A vigorous argument in favor of reading and discussing the canon in order to better our minds and souls.

A Dominican-born academic defends the humanities in a time of retreat.

A senior lecturer at the Center for American Studies at Columbia, Montás writes of coming to the U.S. as a teenager with only a limited command of English and, by dint of hard work and exhaustive reading, attaining the kind of liberal arts education that harkens to ancient Athens. The word liberal is enough to set some critics off, while the liberal arts are often conceived in modern universities as a block of requirements that diverge from the student’s primary major instead of being foundational. Columbia is unusual among universities in offering a “core” that involves reading the Western canon (it has lately added a parallel core for works of world literature other than the West’s). Montás reviews several texts that are especially central, for various reasons, beginning with Saint Augustine’s Confessions as a text that recounts the acquisition of values and beliefs through the act of reading itself. Despite that Western/non-Western division, the author also includes Gandhi’s Autobiography for much the same reasons. Montás is enthusiastic about Plato and Socrates, less so about Aristotle: “Reading Aristotle can feel like chewing on cardboard. Don’t expect enchantment.” The author also recounts teaching underprivileged students and watching them “undergo a kind of inner awakening,” taking the words of Socrates “seriously and personally.” In the end, writes Montás, the core and its texts are meant to guide readers into thinking about what has been translated as virtue but that really means excellence . What does excellence constitute, and how do we attain it? Montás delivers a spirited defense that may seem old-fashioned in the current milieu of deconstruction and arid theory of the academy but that he insists can deliver a means of combatting social inequality by grounding students in a common intellectual tradition.

A vigorous argument in favor of reading and discussing the canon in order to better our minds and souls.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-691-20039-2

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2021



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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