With September and back-to-school season coming to a close, it is fitting to reflect on what we can borrow from college students’ syllabi. For those of us who have not attended university, did not pay attention in class, or would simply enjoy a dose of nostalgia, here are some university-adjacent reads without the added stress of grades or the sky-high price. Who says learning starts and stops in school?
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy (1320) is a three part epic poem written by Dante Alighieri. Each part depicts the human soul’s pilgrimage away from and ultimately back to God. The self-inserted protagonist, also called Dante, travels through the circles of hell (Inferno), the limbo of purgatory (Purgatorio), and finally, into the heavenly realm of paradise (Paradiso).
Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, makes a cameo as Dante’s guide in “Inferno.” We quickly learn this is not the place one wants to be. Souls who committed unrepented sins in their life—such as perverting their human intelligence by using it for trickery, for example—reside here. Some other of its residents include infamous Italian public figures, artists, and politicians (the shade is evident). Hell consists of nine levels. The worse the crime, the worse the person’s punishment, and the lower their designated circle.
The Inferno represents the necessity of recognizing, repenting, and rejecting one’s sinful nature in order to spiritually progress out of self-inflicted, perpetual torment, and into eternal bliss. After this initial repentance, the soul progresses to Purgatorio for further cleansing. Once cleansed completely, it enters the realm of Paradiso. Dante describes this realm as being as too bright for his human eyes, which need “adjusting” upon entering this exalted, transcendent state.
This triumphant finale is analogous to the meaning of the work as a whole. The human person is flawed and must spiritually perfect themself to be worthy of walking with God. Timeless, truly. Even an atheist has to admit the beautiful sentiment of such a story.
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
The Iliad and The Odyssey (750-650 BCE) are a two-part set of ancient epic poems written during a cultural dark age of Greece (1100-750 BCE) by the now iconic Greek poet Homer. The pair of poems are amongst the oldest literature in existence still read by modern audiences.
The Iliad (750-650 BCE) is set towards the end of the Trojan War, a ten-year conflict between Trojan and Grecian forces incited after the Trojan Prince Paris steals Helen—“the face who launched a thousand ships.” Ring any bells? Helen was due to marry the King of Sparta, Menelaus. Menelaus, enraged at the stealing of his bride, convinces his brother Agamemnon to join their forces to siege Troy.
The poem depicts significant events in the siege’s final weeks, specifically a fierce quarrel between the mutually stubborn King Agamemnon and a warrior/demigod in his army who he has offended by stealing his war-prize, Achilles. Even being a demigod, and the Greek’s best warrior, is not sufficient deterrence from the king from taking whatever he wants. This greatly upsets the proud Achilles, who decides to pout alone in his tent rather than fight with his comrades in the upcoming battle.
Achilles faces the following ultimatum in the poem, which is professed in the form of prophecy from his goddess mother in its beginning: either he will refuse to fight in the battle (out of his spite for Agamemnon) but grow old and die with a wife and family to love him, or, die honorably in battle and live on forever as a hero with perennial acclaim and glory. He ultimately choses the second fate after his best friend Patroclus, in a futile attempt to intimidate the Trojan forces, dies in battle pretending to be him.
Glory may seem a vain concept to modern audiences that is not worth dying for. However, glory was one of the most important cultural values to the ancient Greeks. Achilles choosing the first option would have been seen as craven and self-indulgent. Him choosing the second option instead makes him a self-sacrificing hero who lays down his life and future to save his people in battle.
Scholars often regard The Iliad as being the first substantial example of European literature. Its critical themes include the importance and perhaps ambiguity of glory, the perils of pride, the inescapability of fate, the all-consuming nature of wrath, and the saving grace of commiseration (Achilles only returns the deceased body of Trojan King Hector, which he has vandalized, after a conversation with his grieving father Priam; both grieve a recently-lost loved one).
The Odyssey (750-650 BCE) follows the Greek hero and King of Ithica, Odysseus, as he journeys home after the ten-year-long Trojan War. He is far from out of the woods, however. His journey home lasts ten more years. He encounters many obstacles along his voyage—such as mythical creatures, the gods’ wrath, and the deaths of his crew.
