Review of The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy

I have been reading The Great Books: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature and Books That Changed the World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History because I am looking for books to read to develop my course Readers are Leaders. This post is a review as well as a reflection on the works covered in The Great Books.

Initially I struggled while reading The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear, and thought it was dry and too academic. I decided to take a closer look at my feelings and prejudices toward The Great Books and discovered that I was simply tired of reading about Greek and Roman tragedies, which are the first few books that are covered. I was also tired and wary of all the war imagery and “gods” with larger-than-life egos, behaving very badly. After acknowledging my feelings, I got into The Great Books and started to enjoy the experience.

In The Great Books, Anthony O’Hear provides detailed summaries of the books he covers and I am wondering if he isn’t doing a disservice to the reader. With so much solid information given to you, why would you want to read those classics? He goes from chapter to chapter and you are right there with him. You also get a handle on the context of the book, and what was going on in society when it was written. When I was reading about Dante’s Divine Comedy, I passed through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, I was right there with him on the journey.

I also noticed with these great works of literature that O’Hear discussed, the authors often built on the works of others, similar to the way innovators and great thinkers who changed the world, built on the works of others. The Aeneid by Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) is Homer’s Odyssey, except he reverses the outcome of the Trojan War. Shakespeare’s The Tempest mentions Virgil and Ovid. And some of the characters in Divine Comedy are The Who’s Who in the Bible, and it also mentions many of the classics: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Aeneid, Homer’s The OdysseyI. And Virgil is at Dante’s side as guide and mentor when he goes into the Inferno (hell). From Divine Comedy you realize that Dante is very knowledgeable and learned about the classics, the Bible and contemporary works back in his time. And this is true for many of the authors whose works are covered in The Great Books. Have all the great works of literature been written already?

Using the works of others raised an interesting issue. Back in those days, there weren’t copyright laws, or they weren’t as strict as they are today, and that was very instrumental in furthering society, not just in literature, but also in the inventions that we now take for granted. When we use the works of others, what is considered fair use? What about mash-ups, the process where artists pull from the works of others to create something new? Are copyright laws here to protect us, or are they preventing us from leaping forward and innovating and building on what’s been done before? What if someone used your work and created something much better, and in the process gave you credit, would you be okay with that? There are really no easy answers to these tough questions, but they are worth thinking about.

The works covered by the author include:

  • Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey
  • Greek Tragedy
    • Aeschylus’
    • Sophocles’ Theban Plays: Antigone
    • Euripides: The Bacchae
  • Plato and the Death of Socrates
  • Virgil: The Aeneid
  • Ovid: Metamorphoses
  • St. Augustine: Confessions
  • Dante: The Divine Comedy – Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise
  • Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
  • Cervantes: Don Quixote
  • Milton: Paradise Lost
  • Pascal: Pensées
  • Racine: Phèdre
  • Goethe: Faust – Part One, Part Two

I didn’t read many of these classics in university because I didn’t major in English Literature, so I missed out on the discussions. But, the Great Works is a great substitute because it helps to further your understanding of the book. However there is always a danger when you rely on one source, one person’s frame of reference, that’s why I have been reading other books of this kind.

Though I thought that The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear was too long, the time was well spent reading it because it furthered my understanding of the great books mentioned. After the fact, I realized that it makes a great reference book. I recommend The Great Books from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Goethe’s Faust: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature and Books That Changed the World.

Review of The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain De Botton

After seeing and being mightily impressed with Alain De Botton at the Guardian Hay Festival (see my review) and his ability to engage with a crowd about philosophy in a digestible way, I decided to read his book ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’.

Previously Alain had released the novels Kiss and Tell, Essays in Love and The Romantic Movement, before dropping the storytelling model with How Proust can change your life. ADB has kept his faith in telling it how he sees it with The Consolations of Philosophy.

As someone who likes a challenging read from time to time I was a little sceptical about this book after reading that it was somewhat dumbed down philosophy. But then again I’ve always felt that the upper echelons of philosophical debate is afflicted with a tendency to turn said debate into an exercise in etymological prowess. The beauty of this book is De Botton cuts to the chase with excellent clarity of meaning mixing old thought with the anxieties of modern culture.

I enjoyed his unapologisingly negative opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche and his influence over Hitler’s anti-semitic ethos. His comparison of Socrates as an unpopular outcast who maintained his own beliefs gives the reader hope of triumph under adversity and his analysis of Seneca and how his heartbreak philosophy can help our own understanding of our own romantic anxieties was nostalgically thought provoking.

