Education, Literature, Philosophy, Top Stories

Read Your Enemies

With the passing of the idea of the canon into the dustbin of history, the notion of a “required reading” list for all humanity has become seen as something quaint. In our “post-postmodern” condition, even the idea of revising the canon, entering new masterpieces from previously unheard voices, has largely been discarded. Instead, it is better to admit that we are all on different intellectual journeys and that no one is to say what is essential literary consumption for another.

This sentiment is partly understandable—we all have but one life to live, and for even the most voracious readers, the feast is too much to consume. At some point, we know where our interests lie and which authors speak to us, so we forgo even great writers for the sake of the limited time we have on this planet. In the academic or professional sense, the need to put limits on oneself manifests itself in specialization. The age of the polymath is over. Paradoxically, the modern world requires us to know more and more about less and less.

But if the specialization and expertise required by the modern world is a blinder over one eye, concealing from us masterpieces that lie outside our immediate interests, then our desire for purity obscures our vision in the other. If the vintner is a wicked man, then it is believed that wine must be poisoned. One who drinks from the cup of Hume risks being polluted by his racism, Heidegger his anti-Semitism, and so on. So we limit ourselves to those texts and thinkers that have been labeled “safe for consumption” by the literary consensus. If we read these intellectual outlaws at all, it is with the least generous of eyes, as required by our sanctimony.

So our intellectual worlds contract as the world itself seems to expand. Specialization renders our knowledge deep, but narrow. Our desire for moral purity might allow us to remain uncorrupted by the villains of literary history, but it leaves us a little duller, our thought a little more sterile in return. As it is so often the case, however, the parochialism of our intellectual worlds is a self-inflicted condition. Reading widely, beyond the borders of our expertise, outside of the approved texts of our ideology, can be a catalyst for reinvigorating our own thinking, but in ways that we may not expect. For the value of reading widely doesn’t exist merely in the liberal talking point that it is important to “know your opponent’s best argument so that you might put forth your own” or in the belief that a comprehensive, broad-based classical education is good in itself. Rather, reading outside our boundaries can produce epiphanies when we find that an argument, a metaphor, an analogy from an intellectual stranger, or even an enemy, might find new life in our thought.

Intellectual genealogy is not a neatly drawn family tree—the way we imagine Aristotle descending from Plato, and Plato from Socrates—so much as it is a mess of estranged parents and bastard children separated by centuries and spread across a vast literary and scholarly landscape. Descartes’s notion of innate ideas finds its way into Chomskyan linguistics. Kant left his mark on 20th century thinkers as different as Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Popper. Sometimes only a solitary family resemblance—a single argument, framework or notion—is passed from parent to progeny, yet the imprint is vivid enough. Influence seems to appear where one least expects it, yet these echoes from our early modern past would have gone unheard had they been dismissed as outside the scope of one’s interests, too antiquated, or too toxic to touch.

It was the late, great literary critic Harold Bloom who both recognized and experienced first-hand the uncanny nature of influence. In his seminal work, The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom argued that in a move mirroring Freudian Oedipal rebellion against the father, poets abandon their initial admiration for their forebears and instead enter into competition and strife with them. Interestingly enough, we see in Bloom’s work the echoes of a distant father, Freud, from a disparate field, psychology, manifesting himself in the work of the great American critic. Freud’s ideas are passed on, but in metaphor, in an intellectual space distinct from their origin. (Whether Bloom was consciously taking part in a bit of meta-criticism, creatively “misreading” the paternal influence to establish his own legacy, I will leave to the imagination of the reader.)

Bloom’s understanding of influence as a patricidal rivalry should remind us that these metaphorical fathers and mothers sire children very different from themselves. Marx “turns Hegel on his head.” Radical feminists have found inspiration in Nietzsche despite his apparent misogyny. Neoconservatives trace their political inheritance to a small band of Trotskyists. For the rebellious intellectual progeny, the ideas of their ancestors are not mere vestiges of a regrettable familial history to be smashed or discarded. Instead, like captured rifles that find themselves in the hands of rebels and are then fired at the king’s men, they exist to be repurposed, often living a second life in ironic opposition to their original intention.

We are rarely fostered or nurtured by our influences. Nor can we anticipate where we might find them. We often stumble upon them by dumb luck. Sometimes the only way to encounter them is to adventure into uncharted literary territory.


James Walker is an American writer and critic. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesdcwalker

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash


  1. Rather, reading outside our boundaries can produce epiphanies when we find that an argument, a metaphor, an analogy from an intellectual stranger, or even an enemy, might find new life in our thought.

    I think the author is preaching to the choir here in that the general readership of Q is probably quite appreciative of, if not actually well-versed in, the classics. So I’d like to apply his advice in another direction, and not automatically dismiss and deride certain authors and thinkers whom I might consider “problematic”, like Marx or Foucault or others such. There may be occasional pearls in amongst the dung.

    As for the general thesis, there are probably two main reasons academics are dumping the canon. One, in multiculti world, with fewer and fewer people of European descent, it’s considered irrelevant, and two, there is outright fear of its core ideas. The first ignores that whatever our ethnic origins, the history of the western world we share is one, and deserves study and understanding.

