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Great Books

Peter Kalkavage

St. John’s College and the Great Books Program here at Mercer University have much in common. Both programs revolve around a set of great works of Western civilization. In both programs these works are approached through discussion rather than lecture. In both, students are encouraged to learn from one another rather than engage in one-upmanship and debate, and they write essays instead of research papers. Also, in both programs teachers set aside their professional expertise and authoritative voice in order to guide discussion as fellow, if more advanced, learners. My goal this morning is to put before you some reflections on the great books themselves. Toward the end of my talk, I shall offer some observations on why discussion rather than lecture is the best way to be introduced to these books.

Reading great books is vital for anyone who wishes to become a liberally educated human being. There is a great need these days—there has been for a long time now—for academic programs devoted to liberal education. Such programs are sprouting all over the nation, many of them at Christian colleges and universities. But an overwhelming trend toward the non-liberal persists. All too often we confuse education with professional training, genuine understanding with know-how, and learning with achievement on tests and with measurable results. The professions are, to be sure, necessary and noble—necessary because they minister to the demands, needs, and wellbeing of everyday life, noble because they inspire lives of achievement, service, and self-sacrifice. But human life is not co-extensive with professional life. There are also the lives we lead apart from our jobs and professions, the lives we lead in so far as we are human beings. It is this life, human life insofar as it is human, that liberal education seeks to cultivate and perfect. It is the life not of our business but of our leisure. It is the life we lead when, free of the burden of working for a living or striving for professional achievement, we are left to ourselves, to our families, and to our friends. It is the life that finds us, after a long day’s work, huddled up in a cozy chair with a book, or listening to some of our favorite music, or enjoying conversation with friends. It is also the life of our moral action and activity as citizens.

We inherit this idea of liberal education, this cultivation of the arts of leisure, from the ancient Greeks. To be liberally educated is to be liberated, made free. What, then, does freedom mean in this context? How does liberal education make us free—or, more modestly put, how does it contribute to our freedom? And, to return to my theme, what role do great books play in the quest for true freedom?

I begin with the most obvious benefit of reading great books. By reading the books in your Great Books Program, you are initiated into the cultural and intellectual tradition of Western civilization. You come to know, first-hand, some of the foundational works that have shaped Western social, political, philosophic, and scientific thought over the last two thousand years or so. This in itself is liberating, since it frees us from ignorance about our own origins. It frees us from acquired prejudices and misconceptions about great books and great ideas of the past. One of the most common prejudices from which we are liberated is the belief that all these “dead white males” have nothing to teach us, that they were somehow in the dark about the deepest issues of human life, and that we have somehow moved beyond them, progressed. Reading great books liberates us from this arrogance. It frees us from the assumption that we know more than the great authors of the past simply because we came later and live, so we think, in more enlightened times. Instead of trusting summaries of the Western tradition derived from secondary sources and lectures—or what is worse, attacks on that tradition from some post-modern ideological perspective—you in the Great Books Program are reading the great authors themselves. You are making the effort to discover for yourselves what these authors meant to say before you form a judgment about the truth, falsity, or relevance of what they say. The great authors, however white and male they may have been, are far from dead. In the words of the English poet, Henry Vaughan, they are “the dead, alive and busy” (To His Books).

In this talk I am not going to discuss how we know the difference between a great book and a merely very good book. I proceed from the assumption that the books in the Great Books Program are in fact great. Anyone who has spent time with them knows that this assumption is true. Those who have spent time reading Homer, especially if they keep reading him, know through direct experience that the Iliad and Odyssey are great poems, and that, moreover, they are great poetic reflections on greatness itself. Part of the reason we know this is true is that people keep reading these poems over and over again, and from generation to generation. These works feel inexhaustible because they constantly prove themselves to be so. Herodotus tells us that Homer was the educator of all of Greece. But Homer’s greatness goes far beyond Greece. His poems resound throughout the ages. And just as the Iliad and Odyssey inspired Virgil, whose poetry in turn inspired Dante, so they continue to inspire us. They remain “alive and busy,” generously doing their work of teaching and ennobling all who read them.

