little by including Shakespeare's plays as 1 book, ditto some of the other playwrights.

    By my quick count I've got around 90 to go. I can tick off Plutarch, the Bible, (most of) Shakespeare, Gulliver's Travels, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Virgil, plus bits and bobs from most of the ancient history and a few of the poets.

    Interesting too that this list is from a Tea Party website. I recently had a look at the Institute Of Public Affairs website (checking out their crazy 75 point master plan for the incoming Abbott regime) and it also has a large section on great books, mostly about "freedom" and "liberty". Which mean different things to different people, of course.

    Interestingly neither site features Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, or anything much to do with either Facism/Nazism or Communism, the two main "isms" of the last 100 years. Sam if you want to end up informed, humble and valuable I would throw in a few other histories but I can't recommend highly enough " The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich" by William L. Shirer (US journalist and broadcaster who was in Germany from 1930-odd until 1940. If you want to hear a first hand account of the road to the apocalypse, that's the one).

    Commenter
    Stormy
    Location
    Cumberland Oval
    Date and time
    May 17, 2013, 10:20AM
    • "...Facism/Nazism or Communism, the two main "isms" of the last 100 years..."

      Er, how about Capitalism? Or Consumerism? Considering they both triumphed over and outlasted the other "isms" you mention, I'd say those were the main isms of the last 100 years.

      Commenter
      yumq
      Location
      Reid
      Date and time
      May 17, 2013, 11:21PM
    • Mein Kampf is a struggle---lol!Truly ,though not many people today could read it,its like Dickens in its translation,but without the Dickensian philanthropy perhaps, or at least more fundamentally Catholic than Protestant.

      Commenter
      Kane
      Date and time
      May 18, 2013, 5:26AM
    • @Stormy. Interesting how you completely missed the point that the fundamental nature of science is that it is apolitical i.e. does not take a political stance. Rousseau is a great example of how we should examine politics but also transcend it.

      Your popping of buzzwords "tea party" "crazy" "Abbot regime" creates hyperbole that is the antithesis of intellectual enlightenment. You then want us to examine the Third Reich, as if the Third Reich was somehow different to all the other tyrannical atrocities of the past. There are many, many accounts of the road to the apocalypse in this list, just as there are many accounts on how to live a productive, caring, existence. You may be fixating on the gas chambers but some of us just want to learn from this and move on.

      Comparing the Third Reich to Abbot is just ridiculous.

      The Tea Party site was the only place I could find the list published as it appears in their book. The Durant's were certainly conservative in some of their political views, but to even link them to the loonies of the Tea Party does their work a disservice. - Sam

      Commenter
      Terrarocks
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 18, 2013, 9:32AM
    • isms aren't necessary for a deeper understanding of life.
      they turn the simple facts of life into endless power functions
      and webs of unnecessary complexity to bamboozle and control others'
      inordinate sense that life is unfair and can be made easier by supporting some isms
      while getting rid of others.

      my ism manifesto would go something like this:

      fascism = we are the in crowd, do what we say or else.

      communism = a people is so vain to demand they be ruled according to the
      idea that everybody is of equal 'practical' use, no matter what they do.

      consumerism = people need to buy stuff. some people can afford to buy better stuff than
      others. because people are competitive, some try to outcompete others by
      buying newer better stuff..

      capitalism = some people have a tendency to save their surplus acorns, then sell them
      at a higher price later on when acorns are scarce.

      vegetarianism = i have a gentle heart and can't bear the thought of killing anything, through to
      i hate people and will depopulate the world of them by shrinking them down
      to a size where they might by eaten more readily by household pets.

      Commenter
      beno
      Location
      campin'out
      Date and time
      May 18, 2013, 12:53PM

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