Year after year we are inundated with the same question: can we see some college essay examples? Although we do not share our clients’ work in order protect their privacy, we are happy to share some of the successful college essay examples provided by admissions committees across the country. So, without further ado, please find four successful supplemental essays submitted to St. John’s College below:
The prompt: Discuss a book that you would call a “great book.” We want to learn both about the ideas in the book and about you. What makes the book great in your view? What effect has it had on what you think or how you think? (Minimum 400 words)
There are few scenes in literature which have resonated with me. One is Medea’s slaughter of her and Jason’s children in Euripides’ Medea. Another is Solomon’s final flight in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. However, there is no scene that has touched me more than Despereaux Tilling’s final conversation with his father in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux. My love for the scene can be boiled down to one small excerpt:
“And he said those words because he sensed it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two. Despereaux, reader, spoke those words to save himself.”
At six, I could not understand how Despereaux could forgive his father; the father who sanctioned his death in the dungeons; the father who beat the drum announcing Despereaux’s demise. I thought it was one of the most profound cruelties to ever inflict upon your own child. How could one stand by as their child, someone they nurtured and carried from infancy, was condemned and ridiculed for nothing beyond dreaming? At six, I was heartbroken for Despereaux and could not understand his quick forgiveness, the ease with which he uttered the words, “I forgive you, Pa.”
At six, I was an incredibly angry child. I fought with classmates, my parents, my cousins, anybody I could provoke an argument out of, to soothe my perpetual irritation. I hadn’t even been that angry when I first immigrated to America and had to adjust to a whole new world, nor when I was ridiculed for not speaking English. Six was when I first truly felt angry. I was angry at my parents for not being home more; I was angry at my teachers for being too strict; I was angry at my cousins for treating me like a child; and, I was angry at myself for not overcoming my anger. It felt like a weakness, a slip in the little control I had over my life at that point. The anger only got worse as I entered my adolescence. The wrath that once manifested in arguments turned inwards, and I spiraled into a hole of doubt and guilt. Everyday I would find something new to blame myself for, whether it was something as inconsequential as a forgotten comma in an essay, or something bigger like not loving my family enough. From the ages of twelve to fourteen, there probably exist only a dozen pictures of myself; I could not stand looking at myself in pictures, feeling like my self-hatred was too evident for the world to see.
At seventeen, when I read Despereaux’s simple words of forgiveness again, I felt a sharp ache in my chest. The power of The Tale of Despereaux is not in its pacing or prose, despite the exceptional nature of both. To me, Despereaux’s power lies in its depiction of hope. All three characters which we are told the story through have endured truly awful events. Despereaux’s family was complicit in his death sentence; Miggery Sow’s father sold her to a stranger for nothing more than a hen, a tablecloth, and cigarettes; and Chiaroscuro’s first foray into the light which he loved ended in the devastating death of the queen. Despite it all, these characters hang on to their hope. Despereaux, driven by his endless idealism, aims to save Princess Pea from the dungeons and gain his happily ever after. Miggery Sow’s innocence, although taken advantage of by Chiaroscuro’s plan for revenge, drives her to try her best no matter the mockery she faces.
And Chiaroscuro, easily the most resentful of all the characters, is ultimately able to admit to wanting nothing more than to experience the light again. It made me realize my own optimism, and how I never truly lost it through the murkiness of my early adolescence. I never stopped dreaming. I never stopped hoping for better. The hurt others inflicted on me, the cruelty that I was confronted with from others, never stymied my innate optimism and my ability to see the best in others.
The scene emblematic of this hope is Despereaux Tilling forgiving his father.
Despereaux’s forgiveness allowed me to finally come to terms with two things. The first is my love for humanity. In an increasingly misanthropic world, it can be hard to admit one’s love for humanity without facing the scrutiny of others. What about the suffering we have caused? How can one love humanity when it has caused endless pain? But, I cannot stop my love for humanity from prevailing. I love our endless creativity and intelligence, our continued advocacy and compassion for others, and our ability to find humor in dark times. No matter how much I feel as if others have wronged me, I cannot cast my judgements of them onto humanity as a whole. The second thing I was able to do because of Despereaux’s forgiveness was to forgive myself. It was so easy for me to become wrapped up in a seemingly endless cycle of blame and guilt that, some days, the accusations I leveled at myself were the only words that seemed real. It’s here that I have to bring back the excerpt I included in the beginning:
“And he said those words because he sensed it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two. Despereaux, reader, spoke those words to save himself.”
