Why You Should Read Ancient Classics Like Homer and Plato

In Henry David Thoreau’s most famous book Walden, he dedicated a whole chapter to making fun of fools who read ‘Easy Reading’ books:

A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of;–and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and story books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikans.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

He says that we, basically, never go beyond reading at the level of children.

We can recognize the value of a silver dollar on the ground, but we can’t be bothered to pick up a book with “golden words,” of even MORE value than a silver dollar, the words of which have proven themselves to be worthy through the test of time. We just read the easy stuff that our contemporaries dumb down for mass consumption…worth mere pennies.

Thoreau believes that you should read Homer and Plato, which are the oldest of the old. And he further argues that you should read them in their original languages, not translations. He confesses, though, that you will be lonely and have no one to discuss your joy of the classics with — it is not polite (or normal) conversation.

I disagree with Thoreau on one point: Reading ancient texts in their original language might be a bit much nowadays; how am I going to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu in Chinese one day and then The Iliad in Greek the next?

But, Thoreau is right about the quality of the books I read. Every time I go to the library, I whistle on by the books written 2500 years ago and instead pick up the simple travel stories or elementary psychology texts!

One Other Bad Reading Habit EVERYONE Has

Another bad reading habit of mine: NONE of my reading choices are based on what will do me the most good or what is most valuable to me. In fact, most of what I read online or in books are about things I already agree with that prove I’m “right” in some way.

For example, if I feel that minimalism is a smart way to live life, I will read a book on minimalism. Or, if I am a feminist, I avoid reading books that I deem anti-woman.

…humans will seek out people who agree with them and read articles that confirm their beliefs or their biases, rather than articles that challenge them.

-Jacob Lund Fisker, Early Retirement Extreme

It is wise to seek arguments/books/articles that make you question your foundational beliefs. Read only things that challenge you to think more deeply, like a true teacher would encourage you to do.

You Have Three Possible Directions in Life: Backwards, Sideways, or Forwards

picture of your 3 paths

The wise man chooses to walk forward, but to most people there’s something more appealing about going sideways or even backwards.

Reading texts that challenge you or have proven value to you (such as ancient classics) is the equivalent of walking forward. You’re always facing forward, so why not walk forward, right?

But, most people, when they look at the path forward, they see the steep incline ahead. “Reading Homer is hard,” they whine. To them, it’s much easier to click on a link that promises to show them a picture of Rihanna without makeup than it is to pick up a book that requires them to spend an hour reading 10 pages.

Thus, they decide to walk backwards or sideways instead of forward:

(1) Walking backwards -“The Great Employee”

Someone who walks backwards is someone who is even worse than the ‘easy reading’ person;  at least easy reading will keep your mind as active as it was when you were a schoolboy. People who walk backwards actually read things or have habits that degrade their minds–reading only idle gossip, watching television, or mindlessly consuming drugs or alcohol.

I call this type “great employees” because they are usually the type that dedicate all their energy into doing a good job at work, getting accolades from their boss, and then crash on the couch when they get home; they have nothing left to give, not even to their children. Eventually, over time, this person degrades his senses so much that he finds it hard to take pride in anything but work.

He no longer notices that he has sacrificed his life to a corporation he has no real stake in. If he walks too far backwards, he drowns and never actually lives his full life.

A quote from the author of Top Five Regrets of the Dying:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. … All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

The great employee (the man who walks backwards) is always well liked by his bosses and coworkers. That is what keeps him walking backwards, even if it’s awkward at times.

(2) Walking sideways – “The Successful Man”

If you walk sideways, you will find grand success in this world, with no risk of drowning like the backwards man. In fact, if you are a good side-stepper, there’s a village full of people waiting to celebrate you!

The sideways stepper avoids things that degrade his mind, but also never upgrades his mind. By society’s standards, it looks like he feeds his mind with intelligent reading and the avoidance of TV, but society is mistaken.