Looking back over time philosophical thought has stimulated and hence shaped the pinnacles of modern thought and spread to more people who in a previous age would never have had the opportunity to learn from the great thinkers. Yet many folks believe philosophy is only for the elite largely because they are still segregated by modern professors of thought who appear to surreptitiously hide away from trying to educate the masses like Alain De Botton is trying to do. Maybe it’s pretentiousness, maybe it’s arrogance or maybe they don’t want to stick their neck out for want of failing a popularity contest like Socrates.

Alain in my opinion is getting just rewards for his persistence, I highly recommend this book and I’m keen to see where his thoughts take him to next.

A Review of "Metallica and Philosophy"

The book that is the subject of this review is Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery, edited by William Irwin and published 2007. It is part of a growing genre of books that examine such pop culture icons as The Matrix movies, the Lord of the Rings series, The Simpsons television show, and others through the lens of philosophy. The book is made up of a series of twenty short essays examining the band Metallica, the interpersonal relationships between the members, and the lyrics in the context of some of the main ideas of Western Philosophy.

The main purpose of the book, and the series as a whole, is to introduce the average reader to the “great ideas” of philosophy while providing a more entertaining venue. Philosophy is very often studied only in places of higher learning and only grudgingly by its students, who must force themselves to delve deeply into the reading material and gain what insight they can. Knowledge of this sort does not come easily, and attempting to answer the most profound questions of existence and being human requires difficult thinking. Thus, the editors of the series seek to show that studying philosophy can be more entertaining, though, and “thinking deeply about TV, movies, and music doesn’t make you a ‘complete idiot.’ In fact it might make you a philosopher, someone who believes the unexamined life is not worth living and the unexamined cartoon is not worth watching.” Metallica, as one of the most successful bands in history, gets the philosophical treatment in this installment in the series.

As a student who took numerous philosophy courses in college and who has read another installment in this series (The Simpsons and Philosophy), these kinds of books have always been intriguing. The question begs to be asked: is the book written for philosophers interested in Metallica, or Metallica fans interested in philosophy, or is there a difference? It is unlikely that many Metallica fans will find themselves in the Philosophy section of their local Borders unless they are interested in philosophy. But it is equally difficult to imagine the stereotypical college professor picking up a book titled Metallica and Philosophy. However, the fact that over twenty authors contributed to this series of essays shows that there are a number of professors, authors, and students of philosophy who also share an appreciation for the biggest heavy metal band of all time. The themes that are found in the book also show that the authors knew the lyrics and history of Metallica well enough to offer valuable insights as to the philosophical context of Metallica’s work.

With twenty essays contained in the book, it is impossible to review every theme presented. The essays serve as introductions to the great questions of philosophy, and use James Hetfield’s lyrics as the greatest source material. Issues such as insanity and capital punishment are examined through various songs, as well as the band’s relationship with religion and the answer to the meaning of life. Quite heavy topics, no doubt. However, each essay is written with the ultimate goal or readability in mind. While the themes often examine the abstract, the authors use frequent examples, such as quoting lyrics, or use anecdotal examples from the history of the band. This makes the ideas much easier to understand and the essays do not get caught up in long period of exposition on esoteric matters. Many of the essays could have been slightly longer for a fuller discussion of the issues, but the length of each was sufficient to raise a theme, examine it in the context of philosophical thought, and lay out some conclusions or areas for further research.

Besides analyzing lyrics, though, a number of the essays also examine the overall context and history of Metallica, and attempt to answer some of the more contentious points raised over the years. These include the issue of the band “selling out,” their image of nonconformity with traditional rock roles, and Lars’ battle with internet file-sharing website Napster. Did Metallica sell out when they released an alternative hard rock album (LOAD)? What role did nonconformity play in shaping Metallica and why can they not return to it ever again? Was Napster about money or something more, and was Lars’ argument fundamentally correct? The answers are examined in detail in the book, and they may not be what the reader expects. As one of the authors writes, “Hey, philosophers are supposed to be objective — I don’t like it anymore than you do!” But these events and themes are the ones most often discussed when speaking of Metallica, who have been accused of selling out since their second album in 1984. The old arguments of either side are given new teeth when examined through the context of philosophy.

The book is a a welcome introduction or reintroduction for Metallica fans to philosophical ideas and thinking. For the serious philosopher who has spent time reading the original works cited in the essays, it may be just a casual summary of the themes in a heavy metal context. But for Metallica fans who desire to know more about the motivations of the band and get inside their heads, as well as understand the reasons that they find themselves drawn to Metallica and heavy metal in general, Metallica and Philosophy provides an ideal overview of these most important concepts.