One certainly could look for the manifest signs of greatness in the great books taken by themselves as written artifacts. This would yield interesting results. But for now I want to stress the human response to the books in your Great Books Program—the effect they have had on readers throughout the ages, and continue to have on us today. Aristotle tells us that if we want to know what a thing is, we should look at what it does: being is activity or being-at-work. If we apply this perspective to the greatness of great books, then their greatness is at once manifest. No other books are as active and generative in their being; no others do for us what these can do—if we let them.

What, then, do great books do for us? For one thing, they introduce us to ideas and to ways of looking at the world that are new to us. They provide a refreshing distance from the trends, fashions, tastes, opinions, and political correctness of our current culture. Great books invite us to put aside for a while our way of looking at the world and to enter someone else’s perspective—a perspective that is much larger, deeper, and more thought out than our own. Such books are a powerful means by which we can acknowledge and critically examine our individual judgments and prejudices, as well as those of our current culture. As we read Sophocles’ Antigone or Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, we find ourselves making judgments of all sorts. We question great authors in light of our own opinions, and so we should. But as we question the ideas we find in great books, these books question us in turn; that is, they call our opinions into question. Of course, once again, they do so only if we let them.

Great books and authors are not always teachers who question us as though from another world. Sometimes, when we imaginatively inhabit the world of a great mind, it feels like a homecoming. It is as though we were talking with a close friend, someone who is familiar with our hearts and minds and who speaks to us with words that know how to hit their mark. Our favorite poets speak to us in this way. They seem to be writing just for us. Great books with a marked personal tone—Augustine’s Confessions or Dante’s Divine Comedy or Montaigne’s Essays—especially tend to have this effect. There is a beautiful passage from one of Machiavelli’s letters, in which the great Florentine speaks of the sort of homecoming and friendship I am talking about. His words are in reference to great men of the past, men of action, whose speeches and deeds appear in the great books of the ancient historians. Here is what he says:

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently clothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.

Perhaps this experience that Machiavelli so movingly describes is familiar to your experience of reading your favorite authors. For us, as for Machiavelli, a beloved great author is like a wise and great-souled friend who offers us an intellectual home, hospitality, honesty, and nourishment. And just as we get into tangles and arguments with our friends, so too our friendship with a great author sometimes involves a certain amount of intellectual wrestling with his ideas. We wrestle with a beloved great author as though with a higher being who is nevertheless very close to us, as Jacob wrestled with an angel.

The friendship and intimacy with great authors brings to the fore another general feature of great books: Great books transcend the historical age in which they are written. When we are really immersing ourselves in a great book, taking seriously that something in it might be true, the gap of temporal distance and cultural difference is closed. The book ceases to be merely a product of its age. This is something we teachers in great books programs must scrupulously guard: the tremendous potential these books have to be alive in the present rather than confined to a dead, remote past. When students in a Homer seminar start uttering generalities about “the Greeks,” I know something is wrong. They are failing to read Homer and are instead keeping him at a distance by consigning him to an unexamined, vague historical category. For those who are reading Homer for the first time, it is far more important that Homer speaks than that he once spoke.

Great books are liberating for professionals as well as for the young. They may even work to deepen a professional’s understanding of his own profession—his human relation and commitment to that profession. Great books give doctors, lawyers, businessmen, scientists, and professors an opportunity to re-think the goals, presuppositions, and inevitable limits of their professionalism. If the reader happens to be a doctor, a great book may induce reflection on what it means to be a doctor, or on the role of health in the pursuit of happiness. If the reader is a lawyer, a great book may arouse deep questions about the relation between law and morality. If the reader is a statesman, a great book may provoke serious reflection about the ultimate purpose of politics, the true meaning of freedom, the fragility of republics, or the connection between citizenship and education.

In addition to initiating us into the foundational ideas and traditions of our own civilization, great books also open our eyes and inspire our questioning. If to be free is to know oneself, then great books contribute greatly to our freedom. A great book holds up a mirror to its reader. It is a living mirror that gazes back at the reader with a look that asks: Do you know yourself?

