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.

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