How to Read the Great Books Well

Dr. Richard Meloche, Dr. Aaron Henderson, Dcn. Harrison Garlick, and Adam Minihan ask the question, “Why read the Great Books and how do you read them well?”

In this episode, they discuss:

  • What are the Great Books?
  • Why should we read the Great Books?
  • How reading the Great Books helps form the person.
  • How reading the Great Books will help form the culture

Here is a copy of the text read at the beginning of the episode:

Avoiding the Unreal: How to Read the Great Books Well

By Deacon Harrison Garlick

Originally published on The Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture

I. Reclaim your Education

“We are concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking,” wrote Robert M. Hutchins, editor of the 1952 Great Books of the Western World.[1] In order to “recall the West to sanity,” Hutchins, and his associate editor Mortimer Adler, compiled the fifty-four volume Great Books of the Western World series representing the primary texts from the greatest intellects in Western history.[2] From Homer, to Dante, to Shakespeare, they saw these authors in a dialogue, a “Great Conversation,” that gave the West a distinctive character.[3] These authors, especially the ancient and medieval ones, had contributed to the rise of the liberal arts and to the belief that the liberally educated man was one who had disciplined his passions in pursuit of the good. As Hutchins observed, “the aim of liberal education is human excellence.”[4]

Yet, Hutchins saw the West as undergoing a practical book burning.[5] The great books were being removed from Western education and with them any semblance of a true liberal education. Today, the book burning continues. It is evident that modern education is more a training—it trains students for a societal function and delegates the holistic, human formation to a culture of relativism. A college graduate is no longer expected to be “acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition” nor the perennial questions into truth, beauty, or goodness.[6] We are deaf to the “Great Conversation.” We are cut off from the great treasury of our intellectual inheritance and only vaguely aware it even exists.

The great books are an invitation to reclaim your education. They are a remedy to the privations of modern education and a salvageable substitute for our lack of a robust liberal arts formation. As Hutchins advocated, in reading the authors of the great books “we are still in the ordinary world, but it is an ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius.”[7] We are invited to the Great Conversation, to listen, and to add our voice to the pursuit of truth.

There is a latent danger, however, in how one approaches the great books.

II. Avoid the Sins of your Age

In his 1647 masterpiece, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, the Spanish priest Baltasar Gracian, S.J., exhorted his audience to “avoid the faults of your nation.”[8] He explains: “Water shares the good or bad qualities of the strata through which it flows, and man those of the climate in which he is born.”[9] We live, as Cardinal Ratzinger observes, under a “dictatorship of relativism,”[10] and it contaminates every feature of our intellect. To have the requisite self-awareness and virtue to purge these impurities is a “triumph of cleverness.”[11] Whether we think of the ark of Noah, the compulsion out of Plato’s cave, or the angel that led Lot out of Sodom, the great books can help us escape the errors of our age. Writers like Aristotle or St. Boethius challenge our modern presumptions and stretch our imagination to encompass new perspectives on reality. We may better see our age for what it is and what led to our present culture (or anti-culture).

Relativism, however, is pernicious and infects even the remedies against it. We should observe that the authors of the great books disagree. In fact, many of the modern great books became “great” by being contrary to most all that had preceded them. The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is a rejection of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. The understanding of history by Karl Marx is a revolution against over two thousand years of human observation, and Friedrich Nietzsche rejects everyone to wage war against Socrates and Jesus Christ. In short, the “great books” were chosen for their impact and not principally for their truth.

The latent danger in the great books is that one simply becomes a well-read relativist. Before us are the greatest minds in the West, these minds disagree, therefore there is no reasonable expectation of truth. Even so-called conservative great books projects will refrain from saying one great book is better than another—they denounce any type of guidance to the great books, favoring a pseudo-neutrality that places dialogue over truth.[12] As Patrick Deneen observes in his 2013 essay, “Against Great Books,” “I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books.”[13] Many of the “great books” listed in the Great Books of the Western World are the same books that led to the crisis of education in the West. As Deneen notes, “the broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.”[14] If applied incorrectly, the remedy for our failing liberal education, the “great books,” becomes part of the disease.

The great books can help us avoid the errors of our age, but we cannot approach them through those same errors. Approaching the great books as some cosmopolitan relativist bears a contrary purpose than that of the traditional liberal arts. If the great books are our answer to the collapse of the liberal arts, then the great books must echo the true purpose of the liberal arts.

III.       Conform your Mind to Reality

In his 1946 classic, The Intellectual Life, the French Dominican A.G. Sertillanges lays out the simple purpose of study: “The order of the mind must correspond to the order of things.”[15] He is drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, who teaches that truth is the conformity of the mind to reality.[16] This is the purpose of the liberal arts, of the great books, and of all study: the pursuit of truth. We must labor to conform our minds to the contours of reality. We aid one another in our pursuit of truth through our words, whether oral or written, for it is the purpose of our words to convey truth. How rich we are then to have the writings of such masters as St. Augustine to help guide us in this vocation of the intellect. As Sertillanges teaches, “books are signposts” on the movement of the mind toward truth.[17] We approach such authors as a student approaches a teacher—ready for a tutelage in what is real.

