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st. john's great books

I have always been something of a contrarian. I have never been content to simply accept what “everyone knows” as given. This—perhaps paradoxically—is precisely what leads me, in many ways, to my conservative disposition; but I will return to this point presently. It was also this contrarian impulse which led me to St. John’s College. Having recently graduated from the St. John’s College Graduate Institute with a Master of Arts degree, I would like to share a few reflections.

In the world of today’s higher education, St. John’s College is unique. It is best known for its “Great Books” program, a program which strives to educate through discussion of the “Great Books” of the Western canon—those works which shape the collective worldview of those of us who originate in the West. The classroom time is not spent listening to lectures. Rather, it is spent discussing the text of the assigned book with fellow students, and tutors (a word which indicates that the teachers are “guardians” of knowledge, rather than “professors”—or authorities-of knowledge, and hints at the fact that they, too, are, to some extent at least, fellow-learners[i]).  Everyone is addressed by the honorific “Mr.” or “Ms.” which helps to set a serious tone for the consideration of serious works. The goal of this discussion is to contemplate questions about the text which are posed either by the tutor, or by classmates. The goal is emphatically not to attempt to exhaust all possible questions, or even to give an exhaustive treatment to each question. To attempt to do so would be to assume that there is but one possible interpretation for the text, or that the text can be exhausted by a single reading and a relatively short classroom discussion. Instead, it is understood that these works are nearly bottomless in terms of what can be gleaned from them. This is precisely what makes them great books. They are timeless, and they speak across the ages in an ever-relevant manner.

George F. Will, in his brilliant and often overlooked book Statecraft as Soulcraft: What the Government Does (a book which Russell Kirk, writing in the Washington Post Book World, described as “an exhortation demanding political views imaginative and humane”), states that

Western society has become intellectually negligent. It has stopped taking seriously, and hence has, effectively, stopped transmitting, the theories of the political philosophers who came before modernity. Society has thereby deprived itself of a vantage point from which to judge its predominant thought and edit its practices. By its intellectual complacency, society has impoverished its sense of political possibilities…Today’s challenge is to enlarge, by lengthening, the cultural memory of our society.[ii]

St. John’s College strives to do just that. By reading—and taking seriously—thinkers who stand outside of the paradigm of modernity, St. John’s encourages students to lengthen their cultural memory, in order to gain just that sort of vantage point which allows for a more robust sense of political possibilities. It is this sort of vantage point which allows the unexamined elements of the individual’s worldview to become examined views, because one is able to develop a more robust sense of both the benefits and the problems inherent in particular political, scientific, aesthetic, and philosophical paradigms. It allows for the development of an awareness of the unexamined aspects of one’s worldview, and a thorough examination of each element of the received worldview. Here one begins to understand the Socratic maxim “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[iii]

Russell Kirk wrote “I am a conservative. Quite possibly I am on the losing side; often I think so. Yet, out of a curious perversity I had rather lose with Socrates, let us say, than win with Lenin.”[iv]

At first glance, this statement is, perhaps, confusing. Indeed, my progressive friends have often challenged me for, along with Professor Kirk, “claiming” Socrates for conservatism. After all, wasn’t Socrates a radical, executed for his continuous challenge to convention? I would, however, contend that this challenge misunderstands what is at stake. Socrates was not, in the final analysis, concerned with agitation for its own sake. Nor was he, despite his rationalistic method which resulted in the “city in speech” displayed in Plato’s The Republic, especially concerned with, to paraphrase Eric Voegelin, “immanatizing the eschaton.”[v]

He was, rather, concerned with questioning convention for the sake of removing the obstacles which obfuscate a vision of those things which transcend the city, in order to glimpse what T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk after him, called the “permanent things.” Socrates aimed to utilize the permanent things as a standard by which the temporal can and should be evaluated.  In this way, in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates refutes Thrasymachus’ assertion that justice is merely convention, as imposed by the strong.[vi] He instead establishes the idea that justice transcends the city, and that the city should conform to this transcendent standard; furthermore, he asserts that the city should be constituted in such a way as to promote the ordering of the souls of its citizens.

