June 22, 2014, by Stephen Mumford


This week I had cause to look again at Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, a book from which I used to teach but had not read for around 20 years. Wanting to lay hands on a copy in the middle of town, I went along to the book shop in the near certain knowledge that although this text dated from 1641 no decent bookseller would allow it to go out of stock. Sure enough, upon reaching the philosophy section I saw that the classics were all there. I found Aristotle, Plato, Hume, Kant, Locke, Rousseau and, of course, Descartes.

I expect that almost all disciplines have their classics. These will be the texts that have shaped the subject area, perhaps took it in a new direction and to which readers will return again and again. All students will be expected to know the classics and will cut their disciplinary teeth by analysing them in their essays. There is even a subject that consists in nothing more than the study of the ancient classics; and in literature one would be expected to know the modern classics. There are plenty of books you have no time to read, but without knowledge of the relevant classics, your expertise can be questioned.

I sat down with my new copy of Descartes’ Meditations, a Penguin Classics paperback. It is at least the fifth copy I own though they are all different editions. I read the text with fresh eyes. Descartes tells us he was full of doubts about what he could know certainly to be true. He decided to sit by the fire, clear his mind of all cares and devote himself to settling the issue. This wasn’t an easy task, for he knew of people who while ill were convinced they were kings when really they were paupers, that they were dressed when really they were naked, or that their head was earthenware. Given these mistakes, it seems that everything can be doubted. Yet Descartes finds one thing that he cannot doubt. Cogito ergo sum, ‘I exist’, he concludes.

It was striking how clear and simple was the argument and writing of this profound revelation. This was one of the classics of my discipline and yet it was all so transparent that anyone with a brain and a bit of concentration could follow it. It seemed, then, that there was no secret formula for making a classic. In particular, the classics of philosophy are not the most difficult texts, nor the most technical, and they are not full of logical symbols.

That is precisely the point. The classics have a universal appeal. They succeed in conveying how something novel and innovative was simple all along, there for anyone to have discovered. Classics challenge the existing wisdom of the age but do so in a sympathetic way that allows every reader to understand the force of the point even if they ultimately reject it. Again, when I look at the classics of literature, I find that they tend to be intellectually challenging but accessible for anyone willing to put in some effort. This gives them a wide interest, for most of us want to learn, to be tested and provoked. A necessary condition of this is that we are not excluded from engaging with the text and it can touch us even if at a high level of abstraction. Such a balance is not easy for an author to achieve, even though it should seem easy for us to read. A work that attains such a quality of simple profundity deserves its status as a classic.

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