The Great Books approach tends inevitably towards producing the skill needed to read intelligently a philosophical work, but it does not, of itself, help turn a man into an incipient philosopher….
The study of philosophy is not directed toward discovering what men may have thought but toward knowing what is true. —St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotelis Libros De Coelo et Mundo, 1, lect. 2
Not more than thirty-five years ago, a graduating senior in liberal arts in most American Jesuit universities had to present six years of Latin, two of them on the college level, or—failing that—two years of Greek in order to receive the degree of Bachelor of Arts. As a concession—Latin was already dying on the high school level—he could obtain, without the classical languages, a strange degree called Ph.B., Bachelor of Philosophy. Scribbled after a man’s name, the Ph.B. could easily be mistaken for a Ph.D., but outside of this dubious credit it was obviously a cut under the classical A.B. and expressed the Society’s conviction that a degree in the humanities without classics was the equivalent of Hamlet without the prince of Denmark. But this commitment to classical studies, as prominent as it was, was not really the distinguishing mark of a Jesuit education. Nor was it theology, which after all was taught at all Church-sponsored schools. The seal of a Jesuit education was eighteen hours of philosophy, the study of which was constituted by a rigorous and systematic education in the scholastic tradition, beginning with logic and usually ending with ethics. (Many poor devils chose philosophy as their minor subject simply to avoid another eighteen hours of credits added to an already heavily burdened if rich curriculum.)
In the still ghetto-dominated Catholicism of the times, the post-immigrant inferiority complex that plagued the Church in America disappeared within the walls of Jesuit schools. We were the best-educated men in the nation and we knew it. We walked tall, and there was little, if any, of that hankering after the Ivy League that often troubled many of our WASP brothers in academia. Not only was our Church right, but we had the reasons to prove it. Secularism in the academy was only just aborning. Dueling with it was like crossing swords with a sea of marshmallows. No contest. We had the tools to defend ourselves, and they had been sharpened and tested through four centuries of the famous Ratio Studiorum. In other things we were not unlike our non-Catholic fellow university students. We were football crazy and girl crazy, and we probably drank only a little more than the rest of the American university community. But we made a difference, and that difference was rooted in our classical, and, even more, in our philosophical formation. We stood down for nobody. Then we went to war.
Although it was otherwise, naturally, in our study of literature, which was built around the mastery of an inheritance of books, our philosophical education was not centered on a list of Great Books or even around the exegesis of key philosophical texts. The French explication des textes was not unknown to us. We did a little of it, but it did not form the center of our philosophical studies. Teaching was carried on in the classroom by balancing a subject matter—the philosophy of being, of nature, of man, of morals, etc.—with the cultivation of a number of habits of reasoning enabling students to come to terms with those subjects, at first timidly, then with growing confidence, and finally with the ring of certitude and the delight of understanding. (At the University of Detroit, where I began my undergraduate studies, during my junior year Father Bernard Wuellner, S.J., introduced a textual course in the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas; we read only the Latin original, something no junior class could do today, but the course was a kind of bonus which supplemented the systematic approach.) Towards the end of the period I am discussing these subjects were often located within history. Etienne Gilson’s influence was crucial. But the goal remained the same: mastery of subjects and the acquisition of habits in pursuit of that mastery. When the stout lad who had done his apprenticeship was examined by a board of his betters at the end of his studies, he might have been asked to defend Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory or Aquinas’ distinction between essence and existence or the principle of the double effect. He was rarely called upon to exegetisize the texts in which these doctrines might be found. He was asked to break down a problem to its essentials, to reason about it, and, if possible, to make a conclusion and thus affirm a truth. We wanted truths, the reasons for them, and the capacity to orchestrate them. That constituted the study of philosophy on the undergraduate level in the vast majority of American Catholic colleges and universities. Textual analysis was reserved for the few who pursued graduate studies. But even there—I remember it well because I did my Master’s work at the University of Notre Dame under Yves Simon and Gerald Phelan—it was assumed that the student brought to these advanced courses habits of philosophizing already born in his earlier years. The goal, on the graduate level as well, was to dominate the text and not be dominated by it.
