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.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Why the Syntopicon?

December 18, 2015

In the Preface to Genius, literary critic and professor Harold Bloom asserts the existence of and need for a discussion of genius. In the book, Bloom describes one hundred different voices in which he finds an element of genius, of creation. He writes, “Talent cannot originate, genius must.” These authors are considered geniuses because they created something where nothing existed before. Vergil, for example, ordered the Roman world, which adhered to the ideas presented in the Aeneid for centuries (and it still informs our worldview). Shakespeare used bits of foundational texts and contexts (like the Bible) to weave an actual, physical, present character of humanity in a way that no one before (or since) has. These are creators.

Bloom believes that these authors live for us because they have created something unmatched, something that pulls at us in an important and vital way. He writes, “We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces.... It is worth knowing that our word 'character' still possesses as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or mark of the stylus's incisions. Our modern word 'character' also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.” Bloom readily admits that these are not the world's only geniuses. And in organizing them into a list, he has created a sort of literary canon. Harold Bloom is a man who thinks seriously about serious literature and therefore, his list is not to be taken lightly. These types of lists often offer insight into the authors that deserve a long-standing place among human tradition. The importance and relevance of this type of list cannot be overstated.

Every human functions within a context. This context enables us to navigate a world of endless possibilities and create meaning from it. It is very difficult for the mind to create meaning from chaos. Present within chaos are strands of importance and strands of distraction. In the Preface, Bloom explains that he chose these literary giants because they have important, meaningful messages that discuss the path of humanity. They deserve our time and study. He writes, “The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity. Thomas Mann, descendant of furniture manufacturers, prophesied that his Joseph-tetralogy would last because it was well-made. We do not accept tables and chairs whose legs fall off, no matter who carpentered them, but we urge the young to study mediocre writings, with no legs to sustain them.” In other words, some literature may benefit us more than others and it is an important, valid discussion to ensure that we are discussing the important texts.

Everyone would probably agree with this statement, yet it is difficult to get everyone to agree on any exact list. Of course, literature serves many purposes. There are light books, enjoyable reads, difficult texts, terminology-laded texts and varieties of genres from science-fiction to romance. Everything may serve a purpose and may fit a specific moment. However, if we are talking about the path of human intelligence, then there are works that require more thought and understanding and, for this reason, deserve more of our time.

Harrison MIddleton University chose to study The Great Books, another example of a canon, because it incorporates so many ideas across so many genres. These canons are simply attempts by serious men and women to maintain a list of what is important to human history. Dissent is understandable: so many legitimate voices arguing for so many legitimate pieces of literature. As with Bloom's Genius, the Syntopicon's Introduction tells us that 102 ideas is just about as much as can logically be held together and distributed, but should not be considered a sum total of all ideas. It is possible that both Bloom and Mortimer Adler had similar ideas when creating their canons (many of which overlap): that their scholarship might lead to more enlightened scholarship in decades and centuries to come. Of course, this is always the hope.

At Harrison Middleton University, we pursue the Great Books and great ideas because we too want to understand major arguments. We delve deeply into texts, we discuss these texts and we gain immeasurable results. Adler's 102 ideas form a foundation from which we leap, enabled by many voices, both ancient and new. We embrace conversation and study with purpose and energy.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

BOOK REVIEW: Imperfect Ideal

November 20, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for the following book review. This was first published in the HMU fall newsletter.

Alquist, Denise, et al., eds. Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions. Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2015. Print.

In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, Oscar Wilde says, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” The complexities involved in crafting an ideal state are immeasurable. Likewise, printing a book about utopia can be a daunting task. However, The Great Books Foundation (GBF) recently printed a new text attempting just that.

In classic GBF style, the book includes all genres, from poetry to essay, science fiction and political treatises. Imperfect Ideal places texts of different formats creatively. For example, “The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State” by Vladimir Lenin falls in between the essay by Oscar Wilde and a selection from the science-fiction novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.

In addition, the selections in Imperfect Ideal stretch across a long history, beginning with early treatises by authors such as Mencius and Aristotle. There are also more modern-day essays, such as Robert Owen's “A New View of Society”. Each of these authors approaches the idea of utopia from two standpoints. First, each one speaks with a specific historical reference point and, second, each has a precise form of government that they address. GBF has creatively selected pieces that can be specific to a region and time, yet they also address similar issues found in other times and places. This tactic enriches the dialogue of utopia itself. As Oscar Wilde says, utopia is a dream that exists in every culture, yet there is no singular approach.

The idea of utopia inherently involves human desire, which further complicates the argument. Wandering through the full text demonstrates the fact that man has a few basic requirements and, yet, an infinite possibility of desires. As a sort of answer to the great variety of landscapes encompassed by the idea of utopia, GBF separated Imperfect Ideal into sections. These sections discuss questions such as what is 'best', what is missing, and the map of internal, specific human desires. Under each subheading, then, falls three or four texts that really represent the main idea of that section. Each of these selections, however, is also larger than its subheading. The ideas and questions overlap.

