Annotated Reading List

Brief descriptions of some (relatively) contemporary books and authors I like in classics, philosophy, and other associated disciplines:

Rubicon by Tom Holland

This history of the late Roman Republic is very good for the simple reason that it manages to keep the reader’s attention. While specialists may scoff at its breezy presentation, it is not without good footnotes. This is an especially good book for students who have likely encountered texts and personalities from this era (Caesar, Cicero, etc.) without ever having digested the history of the era as a coherent whole. 



The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain

Leonard Shlain was a surgeon by trade, and so he brings an amateur’s enthusiasm and insight to this unique work, which develops a historical thesis about the development of the left and right hemispheres of the brain in intellectual history. He draws a strong correlation between a culture’s exclusive embrace of textual literacy (the alphabet) and its rejection of holistic insight it deems “feminine” (the goddess).

As Shlain develops this thesis, he points out that the major monotheistic religions have a culture of the Holy Book alongside an inveterate historical misogyny. This culture stands alongside a history marked by witch hunts targeting unassimilated women who have run afoul of the male textual authorities. Provocative and enriching, if very general and abstract. 



The Reflexive Universe by Arthur Young

This is perhaps the most under-acclaimed book I have ever read. Arthur Young was also an amateur in his chosen field of cosmology, a subject which he pursued after designing the Bell Helicopter. Young dares to suggest a cosmology capable of integrating the discoveries of modern physics into a coherent system of physical law, biological evolution, and human purpose. Against the Enlightenment tradition of a “lawful” universe, Young suggests that we should begin with a view of nature as essentially non-deterministic, as instantly and entirely free as the light that a star freely emits in every direction.

From this original freedom, light “falls” into matter, condensing and losing freedom and motion, but gaining structure. In cosmological terms, biological life is the attempt of matter to express the original freedom of light captured in matter, although with a new self-awareness and control for having assumed “bodily” form. Classicists will recognize and relish the influence of Gnosticism and neo-Platonism on this decidedly modern intellectual achievement. 



Phi: A Journey from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi

I came across this book while taking a course in philosophy of mind during my M.A. program in Classics. While Dr. Tononi is a research scientist investigating the question of consciousness from a neuro-physiological standpoint, he can also write in a very literary fashion, which makes this book very enjoyable to read. Phi develops its ideas about human consciousness through an excellent literary conceit — Galileo, the scientist who removed subjectivity from the objective measurement of modern science, has come back to life, and now wishes to investigate subjectivity itself using the very objective scientific methods he pioneered. In a series of excellent neo-Platonic dialogues, Galileo discusses the problem of consciousness with various modern figures, principally Francis Crick, Alan Turing, and Charles Darwin. Though published in our century, this work can give one the pleasant illusion of a reading a Renaissance philosophical text. 


Integrated Information Theory

The Greek Way and other works by Edith Hamilton

A high school teacher by trade, Edith Hamilton is a very iconoclastic figure in American intellectual history. She is making this list more for her overall outlook than for anything incredibly provocative in her work. Hamilton was very successful as a promoter of classics as topic in 20th century America, and she continues to provide a model of writing about classics in a way that is relevant without being gimmicky.

The Greek Way is a series of wonderfully direct short essay introductions to classical Greek authors in a way that can capture the interest of all and inspire the scholar to do more reading. It was followed by The Roman Way, which is somewhat too dismissive of Roman authors, but is still very much in the same spirit. These are not overly subtle or challenging works, and at times they fall into moments of repetitive adulation, but they offer a good first step from the modern world into antiquity.


The Glory of Hera by Philip Slater 

This was an admirable contribution to the field of classics by Phillip Slater, a sociologist by training and voluntary academic exile. Slater performs a magnificent feat of intellectual synthesis by reading Greek mythology from a neo-Freudian perspective. He sees the frequent opposition of the Olympian goddess Hera/Juno to the masculine hero (Hercules and Aeneas, to name just two) as reflecting the fear of the Greek boy for his aggressive, narcissistic impulses mother.

Father Zeus/Jupiter seems helpless to intervene in these family dynamics (as in the Aeneid, where he can only react to crisis Juno initiates), so that Greek heroism becomes an expression of how the son can escape from unbearable maternal pressure. While much of the psychological language and method may now seem archaic to a psychologist, the classicist should appreciate this valiant attempt at reconstructing the deeper psychic motivations and patterns behind Greek myths. 

Princeton University Press

Philip Slater NYT Obituary

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This is a work of speculative psychological theory which heavily references Homer and attempts to show that Homeric heroes had an essentially fractured (bicameral) awareness of themselves. While specialists are more qualified to diagnose where Jaynes falls short as a psychologist, the work nonetheless confronts us with basic questions about the unity of the self, which is frequently broken in ancient literature (in the invocation of the Muses, for instance).  Ironically, the doctor is more convincing from the perspective of humanistic commentary than from the scientific perspective he adopts.



The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light by William Irwin Thompson

In many ways, this was the first book that brought me to really appreciate the literary criticism of classical works as a worthwhile endeavor. William Irwin Thompson describes his method of scholarship as Wissenkunst, a deliberately self-contradictory German neologism meaning “knowledge-art”. The idea is that a work of criticism should not attempt to dissect the original classic into something dry and unrecognizable, but should rather recreate the richness of metaphor present in the original work.

In The Time Falling Bodies we are introduced at once to a general exposition of Gnostic cosmology, a polemic against E.O. Wilson, and an interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, all unified in Thompson’s binding, metaphorical language. I am reminded of the subtitle of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize with a Hammer — Thompson takes a hammer to our expectations for literary criticism, and rebuilds them into something artistic in and of itself. 

Thompson’s Personal Blog


AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State by Charles Freeman

I read this book a very long time ago, and may be more inclined to refine the author’s thesis now that I am more informed about late antiquity, but nonetheless, this a great introduction to the religious controversies of late antiquity for anyone at all sympathetic to the pagan perspective. Freeman highlights the Edict of Theodosius in A.D. 381, which actively persecuted pagans on the basis of their beliefs alone, establishing what he regards as the first purely religious/ideological state persecution in the West (Christians were in pagan Rome were typically persecuted for their failure to honor the emperor, and not their beliefs as such).

In essence, Freeman identifies this edict as the historical forerunner of what George Orwell would go on to call “thought crime” in the 20th century. As polemical as this work may be, it clearly establishes that the seemingly abstruse theological debates of late antiquity were in fact intimately related with the totalitarian power of the late Roman state. This was the environment in which the idea that certain types of thought should be systemically eliminated from society first gained hold. 


D by Jack Mitchell

Dr. Mitchell was my graduate thesis adviser, and he has written a book of aphorisms entitled D, or 500. I very much appreciate the aphorism as a rhetorical device, and it offers some unique creative potentials that have not yet been fully explored. For instance, I’ve found myself in the habit of taking a particularly challenging aphorism and trying to “work backwards”, imagining the scenario or narrative in which the saying might naturally arise. 

Among my favorites: “Without law, power cannot sleep”, “To speak for one’s nation is to fancy oneself a king”, “Politics begins where dignity ends”, “To neglect posterity is to commit suicide after death”, and “If we forgive the past, perhaps the future will forgive us”.