The platonic dialogues are a perfect example of how great books function in our pursuit of self-knowledge and freedom. I hope those of you who have read some Plato, or else are about to read him, will go on to read dialogues of his not included in the Great Books Program. You will be amazed at their richness and depth. In the dialogues we meet a philosopher named Socrates, who constantly goes around Athens asking questions of his fellow citizens. He is one of the most fascinating characters you will ever meet in a book.  Having met him once, you may not be able to get him out of your mind for the rest of your lives. Socrates’ favorite question, which no one can answer successfully, has the childishly simple form, “What is it?” “What is virtue?” he asks in the Meno. Socrates’ simple question elicits answers from the people he talks with. But these answers all founder on the rock of sustained inquiry. It is convenient to write off Socrates as a trickster who is better than anybody else at getting people to contradict themselves. This spares us the trouble of taking his refutations seriously. But it is more helpful for our learning, and more accurate, to regard Socrates as someone who knows how to awaken the oppositions that lie dormant in every unexamined opinion. Sometimes what he awakens is the awareness that an opinion we hold very strongly and which we think we came up with all on our own, is really somebody else’s opinion, which we have unthinkingly appropriated. Through his hero Socrates, Plato teaches us that until we reflect on our opinions and submit them to questioning, we are their slaves. This is why, to quote Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This famous saying can be translated in an even more alarming way: “the unexamined life is not lived.”

The bond between reflection and freedom, and between non-reflection and slavery, is precisely captured in the allegory of the cave in the Republic. Here Socrates compels thought, not logically through an argument but poetically through an image. We are meant not simply to interpret the image but to be struck by it. The image is paradoxical: it exposes the enslaving potential of images, especially in the realm of conventional politics or, as we might call it, political theater. The cave prisoner-citizens are bound from birth in a sort of fetal position. Their heads can look only straight ahead, at moving shadows cast on the cave wall by clever projectionists. These projectionists enthrall the cave prisoners with exciting imitations of real things. The imitations provoke the captive audience to engage in perpetual competition, debate, and the battle for recognition or honor. The projectionists, we must note, are themselves prisoners of the cave—enslaved to the enthrallment of other human beings. In being masters, they too are slaves.

Socrates’ picture is profoundly unsettling, for it depicts us in our condition of uneducatedness. We are the cave prisoners. And what we take for sophistication, subtlety, achievement, culture, and power is really nothing but a crude enslavement to the shadow play of opinion and the seductive heat of word-battle. Far worse than being in this uneducated condition is our not knowing we are in it. Education in Socrates’ analogy liberates us from the fetters of unexamined opinion. Socrates tells us that to be released from our bonds, we must undergo what he calls a turning around or conversion. The whole soul, he says, must be turned from what comes and goes to what endures forever—from mortal Flux to deathless Being. In other words, genuine education is more than just a change in what we think: it is also a change, an ascent, in what we love and enjoy. It is a complete transformation of our lives. According to Socrates’ description, this total conversion involves pain. As we make our way up into the sunlight of true beings and out of the cave of exciting illusions, the incoming light hurts our eyes. We are pained when compelled to leave the false clarity to which we have grown accustomed.

It is worth noting that the Greek word for opinion, doxa, also means glory or reputation. The enslavement to opinion is thus two-fold. We are enslaved by opinions whose origin, consequences, and worth are left unexamined; and we are enslaved by our desire to win honor through these opinions. We strive not for wisdom but for its appearance. Socrates’ refutation of opinions about the most important things strikes at the heart of this two-fold enslavement: it attacks both the unreflectiveness of our opinions, which are like tyrants in the soul, and our equally tyrannical pride.

Socrates, his fatal and beguiling “What is it?” question, his refutation of fellow citizens, the amazing myths he sometimes tells, his eventual trial and death—any of these topics could easily have taken up my whole talk. Here I wish only to draw an analogy between the conversion Socrates talks about and the reading of great books. Great books take us out of our caves and invite us into the sunlight of genuine thinking. And if they do not take us to a vision of the sunlight of truth itself, then at least they provide inspiration and guidance. When read in this spirit of self-inquiry, great books can convert us, not to yet another unreflective dogma, but to a life-long habit of reflection. This is the habit of considering opinions with thoroughness, honesty, care, and courage.