One idea that runs throughout these texts is that perfect peace and perfect perfection does not satisfy man. In the science-fiction texts, these elements lead to an unstable, disintegrating world. In the political treatises, these elements are controlled by some force who claims perfection, at the expense of an other. There is an ever-present element of discord that also, ironically, unites man. For example, Dostoyevsky's “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is an example of a fight against culturally-accepted barriers and imposed values. At the end, the narrator declares that he will continue to fight and this purpose drives him to live a better life. In some way, the fight is as necessary as the goal.

This text highlights many of the Great Ideas, but one pleasant surprise was the interplay of the idea of One and Many. One person has the power to affect the happiness of the many and vice versa. For example, in “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, the narrator states, “In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favor of the dazzling collective.” This idea is also present in Lenin's essay, and he notes that the state will pass through trouble before arriving at the ideal. However, the reverse is important in Ursula Le Guin's and George Saunders' short stories, which focus on the importance of providing a community which allow for individual growth. For this reason, Imperfect Ideal succeeds in raising important questions about an idealized world. Many of these experiments involve some form of enthusiasm, some strife, personal ideals, all of which stem from individual desires.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll to the bottom. 

MLA Convention 2015, Part Two

June 5, 2015

Thanks to Marcus Conley, HMU Tutor and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, for today's post.

Last week, I posted about my experience at the 2015 MLA Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia. I mentioned my interest in a talk on the King James Bible from Cynthia Wallace, and a talk on animal studies and George Eliot by Danielle Coriale. These were just two of many interesting presentations—ranging in subject from medieval studies to popular culture—that led me to reflect on my own work, and on the range of texts we work with here at Harrison Middleton University.

Naturally, not every presentation was amazing. A few turned out to be duds. Yet even when a talk failed to spark my interest, it rarely felt like a waste of time. There was something humbling about listening to an accomplished and passionate scholar speak to a room full of (mostly) interested people about a subject that I found unremarkable. My detachment from the topic was actually instructive. It reminded me that my own research interests, however engrossing they might be to me, are not an authoritative marker of what deserves attention.

It is easy, when pursuing a specific object of study, to forget that one’s work takes place against a vast and immensely diverse backdrop of other works, other ideas, and other minds. The interconnections and emergent patterns of this great backdrop are too numerous and too intricate ever to be fully comprehended by one individual, or even a multitude. There is always more work to be done, new ideas to discover, and it is important that we, as scholars, be exposed to more than just what we find immediately attractive.

We at Harrison Middleton University do most of our interaction at a distance, and we focus mainly on a traditional, Western canon of core texts. In both of these respects, we immerse ourselves in practices and assumptions that set us apart from the majority of scholars in the humanities. The “greats” that are so central to our work at HMU—great authors, great books, and the great conversation—are not the buzzwords they were in the mid-twentieth century, when Mortimer Adler and his intrepid corps of editors toiled away on the Great Books of the Western World. Flying the flag of the Western literary and philosophical canon nowadays can raise eyebrows among academics who are rightly suspicious of an author list so skewed toward rich European men. Though our studies at HMU draw from a centuries-long tradition, we are nonetheless situated in our own niche, both because of our focus on the so-called “greats” and because of our unique methods.

However, this does not, or at least it should not, place us in a position of isolation. We are essentially scholars of the humanities, and the work we do resonates with a very broad scope of inquiry. Attending the MLA Convention in Vancouver was a trenchant reminder to me of just how broad that scope really is. It also reminded me that, for all of our emphasis on what sets HMU apart, we are part of a field that is very much alive, and very populous. It is our job to listen to ideas from within and without the great books tradition, and the work we do is significant in both of these domains.

In his 1952 essay “The Great Conversation,” Robert Hutchins envisions what he calls “the Civilization of the Dialogue.” Describing this community, Hutchins writes, “Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined.” The Great Books collection is an effective way to package and promote a significant part of the great conversation, yet that conversation survives by remaining continually open to the contributions of thinkers from across the range of human experience.

My experience at the MLA only served to emphasize Hutchins’ implication, which is that the great conversation is not imprisoned within an exclusive collection of texts. Rather, as its name implies, the great conversation is an ongoing set of practices, an open-ended and inclusive endeavor. This endeavor has much to offer the broader field of the humanities, but it also depends upon that field, with all of its complexity, for its own vitality.

As students of the great books, we know that the most substantial works of Western culture reward multiple readings. They are virtually inexhaustible as a source of new insights. By the same token, though, we should also bear in mind that this complexity and depth is not locked up within a certain body of works. There is always new territory to discover, whether it is in a centuries-old philosophical essay or a brand new conference paper.

If you’d like to have a look at the full program from the 2015 MLA Convention, a PDF can be found here:

Information on next year’s convention, which will be held in Austin, Texas, can be found here:


To post a comment, click on the title of the blog and scroll to the bottom.