Sunday, November 17, 2013

Writing in the Margins: Plato's Apology

"I hope you won't be too slavish about the Plan of Graded Reading.  My advice is, reach in anywhere.  If what you look at doesn't interest you, put it down and try something else.  Everything in this set will interest you sooner or later.  I recommend browsing as the best method of locating the possible world you want first to explore." 

--Robert M. Hutchins,  "A Letter to the Reader", Gateway to the Great Books, Vol. 1

How eagerly and happily I read this advice!

Mr. Hutchins goes on to explain in the Introduction that the works in in the 10-volume Gateway to the Great Books "are outstanding creations of the human mind, but they are not of the same order as the works included in Great Books of the Western World.  They consist of stories, plays, essays, scientific papers, speeches, or letters, and in some cases they are relatively short selections from much larger works.  In contrast, Great Books of the Western World contains whole books or extensive collections of books."

In the appendices of Gateway, Vol. 1, four graded reading lists are provided starting with "Suggested Readings for the 7th and 8th Grades" and progressing through "Suggested Readings for College Freshmen and Sophomores".  Each level includes readings from the Gateway set and the Great Books set.  If I were still homeschooling, I would definitely choose this as the basis for my junior/senior high curriculum.

In The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education, which is the first volume of the Great Books set, there is a suggested 10-year reading plan using only the Great Books set.  Number one on this list is Plato, with two selections--Apology, Crito.

Taking Mr. Hutchins' advice, I followed my interest and started right in on Plato, finishing his Apology, which is from Dialogues of Plato.  This is Socrates defending himself to the Athenians.  I enjoyed it immensely, especially the way he tells about his experience of doing good by informing others that they are not truly wise and how in this manner he gains more and more enemies.  Too funny!  The Athenians of his time do not seem to be any different than the Americans of my time:  If you tell people  that they don't know what they are talking about, they usually are not grateful.  On the other hand, I can't think of a contemporary counterpart to Socrates.  And there is the whole issue of scale.  Socrates went directly to individual Athenians to question them.  He was well and personally known.  We have celebrities, but in general, we don't know them well or personally.

I also identified with his description of himself as a gadfly, "given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.  I am that gadfly that God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.  You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me."  We have many gadflies today, so many that I think we get hypnotized by their buzzing and do nothing.  Again, though, these folks are not in the same league as Socrates.  In fact, the most popular ones seem to be the ones whom Socrates would have found wanting in wisdom.

I also followed Mr. Hutchins' advice about writing in the margins.  He said that you can't really make a book yours until you make notes alongside the text.  Only then are you really engaging in a conversation with the author.   So I penciled in a few things.  I didn't feel really comfortable doing it, but it occurred to me that this was one way to share more deeply with my husband, who will be reading with me.  That encouraged me.


Kathy Felsted Usher said...

How wonderful you are getting started on your books. I always had to make notes in mine if I was studying. I love buying used books that have notes in them, especially old books. We just picked up a really old school book that has lots of notes in it.

Wendy Haught said...

Hey, Kathy!

Old school books with notes! What fun! I love old school books.