Why Do We Read The Classics?


Why do we read the classics? Why do scholars specialising in political theory continue to write about the classics or the great thinkers of the past? And, why is there so much fuss about understanding and interpreting these great texts in the right context? These questions and similar ones have been a topic of rigorous discussion since many past decades. These have been oft-repeated yet unsettling questions to which one can hardly provide satisfactory answers. Reappraisal interpretation of political theory is one of the ways to answer these questions.

Classics and Their Importance

Mural painting.

The “classics” comprise political and literary traditions, which we renew and enrich by reading, analysing and criticising textually and contextually. The classic texts provide knowledge for understanding the most fundamental questions regarding the origin and nature of man, state and society. These classic texts in moral, political, religious and other such modes of thought contain a dateless/timeless wisdom in the form of universal ideas.

As a result, we can hope to learn and benefit directly from investigating these timeless elements since they possess a perennial relevance. This in turn suggests that the best way to approach these classics should be to concentrate on what each of them says about each of the fundamental concepts and abiding questions of morality, politics, religion and social life. It is indeed essential to approach these texts focussing on their arguments and examining or interpreting what they have to tell us about the perennial issues.

Necessity of Interpretation

The questions of interpretation constitute what Terence Ball calls “deadly hermeneutics”– deadly in as much as people’s lives, liberties and happiness hang in the balance. The feature of this long history is the periodic and recurring call to get back to basics– to the text, the author, the author’s intentions or whatever- and eschew interpretation together.

Whether one likes or dislikes, interpretation is a necessity. Or, inevitable! The decision to interpret or not to interpret is not an option open to human beings but a requirement that comes with the fact of being human. For our language-using and meaning-seeking species, interpretation is inescapable. Gadamer has pointed out that the art and practice of interpretation is a matter not of method but of ontological necessity. He says that the world we inhabit and the text we read are always already interpreted and invested with meaning. By interpreting and understanding the classic texts, we come to appreciate our own humanity. The art of interpretation is thus an essential part of the art of living the life of a human being. This art is not a luxury but a necessity. We cannot dispense with interpretation or get by without it.

For instance, the artefacts or texts produced in political cultures preceding and differing from our own do not readily reveal their meanings even to the most careful reader. In such a situation, to read a text over and over is necessary but it is not sufficient. Simply by reading a text again and again, we cannot adequately understand what the great thinkers said about or what they meant by certain terms. Here, we need to interpret their meanings. There cannot be understanding without interpretation and interpretation without understanding.

All interpretation implies appraisal and all reinterpretation implies reappraisal. Reappraisal is not merely about the text and the author in question, but also the adequacy or inadequacy of other interpretations that seek to satisfy a similar interest, because all interpretations are interest-laden.

Methods of Interpretation

There are many different ways of interpreting and understanding a text. Some important one are discussed below:

The question of authorial intent: The history of political thought is the story of the consequences of authorial actions. The ideas of writers were put to use by actors such as kings or revolutionaries whose interpretation of the meaning of a term may not and need not accord with the author’s own intentions. In this regard, one must first be able to show what the author did intend to a certain consequence and then one must note that the consequence differs from the end that the author intended to bring about.

The historical study of political theory: In trying to understand any episode in the history of political thought, one should go for historical facts. The historical study of political theory is a problem-solving activity. It takes other interpretations as alternative solutions to some problem, and then goes on to assess their adequacy vis-a-vis each other and in relation to one’s own proposed solution.

Political theory takes its own past to be an essential part of its present. Its past includes a history not only of theorising of great books, but of commentary on and interpretation of those thinkers and texts. It is through the latter the former are reconsidered, criticised and reevaluated, in short, reappraised.

Competing interpretation of texts: Competing interpretation of texts is also essential to the enterprise of political theory. We approach a text, in part by way of other readings or interpretations of it, against which we counterpose our own or someone else’s alternative reading. Out of these competing readings comes a new and better interpretation.

Imre Lakatos’ methodology: Lakatos‘ three-cornered fight is characteristic of all interpretive enquiry and has indeed served as an implicit standard among political theorists. But such three-cornered fights are fought not only by political theorists qua activists, but by academic political theorists as well. The three-cornered fight of Lakatos adheres to: a) the fight must be fair and be conducted according to the academic equivalent of the Marquess of Queensberry rules; b) One may not deliberately misquote or misleadingly paraphrase an author; and c) one must not conceal or suppress counter-evidence that might weigh against one’s interpretation and so on. However, these rules for fighting fair do not necessarily apply to political actors themselves. The hermeneutical battles waged by innovating ideologies are often far from fair and are typically conducted by almost any means available.

Ways of Interpretation by Different Schools of Thought

Different schools of thought interpret and reappraise political theory and political ideas differently. Marxists interpret all political theories- past and present- as ideological masks concealing and justifying the domination of one class by another.

Realists view political ideas and theories as playing a causal role in reproducing and legitimising the structures comprising the social world.

Post-structuralists are accustomed to deconstruct works by authors in order to show how his search for foundations was actually an arbitrary construct which, multiculturalist critics contend, contributed to oppression of one or another sort.

Straussians, by contrast, claim that a canon of works by Plato and a handful of other authors contains the whole truth about politics, a truth which is eternal, unchanging and accessible only to the fortunate few.

The new historians, on the other hand, tend to view texts in political theory as forms of political action, grasping the point on meaning which requires that one recovers the intentions of the author and the linguistic resources and conventions available to him or her.

Such sketches do not do justice to the oft-times rich and suggestive insights offered by proponents of these schools of thought. However, they may at least suggest something of the diversity of views and vantage-points from which we reinterpret the meaning and reappraise the value of a rich and varied heritage.

Towards Conclusion

Even though the reappraisal interpretation of political theory is considered essential, it is not free from limitations. Many political scientists complain that the worship of long-dead thinkers is impeding the the development of genuinely scientific theories of political behaviour. Some advocates of analytical political philosophy also see a sustained and systematic interest in the history of political thought as an antiquarian distraction and an obstacle to our thinking for ourselves in more modern ways about the pressing concerns of our own time. They tend to favour not the historical study and the interpretation of old texts, but the application of economic, rational-choice and game theoretic models and theories with regard to questions of freedom, justice, political participation and other concerns.

On the other hand, some proponents of multiculturalism say that we should not be in the influence of old books by “dead white men”, since these canonical texts tend to preserve and legitimate the power of “living white men”, and to marginalise the views of women, blacks, transgenders and other minorities. Thus, the focus of political theorists or the actors should be on present, not on the past.

Now, do we have an answer to the question: why do we read the classics?

Well, a particular way of reading Thucydides or Machiavelli, or interpreting their ideas, could conceivably illuminate the darker corners of our present condition. We need to reinterpret and reappraise the classics so that we could hold a light on the darkest side of our contemporary world.


NOTE: This article was written as my undergraduate paper titled, Reappraisal Interpretation of Political Theory and Its Different Methods (Department of Political Science, Ramjas College, University of Delhi, 2008).


Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

Surjit Kaur Jolly, Reading Gandhi (Concept Publishing Co., 2006).

Terence Ball, Reappraising Political Theory (OUP, 1994).

When you click on the above links of the books, you will be redirected to Amazon.in. When you buy the books from Amazon.in this way, I get a small commission. I hope I deserve at least that kind gesture for writing this awesome article by investing a lot of time here! Anyway, happy reading 🙂

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s