This is what the study of Great Books does for us: First it makes us into what we were meant to be, then it maintains us in the life so achieved…
First, I want to say how honored I feel at receiving this prize named after Russell Kirk, an admirable writer, and Paideia, a noble practice. Even those of you who have not studied Greek may recognize what paideia means. It is the same word you can hear in “pediatrics,” the medical care of children, or in “pedagogy,” their upbringing, and it in fact means much the same as pedagogy: broadly, dealing with children and, more narrowly, the education of the young. Education has been both my occupation and my preoccupation all my adult life, starting quite a while before I got done dealing with myself and for fifty-seven years at St. John’s College, my school—my school in both senses, where I learned and where I taught. And paideia might be stretched to cover all these elements, since teaching and learning are inseparable, and youth of some sort, not necessarily chronological, is their common prerequisite. So it is a great satisfaction to receive a prize so felicitously named. I am very grateful to the folks of the Circe Institute for thinking of me.
When David Kern invited me to give a little talk at this banquet, he sent me four items you might want to hear about. Since I always do exactly as I am bidden, I will tell you what they were and then try to say something at least adequate about each:
1. Reflect on my years at St. John’s,
2. Tell how such an education can be done on a smaller scale, at home or in a reading group,
3. Tell how a Great Books education changes us,
4. Reflect on the fact that our culture ignores or devalues the so-called Great Books.
I will do my best.
1. Fifty-seven years—in Lincoln’s language, three score less three years—is a long time to reflect on in seven minutes, so I will try to formulate the gist of it, a good exercise for myself and, I hope, of some interest to you.
I will begin with exactly that matter, “interest.” Interest is a favorite word of mine, ever since I learned that it is Latin for “being in the midst” of things. These decades, most of my life, have been simply and unfailingly interesting—discombobulating (to be sure) and comforting, wearying and exhilarating. (One of our local heroes, Jacob Klein, used to sketch in the air the swoops of a roller coaster when describing our experience.) —It was all that, but never boring. The reason is that our program of study can be negatively described as one great exercise of avoidance: avoidance of the meaninglessness and insignificance of the atomic facts, opaque theories, isolated events, abstracted ideas, and unexamined words that can so easily go for education. As we and our students immerse ourselves in matter worth learning, the inner and outer world, soul and nature, develop wonderful connections and resonances, or perhaps tragic disconnections and recalcitrances. —But whether we tutors or our students come away philosophical optimists or pessimists, this paideia gives our lives some gravity, some of what most people look for: meaning, not vague and vaporous but articulate and concrete.
What’s more, such common learning makes for friendship. Many of our students become each other’s good friends for life, some something even closer. So do we, their tutors. For example, three of us, Peter Kalkavage, Eric Salem and I, have been, for nearly two decades, what I think of as translation buddies—we translate Platonic dialogues—and though none of us lack pride or temperament, the sheer interest of working together on texts of high excellence has made for modesty before the task and hence for friendship with each other.
There are a thousand more things to tell about life at the college over the years, but I will finish by recalling just one of our formally instituted occasions. All our freshman sing together in freshman chorus; it is the complement to our talking with each other all the time. Then, at the end of the semester, during a lunch hour, they give a concert. Much of the college attends, hanging over the bannisters of the gallery, looking down on the freshman below in our Great Hall. And there they are, many of them well known to me as something less than angels, singing angelically, music from Palestrina to spirituals. Last time, as an encore, they burst into the Star-Spangled Banner, which was, as a piece of music, not quite up to the preceding classics, but, as an expression of something unexpected in the student-aged young, simply moving; the chorus director told me it had been their idea.
So that is my reflection on my college in brief.
2. Next is the question: How might one pursue a Great Books education on a small scale, non-institutionally? And now it is important to be utterly practical. I will tell you my idea.
To begin with, do not be bound by themes, at least not always. Just read fine books that you have heard of. St. John’s tutors are ready to make recommendations, just email—most of us—or phone me. (I do not do email for reasons I will be glad to explain, since people seem to think it needs explanation.) Also there are—and, of course, the CiRCE Institute is your best resource here—lists of worthwhile books. I am a great believer in letting each work be a world of its own. After a while, these worlds start connecting with each other, but allow that to develop; do not pre-arrange it. Do not categorize books, I am saying. Read what the world dubs children’s books or philosophy books or history books or long fictions or short, higgledy-piggledy. When common themes begin to emerge—that is the time to reread books in a more thematic arrangement.