Plato’s dialogues do a superb job of helping us to acquire this habit. They do so by portraying human beings suffering in speech the consequences of their unexamined opinions. By showing us how Socrates cross-examines and refutes his interlocutors, Plato offers us an opportunity to examine our own opinions and the reasons we hold them. But sometimes it is not an argument that most wakes us up. Sometimes it is an image, a story, or maybe just a single phrase or word from a great book. We have just witnessed in the analogy of the cave how an image can induce reflection and help us begin our journey away from the enthrallment to what seems toward the sunlight of what is.

This poetic aspect of Plato’s dialogues signals an important feature of all great books. How these books are written plays a decisive role in their greatness and in their ability to liberate the reader by waking him up. To borrow an image from Homer, great books speak to us with precisely formed winged words. Homer’s phrase refers to the spoken word. But I mean to extend the image of wingedness to the written word as well. Written words, like spoken words, have wings when they can fly into our souls and awaken us to an act of passionate and attentive thinking. The words of great books do not merely cause us to think: they inspire thinking.

Homer is the master of winged words. Instances of his wingedness are innumerable. One of my favorite examples is a simile Homer uses at one point in the Iliad to describe anger. Late in the story, the hero Achilles meditates, ruefully, on his anger. He calls it “that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey” (Iliad 18.108-110). Of course, this sounds even more winged in the original. Homer’s words, which in Greek are marvelously rhythmic, fly off the page and into our souls. As they take us above the realm of ordinary language, they also take us down into the human reality of anger. The simile is no mere ornamentation: it is a perfectly crafted perception of a truth about human experience captured in the form of a likeness. Achilles feels his anger as both bitter and sweet. That he knows this about himself makes the anger even more ominous. Something similar happens in Shakespeare’s plays, when a character—Macbeth, for example—confronts and describes his own darkness of soul. The juxtaposition of heart and honey in Homer’s simile makes us feel how precious our anger is to us, how it indeed seems to drip, honey-like, in our hearts. We sip it, relish it, and would not part with it for the world, even though it may bring destruction on our friends, our communities, and our very selves. Homer’s winged words here are accurate—and terrifying. I cannot think of them without a shudder.

Dante, too, is a poet of winged words. In his Divine Comedy, words have an obvious connection with wingedness. They are the means by which Dante re-experiences his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise and takes us along with him. What reader can forget Dante’s terrifying and beautiful images? Who can forget the lovebirds Paolo and Francesca, whipped around eternally in the storm of their illicit passion? Or the speech Francesca delivers about the tender feelings that were the source of her damnation? Most striking of all, given my theme, is that the occasion for the adulterous act was the reading of a book, the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which, in Francesca’s mind, seemed to ennoble and justify her yielding to passion. The wingedness of Dante’s words in this part of the Inferno exerts a powerful effect on the reader. The poetic imagery doesn’t just fly—it swoops. We feel sympathy for the damned lovers, even as we are called upon to judge them and to think through why they are in Hell. Dante’s winged words make us feel the tension between our desires and our duties. There is no easy moralizing here, no “See, they got what they deserved!” Dante would have us believe that Hell is the work of divine justice. But he also wants his readers to see, and experience, the complex reasons why human beings deceive themselves, deify their passions, and abuse their free will—in short, how we come to lose “the good of intellect.” His winged words inspire thought.

Wingedness is evident not only in poems and novels, but also in philosophic treatises and works in mathematics and science. Bertrand Russell found Euclid’s Elements winged in its gorgeous display of propositions. These propositions are beautifully ordered and deal with perfectly formed things: triangles, circles, ratios, and numbers. Russell, a master of the sober sciences of modern logic and mathematics, compared his reading Euclid for the first time to falling in love. “I had not imagined,” he said, “that there was anything so delicious in the world.” To read Euclid’s Elements, you have to work hard. But the thinking involved is not restricted to the hard work of analyzing ideas and solving problems. It includes imagination and, as Russell reminds us, a responsiveness to beauty.

