Great Books and the Great Conversation

Readers of this Journal will have a great and healthy respect for the Great Books of civilization, those seminal tomes which have helped define who we are, why we are and where we are. Our culture would be impoverished without them. Indeed it would be rendered penurious in their absence. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are many fine colleges, universities and schools dedicated to teaching the Great Books.

This being so, it is with a degree of temerity mixed with timidity that I’d like to address the difference between an education based upon the Great Books and an education engaged in the Great Conversation that the Great Books prompt and provoke. In both cases, the Great Books form the basis of the curriculum, but in the former they are taught or discussed as quasi-sacred texts to be studied in a sola scriptura manner, text qua text, speaking for themselves (so to speak!); in the latter, in contrast, the texts are studied in the light of the other texts, as part of a noble tradition (traditio), or part of a broader Conversation, a tradition or Conversation which is larger than any of the individual texts.

Is this distinction between the Great Books and the Great Conversation important, or is it merely “academic” in the bad sense of that word, i.e. something that only pedants worry about?

The best way of answering this question, which is a very good one, is to show what the sola scriptura Great Books program looks like and how its counterpart, the Great Conversation program, differs from it.

The sola scriptura Great Books program is not in itself a conversation but merely a succession of comments by later texts on earlier ones. It is in this light that all philosophy can be seen as footnotes on Plato. The problem is that Plato is not allowed to respond to those writing the footnotes! The later texts pass judgment on the earlier ones, whereas the earlier ones are not able to pass judgment on the later ones. A Great Books program will show how Aristotle judges Plato, or how Augustine baptizes Plato, but it will not show how Plato judges Aristotle’s judgment of him or what Plato might think of Augustine’s infusion of Christian theology into Platonism. Taking things further, it will show how the Enlightenment judges the scholasticism of Aquinas and the philosophy of the Middle Ages but will not show how Aquinas judges the Enlightenment. It will show how Marx adopts and adapts the ideas of Hegel but will not show what Hegel might think of Marx’s adoption and adaptation of his ideas. And one wonders what Marx would think of Lenin or Trotsky or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot or any of the legion of “Marxist” revolutionaries who murdered millions in his name. And what would Nietzsche think of his Übermensch metamorphosing into Hitler’s Master Race?

These are all good questions to ponder and yet, if we are only allowed to study the text of the Great Books qua text, they are not questions that we are allowed to ask. And, of course, if we can’t ask the questions, we can’t answer them. Aquinas could not ask awkward questions of Descartes or Hume and, if we are chained to the text qua text, nor can we. Similarly Hegel cannot question Marx, nor can Marx question Lenin, or Nietzsche interrogate Hitler.

The Great Books, studied chronologically in this sola scriptura manner, are always prejudiced in favor of the more modern over the ancient; they always favor the latest ideas over the older ones, the modern over the ancient. The Great Books, studied this way, do not offer any sort of real conversation but only a series of monologues by one new kid on the block after another, each of whom sits in judgment on those who came before him, all of whom, being conveniently dead, cannot answer him.

But how does a curriculum based upon the Great Conversation differ from one based upon a text qua text approach to the Great books? It differs primarily because it allows the disciples of the dead to respond to the new ideas. It allows Platonists to comment upon Aristotle, and Aristotelians to comment upon Descartes; it allows Thomists to comment upon the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and Hegelians to comment upon Marx. It would even allow intelligent Marxists to argue that Das Kapital does not justify the ideas and actions of Lenin, Stalin or Mao, or the Nietzschean to show how Hitler does Nietzsche an injustice in the manner in which the Nazis misunderstood or misapplied Nietzsche’s ideas. And, of course, and this is where the Conversation really gets interesting, it will allow Aristotelians and Thomists to counter the intelligent Marxists or Nietzscheans, illustrating how bad anthropology leads to the slaughtering of men, and how bad ideas, such as those of Marx and Nietzsche, will always have bad consequences.

Chesterton once said that Tradition was the proxy of the dead and the enfranchisement of the unborn, or words to that effect. Seen in this light, the Great Conversation adds the gravity of Tradition to the study of the Great Books, allowing the ancients into the conversation with their modern counterparts, thereby enfranchising all generations, born and unborn, into the convivial communion of the Great Conversation that continually animates the life of civilized man.

Chesterton also said that the Catholic Church is the one continual institution that’s been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. She has responded to the errors of Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. She has been part of the Conversation for much longer than anyone else. She should be heeded!

Chesterton (again!), in his poem “Lepanto”, talked about “tangled things and texts and aching eyes.” I have a quixotic or even Chestertonian idea that we could untangle the texts and soothe our aching eyes and minds if we put the whole educational process into reverse, beginning the Great Conversation with the entangled nonsense of modernity and working backwards, untangling as we went, until we arrived at last at the ideas of Plato.

Imagine a program that began in the first year with postmodernity, which is the very mess in which the newly-arrived freshmen find themselves. Upon their entering of the Great Conversation, these students will be asked all the questions that postmodernity asks and for which, by its own hopeless admission, it has no answers. It will then progress backwards (a delightfully appropriate paradox!), disentangling one bad idea after another until, by their senior year, the truly enlightened students fully comprehend the fullness and clarity of human wisdom to be found in Christian theology and classical philosophy. Such a quixotic or Chestertonian approach would really stand the whole educational process on its head, but, as Chesterton reminds us, it is only by standing on our heads that we might come to realize that we are actually, for the first time in our lives, standing the right way up!

This is adapted from an article that was originally published in the Imaginative Conservative. It is republished with permission.             

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.