You will have noticed that I have done the very thing I spoke against—classified works by genre and subject. But that is because of the way we find them and order them. My point is that, once you have a book or a text, cast loose from the catalogue descriptions and in your conversations ask yourself and others: Is there theology in this book on physics? Is there truth in this prose fiction? Is there wisdom in this poetry? Is there fantasy in this book advertised to me as philosophy?
That means: be bold to shamelessness in your book conversations in the following ways: Ask and take up the simplest, most naive questions, because they are often the deepest. Do not be ashamed to express ignorance, because that is the beginning of learning. Face writings way too hard and high for you, because just as a cat may look at a king, so plain humanity may confront greatness; textbooks come graded by degree of preparation, but great texts were meant for all of us, and the best ones tend to be both approachable and self-explanatory; like a certain kind of really worthwhile person, they might be prickly outside but cordial inside Be loose enough to live with a lack of learning; it is not necessary to look up every word, or to understand every argument—much better to get good at guessing what matters.
Reading is to conversation as being by one’s self is to being in company; you can not really have the one come reliably to fruition without the other. Do not let anyone in your book discussion group pirate the conversation; insist on having your thought taken up and do the same for others. But I should not have said “discussion group.” In a discussion people argue for their opinions, in a conversation they try to give them shape. It is like the difference between marching to the post office to mail a package and walking in the woods to get things straight.
And finally, do not overdo it. If the reading is hard and dense, assign yourself a few pages, even just a paragraph: It is rarely as hard as it seems. And if it really is, call a friend and work it out -or give it up. But if the reading is enjoyably comfortable, read more, but take warning: It is never as easy as it appeared to be, either. —I am talking here of really good books, which often abound in engaging contradictions.
Sometimes you might want, at home or in a group, to study, say, one fiction, perhaps an epic, extensively or to approach one theory, say in physics, more technically. Whether there is a definable difference between poetry and science is a wonderful question, but there is an observable difference between composing poets and discovering physicists. I will show it by one example: Once an experiment had shown that our earth does not swim through an ethereal substance, someone, called Einstein (or whatever), was bound to devise a theory of relativity. But given an accumulation of folk tales, there is no reason whatsoever that without that particular Homer (or whoever) there would have been an Iliad made of them. Nonetheless, in either case, it is good to begin one’s study with the original writing. (It may be in translation.) In the case of the poetry, abstraction is impossible in any case—“Tales from Homer,” though nice for children, are just not the real thing. In the case of physics, the textbook version may teach you more physics faster, but Einstein’s paper on special relativity has the mind boggling simplicity of something newly true—a newly made artifact now first bringing to light what was always true. One might say, in contrast, that what Homer says was always true only from the moment that he sings of it in his particular way. If I am beginning to talk in riddles, it is because I am talking about enigmas. But I do mean one definite thing: Stick with great originals; they are more interesting than chewed-over derivatives.
3. How do Great Books change us? Truth to tell, I have no great faith in the modern mantra of personal change. I do, to be sure, know people who have undergone somewhat spectacular transformations—so they said. But since they seemed to me to be somewhat shapeless to begin with, I could not see much difference, and since they were pretty malleable from the first I could count on being told about another transmogrification before long. Here is what I do believe: Up into maturity—which comes at wildly different times for different people, in the teens for so-called “old souls,” in the seventies for congenital youngsters—people develop, come into their own. You can call that changing, if you like, but to me it is more becoming the same with yourself—discovering and assuming what we call our identity, which is Latin for “self-sameness.” Once you are pretty well grown up—never completely, since no stage is more persistent than the first one, babyhood—once you are an adult, another mode takes over. Aristotle speaks of a condition often called “actuality,” entelecheia, a three-in-one word meaning “the condition of maintaining completeness.” One of my colleagues, Joe Sachs, an ardent defender of Aristotle against obscurantist terms like “actuality,” translates this word as “being-at-work-staying-itself.” Our students have gleefully adopted this mouthful and recite it in seminar, at once honoring and perverting my friend Joe’s intention. In any case, it fits what I want to describe: the fully adult human being’s efforts to maintain the being that has been achieved by learning; this is growth without change, insight that confirms and enlivens, without altering, one’s being.