Underlying this approach to philosophical studies, found of course not only in Jesuit institutions but in all Catholic schools of higher learning, were a number of presuppositions, themselves philosophical. Possibly the most important was Aristotle’s understanding of the study of philosophy. Given that the Stagirite stands as the source of the scholastic tradition, given that we were all educated scholastically, the premise in question very naturally guided our instruction. The Philosopher, as he was called by everybody until late in the Renaissance, insisted that philosophy was not a “reality,” neither the reality of nature nor the reality of books nor the reality of personal experience. Philosophy was a unique way of understanding reality, a stance a man learned to take towards being. Neither totally objective nor subjective, philosophy—as with the other sciences—was a way, in truth a number of ways, of understanding things. Things are different. Therefore, there are different ways of understanding them. Even the same reality can be captured by the mind in more than one manner. A kind of an abstractive act disengaged a subject of discourse and of reasoning, an unknown thing, for the inquiring mind. Once that subject was located and disengaged, the human intellect came to understand it through a series of predicates. Thus a body of doctrine was crafted into being, the being of knowing. These predicates, for the most part, were achieved thanks to reasoning about the topic under discussion. Since Aristotle’s very definition of science, episteme, scientia, involved educating the mind of the beginner by a master to reason accurately, swiftly, and with a measure of pleasure, he built up a body of conclusions. These conclusions constituted the science along with the reasons establishing them. Philosophy was not “out there” in a hallowed list of books; philosophy was not “out there” in nature. Philosophy was “in here,” within a mind annealed in philosophical discourse. Very strictly and formally, philosophy was identified with certain habits of the mind. Philosophy is not a substance that walks around on all fours, a thing. Philosophy involves a range of virtues, of habits of the mind, through which things are understood in their causal structures. Even more: Philosophy is not its own history although the man who ignores that history, as Gilson once wrote, is doomed to repeat it.
Paradoxically the modus philosofando dominating the American Catholic academy at that time was simultaneously personal and traditional. Given that a philosopher’s habit is his own individual possession, it cannot be exchanged with anyone else’s habit. The tools for the acquisition of philosophy are public, but philosophy itself is a personal achievement. Unless I am merely repeating by rote somebody else’s thinking, most likely the teacher’s (I admit that a good deal of that went on), the interiorizing of philosophical truth took place within the intelligence of one man. His philosophizing by definition could never be that of anybody else. Unless I do the thinking, grasp the insight, produce the conclusion, then neither thinking, nor insight, nor conclusion takes place in me. The issue is almost self-evident. There is a commonplace in St. Thomas Aquinas’ psychology according to which all learning occurs within an imagination and an experience stirred by a man’s own history and encounter with being. Two students can grasp the same reality, but each one will do so according to his own peculiar mode of knowing. An old scholastic tag insists that things are received according to the mode of the recipient: quidquid recipitur recipitur secundum modum recipientis. A broad common tradition was received by students, but like a seal it was coined in the indefinite plasticity of human nature. Certainly, Aquinas meant something different to the mid-twentieth-century mind than he did to the thirteenth century, and he even meant something different to students sitting in the same classroom.
In such fashion better minds absorbed the tradition, shaped it in new ways, and even added to it. “Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism,” according to Salvador Dali. Ironically the more traditional was the teaching, the more original was the product. A string of splendid philosophers and teachers made their names within the American Catholic philosophical community, and yet each one of these philosophized in his own way, enriching the Thomistic tradition. Submitting himself to a common inheritance brought forth liberty in the professor; when he walked into the classroom, he literally taught himself. In such fashion, a broad oral tradition was created in the Catholic American philosophical community. Universities such as Vanderbilt and Dallas have emphasized the character of an oral tradition in American Southern letters. Yet almost unnoticed there grew into maturity a philosophical oral tradition among those who were bred on the scholastic style of philosophizing. Thousands of graduates from Catholic schools were united in that all of them had been nurtured from the same sources. When these men met socially or even at conventions, a broad fellowship knit them into friendship. Coming from all over the country, from a host of colleges and universities, belonging to all kinds of professions and commercial enterprises, they rarely had read the same books; but they had all studied the same subjects. They all shared a common method of reasoning on ultimate issues. (I can recall personally a number of soldiers during World War II who gloated, when they were not raising hell, in engaging in the most abstruse philosophical conversations which bewildered their other companions in combat. They knew the same subjects; they had mastered, up to a point, the same rational tools of argumentation, and they had the same Catholic university background. Those I knew were mostly enlisted men, but I remember one poor shavetail who forgot his importance and insisted on butting in: He always ended the night bloodied and bereft of dignity and often of sobriety, but in that he simply shared our common humanity.)
