From the Substack post on November 28, 2021, by Cimmerian Pervert.
Several days ago, I posted a thread to my Twitter account highlighting my success in community building over the past year using classic literature as a vehicle to inculcate virtue and develop quality in men in my social circle. You can read this thread here:
Link: tweet by @cimmerian_v
We started as a book discussion group, but now everyone trains together periodically in the gym and on the range. It’s basically a safety squad at this point.
I wrote these posts very quickly and had many comments and questions, which I want to capture and elucidate on this theme here as an easier to read guide. Thanks to all who have reached out in the replies and direct messages. I wish everyone who wants to establish such a group in their community good luck, and hopefully this guide will help you on your way – it was, and continues to be, a rewarding experience for everyone involved, but there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. Real change and only occur through real action in the world. We need to start somewhere.
Discernment is the most critical element in this type of project. The men you select will make or break it. This is an endeavor that requires dedicated people. From my experience, these types of groups fail all of the time for lack of dedication. My aim here is to cull out those who would not put in the work. Think about whom you interact with in your life that might want to be engaged in the society that you want to build. Friends, acquaintances, people in your neighborhood, and people you have lifted with at the gym or sparred with at a martial arts facility. A key indicator of a likely candidate would be someone that is already involved in some sort of self-improvement or otherwise edifying activity. Make a list of these people.
Take this list and take a brief look at their social media. Look at what they post. Are they serious people? It is all political posting, sportsball, and soy garbage? Cross them off. They are not going to make it. I am no one’s daddy in this case; I am not here to fix anyone. I am seeking to develop into a group of men I can count on in the future. At this point I don’t particular care about where someone lies politically. The truth comes crashing down like a hammer, and when exposed to it, from my experience, one will be forged as if on a blacksmith’s anvil.
Plan on selecting enough people to have a lively discussion even in the event of an absence of one or two people. Life happens, and you need to be able to have some grace in these circumstances. Too large, however, and discussions can become quite difficult to manage. Minimum I would say is five people. Start somewhere. That is the key. As Virgil says, fortune favors the bold (Aeneid X, 284), and you can always grow it later.
I cannot stress this enough: Every aspect of this must grant an air of magnificence to the group. This is the tide that will lift all ships. By executing in this manner, your candidates will rise to the occasion and take it seriously. I believe this is the linchpin to my success. This includes everything down to the invitation. You will have to write a letter. You will have to put your thoughts and goals down on paper, whatever they may be, as to why you are doing this and why it is important. When was the last time you put your thoughts down on paper? When was the last time you wrote a letter to someone? When is the last time you received a personal letter? At this point you will need to get addresses. Don’t overcomplicate – just reach out on social media beforehand. You can even tip them off on what you are trying to do and that you want to send them an invitation. You can be as discreet or as blunt as you want. In my case, I was pretty clear about what my intentions were and that something was coming in the mail.
You can write your own letter or steal mine: addendum with letter at bottom of text.
Print your letter on the nicest paper with matching envelopes that you can find. I went and purchased some heavy linen paper that people used to print resumes on. I hand wrote the addresses with the best handwriting I could muster. Sign your letter by hand.
You are fighting against reality here – people are busy. Ideally, we would read 100% of the best of the Greeks and Romans before moving on to other works in more recent history. This is not possible. To increase chance of a successful program, my reading program was pared down to one book per month. Even the densest volume could be handled in under 20 minutes per day. Thus the reading program had to hit what I believed to be the most critical works possible, that also enable the members to be able to go off on their own and pursue other related material. I am working off of a number of “classical education” reading lists from Bloom, Adler, etc. There are plenty of them out there and I am also supplementing with more obscure works from my own research or recommendations from our side of Twitter. Works that are written from first-hand experience are prioritized in my planning. As I stated before, everything must be oriented towards magnificence. I am trying to convey very specific values through reading the classics, by way of reading of reading “the best books in the history of the world in chronological order.” Sounds magnificent, right?
