Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers Series by Cicero, Seneca, et al. (Princeton University Press)

Back in the 1940s, C. S. Lewis remarked on a trend that he saw gaining steam even among some of his better pupils at Oxford: a belief that books penned by the greatest minds of the previous two or three millennia could be grasped only by credentialed professionals. This instinct steered them away from the satisfactions of primary literature and into the swamps of secondary works expounding upon the original sources. “I have found as a tutor in English Literature,” Lewis wrote, “that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.” Lewis was not denigrating commentaries; he wrote some formidable ones himself. He was merely making the point that most great writers of the distant past wrote to be read and apprehended by curious minds, not merely to provide fodder for exams and dissertations.

Princeton University Press has recently made the task of heeding Lewis’s admonition to return ad fontes a good deal easier with its Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series of compact, handsomely bound, pocket-sized translations of a handful of the major works of Greek and Roman authors—works that, as each brief introduction testifies, remain applicable to the lives of thoughtful readers. And they all come with a refreshingly sparse amount of explanatory material interposing itself between authors and readers. These are not school editions; they’re to be read on airplanes and by the fireside with a stiff drink. And they can change lives. Like a truly liberal education of the kind they enrich, these books are eminently useful.

The author choices are sensibly predictable: Cicero, Thucydides, Seneca, and Epictetus, three of whom were active men of affairs as well as deeply reflective thinkers who wrestled with eternal questions, and even dared to answer a few. Those who read these small books thoughtfully will be making a second draft on their education. If your liberal arts curriculum didn’t pass along much of the wisdom encased in these books in return for your tuition dollars, you were cheated. By now, sadly, that includes most of us.

A work some of us had to translate in school, Cicero’s Laelius de Amacitia, is rendered as How to Be a Friend and astutely translated by Phillip Freeman of Pepperdine University. Within this dialogue (mostly a monologue), Cicero presents a classically enlightened take on human friendship, a topic which many might say doesn’t need exegesis. Yet as we follow Cicero on the subject, we see just how little we’ve thought about a matter central to our contentment. This is a highly personal work, speaking of private affections and devotions that touch on the ineffable, on those things pressingly felt but customarily left unexpressed. These insights could have been conveyed over a tumbler of bourbon yesterday—though, admittedly, only by someone a good deal smarter than most people we know.

Cicero defines the “very essence of friendship” as marked by “a common set of beliefs, aspirations, and opinions,” after which he exfoliates one sharp perception after another on what its implications may be for a better life. By the end of the work, the idea of friendship has been ennobled far beyond the pedestrian notion promulgated by Facebook. We learn that friendship is, in the end, an art form.

Can a “perfect friend” be described? Perhaps not, but leave it to a classical mind to try. One likely effect of reading Cicero on friendship is that you might come to realize, on reflection, just how few friends you really have—but you’ll treasure them more.

We can gain a similar appreciation for the quiddities of life by reading How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life, a translation of Cicero’s de Senectute, and another title from the same author, How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders—this from a man who ended up on the sharp point of Julius Caesar’s ambition. We might top that off with How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, a potent compilation of passages from another Roman philosopher, Seneca. Cicero’s How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion would serve well in the maelstrom of our current political environment, should anybody have the patience and humility to abide by its tenets. Most titles in the series (so far) come from Roman authors, with some Greek ones as well, including the early Stoic philosopher Epictetus’s How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, and Thucydides’s How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, in which we find shrewd observations on current events (in this case, the Peloponnesian War) matched with a taste for strategic prudence in dealing with adversaries. These insights illuminate some of the history that Santayana supposed we’re prone to repeat through ignorance.

Though ancillary materials are kept to a minimum, these small books carry a surprising heft for the average reader. Either relegated to the back or placed on facing pages to the translations (Loeb-style), Princeton Press has slipped in the Greek and Latin texts, though—presumably—only a small cohort of readers will be able to parse them. Still, the presence of the original texts serves as a kind of ballast: those who know the languages can check the renderings, and those many who don’t can reflect on how far these axiomatic perceptions have travelled to enter our modern, distracted heads.

“Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not.” That could have been Proverbs, but it’s Epictetus, a declaration he follows up with a spate of uncomfortable truths, but with the edifying purpose of showing us the way to inner freedom. Together, these volumes remind us of the classical distinction that should always be made between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge begins with what is made of information and fructifies after long effort. Wisdom transcends knowledge and is never new. It is a firm grasp of the Good and True that does not consult our druthers—or, as I often tell my students, wisdom is that which is true whether we wish it to be or not. There’s knowledge to be gleaned from the books in this series, but mostly there’s wisdom—from the lack of which we languish.

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