This oral tradition was fiercely Latin in the clergy, where these subjects had been taught in that language. Within the laity, the conversation was in English, but the English itself was artificial and stiff, heavily Latinized, full of cliches, fixed in its vocabulary. This made communication possible between men who had come from all over the country and who had studied in many different institutions. Philosophy was an enterprise principally talked out loud, not written down. Certainly, this was a distant echo of the Middle Ages, when books were scarce and the academic disputation, dominating education, was savagely masculine. Undoubtedly more students were educated in the scholastic tradition during the first half of this century and even beyond than were educated in Europe in the entire Middle Ages. We gloried in a fellowship: within, community; outside, chaos.
Then came the chaos—around 1970 or a few years earlier. The decline of the scholastic tradition in American Catholic universities coincided with the heavy secularization of the American academy at large, which began sometime after 1965. There were many causes for this sad demise, but I cannot halt this little essay in order to study them. Suffice it to say that a whoring after federal money, an itch for conformity, a misunderstood ecumenism—all these and other factors contributed to a dismantling of the older order within the Catholic community. Soon enough we were aping Behemoth University, as Russell Kirk called it. An intellectual fellowship withered into a sorry simulacrum of itself. The doors were opened. The chaos from outside settled like debris and dust within halls from which order had been banished.
The hiring of teachers with no education in the scholastic tradition and no burning commitment to Catholic education, of Ph.D. recipients with no common bond between themselves except the doctorate, created the same kind of vacuum that had plagued the public universities for decades. Nature abhors a vacuum—once again good Aristotle—and administrators and others soon sensed that something had to take the place of the older scholastic method. Some unifying principle had to knit together undergraduate studies in philosophy because the existent Tower of Babel was intolerable. Requirements in philosophical studies shrank from eighteen hours to nine, then to six, and in one Catholic university in California to three. Men having no common vocabulary, sharing no set of ultimate truths, each one spinning about in his own little box, all together sowing confusion and skepticism in the minds of those unfortunate charges under their tutelage, created an anarchy that could not long endure. Administrators seemed too pusillanimous to recall seven hundred years of papal insistence on the pre-eminence of St. Thomas Aquinas and of the scholastic method, which ought to preside over the study of philosophy.
Thus were born the Great Books. They came into vogue to cure the patient. Initially conceived outside the Catholic academy in Chicago, St. John’s, and elsewhere, the proponents of the Great Books would introduce students into the wide inheritance of the West by centering their education on the reading of original texts. (We are interested here only in how this is affecting education in philosophy: I totally abstract from the fanaticism that would have students of physics and mathematics spend their time reading pre-Copernican texts.) There is, of course, more than one list of Great Books: any committee chosen by a dean can draw up its own. The most famous is the Hundred Great Books drawn up by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins: A list curiously weighted, in its modern listings, in favor of the Anglo-American world and remarkably light in what it includes of contributions from the Latin inheritance. Be that as it may, the intentions moving these men to implement their proposals, often by draconian administrative fiat, are sufficiently well-known that it suffices merely to list them. Although the Great Books movement entered the Catholic university structure because of the collapse of the scholastic method, it did not enter as a dialectical opposite to the older order. The contention was and is made that the older American pragmatism has failed; that the smorgasbord approach to college courses is without any unifying principle; that the great tradition of the West is effectively enshrined in its most significant written works. But behind these pious intentions—as good as they might be—repose three presuppositions, sometimes not expressed formally but always exercised in the classroom: (1) disengaging the meaning of a text equals philosophizing; (2) the teacher is little more than a midwife whose role consists in leading the student to read texts and who is supposed to disappear, so to speak, behind the texts; (3) these books speak to the reader across the centuries altogether without any need to locate them within their historical contexts. Wisdom is not in the professor and wisdom is not in the tradition: wisdom is in the Books.
