Review of Rescuing Socrates by Roosevelt Montás
In his deeply personal and passionate book, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed my Life and Why they Matter for a New Generation, Roosevelt Montás details his personal and professional relationship with the so-called great works of the Western canon. Covering four quite different figures across four core chapters, Montás blends literary exposition with personal biography and elements of polemic to create a compelling yet not uncritical case for reading and discussing major thinkers as part of a revitalised liberal arts education.
Montás arrived in New York just before his twelfth birthday. Born in the Dominican Republic, he spoke little-to-no English when he first arrived and harboured few expectations of success. Yet, as he describes in this text, through repeated exposures to the great works of Western thought, he was able to find connection, grow his innate sense of curiosity, and flourish in an elite scholarly environment that would once have felt otherworldly in its distance. As he describes:
Many of the conversations we had in the classroom about the books and ideas that were rushing upon us went over my head, but like a recurring tide that leaves behind a thin layer of sediment each time it comes, eventually forming recognizable structures, the intensive reading and twice-weekly discussions were coalescing into an altogether new sense of who I was and the possibilities of my life.
Once settled into this rarefied space, Montás saw how other students from diverse cultural and financial backgrounds also flourished and grew in conversation with these great texts encountered within the Core Curriculum (a “relic” of a course whose set texts comprise the backbone of the liberal arts requirement at Columbia University). Far from operating as a roadblock to more “relevant” material, exposure to these works, Montás argues, often provides the spark that ignites the flame of lifelong learning. More than that, time spent with these texts establishes critical thinking skills that are the very foundation of a functioning democracy.
Over many years serving as a lecturer and chief administrator of the Core Curriculum at Columbia, Montás experienced an array of texts that had a profound influence on his own life and the lives of his students, including works by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Woolf, Sappho, Ovid, and Milton. The four thinkers Montás chooses to focus on for the core chapters of his book, however, are Saint Augustine, Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Mahatma Gandhi. Figures whom he perceives as having “experienced an inner transformation that made them into the figures we know today.”:
In each case, the motive force was the relentless pursuit of self-understanding – the very kind of understanding that liberal education makes its ultimate goal.
Montás’ book offers a wonderfully personal and accessible introduction to the works of these four thinkers and their different approaches to inner transformation. For Augustine, as for Montás, this transformation was heralded by books and reading. Montás’ portrait of Augustine is of an entirely human figure: flawed, funny, and intensely preoccupied by his search for an honest understanding of the self. The title figure, Socrates, whose story (through Plato) Montás has personally witnessed inspiring young people from low-income backgrounds to question and challenge received wisdom and structures of power, is similarly positioned as a relatable personage: a man of dignity and integrity who stood by his values to the end. Montás is keen to highlight Socrates’ democratic credentials and to position him as something of a figurehead for the imperative of access to education and the world of ideas, particularly for disenfranchised groups. Discussion of Freud centres both around therapy as a path to self-knowledge, and, more predominantly, around the idea of the self as something complex, slippery, and hidden. While acknowledging the limitations of Freud’s clinical work, Montás finds value in Freud as the thinker who popularised the idea that selfhood is more than simple consciousness, and discusses the many ways Freud’s writings can deepen interactions with art, literature, and culture. Finally, in Ghandi, Montás finds a critic of Western civilization whose life and writings showcase a different way of living based on self-knowledge gained through meditation. A bastion of truth and non-violence, Montás views Ghandi as an antidote to the materialist and capitalist forces of the contemporary West, and of the modern university whose focus on the student-as-consumer model is jeopardising the kind of self-realisation and growth Montás perceives as being at the heart of the Core Curriculum and the liberal arts more widely.
Rescuing Socrates is a fascinating and illuminating read that foregrounds the value of the liberal arts, in particular for students from low-income and other disenfranchised backgrounds. Montás exposes the lie that the great works are unsuitable for or irrelevant to people from such backgrounds, and in fact demonstrates the exact opposite: exposure to these texts is most essential for the most disenfranchised. Montás rails against the slow return to a society where the knowledge and fulfillment gained through the liberal arts is reserved for a social elite and states his case with conviction and authenticity.
Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed my Life and Why they Matter for a New Generation by Roosevelt Montás. Princeton University Press. 2021. 232 pp.