On Great Books curricula

The Great Books are not a wisdom tradition but are a necessary component of any contemporary lived wisdom tradition. As Great Books they stand to the wisdom tradition as matter, suggesting salient problems and providing a sort of historical narrative for the contours of our contemporary thoughtscape.

Absent a wisdom tradition the Great Books are a parade of ideas interpreted by someone unfit for the task. That said, there is something ennobling and necessary in both the parade and the interpretations, and the wisdom tradition has to allow some free play for both. So what is the wisdom tradition?

Philosophy is a sort of love and it develops as loves do. Students start off more zealous than informed, relying more on the extrinsic evidences of goodness than on discernment and penetration. They see several possibilities for a wisdom tradition and love them like sports teams. Students rely on tutors to point toward the teacher, as the teacher could not be understood by them as wise and is incapable of explaining himself in person since he is centuries-dead. We love the tutor too, often as much mimicking his behavior as absorbing his words. The tutor shows us that to speak for yourself is most of all to channel the energy from a more concentrated source or to make one’s soul magnify the Lord and so rejoice in the teacher who makes us whole. To experience someone magnifying the teacher in this way is already to begin to do it oneself.

At some point one catches enough of another’s magnification of the teacher to begin magnifying the teacher himself. At this stage he’s no longer under a tutor but a student of the teacher and the tutor of others. This is in one sense obviously an elevation and can only be understood as an ascent, but in another sense involves a much more profound submission and humility than he experienced at the lower level. When we were beginning with the Great Books we confronted a multitude and diversity of opinions and so were in a sense equal to them since if there is a diversity of opinion at the bottom things, then adding our own opinion adds just more of the same thing. In ascending to the level of a tutor we start to see that our opinion is not one of many but subordinate to something more subtle, definite, fertile and salvific. In light of this the diversity of the Great Books becomes superfluous in one sense, as there is a greater desire to bring more and more into submission to the teacher, but in another sense the Great Books now illumine history from within since, while not all is true within them, nevertheless they have the unique and rare property that everything in them informs.

So the ascent from the Great Books is from that which necessarily informs even when not true to the truth the Books rely on to inform. This approach doesn’t begin with the University of Chicago in the 1930s, but is as old as Aristotle collecting all the thoughts of his predecessors; Jews sifting through multiple sources to compile a wisdom tradition of entirely sacred and true books in the Septuagint, Scholasticism forging methods to synthesize Patristic, Islamic, Jewish and Greek sources, etc. Great Books are part of a larger movement, yet unnamed, bent toward what had previously culminated in Aristotle’s corpus, the LXX, the traditions of the theologians from the 12th- 18th Centuries, etc. As each of these stages gets longer we might expect the Great Books tradition to last at least a millenium. Then on to the next thing, I suppose.

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