Philosophy as classic liberal education

Phil asked:

I intend to give myself a systematic classic liberal education for the next 5-10 years. I realize one could spend a lifetime with one philosopher such as Nietzsche, Aristotle, Plato, and many others. Having said that, I want to read the texts of about 25 or so of the greatest political and moral philosophers and determine for myself what they say. I have read many of them for school or pleasure already along with a lot of criticism but I want to start fresh.

My questions on how to proceed are manifold. I am equally interested in theology, and understand Aquinas and Augustine as well as others in the Christian tradition wrote on politics and morals so should I include them in my study? Or should I do a separate study on Christian philosophy? Should I narrow my focus to something specific like ‘what is the best form of government?’ or ‘what kind of person should governor’ ‘or ‘how should children be educated?’ I really am most interested in political philosophy and how it can be used for today’s problems.

The next question is, after reading Plato and analyzing it myself should I start on criticism of him to compare with my analysis or proceed to the next philosopher, who would most likely be Aristotle? Should I include novels and fiction like The Iliad, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, etc? And if I do, should I read them during the period of philosophy in which they were written or just as supplemental not in any particular order? Another idea I am considering is to just start with Homer, work through some histories and then begin Plato and see where that leads? There is just an overwhelming amount of work in the Western Tradition and I need guidance on where to begin and how to proceed.

Answer by Julian Plumley

The first thing is that philosophy isn’t really something you study, it is something you do. Treating it as ‘getting an education,’ especially treating it like learning history, is not a good idea. You risk getting part way into your programme and getting stuck and demotivated. You mention political philosophy. What about this is most interesting to you? What questions do you have, which authors have you always wanted to study? You can read some introductory articles on the subject, for example at the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia site: But what are you going to do with what you learn? Write a blog, write an essay, maybe contribute to Ask a Philosopher? Without knowing that, it is very hard to keep this effort up.

The second thing is that philosophy is by far the most confusing subject to study. The scope is enormous; there are no signposts. But it is critical for you to get ‘lost’ in philosophy, in order to really learn anything. It is emphatically not a subject where you can proceed from one classic book to another and eat it all up. Just learning what each philosopher said about such-and-such isn’t much use, because it will not be actionable for you. You should keep reading modern criticisms of classical works and up-to-date papers to better understand what you are looking at, and especially to see what questions they ask of the source materials. Follow your nose, browse and dip into things to see if they are useful for you. For sure, quite a lot of what you read will not make sense at first, but it may do later. And you will find your own voice.

My specific advice is that you study for a qualification — one that has exams that test you. (I did the London philosophy BA, International program — but your choice should be guided by your interests.) This is not so much because you will end up with a certificate. There are two more important things that that. Firstly, the curriculum and the reading list will have hopefully been chosen by someone with wide experience of the subject. And secondly, because exams force you to put things together in your mind in a coherent way. They force you to stop being lost and find your own path through the material. Certainly, from my own experience, I don’t think I would have learned much without the discipline of essay-writing and exams.

Lastly, I question the premise of starting with classic texts, such as Plato, in order to understand today’s problems. Yes, they are relevant, but not always in an obvious way. Why not start with modern authors, and recent academic work? For sure, you will find that they refer back to Plato and all the rest. But then you will have some thread to follow when you read them yourself. This is not to say that gaining a broad knowledge of philosophy is not useful, it is. But philosophy is guided firstly by the questions we have now. Good luck!


One thought on “Philosophy as classic liberal education

  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. It’s helping me refine my plan even more since I sent the question in. Since then I have been reading a lot of interpretive and critical works of philosophy which has helped me also refine my studies and narrow my focus. Leo Strauss talks about Heidegger’s distinction between a philosopher and a philosopher of history or in other words, a thinker and a scholar. Strauss considered himself a scholar rather than a philosopher even though most consider him a philosopher. The scholar is dependent on the ideas and work of the thinkers and the disagreements between them is what scholars use to try and work out who is right. Summing up, he said scholars “are occupied with reasoning about the little we understand about what the great thinkers have said.” So, based on this and what you say in your first paragraph, I may actually be looking to study as a scholar. Perhaps my scholarly work will lead to philosophy as it did with Hume, when he set aside some years to study and write. I am going to continue for a bit sticking my head in books that interest me and hopefully the questions I want to answer will come from that. I guess one of my biggest questions at this point is regarding the difference in the natures of people in both major political parties in the United States. I have read a ton about it but nothing seems satisfactory. I think I have exhausted modern resources which is why I am turning to the ancients, to see what they said about government and politics. I also want to know, not just have an opinion on, which one is right on the main issues which divide them. Also, what led up to these differences. That would be more of a philosophy of history project. I have much more refining work ahead but you have helped me greatly. Perhaps someone out there having read this has some more useful suggestions or resources I could follow. Thanks in advance.

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