I realized that, to save myself, I needed to forgive myself for all the supposed wrongs I had committed. The self-flagellation I had carried on for the past decade was no longer sustainable; I could only blame myself for so much before I began to buckle under the weight of all the perceived sins I carried on my shoulders. Forgiveness was not easy or simple. There were many nights where I was tempted to fall into the comfortable bed of castigation because of the strain of forgiving myself. However, I carried on. I worked to stop the self-deprecation that I once easily engaged in from coming out, and I made sure to reflect on myself and figure out why I was falling down another hole of guilt. Without Despereaux’s simple lesson in forgiveness, I would have brought my resentment into adulthood and, perhaps, would have perpetuated the cycle in others. I have come to accept my faults and mistakes without beating myself up for them. I have learned to endure and overcome, just like Despereaux, Miggery Sow, and Chiaroscuro.
It was a hardcover copy, laminated shell, large barcode obscuring a portion of the title so it read “Kit”. Slightly pressed edges from the hours it had spent bouncing freely around my backpack. It may have been barely 100 pages long, but never in my 15 years of life had I been so affected by a book than Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.
It was supposed to be just another assigned reading. Something that would briefly take over my mind, only to quickly fade as soon as we moved on. I had never really internalized the books we had read in school. All of them seemed tainted, as if the pleasure in reading had been stripped from my experience simply because we were challenged to think deeper about the text we consume. I had rebelled against the concept, and no matter how naïve my position was, I continued to hold steadfast in my belief. Maybe I was just missing that emotional connection, that “aha” moment when all the pieces came together. But my view of the reading material provided for me by the school was about to change.
On a whim I brought it with me while visiting my sister in California. It seemed thin enough that I could get through I within an hour or two, and maybe it would get me a head start on the class. But the hours ticked by, and I had yet to put it down. I found myself absolutely enthralled with the prose, re-reading the story as soon as I finished, allowing the emotional weight of the story to wash over me like a flood.
In simple terms, Kitchen is a story about grief. Grief for the family Mikage never had, grief for the grandmother who raised her, grief for Eriko who took her in as a daughter, and grief for Yuichi who lost himself in tragedy following the death of his mother. But while the plot may be somewhat macabre, Yoshimoto is able to highlight the humanity of the characters through the love and support present in their everyday (though sometimes spread a little far apart) interactions. A story about finding refuge from hopelessness in family and friendship, and from loss in the comfort of familiarity. It is not as much a guidebook to navigating loss and the stages of grief that follow as it is a story that pushes us to understand ourselves as we face the most difficult of human emotions.
At the time, I found myself in my own state of grief. And as I drifted into hopelessness, I began to lose control. But I refused to succumb, and as I found my “kitchen”, I was able to come to terms with and cope with my emotions. In Kitchen, I found the best way of taking on the world through first understanding myself, and the full significance that can be attributed to basic compassion and love. We as human beings are incredible complex, and our emotions and experiences may surpass our own understanding. But it is from that search for understanding of myself and others that I live by.
When I was 12 years old I was physically restricted for several weeks in the family living room. This place that was previously the comfortable center of my house was now more like a prison. I desperately wanted to escape. Most middle school students could relate to this search for freedom metaphorically, but I was looking for a more literal solution.
I was recovering from bilateral hamstring extension surgery, and I was stuck in the middle of my house for weeks, unable to even stand. I had all of the free time in the world but nothing to do with it, a feeling many people became familiar with in recent times. Everything I needed was done for me or served to me in bed. Days started to bleed together. And while I kept busy with make up work from school, I felt like I was accomplishing nothing.
One day, my homebound teacher decided to do an extra unit of English that the class was not doing. I read Animal Farm by George Orwell, and discussed the meaning of the book with my teacher.
At the time, I enjoyed the book and was happy to have something new to talk about. I was excited to learn about the use of allegory, and how Orwell used the traditionally childish literary device of anthropomorphic animals. I was thankful for a moment of escapism, but I did not realize that this book would make an impact on the way that I would approach the future.