Let me attack these presuppositions in turn:
(1) Intellectual delicacy is needed to understand that the first prejudice is a fallacy. The understanding of the meaning of a text is not equivalent to the exercise of what Dr. Joseph Pieper felicitously called “The Philosophical Act.” Quite evidently nobody can become a professional philosopher who has not mastered the skills involved in reading a text. They have to do with disengaging a meaning which is not always evident on a first reading. But a scholar who is not a professional philosopher—for instance, an intellectual historian—can do this very well without his being able to affirm the truth or to detect the flaws in a philosophical argument. Philosophical reasoning, on the contrary, consists in forming propositions into premises yielding conclusions. The habit is by no means reducible to the first set of skills. The philosophical act, therefore, can be exercised upon a text, but it does not have to be: It might be exercised on the report of a text, on a problem presented in isolation of texts, or on any issue which demands philosophical penetration. The explication des textes hunts for “meaning,” not “truth.” Philosophical reasoning looks to concluding truths. The older scholastic method aimed at producing the philosophical habit. The Great Books approach tends inevitably towards producing the skill needed to read intelligently a philosophical work, but it does not, of itself, help turn a man into an incipient philosopher. Indeed, in practice, he is overwhelmed with textual meaning, and his mastery thereof squeezes out the cultivation of philosophical habits of reasoning and concluding. After a time, when asked what he thinks of a given philosophical problem, he reaches for a text. Insidiously he comes to think that the understanding of literary-philosophical meaning is the equivalent of doing philosophy.
(2) Weighing the second prejudice, we must note that the very location of philosophy as a discipline, indeed a series of disciplines, shifts from the personal nourishment of habits of thinking about the real to the mastery of a number of philosophical classics. Concerning this latter, little need be said. Bergson once wrote that it takes a lifetime to master as many as two great philosophers and the very best we can do with the rest is to gain a gentleman’s awareness of their role and importance within the development of Western intellectuality. It was better to know one of them thoroughly than to know all of them superficially. No deep principle guides this observation: It is based simply on the economy of time given an undergraduate in a handful of courses dedicated, in a hurry, to his philosophical education. But anyone who has given over his life to the pursuit of philosophy knows from both the pain and the joy of his own experience that the more he enters into the thought of a master who proffers him the truth, the less time he has to spend on the rest of them. More to the point, the less comfort and nourishment he takes from perusing their works. It is a mark of the professional that he knows what books he does not need to read, indeed ought not to read, because they get in the way of his pursuit of truth.
St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of a kind of sin—probably a minor sin—which is “curiosity,” wanting to know what may be worth knowing in itself but which is foreign to the destiny a man has given his own life. He was thinking of the cleric who ignores the things of God and busies himself with “pure” philosophy. But long before Aquinas, Plato pointed out that a mark of the philodaster, the false philosopher, was his knowing “many things” but knowing none of them in depth. The Great Books approach tends to flatten the entire tradition as it lines up book after book, text after text, with which it thins out the student’s capacity to judge, to evaluate, to put in hierarchy, to concentrate upon through years of study or to slough off with an afternoon’s reading, soon to be forgotten or relegated to a modest role within a man’s hunt for the truth of things. Enthusiasm like a love affair limits because it intensifies, and such enthusiasm and love are forbidden the poor chap who must labor through thousands of pages of stuff indiscriminately. Were he to discriminate because his mind gripped something which might give him a toehold on the precipice of being, he would soon become a very bad boy indeed because he would neglect the syllabus—that sanctified cow hallowed by the acolytes of a new dogma. For them what is important is not to learn how to think philosophically and thus to make one’s own a number of philosophical truths. What is important is to “get through” (the spatial metaphor is significant) the syllabus, to read all those books, to give reports on their content, but generally to refrain from personal judgment. This last is probably wise: Nobody who read all that stuff would have the leisure needed to ponder philosophically problems and eventually conclude, come up on one side or another of two contradictories. Aristotle insisted that philosophy is the highest instance of the life of leisure, but there is no leisure for boys and girls who are expected to gorge themselves on three thousand years of texts and then regurgitate them come examination day. To remember all the data, as suggested, leaves no time for judgment. Yet judgment, says St. Thomas, is the mark of the philosopher of being and the philosopher of being is the Philosopher, just as a genus is often named for its highest species.