In his extended absence, Odysseus is pronounced dead at home. His ever-loyal wife Penelope and son Telemachus stave off suitors vying for Penelope’s hand as well as Ithaca’s throne, faithful that Odysseus will eventually return.
The critical themes in this poem are wandering and returning, friendliness to foreigners (xenia), omens, faith, and overcoming trials. Critical analysis of the text has also revealed feminist themes weaved into the narrative, which is not as male-centric as its predecessor.
Beyond Good and Evil by Frederick Nietzsche
Nietzsche, the guy that said “God is dead” and reduced organized religion to “an opium for the people,” is always a controversial and thought-provoking read. Beyond Good and Evil (1886) exemplifies Nietzsche’s provocateur nature. He functions as a refreshingly hypercritical figure within the domain of the, at times, stuffy discipline of philosophy.
In this work Nietzsche accuses philosophers of dogmatism that they falsely present as genuine rationality. Therefore, every great philosophy according to him is little more than a confession of the biased beliefs that its professor holds. Philosophers do not discover ideas or approximate the truth. Rather, they justify pre-existing presumptions and prejudices as opposed to dispassionately testing the validity of their theories (as a scientist would). Philosophy is, as a result, a glorified, jargon-ridden conglomeration of personal projections rather than authentic exploration of the truth.
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Aristotle is one of the most important thinkers to ever have walked the Earth. For eons his works have been rigorously analyzed by scholars, students, and critical thinkers alike. A common theme in Aristotle’s philosophy is how to tend to one’s own soul. A physician of the spirit, he is concerned with spiritual health and uses logic to ascertain what exactly that entails.
Ethics (340 BCE) is one of the most frequently assigned philosophy works in educational institutions, and puts modern self help books to utter shame. It asks what the nature of the good life for a human being is, and argues for the existence of a good toward which all human actions ultimately and inevitably aim. Simplified spoiler alert: Aristotle claims that this ultimate end is eudaimonia.
By using their reason to aim rightly, according to Aristotle, the human being aligns themselves properly with their pre-ordained function and achieves this state. Eudaimonia is a concept commonly lauded in Ancient Greek culture. It is a state of transcendent happiness that is not finite as the lower human pleasures are, since they require constant re-satiation. It is rather an everlasting contentment that only acquiescence to God’s predetermined design will grant.
Aristotle also discusses virtue, real versus false friendships, and a plethora of other topics that remain relevant in guiding the modern human being toward living a spiritually-fulfilled and aligned life.
The Republic by Plato
Plato’s intellectual influence is in the epic realm of Aristotle’s. He is another heavyweight philosopher whose works have weathered the eons with grace. He is, perhaps, worthy of even more reverence as an academic since he was a teacher and major source of inspiration for Aristotle. As one would expect, he also concerns himself with the wellbeing of the human soul and how one can reasonably distinguish good from bad and right from wrong.
The Republic (375 BCE) is Plato’s most famous dialogue. As is the case in many of his other works the main character is Socrates (who he recounts but also speaks through)—Plato’s real-life teacher in ancient Greece. Being a playwright before he was a philosopher, Plato writes his works as conversations and debates that are unfolding between two characters. They feel like the script of a type of highly-intellectual podcast from ancient times.
In The Republic, this Platonic trope is present as Socrates argues with his peers about the elusive definition of justice. Upon talking to the group, he develops a definition of justice and its correlation to eudaimonia in real time. As the chapters (“books”) progress, Socrates approximates these definitions through the hypothetical building of the “just city.” He asks and answers the following question: what lengths must the just city go to in order to ensure a contented but also “good” populace of people?
A standout from this work is Socrates’ scalding remarks about democracy, which read as surprising to the modern audience who considers it undoubtedly good. Socrates sees democracy as the second worst regime to tyranny, and also as its precursor. He warns against democracy’s limitless pursuits of liberty, arguing there must also be emphasis on personal responsibility. The democratic citizen must learn to rule themselves by their highest internal governing aspect, their rationality, and not succumb to the bestial nature of their lowest two, their appetitive and spirited natures. If they do so, they will be easily manipulated by the tyrant, who sedates them with desire satiation and lulls them into a complacent sleep.