During my sophomore year of high school, I reread Animal Farm for my English class. I was excited to revisit one of my favorite books. I soon realized that, although I was unaware of it at the time, it had changed the way that I wanted to learn.
One of the most pivotal moments in the book is when free speech is restricted. During a particularly divisive debate over whether or not a windmill should be built, Napoleon, the porcine dictator, forces the other animals to vote for him. He achieves this by having dogs chase after his opponent, Snowball, and running him out of the farm. From this point onward, all of the decisions are made solely based on Napoleon’s command. Orwell repeatedly points out that all of the other animals on the farm are too scared to act against Napoleon. Up until this point in the story, the revolution had mostly positive impacts on the well-being of the farm animals. The removal of free speech was the catalyst that started the downfall of the farm.
I noticed this situation previously, but as I was reading the book in this new context I related to it more. When I read the book before, I was encouraged to interpret my own meaning from the book. But on my second reading, I felt I was given the illusion of choice. I was told to consider what the book meant, but then was quickly guided back to the “correct answer”—the answer that would show up if you typed Animal Farm into Google.
The irony that a book about autocratic totalitarianism was being taught in a way that limited discussion and intellectual dialog made me question my thinking on education. Is my school teaching me in the way that I want to learn? What is the way that I want to learn? What should the ultimate goal of school even be? I didn’t know the answers to these questions, so I started to experiment.
The next year I decided to take AP Seminar. This class promised a different experience. You were able to research any topic along with a group of peers and use the year to synthesize research and come to your own conclusion. I figured that this would be a good place to start exploring what I truly want from my educational experience.
I chose to do research on the impacts of the pyramids of Giza, focusing specifically on the economic impacts. This project was exactly what I had been looking for. I was able to do my own investigation into my area of study, and then compare my results with the rest of my peers. This culminated in synthesizing one final project where I was able to share my findings about the pyramids being one of the best financial investments in human history. Egypt continues to benefit from the revenue generated from people around the world coming to visit these elaborate tombs.
Animal Farm may have been the catalyst that caused me to change my thinking, but at the same time the book actively challenges the conclusion that I have reached. As the years pass on within Animal Farm, the history of what the animals initially intended to accomplish is slowly replaced by the same problems that had plagued them before. The last sentence of the book explains that there is no difference between the pigs and the humans; “The creatures outside looked from pig to man … But already it was impossible to say which was which” (Orwell 128). The book ends with the revolution that was supposed to improve the animals’ lives leading back to the exact same situation that they were trying to escape.
This is what makes Animal Farm a great book. Many books can change the way that people think about the world, but Animal Farm questions both current and future ideas. The most prominent theme in Animal Farm is that no matter how perfect an idea may seem to be, any belief that goes unchallenged will result in distorted outcomes—often as harmful as the original problem.
I want to continue challenging my own ideas. In the same way that I felt imprisoned while all my physical needs were met during my recovery from leg surgery, some approaches to furthering my education might be more limiting than enlightening. Animal Farm has pushed me to seek a style of education that challenges me more than comforts me and this is best provided in a learning environment like the one I have found at St. John’s College.
Great books create great expectations. Re-reading a book you have loved is like going back to your childhood summer house, it can be disappointing. In my case, the initial disappointment was quickly softened by the nostalgia and the beauty of the text.
The copy of Les Huit Montagnes that I read has a pink cover, nearly three hundred pages, and the first thing you see when opening it is a few, carefully selected, passages from newspapers. My dad always does that when he absolutely wants to read a book; he tracks the reviews down, cuts them out and tapes them in the book. Les Huit Montagnes (Le Otto Montagne in Italian) has three pieces of newspaper inside. When I finished reading it a feeling of longing rose in me. It wasn’t a nostalgia of the past but the nostalgia of something I would never experience.
Paolo Cognetti tells the story of two friends. Two friends, and a mountain. There is something pure in his writing, something so authentic that it hits your guts and leaves you with an odd feeling of peace and wistfulness. There is that love, that deep and poignant connection with the mountains. There is Pietro and Bruno, the summer wine, the summits, the sheep, the river games and this incommensurable desire to break free. There are beautiful landscapes but also human reflections. Pietro, following his dad on top of a glacier, says this phrase that is so movingly human: “Toute cette beauté inhumaine me laissait de marbre. Tout ce que je voulais c’était savoir combien de temps il restait à marcher”. The breathtaking panorama leaves him indifferent, all he wants is to know, “are we almost there?”. It says something about being too tired or overwhelmed to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Not only in terms of natural beauty but also in terms of human gentleness and casual magic. If Pietro experiences it in the mountains, where time seems to slow down to follow its natural rhythm, then the impact of busy cities on our day to day appreciation for being alive cannot be underestimated. Les Huit Montagnes is a gentle yet clear reminder of the importance of being more mindful and present in my own life.
This book, Paolo Cognetti says, is about two friends. Two friends and a mountain. The ‘and’ has its importance. It is not just about two friends living in the mountains, it is about them and the mountain. The mountain has its own role, it is the rock, the anchor to which characters return. One goes, one stays, but in the end, the mountain always brings them back together.
In this book, there is also me. There is my childhood, my deep longing for the mountains, the friendships that have grown apart. It’s the story of the people I have grown up with, the story of our heartfelt reunions and our difficulties to completely unwind with one another. It’s avoiding looking each other in the eye to maintain that sweet denial that no, we have not changed.
But this book is also about my grandma. She was born in the Italian mountains, in the little town of Isolaccia. A part of her family, the Giacomelli, moved to Belgium to work in the mines. The agreement between both countries was that if Italy supplied miners, Belgium would make a reduction on the coal prices. My grandma, Mamy Leno, died three summers ago, and with her, a part of me sank. I loved her so much. I like to think that she went back to her mountain. She never told us how it was up there, so I can only imagine the Italian family summer gatherings in Isolaccia. The warm evenings, the long hikes, the lake swims and the bonfire nights. I can only imagine, but I do it intimately.
Les Huit Montagnes has this effect on readers. It tells the story of two friends and a mountain, but at the same time it tells a universal story. It’s me, it’s my friends, it’s my grandma, it’s our love for the world, it’s the choices we make, and the people we love. It’s also the people who leave, too early, too soon, too abruptly. It’s about the ones steeped by the mountain. The ones that decide to stay behind. “Partir comme ça”, to leave like that, to wind up, to walk away. It all comes down to the same thing. To set off on a new journey or, to escape whatever’s behind you. That’s up to interpretation. I left home when I was sixteen and never really returned. I went to boarding school, and now I’ve started university. I’m in the Netherlands, close to home but still in a foreign land. Maybe I’m like Pietro “the one that comes and goes”. But who, or what, am I coming back to?
There is so much in this book, yet it’s so simple. No endless sentences or archaic vocabulary. No plot twist or complex storylines. It’s words, simply put one after another. It’s poetry, it’s imagery, it’s a mountain and two friends.
Sometimes, I wish life could be that simple. No endless wars or archaic beliefs, no ecological turning points or complex politics but simply days that go by one after another. Days of poetry, hikes, mountains, fresh cheese and friendships.
As I put the book down, one of the newspaper pieces falls down. I look at it but do not pick it up. Instead, I head towards the kitchen to get some more risotto. The Parmigiano melts as I stir the rice. I go back to my room and sit in front of the window. I smile, thinking about Agata’s outraged expression if she knew. “Dutch Parmigiano is not Parmigiano, Hannah!”. She is right, of course. The dusk turns into a deep night, and I sit there, thinking about the mountains. Agata, my new friend, invited me to Italy this summer. Maybe I’ll go. I might even hike to Isolaccia. My parents found pictures of one of the Giacomelli’s summers. In these pictures, my grandma was eighteen years old. I’ll be nineteen this summer. Pietro was twenty when he left Turino and came back to his mountain. I’m not saying it’s written in the stars, just that sometimes, a book is the start of a new chapter.
If Virgil lived in the twenty-first century, he would be a Spielberg-caliber movie director. At least, that’s what my Latin class would say about the Aeneid. We took turns one day presenting cinematic versions of our favorite scenes, bringing the poem to life with cuts and camera angles, but Virgil’s work requires very little to animate it. The flames of Troy already glow from the pages, Dido’s wild eyes flash from behind the words, ash trees fall, gods argue, and ships turn to sea nymphs as vividly as if on film. I see sweeping shots of the unbuilt walls of Carthage and a close-up of Helen’s eyes reflecting the fiery destruction of Troy. Virgil acts as a master craftsman, shaping his language into a living creature which twists under the mysterious hand of Fate and somehow manages to remain meaningful even now, more than two thousand years later.
The Aeneid is not great because it’s old or long or historically important. It is great because it deals with universal yet deeply individual human issues, and, most importantly to me, raises more questions than it answers. Its undercurrents of skepticism touch my own life as Virgil wrestles with some of the same theological questions as I have. In one scene, Aeneas lifts his hands to the stars in the middle of a storm and cries out to some vague existential power that those who died in Troy were more fortunate than he. He names no god but stands as a representative for all mankind: a figure in the dark shaking his fists at the stars. The poem rings with repetitions of “if there is any power in Heaven…” (Virgil, The Aeneid (Book VII, p. 278) and questioning whether any god is capable of telling this story. The poem seems like an endless tug-of-war between Fate and divine will. Who’s really in charge? The unresolved tension leaves me wondering whether Virgil even knows the answer himself.
When I was in middle school, a teacher gave a talk to the girls in my grade titled “Don’t be Like Dido,” warning us (rightly) not to be carried away by love. Until I read the Aeneid, that’s all I knew of Virgil’s heroine. But I now believe Dido’s story is more than just a cautionary tale. It’s a tragic but insightful exploration of romance, lust, passion, human nature, loss, and one of the most dramatic breakup stories of all time. Dido, like many, fell into love and out of herself. Her obsession with Aeneas turned her into a shell of who she had been, leaving her city unbuilt and her people leaderless. Through this story I wrestled with the difference between passion and love, deeply identifying with both Dido and Aeneas as I navigated my own romantic life. Did she really love him? Could she have escaped? While her love consumed her, Dido, in a sense, consumed me. I saw variations of her story everywhere; I may be the only Spotify user with a playlist dedicated to her (contents range from Patsy Cline to the Hercules movie soundtrack). In this ancient epic, Virgil tells the universal tale of the end of a relationship, and with it, raises in me a burning question. What if she hadn’t killed herself? The Dido of my imagination stands on an empty shore and quenches the fire within her, extinguishing not herself but the parasite of her love.
Dido’s passion is just one example of Virgil’s fiery portrayal of women. I noticed a theme of female frenzy throughout the Aeneid, especially in Cassandra, Amata, Dido, Juno, and the women of Troy who attempted to burn the Trojan ships. Women are “unstable creatures,” (Book IV, p. 85) frequently compared to Bacchant revelers and associated with fire. The feminine side of the poem feels wild and destructive. It makes me wonder about myself as a woman and the ways this idea has shaped me. Are hysteria and flaming strength two sides of the same coin? Are they female qualities?
I will never be able to fully express my infatuation with this story. As I write, ideas roll over and over in my mind like the thoughts of Aeneas, “darting in every direction … like light flickering from water.” (Book VIII, p. 165) Skepticism, romance, doubt, and divinity bounce against each other as I try to record them all, inevitably failing. But what truly makes the Aeneid great for me is the endless questions it raises. What does the ending mean? Should Aeneas have killed Turnus or given him mercy? Why does Virgil call him pius Aeneas when he’s one of the most skeptical characters in the book? “Does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?” (Book IX, p. 185) What does Virgil consider good leadership? Who’s in charge: Fortune or the gods? “What use are prayers and shrines to a passionate woman?” (Book IV, p. 71) Is it possible to fight Fate? Does Virgil believe in the Roman pantheon? Why does he portray women as crazy? Whether it be these questions, Dido’s passion, Virgil’s host of epic similes, or Aeneas’ chronic inability to leave a city without a trail of smoke behind him, I am, and forever will be, hopelessly in love with Virgil’s Aeneid.
In 5th grade, my very favorite teacher in the world told me a most unsettling truth: All things that walk like ducks and talk like ducks, by way of their apparent likeness to ducks, are ducks. Upon hearing this, I was struck by a deep sense of shock and disillusionment. How, I asked, could one leave out the deceitful robot ducks—those which may very well appear to be ducks but are not, in fact, ducks? How could one account for ducks walking around with paper bags over their bodies, quacking violently but coasting along in rectangular beige cloaks?