    The second actually makes sense in that we are, like it or not, very much involved in a culture war, and the left is in it to win. That’s why they have engaged an entire army in “critically” reading the classics, with an eye to rendering them baseless and toxic. Meanwhile there are few warriors on the other side, and we recently lost one of the best in Roger Scruton. I can’t recommend Fools and Firebrands enough.

    We are old and outnumbered, but underdogs have been known to prevail. Forza!

  2. The interesting thing about Marx is that he wasn’t that far off when it came to diagnosis, but he was completely wrong with the treatment regimen he prescribed. He drastically underestimated the extent to which Capital could be reinvested in new ventures, and our ability to find innovative new ways to reallocate our labour- even if the transition proves too much for many, leading to misery and waste on an individual level all too often- in the long run the change has always resulted in better lives for our children and grandchildren. So where does this leave the working-class?

    Well, for one thing emancipated, hopefully. In many Western countries, there are growing legions of trade professionals who now work for themselves, self-employed. In the UK, this process has been accelerated by the influx of lower cost EU migration into the construction industry- with many Brits deciding to shift into home improvement and repair, and never looking back, with their generally higher wages and better working conditions. But beyond this we need to look at incentives- because if incentives are the grease that keeps capitalism running productively and efficiently, then there should be a better argument that the incentives should apply all the way to the bottom half, rather than being focused almost entirely into the top 10%, and the 1% in particular.

    We’ve all seen the road repair project that gets finished over the course of the weekend, even if many of us are unaware that this type of speedy workmanship is almost always based on the promise of completion bonuses. And if a site suddenly starts paying it’s cleaning staff twice the money, should it really be a concern for management when, upon further investigation, they find that the staff at the site are doing four times as much work as all their other employees, with only half as many complaints. For those that are sceptical, I can assure you that with the right time trials for staff, a good method study and the right team leadership, 400% human productivity is quite attainable. According to the British Standards Institute, a number of years back, even a piece-rate system, in the absence of any other intervention, leads to a 50% increase in productivity across the board when compared to flat rates.

    So why is it that many of the structures built into the West seem to be so resistant to these sorts of ideas? Well, for a start if any worker could go into a high school gym at the weekend, and be evaluated on the basis of physical fitness and manual ratings, and be instantly accredited, then the 10% most sought after staff of this type, would immediately increase in cost by at least 10% to 20%. Most companies believe they do a better job already at recruitment, than their competitors- when, more often than not, nothing could be further from the truth. Second, especially for the middle management tiers whose jobs are mainly man management, with a few administrative and firefighting tasks, these types of revelations are existential threats. Third, there is the legend of the dynamic motivator that most leaders try to model themselves on, and instil in others- when, with the right systems in place, and the right mixture of listening, trust, consistency and reciprocity, almost any reasonably bright fool could do it (if they had the discipline to learn it). And finally, there are the Unions- with fairer, more proportional systems of pay, along with trust and reciprocity between boss and worker- Unions are relegated to little more than a welfare organisation, with the inevitable wrangling over the odd interpersonal conflicts when a particular boss and worker, rub each other up the wrong way.

    But the bigger roadblock to any implementation of human-centred productivity for niche businesses, with a natural advantage of instant adaptability over larger, more automated concerns, is the constant clash of equality versus fairness that is a central theme of the culture war. The irony is that if we fully harnessed the iterative power of the market, making full allowances for the true range of diverse ways that people can be economically valuable, then by making things more fair, we would also make them more equal. Our Western cultures have become stagnant in that our school system evaluates our kids through one unidimensional expression of worth, that of intellectual ability paired with academic performance.

    The answer is not to ignore the fact that people exist over a vast cognitive range, or to try to churn kids out at one similar standard of uniform attainment, but to cast a broader net when attempting to define the ways in which people can be of service and value to others. With a simple lab-style smell test you can identify the 10% or 5% of the population who could become the best chefs, food designers, purchasers and food critics, depending upon the other natural talents and traits they possess. With the right patience, diligence, conscientiousness and ability to listen to instruction, some could become master craftsmen churning out artisanal goods for the world’s growing wealthy class (because in some areas IQ governs how quickly you can learn, not how good you might actually be, eventually). For those with a certain amount of charisma and personal presentation, the ability to listen, empathise and question, lucrative sales jobs await- often for those not particularly bright.

    Some of the European models seem to get it at least to partially right, in streaming kids for vocational education sooner. To my mind it should be sooner, as soon as puberty begins to hit. Because for young men with natural athletic ability, who are naturally more competitive, and possessing the same intellectual range as the rest of the population, de-emphasing sport for the less intellectually gifted ones and branding them as failures, is literally the worst thing you could do to them. Sure, the bright ones will end up in college on sports scholarships, but for the rest, we are confining potential future athletes and Olympians to the school-to-prison pipeline, convinced of their own lack of worth, in a society that could value their unique talents and abilities.

    The correct answer to Marx is not to try to revamp and rework a failed system, but rather to rediscover the power of the market, before it was systematised, industrialised and automated. Because although resources may be finite, and economic growth ultimately limited, the means and methods of expressing our own unique human value possess no such worldly limitations, and is bounded only by limitless imagination.