(3) Weighing the third of these prejudices—the conviction that books make sense to students without being located within the historical context that gave them birth and in abstraction from the living tradition in which they play their part—we must note that a kind of philosophical fundamentalism akin to its religious counterpart has insinuated itself into many departments of philosophy given over to Great Bookism. Yet very few, if any, philosophical masterpieces speak by themselves to the contemporary student. This is especially true when they are read, as they usually are, in translation. A man must work himself into the preoccupations and hidden convictions of an age before he can even begin to understand an original text in depth. This is commonplace to contemporary scholarship, but it is ignored by Great Books zealots. Marshall McLuhan used to insist to the author that no text can be understood in isolation from its audience: that audience is its history. (For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas’s Questiones Quodlibetales VIII makes little sense unless seen in the background of the enormous Augustinian pressure under which he lectured.) Plato and the rest of them are supposed, piously, to speak to the eighteen-year-old, fresh from four years of high school ignorance. John Senior wrote somewhere that a man ought to read a hundred good books before he reads one great book, but our high school graduates have read nothing at all. Yet they are asked to cope with Hume and Spinoza without having the faintest hint of the kind of world within which those men lived and thought. This contempt for history might be a constitutional American disease lurking within a sensibility that suspects that everything viable man has done, he did on this side of the Atlantic, salve—of course—a few dozen Great Books. Emerging out of a new world in which the book has lost its pre-eminence as a tool of communication, the students are forced back into an almost savage and reactionary apprenticeship in the reading of books in univocal abstraction from their history. These books are often treated with the reverence and awe properly restricted to the Sacrament on the Altar.
What suffers and are stifled before they can be given birth are those personal habits of philosophizing to which we have already referred, the possession of which—again I repeat Aristotle—constitute philosophy itself as a series of acts exercised by a mind which thereby comes to know reality under this or that aspect.
Let us here cut the cackles and come to the horses: This is philosophy as understood by the scholastic tradition. Philosophy is not the reading of books; philosophy is not the contemplation of nature; philosophy is not the phenomenology of personal experience; philosophy is not its history. These are indispensable tools aiding a man to come to know the things that are. But that knowing is precisely knowing and nothing else. We once were given this, not too long ago, in the American Catholic academy. With a few honorable exceptions, we are given it no longer. This is why philosophy is no longer talked into existence. It is no longer talked into existence because it is no longer thought into existence. Men think largely by talking, and the thinking needed to produce a scholastic disputation, for instance, simply has ceased to exist on our campuses. Our students often cannot spot a middle term if you dangle it in front of their noses. They may be exposed to logic in some cases, but they rarely use it because the mastery of a subject matter is no longer central to their study of philosophy. They try to master the reading of books (they do not even succeed in that), not subjects, forgetting all along—because they have not been told—that these very books had as their end not themselves but an understanding of reality.
The scholastic structuring of philosophy into a number of courses given over to the exploration of certain subjects dates largely from Aristotle, although his teaching was refined and revised through centuries of probing, testing, and concluding. A watershed for this tradition is St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on The Trinity of Boethius (a Great Book if there ever was one, although I have never seen it so listed). As this tradition developed, a number of topics came to be associated with the subjects themselves because they are inherent to their elucidation. For instance, the problem of change was central to the philosophy of nature; being was the focal point of the philosophy of being; liberty was intrinsic to the philosophy of man; the good proper to man to ethics; later and under the pressure of rationalism and idealism—knowledge to epistemology.
Basic methodology followed on the actual exercise of philosophical acts and simply articulated, in a theoretical fashion, what was already being done within the minds of philosophers. The eye and the hand and the spirit were always fixed on the real, the world in which we have our being. It followed that a number of traditionally agreed upon topics would be studied in these basic disciplines. They were, in truth, intrinsic to them. Within this structure, however, the teaching professor was left free to develop his subject as he saw fit. Since teaching is a synthesis of several arts and not a science, it can never be reduced to any univocal mold. One man’s nectar is another man’s poison. One man comes into his own lecturing whereas another may prefer a more Socratic approach. One professor might prefer to lay the problem on the table in all its dialectical complexity and thus confront students with contradictory solutions as he guides them through this maze towards the light of truth. Another professor might prefer to unfold his subject from its beginnings in history, developing it as though it were a detective novel. Such was Gilson’s genius. Some teachers will mix up all these approaches in a cocktail which is of their own making. But where the scholastic tradition dominated in the American Catholic community which I have known from both sides of the podium, the teacher was perfectly free to orchestrate his own artistry. Absolutely nobody, neither dean nor committee nor chairman, infringed on his liberty, his academic freedom, to teach as he saw fit. Noli tangere was writ large as a prologue to the bill of rights of professors. Certain basic commitments were demanded of him as a member of a Catholic educational community obedient to the Magisterium of the Church. Certain critical issues, hallowed by tradition, awaited his elucidation: e.g., the existence of God, the freedom of the will, the dignity of the person, and the like. He taught subjects systematically, but his style of teaching was the work of his own strategy and sensibility. It is quite evident that the Great Books approach to the teaching of philosophy, if taken seriously, violates that liberty. Not only, as pointed out, does the student suffer, but his teacher is truncated from the outset as his teaching is pressed down upon a Procrustean bed. No veteran educated in the older and better order of things would submit to such a violation of his dignity.
