Celebrate the Old and New

January 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Some members in my family celebrate New Year’s Eve with lutefisk or sauerkraut. Some people celebrate with both. I, however, draw the line at lutefisk. I just cannot stomach it. What seems to me to be a petty difference of taste really bothers others, though. They fear bad karma (or something) when I disrespect the tradition. We turn this into a joke at the dinner table, but in reality, traditions run much of our lives and so I thought it might be worthwhile to better understand what they are and how they function in society.

While tradition is not in the Great Books anthologies per se, Custom and Convention is listed as one of the great ideas. In it, Mortimer Adler offers the following definition convention. He explains:

“In the tradition of the great books, the word ‘convention’ has at least two meanings, in only one of which is it synonomous with ‘custom.’ When ‘convention’ is used to signify habitual social practices, it is, for the most part, interchangeable with ‘custom.’ In this significance, the notion of convention, like that of custom, is an extension of the idea of habit. What habit is in the behavior of the individual, customary or conventional conduct is in the behavior of the social group.

“The other meaning of ‘convention does not connote the habitual social behavior but stresses rather the voluntary as opposed to the instinctive origin of social institutions, arrangements, or practices. … Whatever is conventional about social institutions might have been otherwise, if men had seen fit to invent and adopt different schemes for the organization of their social life. This indicates the connection between the two senses of the word ‘convention,’ for all customs are conventional in origin, and all conventions become customary when perpetuated.”

Obviously, this relates to the idea of New Year’s Eve lutefisk (and all traditions) – in that we celebrate what we find worthwhile in our lives and cultures. What we find worthwhile, however, may arrive through instruction, precedent, example, practice, or law. During the transition into a new year, many lists are compiled such as the greatest music, literature, or entertainment from the previous year. Do these lists merely reflect person opinion, or is it more complicated than that? Adler continues:

“The most familiar of all of the sophistic sayings – the remark attributed to Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’ - is interpreted by both Plato and Aristotle to mean that what men wish to think or do determines for them what is true or right. Man’s will governs his reason, and convention, or the agreement of individual wills, decides what is acceptable to the group.”

In other words, convention drives personal opinion, perhaps even in undetected ways. It may be through trends and media that we receive hints about the health of our daily habits. These sources, though, represent, according to Adler, “an agreement of individual wills.” The line between individual and group, however, is extremely difficult to determine. How large does the group have to be before it becomes a group? What constitutes a fad? Is the mainstream synonymous with either the popular or traditional? Claude Lévi-Strauss adds that:

“Among the most primitive peoples it is not very difficult to obtain a moral justification or a rational explanation for any custom or institution … Even in our own society, table manners, social etiquette, fashions of dress, and many of our moral, political, and religious attitudes are scrupulously observed by everyone, although their real origin and function are not often critically examined.”

Many would argue that traditions arrive from nature or necessity, such as in the form of cleanliness, or human morality, or social preservation. Convention and tradition make for interesting discussions, but as for lutefisk, I am still not sold. In an effort to incorporate new traditions (aka my own) with old, I compromise with rice pudding. However, since it is an attempt to honor the idea of tradition, but is not actually traditional, perhaps I do more harm than good.

To read more about Resolutions, visit:

To leave a comment, click on the title of today’s post and scroll down.

Tocqueville Celebrates Democracy

June 29, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that democracy presented major changes in the political world which would also affect the social world. Therefore, in his two-part volume, Democracy in America, he set out to discover how democracy functioned in America. He explains that this one experiment will affect a wide variety of nations, institutions and behaviors. Tocqueville is both heartened and saddened at the equalizing forces which accompany democracy. He sees equality as a necessary and just system, but with it comes loss of education and intellectual excellence. Whether or not this is true, he notes that from freedom follow necessary outcomes, many of which are unintended, but deserve calm, thoughtful discussion and contemplation.

Tocqueville views the blossoming equality with interest, but also fear. He notes how equalizing forces have the potential to lessen the quality of education, to minimize interest in political affairs, and that democracy allows little time for reflection. Everyone in democracy rushes to pursue an object of personal interest, but not necessarily one of societal benefit. He terms this quick pace “habitual inattention” and labels it “the great vice of the democratic spirit”. (329B) His solution to this naturally arising problem is contemplation. He does not spell out a specific plan, but rather asks that citizens spend time contemplating their existence, their fellows’ existences and that of society as a whole. He recognizes that information in an age of equality is constant and feels like a barrage. In aristocratic ages, on the other hand, Tocqueville notes that only a small, elite group controlled and disseminated information. In fact, information for the masses was altogether rare. Furthermore, the lower-classes understood their position, knew their place, and therefore, poor treatment was almost an expectation and rarely questioned. There was no path to question injustice. On the other hand, democracy reverses the problem of aristocracies by removing information controls. It is the citizen’s responsibility to seek and process information.

In democracy, Tocqueville warns, the potential for abuse actually widens because the masses must take care of and be involved with issues regarding the masses. He claims that a habitual inattention leads citizens to miss clues to their own well-being. Following a section about the level of uniformity achieved by majority-run governments, he writes, “The government’s faults are forgiven for the sake of its tastes.” By this, I think he intends to say that the majority drives contemporary rhetoric, issues and tastes, which, in turn, forces the government toward action. However, it is also the citizens who must evaluate and re-evaluate their decisions. Therefore, while contemporary taste forces government to act, we cannot condemn democracy for acting. Rather, the government’s faults are “forgiven” by future generations as people work to address inequities.

While he is sad to perceive the loss of aristocratic education, he is happy to find a more just system. Equality, he believes, stems directly from God. Democratic systems are more fair, more just and reflect the way that God perceives humanity. Pulling his thoughts together in conclusion, he writes:

“When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, very wealthy and very poor, very learned and very ignorant, I turned my attention from the latter to concentrate on the pleasure of contemplating the former. But I see that this pleasure arose from my weakness. It is because I am unable to see all at once all that is around me that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my choice from among so many others which it pleases me to contemplate. It is not so with the Almighty and Eternal Being, whose gaze and necessity includes the whole of created things and who surveys distinctly and simultaneously all mankind and each single man.

“It is natural to suppose that not the particular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What seems to me decay is thus in His eyes progress; what pains me is acceptable to Him. Equality may be less elevated, but it is more just, and in its justice lies its greatness and beauty.”

A little later, he adds: “The task is no longer to preserve the particular advantages which inequality of conditions had procured for men, but to secure those new benefits which equality may supply. We should not strive to be like our fathers but should try to attain that form of greatness and of happiness which is proper to ourselves.

“For myself, looking back now from the extreme end of my task and seeing at a distance, but collected together, all the various things which had attracted my close attention upon my way, I am full of fears and of hopes. I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided or kept in check; and I am ever increasingly confirmed in my belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, it is enough if they will to be so.”

Tocqueville introduces the idea of democratic will in his final words. It is this will which still lives in the current American “experiment,” as he terms it. Though we are still learning and re-evaluating, we can also honor those authors of our past who set us on this path. With the Fourth of July just around the corner, we can also celebrate the thoughts and ideas of our founders.

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

Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov

February 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In “Philebus”, Socrates and Protarchus attempt to understand unity. Socrates states, “The one and many become identified by thought...They run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered...This union of them will never cease, and is not now beginning, but is an...everlasting quality of thought itself, which never grows old.” In other words, the idea of unity is an ancient one – older even than Plato's writings and Socrates himself. So it is not surprising that Dostoevsky also grapples with forms of unity in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Epilogue, Alyosha (also Alexei) and the schoolboys grab hands and vow to never forget their friend Ilyushka. This action strongly resembles Jesus Christ with his disciples. Alyosha says to his friends and disciples, “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”  After this proclamation, all the boys join in and reinforce Alyosha's words. What strikes me with interest is the way in which Dostoevsky wrote this scene. He has all boys join in as if one voice, then occasionally separates out a single voice. It is important that at times the voices are indistinguishable. For example, the boy who yells “Karamazov, we love you!” is possibly Kartashov's, but not definitively.  The others join in again as one mixture. Only Kolya and Alyosha are singled out as individuals. Part of this is due to the fact that the narrator never introduced the other boys to the reader. They have always existed for us as a group. The religious metaphor is obvious, but I am curious about the idea of one among many and how the many become one. Certainly, they have agreed upon a pact, but also, this decision (if we can call it that) was led by Alyosha. Kolya strongly reinforces Alyosha's idea, and therefore, the others all follow along. In my mind, then, Alyosha and Kolya rise slightly above the others in their importance, which makes it difficult for me to label them as a single, unified body.