  3. The author makes good points, but I always saw the main value of reading the classics in that is helped you understand the origins of our thoughts and values. And while many of those origins include slavery, racism, and religious bigotry, one of the glories of the West is that our positive values, built around respect for the individual, have largely overcome them.

    The irony of it all is that those who oppose classical education, and generally oppose Western civilization as a whole, base their critique on concepts unique to Western culture. The very concepts they take for granted originated in Western civilization. They claim to support justice, equality, and fairness, yet their understanding of those words is steeped in the Western tradition. The Chinese, Hindu, Islamic civilizations/cultures can and do define these words very differently.

  4. " Reading widely, beyond the borders of our expertise, outside of the approved texts of our ideology, can be a catalyst for reinvigorating our own thinking, but in ways that we may not expect"

    Granted, however who actually reads even one door-stopper book a year? Those days are gone. And if you do, can you not easily encapsulate its wisdom for somebody in a few sentences at your next dinner party? All books are too long. When in doubt consider Nietzsche:

    “Something for which other men need a page to express, I require only one line”

  5. What was the purpose of this essay? I see none, really.

    Abandoning the canon would be a huge mistake. Like abandoning law.

  6. I do. Current door-stopper in progress is Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

    Not if it’s a worthwhile book and an intelligent dinner companion.

    Can you provide a source for that?

  7. It might be worth considering the extent to which billionaires use their ‘rule of 5’ allocation, to enrich themselves with reading. Perhaps their might be something to exploring ideas in detail, with specific examples, rather than taking the fortune cookie option. I do take your point on Nietzche, but he was very much an anomaly in terms of great thinkers- besides which, the fact that he often expressed his ideas so concisely, might have been the reason why his ideas were so easily misappropriated- that, and an evil bitch of a sister.

  8. Yes, I knew somebody would ask me that.

    No, I can’t. It’s just a memory of someone quoting him so it’s provenance is dubious. Plus it’s gone through at least two linguistic “chinese-whispers” by the time I render it here.

    Always liked it, though.

  9. who actually reads even one door-stopper book a year? Those days are gone.

    Not for everyone. But I take your point that it’s less common. In fact, what I might call cultural aspiration seems less common (e.g. the reading of writers such as Will Durant, Jacques Barzun, etc.). It’s too bad.

    And if you do, can you not easily encapsulate its wisdom for somebody in a few sentences at your next dinner party?

    It depends on the book. Some books have one idea to promote and illustrate. But many don’t. I can’t think of any one idea that exhausts the interest and conversational value of From Dawn to Decadence.

    All books are too long. When in doubt consider Nietzsche:
    “Something for which other men need a page to express, I require only one line”

    Says the man who wrote two dozen books. :slight_smile:

  10. Abandoning the canon would be a huge mistake. Like abandoning law.

    I agree. But it has been abandoned. At this point, the work would be restoration rather than preservation.

  11. I tried reading my enemies. I found this:

    Apparently it’s bad to imply that Bernie Sanders’ praise of an aspect of George Wallace’s activity constitutes a wholesale endorsement of Wallace. This is being told us by a publication that says the Christchurch shooter was a wholesale Trump supporter because he praised an aspect of Donald Trump’s activity. Same with the El Paso shooter. Not to mention a host of similar “Trump and everyone who supports him are bigots because [tangential connection that doesn’t remotely imply endorsement].”

    Thanks for encouraging me to read my enemies. I am now reminded of what disgusting hypocrites they are.

  12. Sorry :innocent: It’s just that my mind is a midden of trivia, I like Nietzsche (he’s an enjoyable read even if - and especially when - he irritates me), and I couldn’t place it. The closest I found was aphorism 51 of Skirmishes of an Untimely Man in Twilight of the Idols,

    The aphorism, the apothegm, in which I am the first among the Germans to be a master, are the forms of “eternity”; it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book–what everyone else does not say in a book.

    The German paragraph is here, on Zeno.

    Der Aphorismus, die Sentenz, in denen ich als der erste unter Deutschen Meister bin, sind die Formen der »Ewigkeit«; mein Ehrgeiz ist, in zehn Sätzen zu sagen, was jeder andre in einem Buche sagt – was jeder andre in einem Buche nicht sagt…

    [Bold in both quotes are mine]

    The notion is similar to yours, the big difference for me being in that your quote he would be claiming he had done it, whereas in this one he was aspiring to do it.

  13. Really depends on the institution. Not all are 100% sjw.

  14. Thanks H,

    Sorry to me? Not at all. I tend to lead with my chin, as you can see. One of the best ice-breakers at a party, I’ve found.

    Appreciate your research into the quote.

  15. Thanks Jack, you’re right, of course.

    I was drawn onto the siren rocks of book reviews well before the internet (I’m 55). They were so wrong they just seemed right. A summary of the book with a built-in objective test of its value by the reviewer. All in 8 minutes. You know how it went. But when I discovered “Arts and Letters Daily” I kind-of took leave of my senses. From that day forward I resolved that no book would darken my door (stopper) step.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle