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Why I Read The Great Books

January 5, 2018

Thanks to HMU student, Dave Seng, for today’s post.

"So, let great authors have their due, as time, which is the author of authors, be not deprived of his due, which is further and further to discover truth." – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning

I began my educational journey as a liberal arts student in the late 1990s, about the time when postmodern critical theory was winding down and scholars were trying to figure out whom won the battles of the “canon” and whom lost the “theory wars.” I remember it well. Leaving this intellectual climate behind, I decided to investigate the nature of the so-called “canon” and the Great Books associated with it, to determine for myself where such a curriculum is useful and why it is considered controversial. (I realize that many Great Books programs exist and not all adhere to the same list, so when I use the term Great Books, I am referring to the collection edited and published by the Encyclopedia Britannica.) With this background in mind, I intentionally reflect on my journey through critical theory as an undergraduate to exploring what I have discovered about the Great Books as a university professor.

When I consider my formative undergraduate years at a private liberal arts college, steeped in postmodern rhetoric, I discover an amazing thing about the Great Books. Those involved in the theory wars, or those bent on advocating their particular critical position often held to schools of thought founded by the Great Authors of the Western intellectual tradition. Those most critical of the Great Books claim that the canon is intolerant, exclusive, and written by “dead white males.” Interestingly, these same theorists usually uphold schools of thought founded by Hegel (historicism), Nietzsche (perspectivism), Kierkegaard (existential subjectivism), Marx (Marxism), or Freud (analytic egoism)—Great Authors, all. Try as one might, it is not an easy thing to discard the inherent value of the Great Books. The reason for this is simple. One must accept the foundational truth claims of the Western intellectual tradition in order to criticize it. Furthermore, the Great Books speak to timeless concerns of human importance that transcend the “isms” and academic fashions of the day. Rather, they seek to enlighten us as to what it means to be rational and thoughtful individuals in the pursuit of truth. These significant insights have helped me make some important applications in my own teaching career.

First, however, we see that foundational and essential truths about reality and logic cannot be denied. Even the most committed existentialist or postmodernist accepts the law of non-contradiction when asserting the subjectivity of truth or that all reality is historically and culturally determined. Important values such as rationalism, liberalism, and constitutional government with a strong emphasis on individual freedom, provides the cultural foundation from which postmodernism is built. These ideas began with the Greeks and are still with us today. Have you asked yourself, “what is the nature of justice”? So did Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides—they and others in the Great Books investigate this very question deeply and significantly. In a sense, postmodernism, itself, is part of what is known as the “Great Conversation.”

The Great Conversation, a term coined by Robert Hutchins and explicated by Mortimer Adler, recognizes inquiry, discussion, informed rational debate, pursuit of truth, and free exchange of ideas. As enduring values, this conversation began with Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, and continues today. Postmodern critical theory owes its very existence to the Western tradition because inquiry and informed debate are foundational values. Questioning a canon is a tradition unto itself, and is also found in the Great Conversation. The Great Conversation is simply the discussion that began with the Greeks and continues today through philosophers, historians, poets, and scientists who seek to help us understand what it means to exist as finite human beings in the pursuit of truth and the nature of reality. These ultimate concerns are still thoughtfully, rationally, and critically examined by many in our own time.

Plato’s Socrates often confronts skeptics regarding truth and the nature of reality. Hume, Hobbes, and Descartes, just to name a few, often criticized the scholastic tradition that preceded them. In this sense, postmodernism is just emphasizing one side of the Great Conversation (although one of postmodernism’s discontinuities is that very few in the Western intellectual tradition gave up on the idea of truth). There are very few genuinely new ideas in contemporary culture, and when I read the Great Books, I am often reminded that not only are there rarely new ideas, I further discover that these Great Authors can provide a framework and way of thinking about current ideas in ways that can be beneficial.

In addition, since critical theory itself is influenced by Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Freud, and even Heidegger, postmodernism ironically demonstrates the enduring values of the Western tradition. While postmodern critical theory has lost its standing in the pantheon of academic fads (many just accept postmodern premises as true and move on), it is important to maintain the critical spirit of inquiry that the Great Books teach us. We must ask ourselves, “what if Descartes, Marx, or Freud were wrong”? And what insights could we gain from such discussion and investigation? One thing I have learned from teaching college students is that they are more than willing to challenge what they think is received authority. Something magical happens when one learns how to rationally, logically, and critically engage Great Ideas and discover enduring truths.

Another thing I learned while reading the Great Books is that every curriculum and field of study holds to a particular canon. One claim against the Great Books is that it is elitist and selective. In truth, however, all fields of human thought have a set of selected, received texts. Consider any course at any university, anywhere. At the class level, every professor identifies a selected book list from which his or her students will learn. Let us take an example from outside the humanities. In computer science, one could hardly be considered competent or knowledgeable in the field without knowing about Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, or Grace Hopper. Of course, others can and should be named, but the point is that it is not elitist to draw on the most foundational thinkers in any field. The Great Conversation is simply the development and transmission of the Western heritage's core values and knowledge - even if the foundational knowledge is sometimes tacit as Hayek, Popper, and Polanyi are apt to remind us. Every field by its very nature has to be selective.

Moving beyond critical theory, I discovered that the Great Books speak profoundly even in fields in which they may not be apparent. When I became a professor at a large research university, I began to see how my Great Books training served as a deep well from which I could draw, even though I do not teach courses immediately associated with the liberal arts. Upon a deeper examination, however, the economics of information course which I teach relates to ideas of Marx, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Keynes, and Weber, and involves timeless truths regarding the nature of wealth, government, and democracy. While it must be admitted that our own culture and technology have changed dramatically since these authors wrote, the enduring truths of which they speak - social cooperation, voluntary exchange, and the nature of supply and demand - persist and remain extremely relevant today. The principles of how value is determined in economics are true whether one is discussing the nature of free markets, digital information goods, or Bitcoin. In my Open Source Culture and History of Hacking class, we not only examine the foundational figures of the field, but explore timeless questions about the nature of reason, rationality, and consciousness as we explore what it means to be rational, intentional beings in an age of artificial intelligence (AI). Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, and Descartes still have important things to say about the nature of rational beings that directly relate to AI research issues today. And many of the Great Books have insightful things to say about the effects of technology on society. In all honesty, I have never had a student complain about one of these great authors; in most cases they are fascinated and excited that they can apply the information they have learned in a general education or philosophy course to what they are learning in one of my classes. Far from being irrelevant, these great texts have wonderful things to say about the nature of our lives in the Twenty-First Century. Even today, the Great Books provoke interesting and challenging ideas.

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