great conversation

Readers of The Imaginative Conservative 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.

great booksThe 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 favour of the more modern over the ancient; they always favour the latest ideas over the older ones, the living over the dead. 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.

plato marx and engelBut 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 conversationChesterton 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!

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14 replies to this post
  1. So are you really suggesting starting with the moderns and working your way back to the Ancients? I’m intrigued as I’m working on my rising 9th grader’s book list for the fall.

  2. As usual, an excellent meditation. Your curriculum proposal sounds interesting, and follows the sound admonition, “Begin where you are.”

    Alas, the world in almost any of its ages has regarded the ephemeral present as Modern, and therefore above the Past. This has led to the folly of considering the Past as dead, when in terms of thought and spirit, it is Today, and we are all contemporaries with men 2500 years in their graves.

  3. I would like to propose a toast. Raise your glass to Mortimer Adler who either coined the phrase or made it useful and encouraged the study and curriculum as the general editor of the Britannica Great Books. I owe much to him myself, and have been grateful all my adult life. Bless him.

    • I can’t speak for Mr. Pearce, of course, but the great books of the Western World, for the most part, were written by adults and those adults wrote them expecting adults to read them and think about them. A ninth grader should probably not sent into Spinoza but should still be learning how to think for him or herself. And that passage can be really troubling for a parent because it means respecting and discussing adultly what might be some pretty bizarre ideas given the hormone changes youngsters go through. Teaching yourself to use the Socratic method of teaching at the proper time should help. “Why do you think that?” can go a long way to get discussion going. I think probably the more junior classics would be in order. In English Lit, for example, discuss Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not Freud’s works themselves, though he should be mentioned respectfully, as well as Stevenson. Another example: whether you are Muslim, Jew, Christian, agnostic or outright atheist, if your young adult asks “If God is all powerful how come he can’t create a rock too heavy for him to lift?” you have an opportunity to introduce the words “philosophy” and “logic” and “paradox”; you can mention that the question sounds good but logically it comes down to asking why God can’t BE God, and NOT BE God at the same time, and if you have ever actually taken a beginning course in logic, you can show how that works on the home-blackboard (very like algebra). And if you are an atheist you can say that there are much better arguments against the existence of god, but this one is “fallacious.” And that logic protects everybody equally, and there are valid arguments to be found on both sides in most discussions and logic cannot make a decision for you. And go into the idea that logic is a great course for anyone who doesn’t want to be the victim of specious ideas, when he or she gets to college. Who knows? If the young person gets really interested, you can find a list of common fallacies with examples and have a whole fun lesson taking the examples apart.

  4. Responding to John Inglis and Kelly Black, my observations were geared to higher education. Homeschoolers should certainly read the Great Books and their parents should endeavour to introduce them in the context of the Great Conversation but I wouldn’t recommend starting with the ideas of modernity and postmodernity with anyone under college age.

    • Indeed.
      It has long been my contention that certain thinkers should not be presented to any person whose hormones have not yet settled down after going through puberty. Such as my beloved Nietzsche. (It was decades before I was able to understand what he was saying behind the mask.)
      For that matter, anyone who exposes an unformed child to Ayn Rand should be incarcerated in solitary (at best).

    • Considering the thrust of your article, I am very much surprised not to hear mention of T. S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent. There Eliot is speaking specifically of art and poetry, but his fundamental argument seems valid, too, for philosophy and theology—and indeed of all liberal learning: that what has come before alters what comes after, and, paradoxically, what comes after, too, alters what comes before.

      But I must point out that the real specific difference between how you characterize The Great Books vs. The Great Conversation is not that of “Sola Scriptura” vs “Tradition” based reading, but rather that of what I would call “historical” vs “discipline” based reading. That is, you characterize the reading of The Great Books as a pseudo historical reading by which one asks the sometimes interesting questions of “When was this written? By whom? For what purpose? How was it received? What did others think of it?, etc.” The answers to such questions can only be tangentially related to other similar questions posed of other texts/authors (almost by definition). And, so, as you point out, when one attempts to understand some book or author simply in such a historical context, it is impossible to be retrospective except as a sort of fancy, such as if one were to ask how the battle of waterloo would have differed had both armies possessed modern 21st c. armies.

      On the other hand, engaging a text through the methods of a discipline (e.g. Philosophy, Literature, Theology) forces a text to exist a-historically—that is, outside the historical sphere. The questions posed become questions aimed at furthering ones understanding of the discipline; that is, they become scientific questions (in the traditional sense of scientific) aimed at validity & veracity. By virtue of asking the same or similar questions, any text (or thinker) becomes intrinsically related to any other text (or thinker)—and this relation is worth considering only insofar as the relation furthers our understanding of the discipline. This is precisely what Great Books are: books that further our understanding of a given discipline (else they would be bad books).

