Against Great Books

by Patrick J. Deneen on April 6, 2010 · 49 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Short

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I argue in an essay posted online today at “Minding the Campus” that a “Great Books” curriculum is unworthy of defense by so-called conservatives. Rather than resisting the tides of post-modern relativism, I argue that such curricula were in part responsible for such relativism. I argue instead that a curriculum of great books probably cannot do anything but promote a more fundamental relativism unless it takes place within a distinctive theological and political worldview. Here’s a taste:

Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide. This Nietzschean (or Schmittian) lesson is reinforced by the typical organization of such curricula (where they persist), which is typically chronological. Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment’s trajectory. The fact that his philosophy is reinforced by the message that an education in the Great Books consists in exposure to equally compelling philosophies between which there is no objective basis to prefer only serves to deepen the most fundamental lesson of a course in the Great Books, which is a basic form of relativism. The choice of a personal philosophy is relative, and the basis on which one makes any such choice is finally arbitrary, the result of personal preference or attraction. De gustibus non est disputandam.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Casey Khan April 6, 2010 at 5:28 pm

“Teaching as I do at a Catholic and Jesuit university, I would like to see these books taught explicitly within the context and in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide…”

I only know a little about this school from its alumni, but might St. Thomas Aquinas College in California fit what you are describing above:

“Because the “Great Books” record the thoughts and discoveries of Civilization’s greatest minds from the classical era to our own, a college should turn to them in its pursuit of truth and wisdom. Even a cursory reading of these books, however, reveals frequent and radical disagreement among their authors concerning fundamental matters. A Catholic college should – indeed, inevitably will – distinguish certain authors as most important in the Catholic intellectual tradition and will, accordingly, emphasize their books as most important in the formation of its students. It is in its recognition of the excellence and authority of certain authors, and in its understanding that Sacred Scripture and the magisterium of the Church are the most important sources of enlightenment, that Thomas Aquinas College is more than a “Great Books” program.”

http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/about/catholic.htm

avatar J.D. Salyer April 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm

When I was a grad student at St. John’s College, a sharp undergraduate friend of mine noted in a rather sarcastic article for the school paper that the place radiates a “dogmatic attachment to St. John’s as an ideal, of something, like ‘education’, for instance.”

I had an intuitive sense of what he was talking about: another, not-as-sharp undergrad acquaintance was in the habit of referring to the Great Books curriculum as if it were a coherent canon, sacred scriptures of the St. John’s creed. She revered T.S. Eliot; she equally revered Lucretius. She revered Aristotle; she equally revered Freud.

Obviously it is problematic to claim that taken together these works form an integrated worldview, a vision, a “something”. They only make sense if arranged, critiqued, & prioritized via some sort of hierarchical order, as Dr. Deneen suggests.

avatar David April 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm

This gets back to basic paradoxes I’ve tried to bring up on FPR before (and often tire of attempting to breach the point). That all of us are modern, and that by “choosing” conservative ideals invalidates those very ideals. True tradition cannot be chosen, only inherited and transmitted faithfully or unfaithfully.

When I converted to the Orthodox Church, I remarked how silly a thing this was to my priest. Properly you don’t convert to Orthodoxy, rather you begin obeying the Church, where before there was only ignorant disobedience.

But that’s the position we’re in (the same paradox of localists forming a website “community”). The truth is that from Plato on, the Utopian urge has gone largely unchallenged except by cultural inertia. Now that the ball is rolling, coherent challenge is only possible from within the framework we are left with.

Antiquarianism is noble and good, from within it’s own context. It’s possible we could convince a Utopian or two that the “old ways” would result in better living, but traditions are not judged by their potential utilitarian function.

This is how I’ve had to struggle through this and I couldn’t have done it at all without a Great Books program at my university, the very program that set me on the path to discover the greatness of my forbears and to eventually turn my heart towards them.

I am learning to love the soil of their graves and their uncorrupt relics, their dogmas and the ways they lived them. But all of this is a potential delusion of a modern man, looking back past his father to his grandfather’s land. It is true and potentially untrue.

avatar Wessexman April 6, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Patrick couldn’t the problem simply be the books they put in these lists? Nietzsche has nothing to offer a traditionalist and having him in the list, indeed the culmination of it, is going to offer nothing as a conservative support against relativism. I’m sure a traditionalist could come up with a proper great books program that could be beneficial.

avatar Kevin J Jones April 6, 2010 at 7:20 pm

My high school had a great books-type program which produced many relativists dedicated to some Hegelian bastardization about thesis and antithesis producing a progressive synthesis. Rand and Nietzsche were popular among students. So your analysis echoes my experience.

Some advocates of classical studies see the decline of Latin and Greek as a cause for our problems. Learning what someone thought is often much different than learning how he thought, and the manner of thinking is much more conditioned (and liberated) by the language used.

A primary and secondary education which focuses upon the languages of classical and biblical authors has an inherent traditionalist bias. It also makes the choice for religious ministry much less burdened by educational obstacles.

all of us are modern, and that by “choosing” conservative ideals invalidates those very ideals. True tradition cannot be chosen, only inherited and transmitted faithfully or unfaithfully.

This matches few of my experiences. My conservatism was driven less by conscious choice than by attraction and repulsion (both rational and emotional). As a cradle Catholic at least parts of my tradition were inherited or ready-made, and as someone who never felt driven to leave his hometown my localist creds are somewhat more solid, even if home happens to be suburbia.

I suppose it is hard for the intellectual “traditionalist” to be naive about his tradition in the way that his forerunners may have been, and his tradition will be more formed by clashes and intermingling with alternatives. But the supposed choice to reject choice really isn’t a psychological option for many people. We just began (or ended up) in a state of choicelessness and found ourselves content.

avatar David April 6, 2010 at 7:41 pm

The traditional Catholic living in the town of his birth (assuming that town hasn’t changed around him with a WalMart and California-style strip malls) probably has about as much street cred as I’m going to meet. There might be a few ignorantly Anabaptist Appalacians that could give you a run for your money even though part of their tradition is radically localized Whiggishness.

But there are many like me, who cannot go home because home isn’t there anymore. Even my previous religious tradition (Restorationist churches of Christ) an oddball modern project trying to be antiquarian, doesn’t exist meaningfully in its traditional form anymore (is 150 years long enough to even call tradition).

I have no choice, but to make a choice.

I suspect that Leo Strauss would support Nietzsche’s inclusion in a Great Books class. I suspect that he would support Great Books projects in general. Of course, there has to be a moral center to such a project, but the inclusion of immoral works is helpful dialectic.

In fact, I thin FPR could use with some revisits to Strauss. Particularly his concern for being a Jew in a Christian culture. I think this maps nicely on to being a conservative in a progressive culture. We are, all of us, Daniels in Babylon.

…With apologies to your localist street cred.

avatar David April 6, 2010 at 8:03 pm

I’m not accusing FPR of supporting a sort of Society for Creative Anachronism. However, there is a phenomenon among Orthodox converts playing “Eastern European Renaissance Festival” or Monkabees.

Having seen it and fought it in myself, it seems as much as an enemy to living traditionally as being surrounded by modernity.

avatar Boz April 6, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Sorry, Dr. Pat, but Fritz Wilhelmsen and Alasdair Macintyre got here way before you.

For Wilhelmsen, “Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom,” see:
http://www.mmisi.org/ma/31_3-4/wilhelmsen.pdf

For Macintyre, see “Three Rival Version.”

avatar David April 6, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Wilhelmsen’s three sins are the polar opposite of my experience in Great Books. Though it was hard to get that far into the article after wading through the annals of “When we were gods” was an act of asceticism in and of itself.

avatar Robin Datta April 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Does “Great” include the Mein Kampf or the Quraan?

The former may be passé but the latter is acknowledged by over a billion people worldwide. Perhapo the Quraan is not considered “Western”. That is circumstantial, a result of the Turks being routed at Vienna. If one looks to Kosovo or Albania, one can see what the rest of Europe could have looked like if the Turks had not been stopped.

avatar Wessexman April 7, 2010 at 12:10 am

David, if I get your meaning, I think you err in seeing traditionalism or conservatism as merely a negative thing, a relativist defense of a particular tradition. Now this is a debate at the heart of what it means to be a conservative or traditionalist but I firmly believe there is a positive core to traditionalism that goes way beyond a mere defense of any institutional setup and values systems that are long established. Certainly we need steer away from a rigid attitude of orthodoxy when it comes to institutions but that doesn’t mean we cannot have quite a positive scheme, not on the same level as a progressive utopian perhaps but nonetheless positive and broad. Otherwise conservatism and traditionalism seem to always be on the back-foot and in fact seem to lack anything more than a vague attitude.

I’d also dispute the level of change our society has experienced. Certainly there has been social and cultural dislocation and disintegration but I’d argue there has been precious little in the way of a workable, cohesive alternative offered. To me even from the most narrow and relativist sort of conservative position there is still as much of an argument for the Western tradition being revived in order to sort out our social and political problems as much as trying to use another framework.

“I suspect that Leo Strauss would support Nietzsche’s inclusion in a Great Books class. I suspect that he would support Great Books projects in general. Of course, there has to be a moral center to such a project, but the inclusion of immoral works is helpful dialectic.

In fact, I thin FPR could use with some revisits to Strauss. Particularly his concern for being a Jew in a Christian culture. I think this maps nicely on to being a conservative in a progressive culture. We are, all of us, Daniels in Babylon.”

I think your mistaken about the depth of progressivism in our culture. Certainly the key values and institutions are still rooted, however unconsciously, in our traditionalist past. The only real success of progressivism is on the higher, more conscious level and in creating social and cultural dislocation and disintegration. Positive, deep-rooted alternatives to traditional Western cultures, except maybe traditional Eastern or African cultures or whatever, are thin on the ground.

You do strike an interesting point when you talk about it being okay to have Nietzsche on such a list for a conservative as long as the list has a moral centre. I can agree with that, although the moral, philosophical and cultural centre would have to be well set out and stressed and I still think there are so many good, traditionalist great works out there that putting in many opposition works would mean squeezing some of these out.

avatar Wessexman April 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

The Qu’ran is a great work but it is not Western in a cultural sense, trying to introduce it would create a lot of problems.

avatar David April 7, 2010 at 2:04 am

Wessexman, I appreciate your thoughtful response, but it has confused me a bit. Perhaps you and I have different standards for tradition and the state of conservative institutions. I see little evidence in mainstream society of anything remotely resembling what I am focused on.

Apart from a few novelties, which may be as tainted by self-induced fantasies about just whether or not they have anything to do with tradition, I don’t see any evidence of anything but the dominance of modernism.

We talk about De Tocqueville’s assessment from 150 years ago as alarming. Don’t you think that Dewey and his progenitors have not quickened the pace of it?

How is post-Vatican II Catholicism conservative? Or the ECUSA?

I had a friend and colleague quit the PCUSA because of how it’s being manipulated (not that Whiggish Calvinists are all that conservative to begin with).

What University is holding the line against the falling of the night? Which state in the Union is still bastion? Is there a traditionalist literary movement I’ve not been informed about? or perhaps a television network dedicated to the gymnasium of classical education? Perhaps there is an influential art movement that still concerns itself with beauty?

I’m really baffled by your thought that you can see anything conservative in the pornographic American landscape.

avatar Wessexman April 7, 2010 at 4:17 am

Yes I think we’re talking about different levels of culture and society. I’m talking mostly about the deepest, most unconscious levels of culture such as basic values, conceptions and social institutions. To the degree these still exist they are still very much rooted, however unconsciously in traditional conceptions and though there has been dislocation and disintegration there has been nothing positive to replace them.

avatar JD Salyer April 7, 2010 at 6:39 am

@ Wessexman: “Patrick couldn’t the problem simply be the books they put in these lists?”

The point of a classical curriculum is not that the books read are claimed to be the best ever, but that the works in question are *ours*, and (for better or worse) are an integral part of our narrative. That is, they are essential to understanding the Western tradition from Homer to today. I’d happily trade off Rousseau for Confucius & think that the Chinese would be getting the poor end of the bargain.

But if you’re trying to figure out who we are as inheritors of Western civilization, then Rousseau is essential while Confucius would only be good extracurricular reading.

avatar Boz April 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

David,
Don’t want to be too mean here but it’s worth listening to what other people have to say (or wading through the “when we were gods,” as you condescendingly put it) and in this case especially so since Wilhelmsen is smarter than you.

Wilhelmsen knew what he was talking about since the University of Dallas has gone this path. As much as people there don’t want to admit it, the Great Books “Core” curriculum has been a key way in which the Catholic identity of the school has been hollowed out.

In any case, try to wrap your mind around truth v. meaning, then compare Wilhelmsen’s notion of philosophy with Newman’s “Idea of a University” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of one way in which “Great Books” programs fail their students.

avatar David April 7, 2010 at 9:39 am

Boz. I do apologize if my remark came off more sarcastic than I intended. I had a more light-hearted attempt in mind (though I’ll admit it was still disapproving). You might want to reread the first couple of pages of the article, it really does come off well into the peacock zone.

I do believe Wilhelmsen knew what he was talking about at Dallas. (There’s an Orthodox priest I know who went there that had similar things to say.) But Wilhelmsen expressly said in the article that the “hollowing out” happened prior to the Great Books being introduced and that the program was a poor attempt at some sort of restoration.

The very thing I would be interested in is the one thing he omits, the cause of the emptiness there (though he obliquely references federal dollars and immigrant inferiority complexes).

I read every article published on FPR (though I rarely comment because I’m am not usually qualified to do so). I am a newcomer to serious orthodox (small ‘o’ as they say) thought and I’m a very much trying to listen to everyone. Make no mistake, my occasional comments on the site are meant to get some questions answered, not over turn the apple cart or insult my hosts.

Which leads me back to Wessexman’s patient replies. I’m not really sure what you mean that about “the deepest, most unconscious levels of culture”. If you mean that people still basically try to act more ethically than a simple economic model would predict and that even gang bangers stop at red lights, I suppose you’re right.

Here are the kinds of questions I challenge myself with.. as I read my own post before submitting it, the rapid fire nature of the questions sounds argumentative. I do not mean this to be. I am genuinely looking for what you believe you see Wessexman. You don’t have to answer any of them, but I’d love to have you answer one of your own and show me a concrete example of what you mean.

Do the imagery of icons and the Anglo-Christmas songs still inspire a bit of reverence around the holidays? I suppose in many. Do you find people that still know that they are “mostly Irish” or at least where grandfather’s farm was in Illinois (even though they’ve lived in Arizona since they were 10)? Sure. I suppose there are a few people that still called themselves “Texan” or a “New Yorker”.

But would most Americans sell out their heritage for a large pepperoni pizza, a crate of beer and their favorite team winning the Superbowl? Absolutely. And the left has it’s own mess of potage. Their own momentary fulfillment of fetish in exchange for even the lesser richness of the modern project’s better aspects.

Ask someone who goes into the military. Are they fighting to protect the family farm? Is it for soil and blood? Or is it for gnostic ideals like “freedom” (undefined) twisted into a marketing method to support Empire? Or even worse, is it some mask of false masculinity in an emasculated culture?

How many men ask for a brides hand from the father? How old to people marry? Is marriage still seen as a spiritually formative institution by any but the most faithful center of our churches?

How many people do you know who their word is there bond, even if it means a great loss in keeping it?

Do you know why programs like “The Office” are so popular despite the fact that they explicitly expose the utter failure of society to function? Doesn’t this demonstrate a deliberate enthusiasm for rolling around in one’s own excrement?

avatar Brandon April 7, 2010 at 9:55 am

Bravo, David! I find myself nodding in agreement with all of the above insights. American culture is in many ways, beyond redemption.

avatar Carl Scott April 7, 2010 at 10:53 am

Good way to get a conservation going, I guess.

But really, “Against Great Books” ? You might as well be “against” sports. Or “against” capitalism. These books aren’t going away. Nor are various curricular programs centered upon them.

Or more to the point, what are you FOR? Because I suspect that Pat is for Great Books in the curriculum, but just organized and taught in a different way. Put Nietzsche first in the course, he might helpfully suggest. Don’t lamely suggest that the typical student is yet qualified to choose whichever “book” he wants as his guide to life. (I say this, incidentally, as someone with experience of the St. John’s program and my own criticisms of it.)

And P.S. all–what faithful catholic colleges ought to do and what most colleges ought to do are two fairly distinct questions.

avatar Albert April 7, 2010 at 11:14 am

This gets back to basic paradoxes I’ve tried to bring up on FPR before (and often tire of attempting to breach the point). That all of us are modern, and that by “choosing” conservative ideals invalidates those very ideals. True tradition cannot be chosen, only inherited and transmitted faithfully or unfaithfully.

David, good thoughts, and I agree with your comment regarding Wilhelmsen’s omission of a discussion of what led to the decline of his tradition. But this particular understanding of being “modern” is, I think, inaccurate. You seem to suggest that part of being modern (for those on this site) is that we “choose” conservative ideals or traditions, but by doing so we invalidate them because “true tradition cannot be chosen, only inherited.”

I don’t think being modern has to do with making choices per se, but with what our choices mean. If it were the mere fact of choosing ideals or a tradition that makes us modern, we would have to believe that the Hebrews were modern thousands of years ago: (Joshua 24:15) “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

I don’t even think it has to do with displacement from hometowns, for Abraham left his own and peoples have been geographically displaced for millennia; are they all modern?

I think it is not so much about making a choice between options, which has always been the case, but believing that one’s choice is not bound within an objective reality of the true, good and beautiful in God. That is, the primary characteristic of modernity is not choice, but that we believe our choices are free from a Personal reality outside ourselves that limits and ultimately judges our choices and to which we are accountable; the Enlightenment undermined belief in a moral, aesthetic and theological reality (yes, I know I’m generalizing like crazy) by its essential deism and by making man the measure of all things, and hyper/late-modernity has extended that vaporous mere subjectivity to the physical sciences and our sense perceptions as well.

That means that our choosing a tradition does not invalidate it as long as it isn’t merely a “consumer” choice that we believe is merely one “lifestyle” among many equally valid lifestyles.

That said, I think you’re right to feel that something is lost if a tradition isn’t chosen as an inheritance (it always is chosen); what is lost is the generational continuity and concomitant strength of the tradition through time and space, but not its validity or authenticity.

avatar richard April 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Hi David,
I think you are asking some good questions; especially with regards to homecoming for those who have no homes to go to. Someone asked a similar question to one of Caleb Stegall’s posts about local history back here that went unanswered.
http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/03/local-history/

The question was, “Where does the work start for those of us whose homes (for example, a suburb of Washington, D.C.) are actually home to very few for more than a generation?”

I thought about that question for a long time, and have no great answer. I do believe that the work of homecoming starts with building a local economy, but some of us might admittedly have less to work with. Every place also has a past, and learning about that past (including its mistakes in such areas as land use) can be done anywhere. Hopefully, this leads to love of place (not idealized teenager love, but old married love).

In agreement with Wessexman’s previous comment I might offer that your attempt to understand traditionalism and change relative to the FPR ethos is perhaps too rigid. Understand that I am writing from the perspective of someone whose tradition is what you called “Calvinistic Whiggery”. If I am going to genuinely understand and be a part of my local culture that is the starting point. Anything else is artificial. Without embracing this culture (With its warts) I might be in the awkward position of not being able to judge when a tradition should be held to and when it might need to change. Thus, as a “Calvinistic whig” I am not a traditionalist in the same manner as someone from your denomination who holds to innate traditionalism might be. I do hold to the ideas of my place, the objectivity of limits, and liberty.

Sorry this has nothing to do with the original Great Books post.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 7, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Richard, here are some answers:

First, realize that the questions themselves are part of an avoidance/coping mechanism …

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/03/you-say-liturgy-i-say-lechery/

… yeah, we’re all ruined moderns, so what? You start where you are. Cast down your bucket …

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/05/commencement-address/

avatar Carl Scott April 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Pat, only now notice the longer essay…digesting, and on a busy day. Glad to see you’re engaging Kronman’s book.

avatar David April 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I suppose I have a very particular framework Albert/Richard. And I do think that I’ve allowed some idealistic systematics to creep into my goal of thwarting modernity. There is some oversimplification of what modernity comes from and what exactly it is.

That is not to say systematics are bad (as long as they are something you do, more than something you think) or that idealism is the evil of modernism (though radical individualism going all the way back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, may be). However, I do have an assemblage of causal and semi-causal relationships in my head that frustrate my ability to navigate according to traditional conservative virtues.

I keep coming back to my Orthodox Church conversion because as soon as I found out that I wasn’t conservative (but classically liberal) a few years back and forced myself to reconsider the good of my ideals, I have been amassing a set of sources that seem to point to the same meta-historical narrative.

John Romanides and Leo Strauss (and Voeglin to a lesser extent) in particular look at the meta-historical/philosophical narratives in a way that causes modernity to show up like irradiated dye throughout history.

And Romanides and Strauss in particular get almost conspiratorial about it at times.