Here is the list of what we have read so far as an example:
Iliad, Odyssey – Homer
The Greek Tragedies – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides
The Last Days of Socrates (Apology, Crito, Phaedo) – Plato
Expedition of Cyrus - Xenophon
History of Rome – Livy
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
On Duties – Cicero
Aeneid – Virgil
From the Meadows of Gold – al-Masudi
Selections from The One Thousand and One Nights
The Song of Roland – Anonymous
Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
Coriolanus – Shakespeare
Handbook of a Christian Knight – Erasmus
Divine Comedy – Dante
It is important to note that what we read is not particularly open to discussion. This is a curated experience as a focus for building relationships. It’s a common failure mode in “reading groups” to have discord over what to read next, therefore is best to eliminate it entirely. I am open to modifying future plans based on discussion or interests that come up naturally during the meetings, or recommendations from members of topics/events. I take this feedback, do some research, and select the best option for the values that I am trying to develop. It’s not a democracy – leadership is needed.
At the first meeting, allow plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other. My recommendation is to allow this to happen organically. In my case, I was bringing people together that I have been acquainted with at least once, but are not familiar with any of the others. Avoid “go around the room and introduce yourself” methods, or anything else that seems forced. Essentially, the first meeting is more of a social hour. You want people to be reasonably comfortable with each other in order to facilitate honest discussion. After some time has passed, get down to business.
You will be expected to be a leader of the group, so act like it. You will need to keep conversation on track and centered on the ideas and text. Discussions that degenerate into political talk and arguing about modern policy points will doom your efforts to failure. My recommendation is to lay down the expectation in the first meeting that no political leader who is still alive is to be mentioned. Anyone dead is fair game. Politics is everywhere, having a space devoid of it is sacred.
You do not have to be an expert on any of the texts you read. You should expect to be a facilitator of discussion to prevent any lull in conversation. As you read each work, keep in mind some questions you would propose to the group regarding subject matter, themes, or historical context of each work. It is often helpful to bring excerpts from related works into the discussion to expose your group to authors like Thucydides, Herodotus, or the famous British poets to supplement the reading. Your aim is to keep the conversation moving, as ideas flow, so relationships grow.
As the leader, you should also come prepared to give a little bit of context to each work. All men of correct principles skip prefaces as a matter of course. Skip the introduction, who cares what some intellectual has to say anyway? You also may find it worthwhile to give a reminder on how to read each work, if necessary. For example, for epic poetry, only break at natural punctuation marks, not at the end of the lines. This is advice that can give a more pleasurable reading experience. Speaking of pleasurable reading experiences, avoid quagmires of works, like Plato’s Republic or Aristotle, and even Thucydides – works that are laborious to read. While they are important, you are likely introducing to people unfamiliar with this style of literature and can lead to burnout. If you feel the need to discuss them, bring them in as longer passages to read aloud to support discussion as mentioned before. If people are interested, they will have had enough background to read them on their own.
I believe it is best to lower the energy barrier for execution of this group, therefore I decided to pick up the tab on the books. You can get pretty creative in sourcing gently used copies for only a couple of bucks each.
My meetings are two hours, 7-9pm, with a hard stop once per month. This allows everyone to commit to the group with well-defined expectations that they can be home at a certain hour. This is important for men with families committing to the group. The clearer the expectations laid out, the greater the chance of success. Life happens, if someone can’t attend a meeting, we’ll catch him next time. This is not a short-term plan, it is designed to last for years and to cultivate relationships with people you can rely on – people that will show up when you call if you were in need of aid. Therefore, grace is required for people’s busy lives.
The first 30 minutes of the meeting is where the magic happens. This time is used for “catching up” and I like to keep the conversation focused on positive things such as victories in each man’s life and discussion around those events. This also allows everyone to get comfortable before tacking the book of the month.
The next hour and 15 minutes is dedicated to a “Socratic”-style discussion of the text of the month. As I’ve stated before, it is incumbent upon you, as the leader, to keep the conversation focused.
The final 15 minutes I distribute the next month’s book. I do not wish to contaminate anyone’s impression of the work, but if needed I provide some historical context, for example, what was happening during the events depicted of Song of Roland as well as when it was written.
It’s worth repeating, everything related to this group must be elevated. You are curating someone’s likely first foray into the classical literature. It is a daunting task, so the atmosphere must encourage the desire to show up having done the work. You need an atmosphere of excellence. I cannot stress this enough. This includes everything right on down to the napkins.
The space in which you meet is crucial. Outside is ideal, the ancients would approve of this. However, if there is excessive noise it can be distracting and intrude on conversation. The same rules apply if we meet inside during the winter months. A quiet space is required.
