Great Books Reading Project

Most of this blog’s regular readers are already aware that I am an admirer of Mortimer J. Adler and have a love for the great books. For the past several years I have been considering taking up Adler’s suggested 10-year reading plan for the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World set, but have continually made excuses for myself and why I cannot do it. I have finally decided, however, to jump in. This January (2015) I will begin the 10 year reading plan that takes the reader through a huge bulk of the Great Books of the Western World. It does not include every page of the entire 60 volume set, but it does hit all of the highlights and encompasses more than half of the reading available there.

If any of you are interested in joining me, I am considering putting together either forum-style (such as in the comments section of blog posts) or perhaps live-via-video (Google Hangouts or similar) discussions once a month or so to discuss that month’s readings. You can purchase your own copy of the Great Books for a fairly low price at many books websites, such as Amazon. I have also adapted Adler’s reading plan to a month-by-month schedule beginning January 2015 and ending December 2024; you can access that here. [Most months, it seems to average out to about 5-10 pages per day.]

If you would like, you can join for one, two, or all of the books — whatever interests you and whatever level of commitment you are willing to accept. I am looking forward to some great reading and, hopefully, some very good discussions about that reading with the coming of the year!

Review: The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson

Dawson here presents the story of the decline and fall of education in the West. For Dawson, the primary reason for the continuing and ever-deepening failure of Western education is the lack of intentional focus on the great central and integral factor of the West in all of its cultural and scientific products: Christianity.

Because the study of Christianity has been either ignored altogether or marginalized into the academic ghetto of medievalism, Western culture has become incomprehensible to even most Westerners. We live in a world and in the midst of a heritage which we do not understand or appreciate. The loss of knowledge of the contents of the Christian faith is the loss of the key that allows us to access the great history, literature, philosophy, and even science of the West, all of them products of the idea of the Incarnation and its concomitant ideas.

As a solution, Dawson proposes a course of study in the liberal arts which focuses on the Christian origins and influences of each. This will allow us first to understand ourselves and the products of our own culture, then, as we turn to study other civilizations, we will possess the ability to understand them through comparison and analogy.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in education as well as anyone interested in the humanities generally.

Unreality of the secular

Now it is not the business of Christianity to defend our secularized Western culture from the menace of social or political revolution. From the Christian point of view there is not much to choose between passive agnosticism or indifferentism and active materialism. In fact, both of them may be different symptoms of the same spiritual disease. What is vital is to recover the moral and spiritual foundations on which the lives of both the individual and the culture depend: to bring home to the average man that religion is not a pious fiction which has nothing to do with the facts of life, but that it is concerned with realities, that it is in fact the pathway to reality and the law of life. This is no easy task, since a completely secularized culture is a world of make-believe in which the figures of the cinema and the cartoon-strip appear more real than the figures of the Gospel; in which the artificial cycle of wage earning and spending has divorced men from their direct contact with the life of the earth and its natural cycle of labor and harvest; and in which even birth and death and sickness and poverty no longer bring men face to face with ultimate realities, but only bring them into closer dependence on the state and its bureaucracy so that every human need can be met by filling in the appropriate form.

Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, p. 175

Review: Judgment of the Nations by Christopher Dawson

This is Dawson at his finest amid the world at its worst. Written at the height of Nazi power in Europe in 1942, Dawson here takes on the prophetic voice indicated by the title. He announces the events swirling about him, engulfing Europe, and destroying its culture as what they are: the judgment of the nations.

Dawson begins by exploring the rise of Western Civilization. He pinpoints those features that have been its strongest and most fundamental elements, including Christian faith, scientific reason, and the notion of human freedom. He shows how each of these ideas led to the great flourishing of creative activity in art, literature, and thought that have been the mark of Western Civilization for over two thousand years.

He then goes on to show the slow but steady dissolution of these elements beginning already in the Renaissance, progressing in the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, and finally reaching their boiling point at the turn of the 20th century. Dawson highlights the fracturing of Christendom, the turn to secularism, and the failure of 19th century liberal ideals as the driving forces behind the tumult of Europe.

Finally, having assessed and diagnosed, Dawson provides the prescription: a return to the center of European unity in the Christian idea of the Incarnation and its ramifications for thought on man, on society, and on the world. Through this recognition of its own center, the West can once again restore a proper view of humans and of the states, communities, and civilizations of which they are members. There is hope, Dawson assures us, even at the darkest hour of civilization, but this hope requires decisive action on the part of people.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the rise and decline of Western Civilization and its consequences. I also recommend this for anyone interested in history and historiography more generally.