What’s really happening is that he’s just successful COMPARED to the backwards man. Since he has cut out mind numbing things like TV, he has time to produce simple ideas, which he then reads about over and over again. He reads a hundred books on index fund investing that confirm his perspective is right. And when he reads an article on why index fund investing is wrong, he laughs at it and uses it for fodder. He is knee deep in confirmation bias.

Of course, deep down, he never truly challenges his own thinking. That’s not to say that his opinion NEVER changes, but it only changes when forced. He does not seek out the truth or to prove himself wrong the way that a forward walker does.

His fans at the village treat him as a modern day king because they believe the same things he believes. The sideways stepper is never lonely, and is always impressive in the eyes of others.

Not a bad deal, right? He might own a business of his own or be independent minded within the company he works for. He looks more free than the average person.

Too bad he does not take the time to read Seneca The Younger, an ancient philosopher who argues that successful men are as ignorant of the shortness of life as any other man. They are all wasting time.

(3) Walking forward – “The Accurate Mapmaker”

Little is known of people who choose to walk forward. I’m not sure if I have met one. Thoreau thinks that if you ever met such a man, it would be impossible to look him in the eye.

Perhaps the best illustration of a man who walked forward is the story of Buddha:

When Buddha was born, a seer told his father that he was destined to be either a great king or a great spiritual leader, but not both. His father, being a normal human being with stupid ideas about what is glorious, wanted him to be a king (a sideways walker) and so tried to shield young Buddha from anything that might convince him to take a spiritual path–pain and aging. But, when young Buddha finally saw pain and aging firsthand, he immediately shed everything his father taught him and dedicated his life to what made more sense: spiritual enlightenment.

Buddha took many false paths on his journey to enlightenment, and almost died because of it. He experienced starvation and other painful experiences, but through perseverance was able to reach the enlightened state.

Buddha walked forward. It was challenging and painful in ways that most people aren’t willing to go through, but he kept at it.

Reading what is difficult to decipher (poetry, anyone?) and that which challenges your preciously held beliefs (and being open to those challenges!) is VERY hard, and VERY painful. It is not comparable to the supposed challenges that the sideways walkers go through in order to reach success — it is much much much much much much HARDER.

The person who walks forward will be alone. That’s not to say that Buddha was alone when he reached enlightenment; he actually taught many people his findings. But the distinction lies here:

I make a distinction between aloneness and loneliness. Loneliness is the unavailability of people to communicate with on any level. Powerful people are surrounded by others only too eager to communicate with them; hence they are seldom lonely and may even yearn for loneliness. Aloneness, however, is the unavailability of someone to communicate with at your level of awareness.

-M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

A man who walks forward will be alone, both through the process of walking forward and also after reaching the peak of the mountain. Even Thoreau confessed that if you take the time to read Homer, you will have no luck finding someone to discuss it with.

People who walk sideways or backwards, on the other hand, are never alone. The sideways walkers always have people to rejoice in their success and the backwards walker will be comfortably surrounded by the water that drowns them.

The value of being a forwards walker is that the sooner you start traversing those peaks, the better a view of the world you will have. M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled talks about how we are all mapmakers. And any good mapmaker must be willing to erase and re-draw areas he has accidently mapped out wrong, no matter how much time went into the first draft.

The higher up you are on the peaks, the better your view of the landscape, and the more accurate your map. If you are a forward walker, you will be constantly re-drawing your map the higher you get, which is exhausting, but in the end more truthful, accurate, and honest.

What Does Your Path Look Like?

individual footprint path

Most people’s paths involve a combination of forwards, sideways, and backwards stepping

Life is complicated. It’s not like there are only three types of people: backwards, sideways, and forwards. Likely, each individual’s direction will change throughout life, hopefully for the better.

Perhaps you’re still hung up on this idea that you can’t read ancient texts. Perhaps you say, “I’ve never been able to read Shakespeare! It just doesn’t make sense to me!”

I thought that way until I read Ryan Holiday’s article: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”

It turns out, walking forward is just as easy as it’s always been…