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.

Historical causation

In his discussion of the factors in historical causation, Christopher Dawson identified four primary factors, “(1) race, i.e., the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e., the geographic factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e., the economic factor,” and, finally, (4) “thought, or the psychological factor.” Each of these factors has received some special emphasis at some epoch in the history of thought on historical causation. It is Dawson’s unique contribution to the field of thought on historical causation, however, to highlight the psychological factor as the decisive factor in the movements of history, as the human factor which unites and, in a sense, governs and directs the others.

Race, or the genetic factor, is the factor of historical causation which has received the greatest emphasis in the modern era, though it is by no means unique to the modern era. Aristotle, for example, says of “the poets” that “they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.” It was in the modern era, however, that race came to be identified by certain thinkers as the most central aspect of historical causation. The most extreme forms of the position which places race as the central determinative factor in historical causation have largely collapsed under the weight of the atrocities these theories have led to. For example, Alexander H. Stephen’s theory of the natural servility of those of African descent became an ex post facto justification for the existence of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. The most infamous example is the theory, generally associated with the Nazis but adopted more widely by eugenicists of various political stripes near the turn of the 20th century, of a malignancy transmitted via the blood of particular ethnic groups, an idea which counts the Holocaust among its consequences. Although undue focus upon the genetic factor in historical causation has largely been discredited through its own horrendous consequences, this theory has returned with renewed vigor in unexpected places, as among those who argue that an innate predisposition toward certain sexual behaviors implies the necessity of social acceptance of said behaviors.

A panicked reaction against the consequences of the racialist theory of historical causation has led to a renewed emphasis upon the two other material factors, the geographic and the economic. The geographic factor undoubtedly has the longest pedigree of the two. In his History, for example, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, linked the origins of Egyptian culture, including their language and religion, to the geography of the land they inhabited and its environment. One of the most popular of the modern reiterations of this ancient idea of geographic determinism is that of Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel. In his 1997 book and eponymous 2005 television documentary series, Diamond sets out to answer a question put to him by a native of New Guinea, though perhaps more succinctly articulated nearly a century prior by W. E. B. Du Bois in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa?” In the wake of the racialist ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Diamond merely frantically replaces one set of material factors (genes) with another (geography), arguing eloquently but not persuasively for an exclusion of the human factor from the central position.

The economic factor of historical causation is of a decidedly modern origin. Its origins are contemporaneous with the rise of race to prominence as the central factor in historical causation. Unlike race, however, the economic factor has maintained its popularity as a material explanation for historical causation to the present day. Its most well-known and vociferous exponent, Karl Marx, argued that “the life-process of society … is based on the process of material production.” Having fixed economics as the final definitive factor in historical causation, Marx proceeded to dismiss all other aspects of a society, including its religious and political systems, insisting that far from possessing any causative or explanatory power they themselves were merely the derivative products of the economic factor. Marx’s explanation of all history through economic factors proved convincing enough to win over a great many of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who, fairly late in his life, attempted to answer his question through applying the Marxist theory of material dialectic to race relations in the modern world.

Like the racial and geographic theories, however, Marx’s theory of economic causation in history reduces history to the merely material. Positing race, geography, or economy as the central causative factor in history displaces human life and its unique features, rational thought and spiritual insight, from their due place of centrality. This reduction to the merely material is largely a modern phenomenon. Even among those ancient thinkers who identified material factors of causation, there was rarely an outright exclusion of the human factor. Plato, for example, in his Laws, placed what is perhaps an undue emphasis on the geographic factor in his contention that a city near a “sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather than a producing country” requires “some mighty saviour … and lawgivers more than mortal, if … [it] were ever to have a chance of preserving … [itself] from degeneracy and discordance of manners.” Yet even in this statement of the great effect of the geographic factor upon a state, Plato evinces a belief in the human factor of a “mighty saviour” and “lawgivers more than mortal” as the most decisive factor in the shaping of a people’s history.

It is precisely such great men whom Christopher Dawson pointed to as the most important factor in historical causation, reminding the modern world that it is not so much man who is subject to the material factors of race, geography, and economy, as it is man who works within the confines of these factors to reshape them and create new and great cultures. “Behind every civilization there is a vision,” he writes in his Progress and Religion, “a vision which may be the unconscious fruit of ages of common thought and action, or which may have sprung from the sudden illumination of a great prophet or thinker.” Underlying historical causation, says Dawson, creating and giving impulse to material factors is the human factor. Behind every great movement in history one will not find, if followed to its roots, a gene, a mountain, or an exchange of goods. Instead, one will discover the human will.