Review: Shakespeare: The Perspective of Value by Robert E. Fitch

As the back cover assures us and as the author states several times in various ways: “A great deal of Shakespeare criticism is an effort to force the bard into categories into which he will not fit.” Of course, much the same could be said of nearly any great work of literature and its misuse and abuse by modern critics. The interpretations of the proponents of the various modern literary theories — existentialist, Marxist, queer, feminist, whatever the case may be — are all attempts to force the works of the great authors of the past to fit into their own box and support their pet ideologies. As for Shakespeare himself, I have seen just in the last month new articles which claim he was, among other things, a Catholic, a Calvinist, an atheist, and gay. Truth be told, he was almost certainly none of the above. And this is where Robert E. Fitch’s tour de force of Shakespeare’s worldview via his dramatic and poetic achievements comes in.

Fitch, as the subtitle has it, sets out to examine Shakespeare from “the perspective of value.” In other words, Fitch desires to get to the root of Shakespeare’s ideas about God, about man, and about the world; he wishes to discern Shakespeare’s principles and values, as well as how these might have changed during the course of his literary life. And this he does with vigor, with force, and with charm.

Fitch’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare is on full display throughout. Any time that he makes a claim about a value Shakespeare might have held, Fitch is able to immediately muster to his defense references from every piece of Shakespeare’s repertoire. In so doing, happily, he avoids the tortuous mental gymnastics so many modern critics must adopt in order to find a way to force the Bard into their box. Instead, he allows Shakespeare to speak for himself, often in his own words.

A helpful companion to this volume might be Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture. There, Tillyard expounds upon the worldview common to most Elizabethans, including such ideas as the Great Chain of Being, the four elements, the moral order, and the primacy of man. All of these ideas are, of course, the ideas Shakespeare would have been immersed in, even when he finds himself questioning some of them. Fitch is able, however, to explain all of these ideas well enough in the course of his examination of these principles and values in Shakespeare’s work specifically that Tillyard’s volume is not necessary to understanding Fitch’s but rather helpful.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in getting at the real Shakespeare, the man himself and what he believed. It will be a real treat for those who, like myself, greatly enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, but also helpful to anyone interested in literature and intellectual history in a more general way.

Post-Christian tragedy

As I see it, Shakespearean tragedy is born of a dilemma in faith. On the one hand, since death is the end, tragedy must dispense with the total Christian vision. On the other hand, since tragedy assumes the inherent dignity of man and the objective reality of a moral order, it needs for those things the support of the Christian imagination. Or will humanists in religion assert that Christianity is unnecessary to those assumptions? Our contemporary drama is evidence against them. What we have today is not tragedy, nor beyond tragedy. It is below tragedy.

Robert E. Fitch, Shakespeare: The Perspective of Value, p. 80

Review: Progress & Religion by Christopher Dawson

In this book, Dawson traces the history of Western civilization, focusing on the ideas of Christian religion and scientific progress, which he views as the distinctive ideas of Western Civilization. To these ideas, Dawson attributes the remarkable success of the West over the past several thousand years.

He begins with a treatment of the idea of progress in relation to sociology, history, and anthropology, explaining how each has worked, in turn, to undermine the essential foundations of Western Civilization. Dawson then moves to an earlier period in history and traces the rise of the various world cultures and world religions from their roots in creative cooperation with the environment through to the rise of civilizations. In the course of this explanation of the more general rise of culture, Dawson highlights the unique aspects of Western Civilization.

He then moves to a history of Europe specifically, again focusing on the dynamics of religion and progress. He explains the ways in which the specifically Christian ideas of history, science, and the Incarnation have been the defining influences on Western Civilization. He also explains the dissolution of these ideas beginning with the Enlightenment and the subsequent period of decline which Western Civilization has entered into.

Dawson concludes the book with a call to restore the Christian center of unity in Western Civilization, and thereby preserve our civilization. He writes that the West can once again restore its “vital rhythm and balance” if it again comes into contact with nature and with tradition, with those two great defining forces of all peoples.

In all of this, Dawson provides a necessary corrective to the misconceptions of our tradition and history rampant in academia today. He does an excellent job of addressing the unique features of the West. His call to restore the unity of Christendom is a call we in the West must hear before it is too late.

I recommend this book for anyone interesting in history, especially in historiography, and in the preservation of the greatness of Western Civilization.