Aristotle offers us a good example of how words can be winged without being poetic. The works of Aristotle are peculiar in this regard: they are written lectures rather than treatises and so, in a way that is very different from the platonic dialogues, are indebted to the wingedness of the spoken word. Next to the overt wingedness of Homer and Plato, Aristotle may at first seem dry, colorless, and hopelessly earthbound. But he becomes less so when we think more deeply about what he has to tell us. A good example of Aristotle’s wingedness is the definition of happiness we find in the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Happiness, he says, is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” These words of Aristotle fly into our souls and inspire thinking. The term “activity,” the most important word in Aristotle’s philosophic vocabulary, is the really winged thing here. “Happiness,” we say to ourselves. “Isn’t that the feeling we have when our desires have been gratified?” Aristotle avoids this familiar path. He prefers the path of active engagement or being-at-work. If we let his winged definition of happiness fly into our souls, then we might begin to question our familiar notions of happiness. We might return to our lives more attentive to how fulfilling it both seems and is to be engaged in our favorite activity. Borne aloft by Aristotle’s definition, we might begin to take seriously the idea that we are most happy and “winged” when we are enjoying the activity in which we are most ourselves—when, like dancers, we are the activity.

Even the scientific arguments and theories we find in some great books can be winged. A good example of this sort of winged speech appears in Darwin’s Origin of Species, which is one of the scientific works in your program. This most readable and engaging of all great scientific texts deserves to be called winged. Apart from whether we agree or disagree with Darwin’s theory, we are amazed (or should be) at how Darwin draws on his staggering wealth of observation in order to construct what he calls “one long argument” and to write about his revolutionary theory with felicity and grace. We marvel at how, starting with the most familiar facts of breeding plants and animals, Darwin proceeds to investigate that “mystery of mysteries,” as he calls it—the origin of species. He does so through argument and observation, of course, but he also throws in provocative metaphors along the way—metaphors like “the polity of nature” and “the face of nature.” The most winged part of the book for me, the part that most inspires my thinking, is the chapter entitled “Difficulties on Theory.” Here Darwin frankly acknowledges the huge obstacles that stand in the way of believing that species originate in “descent with modification.” He struggles to overcome these obstacles, never forgetting that a struggle is necessary. This chapter, and indeed the book as a whole, gives us an opportunity to explore how a scientific theory is supported and defended in the absence of direct evidence and experiment—how a comprehensive theory of life that assaults long-ingrained beliefs, and that even seems counterintuitive at times, struggles to be persuasive.

At the beginning of my talk I promised to talk about why it is better to approach great books through discussion rather than lecture. A partial answer has already emerged. The goal of liberal education is to cultivate human freedom by inspiring, nourishing, and guiding the individual student’s thought. It is not to transform students into scholars but rather to inspire them to be life-long, self-sufficient learners. The proper soil of this habit of reflection is conversation. Conversation, the endangered species of modern life and, alas, of most places of higher learning, is an instance of winged speech. In conversation, speech flies from one human being to another, gathering momentum as it goes. And although it is a sequence of speeches by different individuals, once the conversation gets going it tends to develop a life of its own. Vital to the liberal goal of helping young people become fully human, conversation calls upon its participants to be friends rather than competitors—partners in learning. It can take us to places that are new to us and that arouse our wonder and inquiry, places to which we could not have flown on our own wings alone. Great books are winged things. But sometimes the wingedness is not apparent. Sometimes we need conversation with others if our learning is to take flight.

Conversation serves the ends of liberal learning in another important way: it prompts and refines the conversation we have with ourselves. In the dialogue Theaetetus Socrates tells us that thought itself is just this: “a conversation that the soul has with itself.” It matters to our lives how we talk to ourselves. Often we do not talk to ourselves enough, or else when we do talk to ourselves, we say exactly the wrong things: we use inner discourse to lie to ourselves, justify rather than admit our faults, stir the embers of old resentments rather than to forgive and forget, or enflame rather than moderate our already overblown passions.

