great books

Man’s law, God’s law (Antigone)

It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to reread some of these great Greek dramas for the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. I had forgotten just how excellent are so many of them, and the works of Sophocles are by no means the least. It is a shame that we will not be returning to Sophocles again for several years in the reading plan.

I once presented Antigone, in a somewhat simplified version (not because of ability but because of time), to my 8th graders as an outstanding early example of a point that Martin Luther King would make so eloquently in 20th century America: that the law of man is not the law of God and that when the two come into conflict it is God’s law that must be followed.

Rereading the drama in whole again I began to reflect on the way that ideas are born, live and change, and sometimes, though very rarely, die in history, and on the way that small innovations can have profound ramifications in the least likely places. Would there, in short, have been a Civil Rights Movement in the modern United States had it not been for Sophocles?

Of course, Sophocles is not the only exemplar here. There seems to have been a movement during this time toward a new way of thinking about God, man, and the world; I believe it was Huxley who coined the term “Axial Age” to refer to this era of nearly universal and significant change in outlook. Christopher Dawson’s thought on the centrality of religion to culture has also often focused on this era, though I’m not sure that he chose any special name for it. There was a movement, it seems, from nature-centered religions (and, therefore, cultures) which saw human activity as necessitating an imitation of nature. Dawson links this to the early agriculturalists who found that through imitating the natural processes of plant growth they could produce their own fields of crops. The result was a worship of nature, and the belief in nature as the standard for human activity, including in the moral sphere.

It was during this Axial Age, however, that there is a widespread recognition of the insufficiency of nature as a model for human activity. Man, now settled agriculturalists, began to look for another standard, an extra-natural or supernatural existent from which could be derived another set of standards transcending the order of the merely natural. In China, the result is Lao Tzu’s notion of the Tao — natural, yet transcendent at once. In Mesopotamia, the transformation of the tribal warrior-deity Yahweh into the Supreme God of all nations, surpassing even his own name, in the thought of the Prophets. In India, the movement away from the simplistic materialism and crass magician tricks of the Vedas toward the intellectualizing, complex, and mystical Hinduism of the Upanishads. And, of course, in Greece, the movement away from the relatively simple worldview of Homer toward the philosophy of Plato, aiming toward another world as the true.

Matthew and Acts

I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:

As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.

Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.

It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.

The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment,  but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.

There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.

The power of the great books

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been around small children that humans naturally crave the security of a familiar and nonthreatening environment. While this innate human tendency is most pronounced in small children, it follows all of us into adulthood and throughout our lives. In the same way that a child might bring a beloved toy or blanket along with him to act as a source of comfort in an unfamiliar environment, so most adults choose to partake of books and television which reinforce the views they already hold. The Pew Research Center, for example, discovered in a recent study that most political liberals in the United States listen to, watch, and read their news from media outlets that skew to the left while American political conservatives tend to consume media with a distinctively conservative bent.

It is a unique strength of an educational program based in the great books that the student is required by the very nature of the great books themselves to broaden his mind by reading literature that, often even when he agrees with the author, presents a challenge to his presuppositions and preconceived notions, and sometimes even his most certain convictions. While the students’ beliefs will not necessarily be changed, as beliefs are terribly difficult things to change in a person, there is no doubt that they will be clarified and that the students will walk away with a greater sense of the complexity of a topic and the diversity of positions available on that topic. In addition, he will have developed an appreciation for even those positions to which he is opposed, recognizing in them some aspect of or commentary upon the universal human condition.

This is an accurate summary of my own experience over the past semester as I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in those great books which take up the topic of history. Having read widely in the history of thought on history over these four months, I have been able to hear from some of the greatest minds of the Western tradition their thoughts on this uniquely Western idea that is history, allowing them to speak for themselves and to elucidate upon their own experience of and meditations upon the subject.

The range and diversity of possible positions has been one rather jarring feature of this reading. Given the great differences between, for example, St. Augustine, on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other, it has occasionally been difficult to understand how each of them could be talking about the same thing. While Augustine sees the guiding hand of providence behind each movement in history, Marx sees instead the interplay of economic, and therefore solely material, forces, a wholly different moving force in history. Yet again, there is Niccolo Machiavelli, a thinker of equal eminence and erudition when compared to either Augustine or Marx, who raises his hand to object to both and assert rather that Fate of any sort can indeed be resisted by any man whose “valour has … been prepared to resist her” and whose “defences have … been raised to constrain her.” Still more thinkers, of no less excellence and import, might chime in with any number of other positions on the matter, running across a great array from freedom to fatalism, each arguing in favor of his position with great gusto and compelling evidence.

As Leo Strauss noted in his 1959 essay “What is Liberal Education?,” it comes as a surprise to some, upon approaching the great books, to realize that “the greatest minds do not all tell us the same things regarding the most important themes; the community of the greatest minds is rent by discord and even by various kinds of discord.” It might, at this point, be tempting to fall into the sleepy indifference of relativism or, for those with a personality more caffeinated than that of the relativist, to abandon the great books altogether as hopelessly confused and irreconcilable. Hopelessly confused and irreconcilable they may be, but the answer is certainly not the slumber of relativism nor the despair of intellectual defeat.

On the contrary, in encountering this great diversity of well-reasoned opinions on the topic of history I have been afforded a tremendous opportunity to refine my own viewpoint by taking into consideration the various challenges and alternatives to it. In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” While it may be going too far to claim, as Nietzsche does, that all philosophy is really biography, there is a certain element of truth in this claim. Stated with less polemic and more fairness, it might be said that all philosophy is the result of a particular individual’s attempt to extrapolate from his unique subjective experience of human life in the world to the universal, general, and objective nature of human life in the world. This is true also of one’s philosophy of history.

Over the past 16 weeks, I have taken up and considered the philosophy of history espoused by a significant number of admirable thinkers, including ancient Greeks like Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, Romans like Marcus Aurelius, Christians of the Middle Ages such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and finally early modern and modern thinkers of great diversity, including Marx, Sir James George Frazer, Johan Huizinga, Pascal, and Karl Barth. It would be difficult to enumerate and elucidate the effect each has individually had upon my thought on history. Collectively, however, even without my thought on history having dramatically changed during this period of study, their effect has been tremendous. They have allowed me to recognize the limitations of my own worldview while opening my mind to the appreciation of others, and therefore of the human experience as a whole, and this is perhaps the most important thing any book, no matter how great, can do for a person.

The Republic (Great Books Reading Project)

Every time that I have read The Republic I have found myself secretly hoping that Plato will change his mind and admit Homer. I am, as readers of this blog probably know, an ardent admirer of Homer. I have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey several times. I began my journey of learning Greek last summer by starting with Homer’s works. That Plato, whom I also admire a great deal, excludes him from his ideal state is more than a bit disturbing to me.

Yet, I do see Plato’s point. His argument could, I think, be used in a modified way to debate many of the texts that are used in America’s public schools. If we admit Aristotle’s point in the Poetics that even tragedy and seeing people and gods do bad has the effect of producing virtue in the viewer, I think we can reorient Plato’s argument to one about good and bad literature rather than good and bad in literature.

My most basic educational principle is that children should be exposed to the best that has ever been thought and said. Homer undoubtedly should be so classed. A good chunk of what children are reading in schools today should not be so classed. At the end of the day, I would rather that a high school student reads about Odysseus’s self-absorption or Achilles’s rage than that he reads the nonsense that is Dreaming Cuban or the anti-Western polemic “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,” both of which are recommended in the Common Core State Standards. The former at least has something to teach us about what it means to be a human being, which is, I believe, the ultimate purpose of all literature.

What do you think?