By creating tension in the mind between, on one hand, the unexamined assumptions which are taken on by virtue of being born into a particular political paradigm and, on the other hand, the full panoply of political possibilities, the individual can rise above the merely conventional—out of the “cave”, as it were—and into the realm of what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination” [vii] to view the permanent things. It is through this vision of the permanent things, and deliberative action in accordance with these, wherein the human being becomes most truly and fully liberated.

This, then, is the essence of conservatism: to promote the search for ordered liberty, in accordance with these principles. Conservatism is strong in defense of principle because conservatism believes that there are principles to defend—that they are real, knowable, intelligible and transcendent; but that they are only worthy of defense insofar as they are good for humans. They are the human things, those things which make values intelligible, by which we order our life, and know the true, the good, and the beautiful. The conservative desires to order society— and by extension, his soul—after this model, not vice versa; as Russell Kirk put it: “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”[viii] “Right” order requires a transcendent standard, and it is the moral imagination which makes that standard intelligible. Conservatism, then, is in some ways contrarian, in the sense that it seeks to know—beyond convention —the true order of things, rather than relying merely on received wisdom. But, it simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, seeks the transcendent as articulated in tradition. That is, it holds that the received, collective wisdom of the species is a necessary aspect of the way in which the transcendent becomes intelligible. “The science of constructing a commonwealth,” wrote Burke, “or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.”[ix] Earlier, in a speech given on the floor of Parliament, he had stated “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise…”[x] For the conservative, the precepts and principles of practical judgment necessary to build a culture fit to cultivate human beings must necessarily draw from knowledge accessible to reason, but must equally rely on the wisdom of the ages, which is not intelligible a priori, but which can only be accessed through a reverence for, and sustained engagement with, our forebears.

This is also the essence of the St. John’s program, and true liberal education in general. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in A Letter from a Birmingham Jail “…Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal…”[xi] By taking seriously and engaging thinkers who expound visions and work from assumptions which are, in many ways, foreign to the modern mind, St. John’s students are given the opportunity to allow this Socratic tension to form in their minds. The dialectical approach to the text provides the opportunity to have initial reactions or long-held prejudices challenged in imaginative and unexpected ways. By treating the great, formative texts of our intellectual tradition as alive and capable of speaking to us from across the ages, St. John’s College inculcates a reverence for, and allows for sustained engagement with, our forebears, while at the same time facilitating discussion with our contemporaries.

In his seminal work Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver, discussing the Platonic conception of truth as “a living thing, never wholly captured by men, even in animated discourse,”[xii] states

If the realization of truth is the product of a meeting of minds, we may be skeptical of the physical ability of the mechanism to propagate it as long as that propagation is limited to the printing and distribution of stories which give ‘one unvarying answer.’[xiii]

In the same way, the St. John’s Great Books program self-consciously avoids regarding the texts which are discussed as containing “one unvarying answer.” These texts, then, are not treated as books containing techne, or practical “how-to” knowledge—that which in principle admits but “one unvarying answer.” Rather, texts are explored as containing sophia, or wisdom. Though there are points at which these works may offer “one unvarying answer” (or some set of unvarying answers) which the reader may accept or reject—such as, perhaps, those of Aristotle or St. Augustine, Hobbes or Hume—there is yet a depth to these works which allows for analysis beyond those “answers” which are available upon a preliminary “surface” reading. “A great book”, says Eva Brann, “approachable as it is on one level the first time around, is inexhaustibly new…”[xiv]

What, then, does it mean to be a “conservative contrarian”? In the final analysis, it seems that it means one who engages the present, through the lens of the past, with an eye toward the future. This is the crux of the St. John’s program, and the crux of education—liberal education—which aims at the cultivation of truly liberated, and self-ruling citizens, and which is ultimately the ideal bulwark against despotism. A free society depends on it.