A good host always serves food, but it should not take away from the task at hand. I selected 7 PM as a meeting time since most people have already eaten by this time and I can get away with some snacks. Charcuterie is perfect as it’s not a distraction, has an air of “fancy” when displayed correctly, and can be done well without breaking the bank.
Drinks are important. It’s not a drinking party but a little alcohol goes a long way in getting the words to come out. I serve two bottles for every three people of various types so everyone has something they like. I use my best glassware for serving the wine. It doesn’t matter what you serve as long as it looks nice and enjoyable to all.
I do not ask for any compensation from the members of the group and do not mind paying for everything. I believe it would cheapen the atmosphere by asking for money. This is not a place for that, and a little sacrifice on my part goes a long way. Over time, the people in the group will notice this and start bringing nice things for everyone to enjoy and that relieves some of my obligation.
In summary, I want to highlight a few key points that I believe are the most important to make your efforts a success:
This has been an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved. I can barely describe the benefits gained from such a labor described here. Knowledge is gained, virtue cultivated, and fellowship is received. It is a guaranteed two hours where men can talk about things other than work, sportsball, or politics. I encourage you all to take the steps required to build your own societies in your area. Relationships and action in the physical world, not in a Twitter bubble, are what will make our world a better place.
I am writing to you to invite you to a “Great Books” reading group. We will be reading, in chronological order, some of the most influential stories and documents in human history at a pace of one book per month (about 15 minutes per day) These will cover epics and literature, poetry, theater, and philosophy. We will then discuss these works together over libations once per month (approximately two hours) in a text-centric conversation, where there are no wrong opinions (you can say anything but you must be able to defend it) or experience necessary. This can be challenging, and it is perfectly acceptable to just be silent and listen – for sometimes that is exactly what we need to do. It is in face-to-face discussion that we truly understand what we have read, change or challenge our worldviews – these are the “liberal arts” – rhetoric, grammar, and logic – skills essential to maintaining a free society. This invitation comes to you because I think you will gain something from this journey. After all, Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living, for a man.”
We live in a time where we are bombarded by words and information – most of which will probably age like milk, in the best case. In the worst case, they may be deliberately designed to outrage us in order to drive engagement for advertising revenue, or, Heaven forbid, selectively delivered to us via algorithm (or some other mediator). If this is true, we need to control what we consume. In addition, polarization of society has led us completely unable to agree on fundamental topics – is this because we no longer know what the fundamentals are? Our house, our nation, is broken. We are unable to repair our broken house with broken tools. These tools that we were given, our education, were purely intellectual adventures, or worse – read some books, memorize lecture notes for an exam, then pass it for a piece of paper at the end. But did we understand them? Did any of this make us better men? What is a better man? Is it someone who acts justly? What is justice? -- These are the types of questions we will try to answer while we undertake this endeavor.
What is a “Great Book?” This sounds subjective, and it is. To put it simply, it is a piece of literature that someone decided they were special enough to go through an extraordinary effort to save them against the ravages of time. For example, William Shakespeare never published his works, one of his friends did. The poet Virgil hated his epic Aeneid, and wanted to throw it in the trash. His friends convinced him to save it on his deathbed. Without the Aeneid, Dante, nearly 1500 years later, may not have written his Divine Comedy. We will eventually see – these authors speak to each other through time, and by reading original texts, we are able to eavesdrop on this conversation to follow the progress of human civilization. The same holds for the political and economic authors debating throughout history, and we will get to take a front row seat and use these texts as an anvil to beat our minds into a sharpened tool. These works are transcendent because they still have something to offer us today, though at times possibly grossly misinterpreted throughout history. There is not enough time to read everything. So we might as well read the best. If not this, then what?
Now, for some logistics: The first meeting will be <date/time> at <location> to go over reading plan strategy, pacing, how translations were selected and how books will be sourced, future meeting schedule, while getting to know everyone involved. If you are open for this journey of sharpening our minds, please RSVP by <date> over some communication method (text, social media, etc. – I will provide a copy of the first book at this time).
I will leave you with a quote from Mortimer Adler, a famous American educator and philosopher, “It is not how many books you get through, but how many books get through to you.”
And I look forward to taking this journey with you.
General reading plan – more details to follow when we meet
Part One: The Classical Ages (Epics, Tragedies, Early Philosophy and History)
Examples: Iliad, Odyssey, Oedipus Plays, The Oresteia, The Last Days of Socrates, Aurelius’ Meditations, etc.