All things are judged good or bad according to their purpose (or telos, as the classical Greeks called it). I know a good knife must be sharp, because I understand its purpose is to cut. And because I know its purpose, I understand that the whetstone is good for the knife while its opposite would be bad. In sum, because I understand the purpose or telos of the thing, I can know whether the quality of that thing is good or bad—and also what is good or bad for that thing. So too is it for our intellect. If the purpose of our intellect is truth, then it is by that standard I judge what is good or bad for my intellect. Like a whetstone to the knife, a true great book will sharpen my mind’s understanding of reality. It is in obedience to this telos that we, like Sertillanges, judge our study and the study of the great books in particular. Not all great books meet this standard—as some are guides to the delineations of what is real, while others labor against it.

If we are to reclaim what was lost when the liberal arts fell, then the purpose of studying the great books must be the pursuit of truth. It was not relativistic dialogue that led Bl. Alcuin of York and Emperor Charlemagne to rebuild the West. Nor was it relativism that nurtured St. Thomas Aquinas or Dante. We are the inheritors of a robust pursuit of truth—a desire to satiate in the thickness of reality.

Yet, how does one judge what is true? In other words: how do we reconcile that we turn to the great books to teach us truth, yet we are to judge the great books by whether they teach truth? Are we the arbiter of what is real? What standards or principles should one bring to the study of the great books? What was the principle of truth amongst the liberal arts?

IV. Become a Student of the Logos

In his architectonic 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed, “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”[18] His address—arguably one of the most important postconciliar papal teachings—submits that there is a profound harmony between Greek reason and Hebrew faith. The Greek philosophers, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought the logos of reality. The Greek term logos means “the account of something” or the “ordering principle of a thing.” In Plato’s Republic, for example, Socrates is seeking the logos of justice—to know the reason and reality of what justice is. Aristotle speaks of logos as an argument that appeals to the intellect. The pursuit of the logos is part of our intellectual inheritance. It cultivated in the West the belief that nature, and all within it, bears a discoverable, rational order. It is at the heart of both our philosophy and our empirical sciences, as from logos we draw the word logic and the suffix –logy, as in biology (the account of life) or zoology (the account of animals). If truth, as aforementioned, is the conformity of the mind to reality, it was the concept of logos that taught the West that reality was an ordered, objective, and rational whole.

Greek reason and Hebrew faith began a dialogue hundreds of years prior to Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI observes, “despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.” To the Holy Father’s point, one may compare the violent clash of Greeks and Hebrews in First and Second Maccabees with the notable influence of Greek thought upon the reflections on faith in the Book of Wisdom or Sirach. Moreover, it is notable that the first Old Testament canon, the Septuagint (c. 250 B.C.), was a Greek translation centered in Alexandria. In sum, Greek reason coupled with Hebrew faith under Roman order tilled the earth for the coming of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul teaches, our Lord came in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4).

The zenith of this harmony is provided by St. John, as he opens his Gospel with an allusion to Genesis: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” St. John notably gives the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity the name Logos. He further proclaims, “the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, is the Logos of all creation—the ordering principle of reality itself. As Aristotle notes that logos can be a communication of reason, so too is the Logos the Word—the Word spoken by the Father in Genesis that structured the very order of being. The rational order of reality observed by the Greeks is the work of the Eternal Word, the Logos. As St. Paul teaches, in Jesus Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). Note as well that the Logos not only created reality but continues to hold it in existence (Col 1:17). What the Greeks sought via reason and what the Hebrews sought via faith is revealed to be Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Eternal Logos.

Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality, because objects in reality have a logos—a rational order—to which the mind may adhere. Here, we may better understand why Christ proclaims He is the Truth (John 14:6). If Jesus is the Logosof all that is real, Reason-itself, the account of all creation, then to conform your mind to Him would be to contemplate the Truth of all things. He is not the logos of any particular thing, but the Logos of all—and in Him and through Him we may come to a better understanding of particulars. The liberal arts must be understood as a pursuit of the Logos. The student would undergo a disciplined order of knowledge that moved the intellect into conformity with reality. First, the student would learn grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium), and then arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). All of these, however, and such higher sciences as medicine or law, were subservient to and perfected by the queen of the sciences, theology. The liberal arts were a foundation to and an acknowledgment of the study of God by both reason and faith, as illuminated by the Logos. It is amongst the debris of what was such a time-tested tutelage in the real that we must return to the great books. Deprived of this education, we turn first to the teachers who may be called “the ancients,” the intellects from Homer to Dante, who built up such a rich treasury of education. It is by their observations on nature and revelation that we learn of the Logos.

We live in the age of the anti-logos. Modernity is a rejection. The second half of the great books, “the moderns,” from Machiavelli to present, largely represents a deconstruction of any belief in an ordered whole of creation. While there are certainly good modern thinkers, such as Cardinal Newman or Pope Benedict XVI, the main trait of our modern age is rejection. Man no longer turns to God, revelation, nature, or history for guidance, but rather these become malleable to man’s creative will. Each man becomes his own god, his own “Logos,” who believes reality should conform to the “truth” of his own imagination. We live in an anti-culture—our dominative tutelage in the unreal. We live in a post-Christian paganism that no longer even adheres to the natural  logos of Socrates or Aristotle. The sin of our age, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted, is the sin against the Creator.[19] Man now makes his own reality and demands others adhere to it—the dictatorship of relativism.

Let us reclaim our culture. Let us reclaim our education by turning to the teachers of what is real, those who may help us—in this age of the unreal—conform our minds to Reason-itself, the Eternal Logos, Jesus Christ.

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