From the beginning of the novel, the narrator has always claimed that Alyosha was intended to be the hero of this novel. He says this despite the fact that no one will not believe it. He writes, “But suppose they read the novel and do not see, do not agree with the noteworthiness of my Alexei Fyodorovich? I say this because, to my sorrow, I foresee it. To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader. The thing is that he does, perhaps, make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort. Though it would be strange to demand clarity from people in a time like ours. One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case”. After I finished reading the novel, I realized how closely Alyosha aligns with another great Dostoevsky character. The main character in the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is also odd, unique, different, and therefore, separate. In this story, the narrator desires that everyone laugh at him, and in return he gives only love and forgiveness. Alyosha too gives love and forgiveness. At times Alyosha's family embarrasses him (as in the scene in front of Zosima), but he forgives all of their irrational, eccentric and immoral actions. Alyosha never waivers in his love. He grants acceptance and love to all. For this reason, the narrator names him as the hero of the story.

Just after Ilyushka dies, the narrator notes, “They all [the boys] stopped at the big stone. Alyosha looked and the whole picture of what Snegiryov [Ilyushka's father] had once told him about Ilyushechka, crying and embracing his father, exclaiming: 'Papa, papa, how he humiliated you!' rose at once in his memory. Something shook, as it were, in his soul.”  In other words, something from deep within Alyosha forces him to stop these boys and mark the importance of the moment. It is different from his reaction to his own father's death or even Dmitri's trial, for example. This created community, this unity, marks an important change. It forces him to create a bond from a moment of suffering. Once he proclaims that they must all remember, they have something more important than friendship: unity. Even though it is noted that they will all go their separate ways, and may err or get in trouble, Alyosha demands that they recognize how goodness once filled them. Their unity is not one of similarity. They are unified solely through past experience, which now must be recalled by memory alone. Or, as Socrates states, they are unified in thought only.

Yet this unity is not an ideological one, not one of reason, but more closely resembles passion. Dostoevsky masterfully crafts each character, and Alyosha is a good example. He is reminiscent of Christ, but not the same as Christ. Alyosha does no teaching in this novel, rather he forgives everything of everyone. In a similar way, the group of disciples functions both as a unity and as individuals. The many strings converge into one large knot, which also allows Dostoevsky to conceive of many issues in one plot. At the heart of Alyosha's complexity is his ability to love without judgment. Dostoevsky's point may have been in the direction of proving that universal love and forgiveness is possible. Furthermore, Alyosha's brand of forgiveness steps slightly away religious realms, and also divorces it from the realm of logic. The world is far from ideal, but is a very human mix of passion and love.

It seems to me that The Brothers Karamazov clearly calls for love, kindness and forgiveness to an extent not currently seen in society. For this reason Alyosha is the chosen hero. Everyone loves him, but he is also considered an oddity in the community. It is unclear to me, however, if Dostoevsky believes that Alyosha's brand of forgiveness is able to be repeated, or if it should remain rare. Setting Alyosha as the hero, though, suggests that the reader must learn something from him. In a way, we even enter Alyosha's path of learning.

One of Alyosha's greatest struggles comes after the death of Zosima, Alyosha's religious mentor. As Zosima's body decays, the smell allows others to gossip about his failings. The idea that Zosima was flawed greatly disturbs Alyosha. The narrator writes, “Alyosha considered this rueful day one of the most painful and fatal days of his life. If I were asked directly: 'Could all this anguish and such great perturbation have arisen in him only because, instead of beginning at once to produce healings, the body of his elder, on the contrary, showed signs of early corruptions?' I would answer without hesitation: 'Yes, indeed it was so.' I would only ask the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young man's pure heart. Not only have I no intention of apologizing for him, of excusing and justifying his simple faith on account of his youth, for instance or the little progress he had formerly in the study of science, and so on and so forth, but I will do the opposite and declare firmly that I sincerely respect the nature of his heart. No doubt some other young man, who takes his heart's impressions more prudently, who has already learned how to love not ardently but just lukewarmly, whose thoughts, though correct, are too reasonable (and therefore cheap) for his age, such a young man, I say, would avoid what happened to my young man, but in certain cases, really, it is more honorable to yield to some passion, however unwise, if it springs from great love, than not to yield to it at all.” Simple faith and great love – are these desirable qualities in humanity? Alyosha's teachings become important to the reader also.

I keep returning to the idea of witness. Alyosha hears and sees terrible acts, but never participates. A boy bites his finger to the point of bleeding, and his response is to wonder at what wrong has been committed against the boy. Also, Alyosha is the only one who never suspects Dmitri as the murderer, despite the facts. Alyosha sets an example of a different type of reason, something empathetic, something unreasonable in contemporary society. Grushenka says that one “should love for no reason, like Alyosha”.  We often speak of heartbreaks, but I wonder if in this novel, it is as if the mind must break and the heart heal.

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

Essay on The Great Idea of Man

November 11, 2016

Thanks to Ann Wagner, HMU doctoral student, for today's blog. Her essay introduces the contemporary struggle with the Great Idea of "Man". She offers helpful historical connections regarding the lack of a female voice in the updated version of the Great Idea of "Man". The essay is posted here in its entirety. Enjoy!

According to Adler the primary principle to be experienced by the reader when exploring an idea in The Great Books of the Western World is the conversation that evolves between the authors across the centuries and the awareness that this conversation has meaning today. He proposes the image of the authors sitting around a table — “totally oblivious to the circumstances of their own time and place and their diversity of tongues—confronting each other in agreement, disagreement” (28). This unique conversation across time is a phenomenon that the reader experiences in pursuing many of the topics within the Great Ideas when reading syntopically. Often it is a touchstone moment to witness the synchronicity that exists in the thoughts expressed from the ancient authors down through time to the authors of today.

But the premise of this essay explores a different experience for the syntopical reader when focusing on the subtopic, The Distinctive Characteristics of Men and Women and Their Differences, under the great idea of Man. It is the premise of this essay that the only way to remain open to the thoughts of many of the listed authors within this subtopic is by continually keeping in the forefront of one’s mind the circumstances of the authors’ own time and place. Only when the reader remains aware of the context of the times in which the author is writing and understands the elusive, sometimes insidious nature of social context can there be some bridge between then and now. The following discussion will present the difficulties that are present in studying and reading in the above named subtopic when not taking into consideration the social context of the authors and that without the consideration of social context along with understanding its power and nuances, the expectation of having a conversation over time is not possible. Although the theme of this essay goes against one of Adler’s primary principles in appreciating the authors in the Great Books set, it is the elephant in the room for this subtopic and bears examination.

Adler addresses in The Great Conversation the unexpected awareness he experienced upon updating the list of authors for the second edition of The Great Books of the Western World in 1990—that the continuity of the conversation between the authors over time had been clearly broken with the addition of new authors, especially the 20th century authors. A continuity of thought that had been present for 25 centuries was no longer present between the 19th and 20th centuries (30). With the addition of the new authors, he cites the need for rewriting the introductory essays, adding new topics and altering old topics to “call attention to the disagreements of the 20th century authors with their predecessors, or their departures from the ground that had been covered in earlier centuries, and the breaking of new ground” (31).