That is my version of what the study of Great Books does for us. First it makes us into what we were meant to be, then it maintains us in the life so achieved. Here is a brusque way to describe the two phases: first, while young, learning is often agony, growing pains; later, when older, learning is largely restoration, recovery. When you are young and are given time to learn, there is much in the way—a clamorous body and a vexed soul—which all adds up to wandering interest (we all of us know where much of it wanders to) and distracting anxiety (which often comes from not knowing where one’s self is to be found). When you are old enough, study fills up what work has depleted, and so it is a sort of festival. I am no great admirer of Machiavelli, but there is one story about him I love: In the evening, after his labors, he would don his most beautiful robe and sit down to read the ancients. I have not got enough ceremony in me to dress myself up for myself; in fact, I have not got the requisite robe. But I am glad he did it, as if for us to hear about.
I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously. And you never know when information that seemed simply amusing will prove to have some application. For example, what use is it to me to have read about cattle drives and branding? And yet in a moment there will be a use.
Reading a lot of stuff, even style magazines in the hair salon, raises an obvious question: How can we distinguish the lesser and the lowest material from Great Books? I, for one, am persuaded that “Great Books” is a valid and discernible category, and that this is a looming, an enormous fact of civilization. To give the criteria of greatness would take another talk. Here I want to make just two points. One is the telling fact that a community of the willing, like my colleagues, or the friends of CiRCE, can so readily agree on greatness. People who read with passion like to compare books with respect to better or worse, and most writing fits into a continuum that is a subject of delightful debate and lifelong revision. But some books represent discernible discontinuities; they are in a class by themselves. Perhaps the most operative, if not the most articulate, criterion for recognizing them is just this: willing readers do, in fact, recognize this greatness quite awhile before they can tell you wherein exactly it lies. Nonetheless, a get-together to talk about greatness in a mundane world would be a timely enterprise.
Now I will try to say in a few words what seems to me the greatest good that great books can do us. In my early years I was an archaeologist and helped to dig up and study artifacts of time gone by. I will use that activity as a metaphor. Our world, the one before our eyes, presents a surface that at once reveals and hides depths below it. When archaeologists dig, they destroy the surface, though they first survey and photograph it. Once the surface is removed, the past becomes patent, visible. But that is an illusion. Archaeological finds are not past; they are present or you could not pick them up and catalogue them. Digging comes on nothing but the present; the past is all our interpretation.
Great books of fiction, philosophy, or science do the same, although they have the advantage of not destroying but preserving the surface. Moreover, they do not turn up things. They reveal the meanings below appearances; they cause surfaces to be signs—which is what the word “significant” betokens: “meaning-making.” Great books of all times are just as present as an archaeological find, but they are not dumb like a potsherd. They themselves do the interpreting of the world they present.
Thus great books mirror the world’s surface and reveal its depths, its meanings. Those of us who believe that there are many such books, and many such revelations, are stuck with the work of being the final arbiters of each book’s truth. Those who think there is only one true scripture, a book of books, a Bible, have other burdens, which I will not speak of now. In either case, the multitude of not-so-great and mediocre books keeps the reader caught on the surface, like one of those semi-aquatic bugs that walk over the water held up by its surface tension. Reading such books twice leads to no breakthrough, often re-reading a mediocre book that seemed like a good read the first time is a let-down. Or maybe it is more the other way around: I find the second reading unsatisfying and so I will think that it was not much of a book. Such judgments make for really nice conversations; they are friendship producing and friendship-maintaining. As a footnote, I want to do justice here to the huge class of popular books, often-best sellers that are written with lots of know-how and verve. They are good incitements to conversation as well. In fact, to me this is a really absorbing question: How do some pretty run-of-the-mill fictions manage to engage the imagination, and what is the difference between those thrills and the excitement of classics?
4. And finally, the fate of Great Books in an indifferent or even hostile environment. The hostility usually emanates from people who think there is something elitist about reading these books. They apparently have not cracked a one of them, and they do not seem to know that the very idea of their cherished egalitarianism comes from those ignored pages. Hostility, however, is far more convertible to the cause about which it gets hot under the collar than is indifference. So that is what we must deal with.