I admit that I am modern. I cannot avoid being modern, but such is the problem of ancestral sin and the consequences of death. Luckily the remedy for modernity is the same remedy for sin, revelation (ultimately the complete revelation of the God-man Christ).

While yet a sinner, yet a modern, I can submit myself to slavery in Christ and find true freedom living in the tradition, the so-called Apostolic deposit. Not freedom of action, but freedom of will. My prison isn’t made of bars, or of strip malls, but of the passions.

Modernity can be said to have many roots and all might be correct assessments. But Romanides’ suggestion that the Frankish influence on the Papacy and the filique; or Strauss’ suggestion that Machiavelli’s interest in subverting fate and making man master over creation; or the inherent problem of Gnosticism in all its forms.

But I resist all of them, I hope. The question becomes, “How do I do so accepting that all around me is both sinful and modern?”

By coming on here and arguing about Great Books. Wilhelmsen is wrong because he’s gone too far, as I do often, in trying to be pure in his approach to virtue. My point was at the beginning that without Great Books there is virtually no hope of ever effectively introducing classical virtues or eudaimonia to those prisoners of modernity. Great Books laid the seeds for my eventual recovery. If Wilhelmsen has his way, I’d be another Gnostic Objectivist fool.

avatar John Willson April 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm

David, I’m glad you made clearer your original response, and admit you are modern and probably an ideologue. Unless your last name is “Sergekov” or some such, you of course could not be doing anything “conservative” by choosing Orthodoxy. I had the great privilege of knowing Fr. Schmemann some years back, and I witnessed–or rather, saw with own eyes and heard with my own ears–Eric Voegelin say to him, “I now know what kind of Christian I have wanted to become.” The great priest also told me that a nice New England Puritan boy like me could not be Orthodox–I must be Catholic, or stick to my failed Anglican past.

avatar David April 7, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I come from the Restorationist chuches of Christ (as I mentioned before). While they have some surprisingly novel (read: bad/modern) ideas, being raised with the goal of living in the “New Testament Church” does actually offer a bridge (albeit a manufactured one) to Orthodoxy.

Just as modern existentialism offers a bridge to ancient mysticism (as understood by the Church, not by yogis or the Beatles).

I am hoping that it might be possible to find a way to come around the horn, as it were, and many Orthodox believe that post-modern thought has a possible way “home” that didn’t exist at the height of “western” modernism. Fr Schmemann wrestled with this as did the rest of the Paris school.

Zizioulas was a big influence on me as was the 20th century Serbian Saint Nikolai of Zicha. There are many secrets paths from west to east hidden in Serbia.

avatar David April 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm

I think I have a hypothesis. (forgive this one last diversion)

If modernity is acceptably defined as rebellion against tradition (that is the radical disaffection of the individual from existent relations) then the cure is the cessation of hostilities.

If I include the eccesial dimension to this thinking, obedience to the Church can be a foundation for a genuine conservative life, even if that life bares no resemblance to the prior experience of rebellion. Rebellion isn’t a tradition; it has no thingness. Rebellion is non-existant, like cold it has no substance but is the absence of heat.

In this sense I am bound by the same traditions my father was though he did not pass them down to me. His rebellion doesn’t change the obligation, it is merely the failure to obey.

This solves several riddles for me. I do not need to indulge my willfulness even in an enthusiastic mimicry of tradition. Rather I submit to a life in obedience just like my forefathers did in direct response to what is required of me by the authority of the community (in this case, the Church).

This to me seems both fair to the existent nature of my condition and represents a way of resolving the conflict caused by my ontological poverty.

avatar richard April 7, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Hi David,
I cant help your much on your hypothesis (I had to look up what “ontological” meant) However, it seems your riddles are eating at you. Maybe you could set aside Strauss and Romanides and read some Jan Karon?

I can tell you that I am surrounded by communities that have successfully met your goal of thwarting modernity, and they are all Anabaptist Germans. Ironically, the most radical wing of the reformation became the most traditional. However, they are not “bound by the same traditions my father was”. They weigh and debate each new technological idea, and each community makes independent judgment in such matters. This is not mindless slavery to tradition, but a dynamic process to preserve family and community.

avatar Wessexman April 8, 2010 at 1:35 am

“The point of a classical curriculum is not that the books read are claimed to be the best ever, but that the works in question are *ours*, and (for better or worse) are an integral part of our narrative. That is, they are essential to understanding the Western tradition from Homer to today. I’d happily trade off Rousseau for Confucius & think that the Chinese would be getting the poor end of the bargain.

