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Great Books

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

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3 replies to this post
  1. I have real respect for Professor Deneen – but I find myself increasingly frustrated with aspects of his writing. He recently penned a criticism of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it’s glorification of suburban life over the community that cities offer….but at the end of the day his central argument was based upon a factual error – the idea that Bailey Park is built on a cemetery, an act of desecration. A close watch of the scenes in question demonstrate that this is clearly not true. It is built near the cemetery but not on it.

    What I find in Deneen’s writing is increasingly the tendency to view everything through a “Porcher” lens (BTW, this refers to the philosophy espoused mainly in the site “Front Porch Republic” – which I am actually quite sympathetic to) – akin to viewing every problem in culture and society as a nail to which the only solution is a hammer. The reasoning in this argument (such as it is) against the Great Books is similar in the sense that he constructs a straw man to argue against and hammers away at the straw man. There are certainly potential pitfalls in a Great Books approach (as there are in any approach) but these pitfalls are not so much found in the approach itself – but in the human endeavor of learning and understanding. They are the pitfalls built into a search for Truth and they are unavoidable in any approach to learning.

    There isn’t a list of books available that produce humility in and of themselves. Humility is a virtue that is a gift of grace and must be received – paradoxically – in conjunction with hard work, self-examination and no small dose of experience.

  2. The governmental and economic construct promoted by the “Porcher” folks (at least their elite leadership) seems to draw a nexus with the contemporary socialist-progressivist-Democrat policies being pursued by the current regime, and that is worrisome.
    Actually, I kind of appreciate the phraseology of one of their rivals, Peter Augustine Lawler, who speaks of “polis-republicans” here:
    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2013/03/05/is-progressive-belonging-now-an-oxymoron/

  3. I generally agree with Prof. Deneen. Half of the value of the Great Books lies in the fact that they show you so many people who are way smarter than you disagreeing with you on some very basic items. But the other half is that they are a repository of a lot of truths, most importantly whatever truths happen to be obscured in our modern day.
    My own thoughts are posted yonder: http://jaskology.com/?p=472

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