Often the objection is made that the scholastic approach makes for rigidity in the classroom. The objection has a certain validity, and more than one of my readers will remember some dried-up ghost of a teacher who mumbled his yellowing and thumb-crumpled notes, who assumed that nothing had happened of interest since the thirteenth century, and who dribbled out his never-ending rosary of syllogisms altogether without style or explanation. He still does in a few places. Often he is a delightful fellow, but as a teacher, he is a disaster. But let us never forget that the corruption of the best is the worst. Let us take an instance, if not of the best, then hopefully of the better:
Assume that I am teaching the philosophy of man. My immediate topic, a subject within a subject, is symbolism, and my goal is to lead my students to a number of judgments about the being of symbols. I might well read to them and ponder the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, or I might comment on the homilies of Origen on the Song of Solomon. I might follow this up by commenting on Aquinas on the morality of dreams or on the role of the phantasm in cognition; on John of St. Thomas on second intentions and Maritain on magic; Guardini on power and Hugo Rahner on play; on medieval heraldry or contemporary jazz; on McLuhan on subliminal seduction; on the relations between essence and being. l will undoubtedly have read widely on the topic from books both great and not so great, but eventually, I will come forth with a synthesis of doctrine stamped with the force of my being because transmuted in the alchemy of personality. I will have become my subject, and in professing it to my students, I will be professing myself: a labyrinth of experience and judgment, of acceptance and rejection, of reasoning on the nature and being of symbolism. Nobody else could have produced this theory because it is the effect of a complexity eminently personal, and, to a degree, free. Such a systematic approach is the very reverse of arid. It frees the mind to roam around a subject and invites students to do the same. The professor, in this instance, is not trying to get his students to read everything he has read on the subject: They have not the time, the skills, the sophistication, or the languages. His game is not what Aquinas or Freud or anybody else said about symbolism: His game is symbolism, a subject of being now bombarded by a host of predicates, each one of which affirms some truth of the subject itself.
A further objection brought against the scholastic method maintains that students were taught out of textbooks and never had to consult original works. The objection goes hand in hand with the complaint against reading secondary sources. There is more than one college in this nation where such reading is not only discouraged but almost forbidden. I once did a little finger exercise in counting the number of texts written within the scholastic tradition in this century in the United States. I came up with some sixty of them, some in Latin, most in the vernacular, some formally published, others simply mimeographed or xeroxed. According to my opinion, two or three were brilliant, most were satisfactory, and a handful were horrible—this following, I presume, the curve of human intelligence itself. Every professor of philosophy who is worth his salt writes his own text, a text which is his course, whether he publishes it or not. The text exists in his notes or in his head. If he does not “write” this text down in one way or another, he is not a professor because he has nothing personal to say about his subject. He might just as well have disappeared behind his list of Great Books. When the complaint against texts is made by Thomists, as it sometimes is, the issue becomes comical. Even among many of the lists of the Great Books are to be found a number of commentaries on Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas. His two great Summae, in turn, were textbooks for use in the classroom.
One of the vast differences that blasted an abyss between medieval and modern philosophy consists in the truth that medieval “texts” are all textbooks, handmaidens to the spoken word, whereas most modern philosophical works are just books to be read. What Marshall McLuhan called the “Guttenberg Revolution” divides as does a sundering sword one entire philosophical tradition from another. The scholastic tradition was intended to be spoken out loud as I have insisted earlier. These two worlds cannot be lumped together under the rubric of “Great Books.” Great Books fanaticism, once again, ignores the audience and in so doing reveals its parochialism, its innocence towards history. We no longer live in a book-dominated culture; to treat our students as though we did is to violate their very psychic structure. Today we enter a new kind of Middle Ages, but Great Books people still absent-mindedly behave as though they were living in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.
A philosopher ends where he begins, and that beginning is his love of wisdom. With Parmenides, we enter through a gate and find there a house, modest because not itself the House of God, but a house nonetheless, divided into rooms and built upon floors united by staircases, therefore habitable and fitted for human living. Within this house we find order—the mark of Wisdom. That Wisdom has been expelled from our schools. As a philosopher, I mourn its loss and desire, nostalgically, its restoration.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer/Fall 1987). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.