Homer’s Odysseus is a circumspect hero if ever there was one. He is a marvelous example of how important it is to talk to ourselves in the right way. Odysseus is very good at knowing how to talk to others. This must have something to do with his knowing how to talk to himself. In the Odyssey we witness the many-wayed hero deliberating over whether, how, and when to reveal his true identity. We see him considering various possible courses of action, mulling things over before acting, and using inward speech to still his passions. This important point bears repeating: conversation with others about great books prompts and refines the conversation we have within ourselves, our inner discourse. It helps us to learn how to deliberate intelligently with fellow human beings regarding the most important questions of human experience, how to explore alternatives to our own views, and work through disagreements. In shaping our inner discourse, conversation about great books also shapes our character and our lives.

So what happens in a conversation? I read a great book and find myself with some scattered and barely formulated ideas and questions. Then I have a conversation about the book. In addition to hearing the ideas and questions of my fellow learners, I now get to explore the implications of my own thoughts and reactions. By cultivating the art of being a careful listener, I become a better listener of my own speeches. The conversation gives all the participants a chance to go deeper into the book and into their own ideas about the book. Sometimes it occasions new insights and is very exciting. But sometimes it stalls, or gets snagged on a petty point, or falls victim to someone who wants to take over. Sometimes it may degenerate into debate or a conflict of personalities. When these things happen, do not despair! It is all part of how, through conversation, we learn the art of using our freedom. If a conversation did not have the possibility of going badly, it would also not have the freedom to go well. It would not be a conversation at all.

This last point brings me to one of the most important features of the Great Books Program here at Mercer and the liberal arts program at St. John’s. Teachers in these programs lead discussions on books outside their field of expertise. This is vital to genuine discussion and liberal learning. The teacher here guides discussion and refrains from lecturing. The teacher teaches by being a fellow learner, who not only offers students guidance in discussion, mostly through questions, but also acts as an exemplar of how adults can transcend their professional expertise and continue their struggle for self-knowledge and wisdom.

Let me now gather the threads of my talk about great books. Great books do the following: they initiate us into the founding texts and ideas of our civilization; they aid our self-knowledge and help us to cultivate our freedom by making us critically aware of alternatives to our accustomed opinions and prejudices. Great books put our adult, professional lives in the context of human life as a whole and invite reflection on the limits of our professional knowledge. The winged words of great books fly into our souls and inspire imagination as well as critical thought regarding the deepest, most important questions of human life; they educate our feelings and desires and therefore have a powerful role to play in our moral education. In particular, they help to cultivate a taste and admiration for nobility—an intelligent appreciation of all things great, beautiful, rich in detail, and intelligently composed. Reading and discussing great books also prompts and refines our inner discourse, the conversation we have with ourselves. It thus shapes our character and our lives. And finally, some great books, the ones we most admire and love, are like ever-reliable friends who always have wise and wonderful things to say, and with whom we wrestle gladly and profitably. Thanks to these books especially, for several hours we feel no boredom, we forget every pain, and we fear neither poverty nor death.

Great books are more than just great teachers, friends, and wrestling partners. They are also great beauties—things to be cherished over the course of our lives like fantastic flowers ever in bloom, or gems resplendent and many-faceted. In tribute to the sheer beauty of great books, I end by conjuring the memory of one of the most famous beauties of all time. With apologies to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, I say of great books what a character in that play says of the legendary femme fatale: Age cannot whither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety: other books cloy the appetites they feed, but these make hungry where most they satisfy.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay was given as an address to the students in the Great Books Program at Mercer University, 2003.

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4 replies to this post
  1. If anyone has any plans to establish a small Great Books college in the New England region I'd be pleased to hear about it. It's true these are difficult economic times, but that circumstance can sometimes create opportunities as well as obstacles. (Real estate is comparatively cheap, for example.)

    A small low-cost non-denominational program with a work-based foundation (like Berea, for example), encouraging most faculty to live on campus, might have the potential to quickly develop a national reputation.

  2. There is also Great Books Honor College at Faulkner University!! I am in their PhD program and it is available online! We utilize Google Hangout for our discussions and threaded discussions through Google Groups. It’s a wonderful program!

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