It would be many years until I learned that the Duck Test was a form of abducktive reasoning, and I would understand that robot ducks and paper-bag-clad ducks are left out of the equation because they are highly unlikely explanations when one sees or hears something duck-like. It was then that I came to dislike abductive reasoning. I have always celebrated the anomalies—the impracticalities and improbabilities—because they are infinitely more complicated and wonderful than anything “normal.” Therefore, when asked to write an essay on my favorite book, it’s only natural that I would select the most un-book-like book on my shelves. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays, each written independently, completed with variant objectives, and lacking any readily discernible narrative form.
Didion hails from my land, from the deathly vital Sacramento River Valley in the longitudinally damned California. When she was my age, she lived in a house on the corner of T and 22nd, one of those grand Victorians fenced by composite columns the way suburbia is fenced by pickets. She once left California, fled from the dry-grass valley and the southern desert, but Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the product of a homeward pilgrimage, a series of impressions made upon her return. And that is precisely why I love it. When one completes the act of returning – when they leave and come back—they are drawn to the abnormalities. They readily accept the plausibility of robot ducks and actively seek them out, attempting to understand how they lost what once was. Didion writes about the strangelings and changelings, about maybe-murderers and communists and Howard Hughes and pathological lying and insanity, in order to understand what happened to California in her absence.
The act of philosophizing is also a consequence of returning. Returners like to root in their confusion—they search for sustenance in the muck. Because she sought answers, Didion found a deeper meaning in the classically mundane and typically tabloid. In Lucile Miller, the murderer-mother of San Bernardino, she found the consequences of false promises, unmet expectations, and dissatisfaction with one’s self. Through an examination of Joan Baez, she wrestled with the imagery of the Peace Movement, the hypocrisy of social progress, and the real meaning of fame, both in terms of what it does to the famous and the common. Didion taught me not to leave bodies in the desert, how to celebrate the inherent beauty of places, and what it means to be an onlooker in situations of chaos and wondrousness.
I am a perpetual returner, largely because I have a tendency to observe. Most things/places, however new and bizarre, feel like some extension of home. I’m often told that I’m an old soul, that I belong in a different era, or simply that I’m “strange.” There’s an immense amount of pressure that accompanies that difference—I have an innate desire to maintain it, to groom it, for the sake of an image. However, there’s a kernel of truth at the heart of it all. As much as I like to participate, as much as I am so insatiably hungry for life, I am most readily an observer. I am proudly and invariably a recorder—a fly on the wall, a wall flower.
Didion taught me that such behavior has power and meaning. She didn’t seek to report, to declare the guilty and the innocent, or to explain the morals that shaped her generation. Instead, she sought to display. She was and is a revealer, a skill wielded best by the observers of the world. And to be an observer, you must treat everything like an act of returning—you must recognize the normalities, but search most acutely for the things that don’t belong. It’s often among the unbelonging that we find our place.
The title of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is derived from W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a post-WWI commentary on the dissolution of Christianity and Western morality. Most foundationally, “The Second Coming” deals with the loss of place. I have qualms with Yeats’ writing, mainly because I do not believe that the corruption of Western society is entirely bad, nor do I long for the return of any messiah to restore my sense of comfort and complacency. Nor did Didion. She felt her world rupturing, but she was not exclusively fatalistic or desirous of mending in the way that Yeats was. She drew on the emotion of his poem, on the general feeling of disillusionment, rather than the theme of Western Christianity. In the same way, I have an intensely emotional response to Didion’s writing, but I do not agree with every bit of what she wrote. Through her personal interpretation of Yeats’ poem and my own response to her essays, Didion has taught me that not everything is absolute. Similar to her interpretation of Yeats’ poem, Didion’s writing was less concerned with scandalous hippie children and more concerned with exposing the foundational ideas behind a changing California and a wave of social progress. When I read her essays, I am more captivated by her underlying assumptions, her deeper associations, than with her immediate subject matter.
That is how I am with most things. When I first learned about ducks and their characteristic ways of walking and talking, I had little regard for my teacher’s intended message. I was concerned by the consequences of that way of thinking, magnetized to its flaws and shortcomings. I didn’t want to accept that there could be a single explanation for the presence of a duck-like object, nor do I want to accept that there is a single answer for anything. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a Great Book—a modern kind of philosophical treatise—because it captures different feelings, different people, and different places from across a period of time. It’s mildly scatological and wildly unconventional, but it’s Great nonetheless.
