Friday, March 24, 2017

What Are the Great Books?

If you agree with us that we need to start reforming our educational system in the West, you may very well not agree on the way to do it. Even prominent supporters of the Great Books have stark disagreements about which books to preserve in the canon.

 A famous edition of the Great Books came out mid-20th century and has been controversial since, Hard-core, traditional Catholics would remove a lot of the post-enlightenment philosophy and leave Aquinas as the sum of all things. Certainly they would punish Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with banishment for its excoriation of early Christians.

Those with a more lenient view of modern works would drop a lot of medieval books as forgotten and replace them with great authors of the 20th century who were not recognizable as great when the first edition came out.

In fact, a second edition of the Great Books was eventually published with just such changes. Thanks to the Internet, it is not really necessary to ever publish another expensive edition of the books. We are still left, though, with the question of inclusion. Which books are great?

Ancestral Memory

While we are somewhat educated and possess degrees, we are none of us in possession of doctorates which would give our opinions on the matter some weight. There do seem to be some characteristics of great books, however, that would appeal to most if not all proponents of instruction in these texts.

The original compilation of texts certainly meant to appeal to some sort of ancestral memory. In other words, the books should be those that we once told around the fire and still do in one respect or another.

At the time of original publication, these were all books that were still being studied in colleges. The idea of creating and publishing an official canon was to reduce the entirety of a liberal education to its core and provide that core to the general public. The editors never intended this to be a list of forgotten works which we must all rediscover.

This makes it difficult to make the Great Books relevant today. The modernists were clever and actually removed most of these texts from college education. Few educated adults and fewer children are even cognizant of the names of these books, let alone their contents.

Therefore, efforts to popularize these texts are faced with an uphill battle because these are not works which the elite study and the common people desire in order to elevate themselves - instead, they are forgotten works which must be dredged up from the deeps of time and be read in clunky translations so that people are bored with them immediately.

In the face of this challenge, we must remember to avoid tossing something from the canon just because it seems like a dead letter or that it has no bearing on our world. Perhaps it should have a bearing on our world. Perhaps, in a world that had not gone so far off the tracks like ours did several decades ago, the college boys would still be reading these works and the girls would still be planning on being mothers rather than killing their children in the womb.

An Example

I know that, if it were left up to me a couple years ago, even though I was already a big fan of the Great Books with experience in implementing their instruction in an elementary school, I would have tossed Rabelais into the bin and never looked back. It just seemed like asking too much, I have to rethink that now.

Furthermore, we must carefully consider which books from more recent ties to add to the collection. There were some atrocious additions made to the second addition, simply in an effort to be more inclusive and have more works from women authors. While my own biases would not go in that direction, I could certainly end up adding works that simply appealed to my personal tastes but which had no real bearing on whether it was a work which would be valuable to my descendants in 200 years.

So Which Books Are Great?

For the time being, until society has recovered from this spell of cultural amnesia, we believe that it is best to leave Mortimer Adler's original edition as sacrosanct and to consider judiciously some additions.

Obviously, being a fan of the great books does not mean that you read nothing else. Listing the great books to a small list is an attempt to define a core of Western civilization, something on which we can all agree.

The Great Books and the Knights of the Resurrection

None of us has read through the entire canon and, even if we did, we would not have incorporated it
all into any kind of coherent philosophy. We depend on our liturgy to provide that foundation. However, the canon of the Great Books is the Tree of Knowledge to which we turn to whet our intellectual appetites. We will provide guidance and even curriculum for those who wish to join us in our appreciation of the greatest works known to Western Civilization.
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