A colleague in our Great Books program shared an article with me over the Christmas break, and as I was buried in reading some of the Great Books and a few seasonal works, I was hard pressed to read this article. The article, by Patrick Deneen, was published in First Things and entitled, Against Great Books Questioning Our Approach to the Western Canon. When I finally did get a chance to read it, I found several points of merit, a few points that I simply disagreed with and one common error with such arguments, but it is a major and recurring error when some address the Great Books.
The Great Books may be a source of their own undoing (inherent contradictions across the canon). On the first point of agreement (which is also ultimately the main problem in the argument), I do agree that when read together there becomes a babel-like clamoring calling for assent to a particular truth and sometimes simultaneously calling for a denial of another claiming to offer truth. This has led James Schall (of whom I have the deepest admiration) and others to warn of the danger of relativism, which is a warning that needs to be sounded especially in this foundationaless age. However, the problem of contradictions and opposing worldviews ought not to trouble us for at least three reasons. Next to my bed I usually have five to seven books I’m reading at any given time. This does not count the other three to five on my desk, and the others scattered throughout my house, university office and home office. A setting any Hobbit would relish. If I paused and attempted to bring together, in some harmonious manner, the diverse genres, ideas, worldviews, and images the sheer mental cacophony would induce an aneurysm.
Related to this is what many of us experience in our everyday lives. Unless you are blessed to live in a way that Wendell Berry lives (an author Professor Deneen seems to respect and may be on his “humility encouraging” list) then it is likely that any given day between our internet and interstate traveling we are going to encounter this same fragmentation and conflict. Finally, Mortimer Adler stated that not only would this tension happen when studying the Great Books, it is a good thing in the battle of truth claims. His assertion is found in “The Great Conversation Revisited” essay found within the skinny Great Conversation book.
“It is mistakenly thought by many that the great books are recommended for reading and study because they are a repository of truth. On all the fundamental subjects and ideas with which the great books deal, some truths will be found in them, but on these very same subjects and ideas, many more errors or falsities will be found there. The authors not only contradict each other; they often are guilty of contradicting themselves. No human work rises to the perfection of being devoid of logical flaws. On any subject being considered, the relation between truth and error is that of one to many. The truth is always singular, while the errors it corrects are manifold….No truth is well understood until and unless all the errors it corrects are also understood and all the contradictions found are resolved. It is in the context of a plurality of errors to be corrected and of contradictions to be resolved that the brilliance of the truth shines out and illuminates the scene.” (p. 26, 27)
Professor Deneen helpfully asserts that we should read “humble books” or “books that encourage humility.” While I certainly agree that books that are humble or encourage humility should be on our reading lists, I have experienced that reading the Great Books has imposed a kind of humility on me. It is because these ideas, images, and words have changed human hearts and institutions that I am humbled by them. It is because when reading many of them my feeble mind is greatly taxed that I am humbled. It is when discussing them for the past fourteen years with children and geniuses that I am humbled by the insights of others as I grope for understanding. I completely agree with Professor Deneen that we do need to read humble books and the kinds of books that encouraged humility and I would genuinely appreciate a list from the Professor. In the meantime, I’ll get back to the task of reading, and leading others through the humbling project of understanding the Great Books.
Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.