Here is a question to which my colleagues at St. John’s and I myself have no certain answer: Is it better to stick to our guns, to tell the world what we believe in direct and accurate terms, or should we compromise, accommodate ourselves to the way people talk at the moment and to the supposed current tastes of the young?
We have had a revealing experience lately. Companies nowadays re-brand themselves. Consultants are called in to develop a picture of the current customer and then the business re-names and re-describes itself in terms that will appeal to this figure composed from surveys. A school can, it is thought, do the same. A survey-based perception of the contemporary student is developed and then the institution gets in line and describes itself in terms thought to be appealing to its future clients. It is called re-branding—a human application of burning a mark into the hides of cattle. Here incidentally, my love of Westerns comes in handy. I happen to recollect that rebranding is usually done by cattle rustlers—not such a good prototype for respectable colleges or companies. So I have my misgivings.
We are told that such re-branding will change nothing internally, but I do not believe it. How you talk to others about yourself should come from the inside out; it should be true to your essence. If you speak about yourself from the outside in, in compromised terms and with ulterior motives, you will, I imagine, in the end find yourself reflecting these skewings internally.
Here is an occasion for thinking out what are the elements of our St. John’s essence, as a community of liberal learning. I have come to see three such elements, and they were exactly the ones that the survey-derived synthetic student was said to be indifferent to or put off by. I will list them, since I know that you are interested.
The first element is that learning takes place largely by means of those Great Books. There are two aspects to this commitment. One is the generous, you might say, the noble acknowledgment of the benefaction of living intimately with superior souls, with the authors of our books. The other is the willingness to learn to read, in whatever format and in the largest sense: words, symbols, pictures, scores, even nature itself—to read quickly or closely, directly or between the lines, appreciatively and critically, naively and interpretatively.
The second element is the initiation into our tradition. This initiation is a by-product of reading these books. By tradition I mean here not customs and practices, to which people might thoughtlessly indenture themselves, but the works, mostly but not only books, which have been handed down to us not as relics of a bygone past but as living presences; unlike customs, they preserve within themselves the arguments for their own existence and so they are much harder to receive unreflectively than are customs. This tradition is for human beings with respect to time what roots are for plants with respect to space—both anchorage and nourishment. It gives us our background and our base by handing us the goods of civilization from which the judgment of generations has filtered out what is time-bound, tendentious, and tawdry.
The third element is that our education is for its own sake. It is vocational in the old, religious sense: intended to help students find their calling, but not, by the same token, career-oriented. Our students do, by and large, pretty well in life, and that is partly because, while with us, they are invited to learn for the sake of learning: Vocationalism turns callings into careers. It is a sin against young life.
These three mainstays of St. John’s and, I think, of all life-enhancing education—learning to read and interpret the world through books and under the guidance of greatness, connecting with the tradition that made us what we are, and learning for the love of the matter to be learned—these three purposes are said to be going into eclipse. The young are said to find talk of books toxic, reference to greatness elitist, dwelling with the tradition stuffy, and learning for its own sake impractical. A whole army of experts on the looks of things thinks so. I do not quite believe them. They look at surveys, not at souls.
But who knows? Perhaps we are in a time of techno-barbarism. For my part, I think we live in a time best described as everything going every which way. How to deal with that? How, in particular, to preserve an opening for serious reading and its Great Books?
Here is my private faith: In matters of material existence, large programs, sometimes even big government, may be required. In matters of our souls’ life, salvation is in small places and little communities, in what we, one by one and together as friends, do here and now. These are the marching orders I give myself: Practice friendly recalcitrance and sympathetic resistance. Take in what is going on but do not necessarily do likewise. Freshen up the language of genuine education -it has needed that for a long time -but do not debase it with currently agreeable jargon (like “delivery systems” for books). But above all, be undeterred by crypto-despotic claims about what has to be, “like it or not.” Nature has its necessities, but human beings are free. And free is what reading Great Books compels us to be. For, I think, human freedom, which is a specifically human way of living, is being maximally aware and living accordingly. So I will put it to you with a touch of melodrama: We must read for dear life. And the special pleasure in being here tonight comes from knowing that this is not news to you.
This essay was originally published here in July 2014, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
These remarks were given at the 2014 CiRCE Classical School Conference (July 19) after Miss Brann received the 2014 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize.
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