      And so we get to the reason why I felt compelled to respond: any Great Book is worth reading on its own merit, for the sake of what it says and how it relates to its discipline. Gathering together many such Great Books as one would gather fruit from a tree leads to a greater bounty—but each work by itself is still a ripened fruit, sweet and fulfilling on its own. Sertillanges cautions us to be picky with which books we read, because not all books are worth our study. He does not mean this in a quasi-moralistic way; he means that not all books are equally capable of furthering our understanding in the discipline we have chosen to study (or the questions we have chosen to ask), and we must be selective of our books because we only have so much time to read—and likewise, to further the metaphor, one can only eat so much fruit, no matter how many baskets have been collected.

      • I think that your pragmatic approach to the the issues here is probably valid but leaves out the fact that some of the Western great books, in addition can be read, even in translation, for pure enjoyment. War and Peace works very well a good soap opera level in which the reader on first acquaintance can find himself saying, “No, don’t do it, Natasha, Anatol’s no good for you! Listen to your Aunt!” I expect that the early Tolstoy would have liked that response but later would have been embarassed. Many others can be very very enjoyable without attention to important ideas and concepts. Examples: Homer, Virgil, Aristophanes, Juvenal, Sterne, Fielding, Cervantes, Shakespeare and so on. And when teaching, the first thing to do is make lessons interesting for people who don’t know whether a book is within his or her “discipline” because they still don’t know what their interests are.

        • @Thomas I agree—Enjoyment of a book, that is, reading it for its own sake, is what I had meant by “worth reading on its own merit, and for the sake of what it says.”

          But it is also true that the moment one greatly enjoys a book is precisely the moment one wishes to know or understand the book better. That is, when one treats of it as something more than *mere* enjoyment. We all, after, all, “desire to know.”

          This need not be an academic or a particularly esoteric exercise. It could be as simple as wondering “what in the world does Hopkins mean by ‘lay a lionlimb against me'” or “Why is Socrates so unsatisfied by Euthyphro’s account of piety?” and then subsequently attempting to answer your own question.

          (The question becomes academic when, at this point, one says, “surely another has asked this same question?!” and then proceeds to find out what others have said on the matter.)

          And I think this is the right way to go about things. We don’t hear Prospero say “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and go “oh that was a pretty line. I very much enjoyed it,” and proceed to never think on it again. We go, “oh how beautiful! What does it mean!?”

          One explores these questions freely and with enjoyment. That is, we enjoy the answers. But the subject matter isn’t enjoyment itself, but whatever it is we desire to know. We don’t explore them for the sake of enjoying, but for the sake of knowing, that is, knowing for its own sake—even as the knowing brings us enjoyment.

          That response got a little long-winded. I don’t mean by this reply that you hadn’t considered such things. I’m sure you have (especially going by your other comments on the article, which i would have “Liked” had this been Facebook). It’s just that internet comments are a difficult way to carry on a conversation! You’ve got to just get what you are trying to say out there all at once…

          • ECOLA! we are in agreement. Thank you for responding, and for your time doing it. Eviva! Bravo for great books and civil discourse!

  5. Interesting idea but I’m not sure it really matters which end you start, or even if you start at an end. I didn’t take classes in chronological sequence, and except for special programs I suspect most students don’t. My gut tells me that reading the classics is way more important than participating in a great conversation about them.

  6. I love this idea. It sort of corresponds to Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, where things are not studied chronologically but begin with the student’s world around him and then moves out from there. There’s a classical curr. high school near us that begins with American/20th century in 9th, Medieval/Renaissance in 10th and then Ancients in 11th. In 12th they sweep back through reading stuff they missed before. Makes sense to me! They start with what they know best in 9th, dig deeper into its foundations in 10th, get to the roots in 11th and now in 12th grade, on the cusp of adulthood, they can revisit the whole sweep of history from a broader perspective.

  7. I had no interest in history until my sophomore high school year when I took World History. My teachers (it was a double-sized class in a large room with two teachers who were good friends) started with the contemporary situation, the Cold War (the year was 1978-79), and worked backwards looking at how each period arose out of what came before it. Not only were the teachers lovers of history, very knowledgeable, and skilled pedagogues, but their style of working backwards from the present day connected everything to my current situation. I have been interested in history ever since then, and that interest eventually led me to becoming Catholic. (I was an atheist when I took their course, became an Evangelical Christian a year later, and then became Catholic 26 years after that.)

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