Othello by William Shakespeare
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (1603) by William Shakespeare revolves around two central characters. The first is the respected Moorish commander of the Venetian army, Othello. The second is his subservient officer who he repeatedly passes over elevating in station. This is the jealous, conniving, racist, and potentially sociopathic Iago.
In the beginning of the play, Othello is defending of Cyprus against invasion by the Turks. He has recently married Desdemona as a prize for his war prowess. This is done against the wishes of her father; she is a beautiful and wealthy Venetian lady much younger than himself. But, it is also implied that her father’s hesitation has more to do with the age gap, since he is moved by some of Iago’s racist comments.
Throughout the duration of the play, Iago takes his vengeance for his Othello’s perceived offense. He maliciously stokes Othello’s hidden insecurities and jealousy so that the typically measured man kills his beloved wife in a fit of blind, all-consuming rage. Due to its themes of passion, trickery, jealousy, racial relations, amorality, and psychological analysis, Othello remains a cultural sensation that is still widely read, performed, and adapted today.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian drama that examines a futuristic society called the World State, which operates based on secular scientism and pure efficiency. It is set in 2540 CE, also marked as being the year AF 632 (“after Ford”). The advent of Henry Ford’s revolutionary assembly line is revered by society as a divine creation.
In this society, children are conditioned to be unemotional and conforming. Individuality is strongly discouraged. In addition, no lasting relationships between people are allowed because “everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Even reproduction is sterilized by the state. It is transformed into an act necessary for population maintenance, not bond-building or personal enjoyment. Children are created outside the womb through advanced cloning technology.
As an embryo a person’s fate is already predetermined. Embryos deemed “destined” for the higher classes get injected with chemicals to physically and mentally “perfect” them. Meanwhile, the lower classes are left “imperfect,” destined not for a life of prominence and privilege but of menial labor and subservience.
Brave New World is considered a classic work of literature because of its timely messages. It cautions our capitalistic society from embracing secular scientism and efficiency to the point that we sacrifice the spirit that makes life worth living. It also depicts the areas of life we should be wary of ceding governmental authority to, such as our interpersonal relations and fertility.
A Raisin in the Sun Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by playwright and novelist Lorraine Hansberry examines how racial prejudice prevents the realization of an African-American family’s dreams from reaching fruition. The title is a line from Langston Hughes iconic poem “Harlem” (1951). In it he asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? […] Or does it explode?”
The play, set in the the 1950’s, sets out to answer the hypothetical. It follows the working-class Younger family as they deal with the death of Big Walter, the family’s head, and subsequently what to do with the 10,000 life insurance check they are to inherit.
The family eagerly awaits the arrival of the insurance check, which has the potential to make their long deferred dreams come true. However, the Youngers begin to have conflicting ideas of what to do with the money, resulting in familial tension and an ensuing misuse of the check. The family matriarch Ruth wants to move her family out of the ghetto of South Side Chicago and into a nicer suburban neighborhood. She is influenced by the 50’s ideals of the white picket fence and perfect nuclear family. Her husband Lee, on the other hand, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store.
In the backdrop of the play is the ever-looming reality that even if the family were to agree on a unified vision, and successfully do everything within their possible wheelhouse of power to make their dream materialize, the existing social realities of the time are completely out of their control. These barriers would still deem their dreams an impossibility. Their dreams, no matter what they are, are damned to exist as mere follies, perennially relegated to the darkness of their closed eyes rather than ever seeing the light of day.
It is near impossible to make it through college without reading or at least hearing about these works— some of the most relevant of the Western canon. People have read and written about many of them for decades, centuries, and some for eons! It is understandable why, since they include both timeless and timely messages that merit integration into our lives.
Hopefully these recommendations can help you learn something new, or remember something previously learned.