Asking students to name and defend a “Great Book” is a cruel task, especially then you’re appealing to a crowd of untamed bookworms. When I first read the prompt, I had no idea how to define what you were asking. I’ve decided that a “Great Book” is anything that makes an individual think and feel in some irrationally wonderful and rationally important way. As an untamed bookworm, I retain the right to change my mind and present you with further arguments down the road. That said, I will always have a special fondness for robot ducks and a special kinship with fellow paper-bag-clad duck spotters like Didion. I suspect most Johnnies are adept duck watchers, and I hope I have the honor of joining your ranks.
For most of high school, I was not interested in reading books, however, I was slightly more interested in reading book summaries, and I was very interested in reading my classmate’s homework. I was engrossed in reading whatever had the most bang for its buck with respect to getting good grades.
I had no intention of reading after high school either. For most of my life, I planned on doing something strictly math oriented. But when the first months-long COVID lockdown was implemented spring of my junior year in high school, I had time to reconsider everything.
Something random I began to notice was that people who study philosophy win arguments, and winning arguments really mattered to me. This was the appeal that caused me to enroll in a philosophy 101 course at my local community college that fall, where we were required to read a book containing five of Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo. While they are Plato’s Dialogues, they describe dialogues with Socrates.
In many of his dialogues, Socrates orients himself as the pupil of whoever he is talking to, and he does not present any of his beliefs but only presents himself as unknowledgeable. Socrates usually asks this person to try to define a fundamental concept such as courage or temperance.
When this person tries to define it, Socrates proves the contradictory nature of his definition through deductive questioning. In the cases where he is talking to a person who is willing to be humbled, such as Laches, Charmides, or Meno, Socrates and this person agree by the end of their discussion that they are unable to soundly define the concept being discussed.
However, in Euthyphro, the Dialogue that would resonate with me the most, the main character Euthyphro exposes his high ego by making an excuse to leave the discussion without admitting he is unable to define piety. Euthyphro is at a court preparing to prosecute his father, defending this action by claiming it is pious. When Socrates expresses his dissatisfaction with Euthyphro’s definition of piety at the end of the discussion, he sarcastically assures Euthyphro that Euthyphro still has a clear knowledge of piety and would not prosecute his father otherwise. As Euthyphro leaves, Socrates mockingly claims he will remain ignorant without Euthyphro’s wisdom.
Euthyphro is a familiar character—one I wanted to see be embarrassed like this. He reminds me of many assured people I have met who, despite having unsound convictions, are unwilling to ascertain the truth behind them and are complacent with their ignorance. In my experience, many of these people have held their convictions in disparage or spite of other beliefs. The Socratic Method is a way to isolate these arguments and prove their contradictory nature without having to reference other beliefs. By not providing a rebuttal or claiming to have any knowledge, Socrates’ position seems like an easy one to claim. Seeing Euthyphro, a character that I often struggle to confront, have his arguments dismantled by Socrates, who utilizes limited capabilities that I feel I possess, convinced me of the practicality of philosophy.
It required a quick revelation like this for someone impatient, lazy, and driven by winning arguments like my past self to appreciate the merits of a dedicated study of philosophy. I was interested and ready to read now, and reading further, I would discover the abundance of theoretical philosophy discussed with Socrates’ closer, open-minded, and fruitful peers.
These dialogues, where Socrates is more willing to assert his beliefs, provided more fruitful discussion about deep concepts, from his unwillingness to defy democracy and break out of the jail where he awaited death in Meno, to his complacency with his death in Phaedo. It was more difficult to deduce these ideas, but by first showing me that the Socratic Method had practical use when used on characters like Euthyphro, Socrates convinced me it was worth it to try on him. What I did not expect was that by deducing him, I would be deducing some of the most foundational philosophical arguments. So, Socrates tricked me into studying philosophy.
It took a revelation for me to become engrossed in theoretical philosophy and stop expecting revelations. I learned from these dialogues that philosophy is useful, not just for winning frivolous arguments, but for deep investigation into the most foundational questions. Socrates tricked me into studying philosophy and therefore into reading books. The book that contains these dialogues is great, but I would not describe it as the book to end all books. For me, it is the book to start all books and my reading of them.