This break in the continuity of the conversation among the authors becomes understandable to Adler when he considers the ”revolution in the physical and biological sciences” (31) and the advances in economics that had taken place in the 20th century; his concern to provide the necessary updates to keep the conversation fluid over time in the areas mentioned above is apparent (31). Interestingly he makes no mention of the revolution in the 20th century that addressed women’s issues, the feminist movement, nor any mention of the changes that were needed within the idea of Man and the subtopics that were related specifically to women. And yet with the update, for the first time women were included in the list of authors within the Great Books set; for the first time woman’s voice was added to the conversation. The feminist movement significantly changed women’s place and voice in the world in the 20th century. It leaves one with questions – Why was there no comment from Adler on the impact of this movement as a part of his discussion in The Great Conversation concerning the break in continuity that he discovered with the addition of the new authors (31)? Was the break in the continuity of the conversation regarding the subtopics related to women not so easy to address?

One of the first observations is that there is a difference in definition between the revolution of the physical, natural and economic sciences that Adler does address and revolution as it applies to the feminist movement. The definition for a revolution in the sciences according to Meriam-Webster’s Dictionary refers to a “fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something; a change of paradigm” (1068 ). In this form of revolution what has come before is built upon, it forms a foundation from which to proceed. The feminist movement fits closer to another definition of revolution: over a short period of time in the 20th century the movement brought about a “sudden, radical or complete change” (1068). The feminist movement began to change the way people lived and thought about possibilities in their everyday lives and it changed the way people responded to each other. With this definition of revolution there is not a desire to build on the past; the focus is to bring about change. What came before is challenged on social, moral, and political levels. In the revolution of the sciences there were ideas, laws, facts, past truths to be studied, revised, expanded upon; in the feminist movement there was a social context that was named, proclaimed as wrong and demands were made for change. What is the conversation that can bridge the past with the present across time with a break in continuity such as this? A discussion of social context, of the time and place in which the authors wrote, would at least bring to the conversation that there was not intent to harm by the many authors who wrote about men’s superiority over women, it would bring some understanding to the anger, frustration or complete discounting of the authors’ words that one experiences in reading within this subtopic.

Adler does acknowledge in the introductory essay to the Idea of Man in the Syntopicon that the 20th century brought forward the problem of gender. In the introductory essay the reader is advised that the word “man” signifies both men and women for all the authors included in the great books. (11) Also acknowledged is that almost inclusively the authors from “Aristotle to Nietzsche regard males as superior to females” (11). Clearly Adler is trying to bridge the conversation between the first 25 centuries and the 20th century with these two sentences, but for the subtopic specified this is not very helpful.

While reading in many of the disciplines, translating man to mankind does not present a problem, but reading in the subtopic that addresses the characteristics of men and women and their differences that translation does not work. The authors mentioned in the introductory essay and authors later in time than Nietzsche continue to speak to the superiority of man over woman and many of the arguments for the lesser status of women are presented as scientific fact. Darwin speaks to the process of sexual selection and the law of the deviation from averages as evidence of man’s greater intellectual power (566); William James describes brain development and concludes that although woman’s brain is more instinctive initially, it is “least educated in the end” (691) and the male brain “becomes so much more efficient than the woman’s” (691); Freud, in his lecture on The Psychology of Women, clarifies that “psycho-analysis does not try to describe what women are... it investigates the way in which women develop [sexually] out of children” (855) and that with regard to this investigation his lecture “contains nothing but facts, with hardly any speculative additions” (853). In detailing the sexual development of women he speaks to their frigidity, greater narcissism, passivity, little sense of justice, weaker social interests and a more complex sexual development process that often does not reach mature completion (862-864); but despite the far reaching influence of this factor, “an individual woman may [italics added] be a human being apart from this” (864). Clearly man refers to man and woman is something other in the above discussions. The superiority of man over women is presented in the expertise of the various authors as though it were scientific fact. It becomes difficult after reading authors with these perspectives on women to read the other writings within their specialty areas without wondering to what degree man really does mean male only and to question where woman does fit in the author’s perspective. What does a reader of the 21st century do with this? The only helpful response, again, is for the reader to keep in mind the social context of the author at that time of his writing, but there is not the opportunity to bring the time and place of an author’s writing into the conversation.

