A few years ago, Jeffrey Brenzel, philosopher and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, provided a lecture about “The Essential Value of a Classical Education.” It runs just under an hour long and it is well worth watching not only for the message, but also for a supreme example of how teachers can connect through online video. The editing, visuals, and Brenzel’s style all combine to make a great lecture.
The video provides much worth absorbing, but the most practical aspect was Brenzel’s method for identifying a “Classic.” Obviously, today we read book reviews that include claims such as “instant classic.” How does a modern-day novel end up in the same category as Plato? Well, according Brenzel’s criteria for Classics, it simply does not.
His marks of a classic include:
- The work addresses a permanent and universal concern about the human condition.
- The work was a game-changer.
- The work influenced other great works.
- Experts from later generations have respected the work.
- The work is challenging to read, yet rewarding.
So while one could argue that the Harry Potter series has met marks 1, 2, and arguably 5, it still has some years to go before meeting marks 3 and 4. However, the works of Plato meet all five marks, as we still quote him today. Another great aspect of the criteria is it helps narrow down the seemingly massive list of Classics.
Most fascinating are Benzel’s values of reading the Classics, which include encountering forgotten ideas and interacting with strangeness, as you read the works of people from a different period, culture, and value set. Benzel emphasizes that Classics force us to question the normal.
Where to find Benzel’s Classics Online
The beauty of Classics is most of them are available online free, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to access these remarkable works.
Here are the ones Benzel mentioned.
- Oedipus Rex (429 BC) by Sophocles
- The Republic (c. 380 BC) by Plato
- The Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 BC) by Aristotle
- The City of God (c. 450) by St. Augustine of Hippo
- Summa Theologica (c. 1250) by St. Thomas Aquinas
- The Divine Comedy (c. 1321) by Dante Alighieri
- Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes
- The Ninety-Five Theses (1517) by Martin Luther
- Anything by Shakespeare (1564-1616)
- Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
- An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by Thomas Malthus
- Anything by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
- War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy
- Anything by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
What Classics have you read? What Classics do you think should also be in this list?
By Scott Manning
Online Learning Tips, Student Contributor
Scott Manning is currently an undergraduate at American Military University working on a degree in military history. He subscribes to the statement by Malcolm X that says, “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory man is demoted to the lower animals.” Everything that occurred in this world has accumulated to produce our present day. Scott writes about his passion for history and military history on his blog, Historian on the Warpath.