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24 April 2017
Evening Sedition

If Writers Weren’t Paid by the Word

Still from "The Incredible Shrinking Man", 1957

Still from The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957

Glyn Hughes has done the world a service by squashing books; that is, distilling the essense from the major works in philosophy to make them far more accessible and easier to read. (No, we're not adopting that philosophy for Citizen Arcane. So sorry. Actually, so not sorry.)

The author explains the project's laudable purpose:

Unfortunately, life is rather short, the little storeroom of the brain doesn't have extensible walls and the greatest of thinkers seem to also be among the worst, and the lengthiest, of writers. So, most knowledge of Plato or Hume or Aristotle tends to come second-hand, unfortunately too often through masters more filled with pompous pleasure in their own mastery of complexity than with knowledge of their subject. Which is a pity, because your Prince, whether they call themselves President or King or Prime Minister, has almost certainly read Machiavelli. Your therapist is steeped in Freud, your divines in Augustine. Lawmakers take their cues still from Paine, Rousseau and Hobbes. Science looks yet to Bacon, Copernicus and Darwin.

So, here are the most used, most quoted, the most given, sources of the West. The books that have defined the way the West thinks now, in their author's own words, but condensed and abridged into something readable.

I'd like to say that the selection was far from arbitrary; that thousands of papers and essays and articles were scanned to find which great works were most commonly cited, which prescribed to students, which have the most published editions. The shades of these authors were invoked no less than 588 times in the last decade in the British parliament. Plato's Republic, and assorted commentaries, has 1722 editions, and that's just in English, and just in print at the moment. Machiavelli gets mention in just over a quarter of a million websites. Thomas Paine's name has appeared 186,526 times to the US House of Representatives. And so on. It is true that all this research has been done, but, the choice has, ultimately, to be a personal one.

...

And there's something more. By compressing these books to a tenth or so of their original size it becomes possible to read the whole thing as a single narrative, as the story of Western Thought, the story of how we got where we are now, the last chapter still waiting to be written. Is it cheating? Perhaps, but if it is, then so is reading Plato in anything other than unical Attic on papyrus.

Glyn Hughes Squashed Philosophers

As I leafed read through the squashed Tractatus Logico Philosophicus — I adore Wittgenstein, which probably comes as no surprise to you, dear reader — I again encountered one of my favorite quotes: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Ahhh, yes, how true, how true. (I, of course, never paid attention to it.) I closed my Master's thesis with this very quote. Again, no surprise to those who know me. But I wouldn't want to slight another observation of Wittgenstein:

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Proposition 6.522

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