In the midst of struggles and crises all across our nation, our friends and colleagues share what they think we should be reading to understand this moment and to fortify ourselves against the influence of ideologues and the movements that would undermine a strong civil society. The fourth in a series.
Read the previous installments of our “Readings for Troubled Times” series here. This continues our effort to understand the times in which we live by recommending readings that are relevant to the strange moment in which we find ourselves.
What you should read: Plato and Europe, Jan Patočka.
Why: Jan Patočka’s students referred to him as “the Socrates of Prague,” not only for his philosophical acumen but for his steadfast courage in the face of tyranny, whether Nazi or Soviet. In time, he influenced Vaclav Havel, Roger Scruton, and many more, particularly through his claim, found in (the quite difficult) Plato and Europe, that whatever happened in the world, one must keep one’s soul free. Western Civilization, he argued, depended entirely on this idea: our soul is our own to do with as we choose, and choose we must.
Director of Academic Programs, The Witherspoon Institute
About Jan Patočka: Patočka renewed the great Platonic/Socratic imperative of “care of the soul.” Except for a few months surrounding the Prague spring in 1968, he was barred from teaching in Communist Czechoslovakia from 1948 until his death in 1977 (although he taught private, underground seminars like the one that became the basis of the extraordinary Plato and Europe, and other books). He died after extensive interrogation by the StB, the Czechoslovakian secret police since he was one of the three initial spokesmen for the human rights group Charter 77. He is a major presence in Havel’s famous 1979 samizdat essay “The Power of the Powerless” and in Scruton’s 2014 novel about the Czech underground, Notes from Underground. In 1991, Richard Rorty wrote a long review essay in The New Republic praising Patočka’s work but lamenting the fact that he and Havel took the truth in “living in truth” very seriously, indeed. They did not go along with Rorty’s sophistic assertion that everything, including truth, is contingent or arbitrary ‘all the way down.’
Professor of Political Science, Assumption University
What you should read: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.
Why: When everything fell apart, when students were sent home, and the virus spread rampantly around the world, my first instinct was to read the news. All the time. Until one of my children said, “Mama, you just have to calm down.” So I turned to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to see if he could offer me a respite from the craziness around me. It took a week and 800 pages for Tolstoy to get me through. The world is falling apart, it seems, but this is the same world that created this genius. Anna Karenina has got it all: incisive social commentary, historical fiction, stunning prose, romance, tragedy, the rise of modernity, farming techniques, the clash of cultures, the role of women, etc. etc. etc. Most of all, though, Tolstoy has deep psychological insight into the human psyche. The novel is a rare human achievement. Load up your kindle. E-borrow it from your library. Or order on Amazon Prime. Binge watching Netflix won’t be balm for your soul. Tolstoy will.
Professor of Theology, Villanova University
What you should read: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Why: In these troubled times (as in all troubled times) it’s good to return to first principles and the first principles of the modern English literary experience is Geoffrey Chaucer. He is the most euphonious and the wisest of English authors, and a wry commentator on religion, society, love, and what makes life worthwhile. His masterpiece is The Canterbury Tales, and while it might be best read in the original middle English, for those put off by the investment in effort that requires (or for those seeking a reliable aid) Nevil Coghill’s superb rhyming translation is available in a Penguin classics edition. Shakespeare could not exist without Chaucer, and we could hardly exist without Shakespeare. To grasp Shakespeare one should probably read all his plays, but with Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales suffice.
Stephen B. Presser
Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus, Northwestern University School of Law