Tocqueville is the first among the original authors of the Great Books to bring into the conversation the idea of social context in discussing the inequality between men and women in Democracy In America. In observing the American woman in a young, developing country, Tocqueville observes her in a social context that requires of her and allows her an expanded role, a more equal partnership with man, he observes:

I have shown how democracy destroys or modifies those various Inequalities which are in origin social. [based on the context of the time] But is that the end of the matter? May it not ultimately come to change the great inequality between man and woman which has up till now seemed based on the eternal foundations of nature? [a truth or law of nature]
I think that the same social impetus which brings nearer to the same level father and son, master and servant, and generally every inferior to every superior does raise the status of women and should make them more and more nearly equal to men. (323)


Tocqueville has great praise for the American women, he praises the separate functions that man and woman performed in early America so that by working together and respecting each other’s role they accomplished great work, but he tempers his hope for equality when he clarifies that a woman could never be in charge of the external affairs of the family or interfere in politics or in the authority of the husband. Despite these defined limits on equality, he does take a giant step in changing the conversation from the superiority of man over woman as a truth to a social construct that can be changed and changed for the good of all – but of course with limits (323-325).

The authors added in the second edition of The Great Books continued the movement away from accepting men’s superiority to women as a fact of nature to the discussion of social context as the basis for this belief. Eliot in her novel Middlemarch serves as not only the narrator of her story, but also provides an aside voice that comments on the superior attitude men have towards women and the long standing assumptions (tradition) that make that possible.

A man’s mind—what there is of it—has always the advantage of being masculine—as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm—and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality. Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition. (212)


Another scene from Middlemarch describes the engagement party for Miss Brooke, a bright, religious, pretty in her own way, serious young woman and central character in the story. Two invited male guests have some assessments of Miss Brooke, one is a middle age bachelor, Mr. Chichely, set in his ways, with an Easter egg complexion and a few well arranged hairs across the top of his head: “not my style of woman: I like a woman who lays herself out a little more to please us. . . Ay, to be sure, there should be a little devil in woman, ... And I like them blond, with a certain gait, and a swan neck” (244).

The other gentleman is Mr. Lydgate, the new, young doctor in town: “She is a good creature ... but a little too earnest... It is troublesome to talk to such women. They are always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any questions, and usually fall back on their moral sense to settle things after their own taste.” (246)

Eliot offers her aside comment in which she has no hope for the elder Mr. Chichely to change, but puts out hope for Mr. Lydgate to realize the errors of his thinking; she suggests that a man can recognize the social context of the time and choose to act differently: For Chichely “whose mind was matured, she [Miss Brooke] was altogether a mistake, . . .But Lydgate was less ripe, and might possibly have experience before him which would modify his opinion as to the most excellent things in woman” (246).

Jane Austen did not directly challenge the traditional thinking of the time as did Eliot, but created a female character in her novel, Emma, that spoke words of independence and of having no need of a husband for the sake of standing and security. For a woman to say the words that Jane Austen gives Emma was a definite break from traditional expectations at that time. It presented another way for women to think about themselves.

I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry... Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; ... I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield... a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else ... mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; (36)


Although Austen, Tocqueville and Eliot were bringing social context into the discussion of the superiority of men over women, William James and Freud published works that kept the superiority of men over women in the realm of scientific fact. Austen published Emma in 1815, Eliot, Middlemarch in 1870. Freud wrote his lectures on New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis in 1932. Not much was changing very fast.

It is Shaw who most clearly and completely discusses social context and its power in the Preface to Saint Joan. There are parallels between Shaw’s discussion of social context as it relates to the understanding of Saint Joan and her persecution and his discussion of social context as it relates to the break in the conversation over time with the subtopic, the characteristics between men and women and their differences and the many century’s belief of man’s superiority over woman.

