Me vs. the Western Canon

As part of a recent initiative of mine to read a bunch of the foundational classics that I’d so far missed, I finally got around to reading Machiavelli’s The Prince, maybe about a year ago. Though it’s something that has had a tremendous impact on political thought for centuries, I had somehow managed not to be compelled to digest it. Heck, I even got my master’s from GWU’s political management program, which could well be described as a graduate school for Machivallianism itself, now that I think about it, (when the school was established, The New Republic dubbed it “The School for Scoundrels”), but I still missed it.
But despite all this, when I finally read it, it didn’t land with me. I partly chalked this up to the fact that its tenets had, by this point in history, been so thoroughly digested by Western culture, that perhaps there was nothing left to resonate with me — it was all, by now, old news.

Suffice it to say, I am not actually convinced by this explanation, as it feels more like an excuse for my own inability to comprehend it, or perhaps, more generously, a problem with my failure to read it with sufficient slowness and closeness.

When I first read Montaigne’s Essays, not too long after I read The Prince, I had a similar experience. But because of the breadth and conversational tone of much of Montaigne, it was not quite so alienating. Some of it I truly loved, while much of it remained beyond my ability — or really, willingness — to grasp.

Then I read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Livea brilliant exploration of Montaigne the person through the essays, and I found myself falling in love with Montaigne after the fact. But what was I so enamored by, really? Montaigne’s own words, or Bakewell’s interpretation?

I am faced with the same question today. The New York Review of Books has recently put online a 1971 piece by Isaiah Berlin on The Prince and what it tells us about Machiavelli’s morality. The piece is wonderful, long but an easy read, and totally understandable despite its many references to philosophers and academics with which I am not, and likely never will be familiar. Berlin’s explanation of what is so goddamned important about Machiavelli — why he has stirred the centuries-long furor that he has — has made my mind spark with ideas and appreciation. Just as Bakewell has inspired me to return to the Essays, Berlin will drive me back to The Prince. To rediscover.

But I must come back to the central question of this post: Why the hell didn’t these masterpieces of Western Civilization land in the first place? What was I doing wrong?

Some possibilities, a couple of which were mentioned previously in this post:

  • I didn’t pay close enough attention, and devote the kind of slow, thoughtful time required of such works, wanting instead to have checked them off my to-read list. (Possible.)
  • Having chosen free versions of both works for reading in the Kindle format, I was stuck with public-domain translations that are very old, written in such a way as to feel very antiquated and archaic to me. (Only a slight factor, I suspect, if at all.)
  • The ideas contained in these works are now part of our cultural fabric, and don’t resonate because they are at this point entirely assumed or humdrum. (Almost certainly not correct, or else Shakespeare is a phone book.)
  • I’m simply not smart enough, or sufficiently educated, to appreciate these works. (Possible on both counts.)

I, being a master of self-loathing, am inclined toward the last bullet in that list, but for the sake of this post, and of giving myself the all-too-rare benefit of the doubt, I have one final possible explanation that pleases:

  • Bakewell and Berlin, in their works, served as the teachers I never had, instilling in me an appreciation and excitement for Montaigne and Machiavelli that might have otherwise come from a brilliant college professor. 

I went to undergrad for theatre. I went to graduate school for what is essentially a vo-tech for politics — not “political science” or political philosophy, but the practical navigation of the modern political industry. Montaigne and Machiavelli would not appear in these classes, not explicitly anyway. Much as it takes an enthusiastic science teacher in high school to turn a kid into a physicist, or it takes a crazy and overdramatic English teacher to make a student fall in love with literature, I posit that Bakewell and Berlin have been my teachers, and her book and his article have been my classes. And so my eyes were opened, and my mind awakened to what I would have otherwise missed from casual readings.

So maybe I’m not so dumb after all.

No, I probably am. But still.

* * *

Note: I’ll have more about the Berlin piece specifically in a separate post, and I’m considering delving back into Montaigne’s Essays and beginning a new blog project in which I write posts in reaction to each essay. We’ll see. Oh, and my current selection from the Western canon is Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I am going to understand conservatism if it kills me.

12 thoughts on “Me vs. the Western Canon”

  1. Have you ever run across Culture & Anarchy by Matthew Arnold? (Not the traitor, a sociologist-type). I remember reading that for a sociology/history/politics course in undergrad, and it was fascinating…


      1. “A sociologist-type” . You mean Matthew Arnold author of “Dover Beach”. (To my mind the greatest English language poem of the nineteenth century.) If there is a canon that poem has to be in it. Seriously, if you’re even remotely interested in the history of atheist thought you need to read it.
        Apologies if I missed some irony there. “Culture & Anarchy” is now added to my reading list


  2. All the things you’re reading sound great. One “western canon” book I read and immediately connected with and love to this day was “Maxims” by the Duc de la Rouchefoucauld. It is not difficult to read, in fact it goes down like a box of bittersweet chocolates, but I found it to be educational. It encapsulates the worldview of a particular French nobleman of the 1600s. His cynicism is a bit hard to take at times but his psychological acuity is absolutely amazing, and he leavens his oceanic distrust with a sense of openness to possibility.


  3. I’m thinking your final point (“Bakewell and Berlin, in their works, served as the teachers I never had…”) is the correct one. I’ve had the same sort of experiences, where I’ve read what was supposed to be a seminal work of Western literature, and it fell flat until I had a teacher help to unwrap the complexity. Doesn’t mean we’re dumb…among other things, we’re often dealing with centuries-old idioms and ways of expressing oneself that take some experience to understand. You’re no dummy, my friend!!


  4. This is one of the things secondary stuff in literature is good for – getting us over that hump.
    Montaigne can be difficult to get into at first, then once you see the point, you see it. At least that was my experience.


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