I will end with a bit of St. John’s folklore, which I heard during my time there. I do not know whether this is true, but I hope that it is. I do not even know where I heard it. Nevertheless, the story goes that during World War II, St. John’s College, which is located directly across the street from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, was threatened with being impressed into Naval service under eminent domain. The country needed more Naval officers, and given the close proximity to the Naval Academy, the St. John’s campus presented an ideal location to produce them. As such, the College was given a chance to prevent this annexment; they were given the opportunity to send a representative to Washington, D.C., in order to make the case for why St. John’s should remain, despite the pressing needs of the country. The story says that Russian-born, German-trained Jewish philosopher, mathematician and St. John’s tutor (who had fled the Nazis during the 1930s) Jacob Klein was selected to lead a delegation to Washington, in order to defend St. John’s. They were, allegedly, given a hearing with the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary, a very busy man, gave Dr. Klein exactly one minute to convince him that the Navy should not annex St. John’s College. Dr. Klein, who was known to smoke a pipe, calmly packed his pipe, and lit it. After fifty-five seconds had passed, Dr. Klein, standing to leave, simply stated, “Without what St. John’s stands for, America is not worth defending against the Nazis.”


Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[i] I am indebted to Eva Brann here. This is a paraphrase of a passage from her piece “Talking, Reading, Writing

Listening”, published in the St. John’s Review, Vol. 53, Number 2 (Spring 2012), 134

[ii] George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 163

[iii] Plato, Apology, 38a (Translation: Harold North Fowler)

[iv] Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (New York: Fleet, 1963), 308

[v] Cf. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 120

[vi] Cf. Plato, The Republic, 336b-354c

[vii] Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, as quoted in The Portable Edmund Burke (New York:

Penguin Books, 1999), 447

[viii] Russell Kirk, “The Moral Imagination” in Literature and Belief Vol. 1 (1981), 37–49

[ix] Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, as quoted in The Portable Edmund Burke (New York:

Penguin Books, 1999), 442

[x] Edmund Burke, “Speech on a Committee to Inquire into the State of the on the Representation of the Commons in

Parliament as quoted in The Portable Edmund Burke (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 177

[xi] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

[xii] Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 96

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Eva Brann, “Talking, Reading, Writing, Listening” in The St. John’s Review, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring 2012), 142

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Published: May 25, 2013
Shaun Rieley
Shaun Rieley holds an M.A. from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He is an Outreach and Research Analyst at Concerned Veterans for America. Mr. Rieley served as an infantryman in the Maryland Army National Guard for nine years, which included tours of duty in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political theory at the Catholic University of America, and is the Program Officer for Trustee and Legislative Affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
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5 replies to this post
  1. My experience of St. John’s, graduating from the graduate school, is that it promotes an allergic reaction to plain-speaking truth-telling and truth-seeking.

  2. As a fellow Jonnie please don’t tie The Program to either liberalism or conservatism. It is not helpful for understanding its nature.

  3. What a wonderful essay! As a fan of St. John’s in general and Eva Brann in particular, I was delighted to see your weaving together of wisdom from Plato into one cloth with Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Eric Voegelin. There is nothing inevitable about reaching conservative conclusions from reading the Great Books, as I know you discovered, but you did an admirable job making the case here in a highly readable and well-reasoned piece. Thank you for sharing it with readers of The Imaginative Conservative!

  4. I just read this blog post in Hong Kong. I have been a long time fan of St. John’s College, and was quite moved by the passion you show for truth, words, ideas, and how St. John’s College helped you. We need more dialogue of the sort that happens during a seminar here in China.

  5. I attended St. John’s for a couple of years in the 1970’s and the great thing about the school is that the writings and the tutors allowed us to make up our own minds regarding liberal or conservative views. When I transferred to another prestigious Liberal Arts College I felt it was liberal group think there and was afraid to express a conservative view.

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