Shaw tells us that for someone to understand Joan, her strength, her sanity, her vitality, they “must be capable of throwing off sex partialities and their romance and regarding women as the female of their species,” (38). In the same vein, for someone, today, to read the early authors’ writings regarding women and their presumed inferiority over the ages, there must be an acknowledgement that the authors in the first edition of The Great Books were not able to throw off sex partialities and their romance and regard women as the female of the species and that although their defining of woman as inferior was presented as fact, it was, in fact, the result of the social context of the time. Why is it so important for the impact of social context to be a part of the conversation? Why can it not remain the quiet elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but cannot mention?

The real problem here is that with so many of the other topics within the great ideas there can be a difference of opinion or some previously perceived truth can be found wrong, but in the process no author in the conversation has their humanity insulted, demeaned or denied. The conversation for most topics and subtopics is about the idea, which is apart and separate from each person’s humanity. This is not the case with the subtopic of the characteristics of men and women and their differences; the conversation here is about human dignity. A women author included in the readings for the concerned subtopic, who would be sitting at the imaginary table in the conversation on this subtopic, or any women reading the list of works under the concerned subtopic, would find themselves demeaned and alone in this conversation, without the means to question the context of any author claiming the superiority of man over woman because context cannot enter the conversation. Each author holding to the superiority of men over women would continue to remain the expert within his field as to how man is superior to woman without having the impact of his time and place of writing brought into the conversation. Is it any wonder there is a break in the continuity of the conversation around this subtopic?

Shaw speaks to the invisible nature of social context, to mankind’s blindness to its effect, “it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period” (59). Saint Joan was burned at the stake in the 15th century and not canonized as a saint until 1920. Shaw postulates that had she not been such an unwomanly figure, so out of context in her time, she may have been canonized sooner. The authors of The Great Books who held men superior to women were certainly geniuses and saw beyond the context of their time to thoughts and ideas that were timeless, but they also lived within a social context and as with all people, they, too, could be blinded by the social context of their time. In relation to this discussion, they were blinded to the possibility of the equality of women. It is important to separate what is their genius and what is their humanness. The only way to bring their humanness into play is to bring to the conversation their time and place in history. And what happens when over a long period of time, centuries, a belief, a supposed truth is held in place by the blindness to social context?

Shaw warns:

unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence. (56)

There was no explosion over the injustices done to Saint Joan for her unwomanly behavior and her audacity to act outside of the context of her time, but there was an explosion in the last part of the 20th century to the long standing assumption of the superiority of man over woman and the rights and privileges that had been denied her. The addition of authors like Eliot, Austen and Shaw to The Great Books indicated some movement in the direction of seeing women as the female of the human species, of changing the conversation as it relates to the subtopic of the characteristics of men and women and their differences, but that was not enough to keep the conversation over time fluid, to make the conversation relevant to the 21st century. The feminist movement was a revolution that wanted, demanded, worked hard for change; women wanted their human dignity, their human equality acknowledged.

Adler accomplished so much with his conceptualization of The Great Books set and the design of the Syntopicon. He made the classics accessible and the browsing among the authors with some sense of order possible for anyone interested in pursuing the classics. To read some of the ancient authors and experience how connected their thoughts are to the concerns and experiences of today is no less mind boggling than to stand in the open amphitheater in Ephesus and realize that one is standing where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians – 21 centuries of history collapses and there is a connection across time. It is important to acknowledge timelessness, the continuation of great ideas over time, but there is an equally important need to acknowledge social context and its importance, to be aware of the harm caused when something that is held to be timeless is really under the influence of social context.

Why did Adler not address what he called the problem of gender, the feminist movement, in his update of the second edition of The Great Books of the Western World? Was he caught in the blindness of social context? Was he too attached to his belief in the timelessness of ideas? As Shaw tells us, “There are no villains . . . It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must do in spite of their intentions” (61) – that is the tragedy of social context.



Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. The Great Conversation Revisited, The Great Conversation. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler et al. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1993. 28-31. Print.

Adler, Mortimer J. “Introduction to Man” The Syntopicon, The Great Books of the Western World. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler et al. Vol 2. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica 2007. 11.

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