But if you’re trying to figure out who we are as inheritors of Western civilization, then Rousseau is essential while Confucius would only be good extracurricular reading.”

But isn’t that making the decision that the likes of Rousseau are acceptable successors the tradition of Plato, the fathers and the Schoolmen instead of a gross degeneration? If the likes of Rousseau are inheritors then they are the scions and illegitimate ones.

As my comments on the Qu’ran made clear I was not suggesting Eastern books should be on the programs.

avatar Wessexman April 8, 2010 at 1:49 am

“Just as modern existentialism offers a bridge to ancient mysticism (as understood by the Church, not by yogis or the Beatles).”

Who says it does? I must, from my knowledge of metaphysics and mysticism including some formidable modern religious thinkers like Frithjof Schuon and the Orthodox theologian James Cutsinger, disagree. They quite soundly show that true religious and mystical knowledge comes from the traditional conceptions ivisand metaphysics and not modernist degenerations. As Schuon put it in an interesting letter on Existentialism, was Kierkegaard a Platonist, An Aristotleian, A Scholastic or Palamist? The four perfect or at least satisfactory schools of Western Metaphysics. As he was neither of these(nor was he a Vedantist or Mahayanist or such.) his thought is null and void; it is infra-Intellectual subjectivism whereas true mysticism comes from the Platonic Intellect, the Vedantic Bodhi, where knowledge and being unite and one perceives spiritual truth directly not any modernist rationalism or subjectivism.

I suggest you check out Cutsinger’s Not of this world; treasures of Christian mysticism. An excellent collection of insights from all denominations of Christian mysticism and all sorts of figures from St.Patrick to C.S Lewis.

Other than that I disagree with John Wilson(again ;)). It is better for one to take their nations’ and culture’s traditional faith and denomination but not essential; certainly not essential to be a conservative or traditionalist and it isn’t even as if David has become a Taoist or Shintoist, he has only joined the Eastern orthodox church. Now completely trying to overturn your nation’s faith and culture is a different matter but just changing faiths, while it is better not to, does not cast one out completely from traditionalism or conservatism(as long as it is a decent, traditional faith of course and not the likes of Scientology!).

avatar David April 8, 2010 at 9:57 am

Wessexman, on Existentialism/Mysticism.

I know plenty of Orthodox that would disagree with Cutsinger on Kierkegaard, especially important to me, my own priest. I am not familiar with Cutsinger, so I cannot speak further on his thesis.

I can say that that existentialism’s error is the radical individualism that corrupts it. However, when set against the corrective of the Apostolic deposit and protected by the grace of the Holy Spirit within the life of the Church, it is not only compatible but possibly essential for the modern man to approach the East. The holy fathers that have come before our the Orthodox Church’s “Great Books.”

“Taste and See” is an invitation to phenomenalism and existential derivative of meaning. No, I’m not suggesting that St Gregory Palamas would be a phenomenalist, but his argument against Barlaam and the formalization of the theology of divine Energia hangs on the notion that our experiences of God are not created things, but uncreated God Himself. For St Gregory, we participate in the actual life of Christ, not some neo-Platonic illusion or created shadow.

The problem with talking about whether existentialism is compatible with Orthodoxy is that of course, as schools of thought they are not compatible; but as a collection of ideas, developments, values and epistemological approaches there are compatible parts.

Since my conversion I’ve gone back and read “Leaves of Grass” and “No Exit” and others. I cannot help but constantly say, “Oh you are so close, just take the next step!” Sing the song of your neighbor! Realize that they are in hell because they are alone not because there are other people there! The next step for the existentialist is of course that other people are real and that the experiences of the community are as existential as our own.

This leads many Orthodox (including myself) to think it would be easier for an existentialist to be Orthodox than a rationalist Calvinist. If I can get a mystic (in the corrupted modern sense) to accept the reality of my being, they are closer to Orthodoxy than any rationalist will ever be.

avatar Albert April 8, 2010 at 11:05 am

David, re: your response to me, I think you understand my criticism of the idea that choice itself is modern. My intention was to defuse the paralysis that seems inevitable if one did believe that idea and to defend your participation in the Eastern rite as not modern (in the objectionable sense), without claiming some sort of premodern purity (we certainly are modern in so far as we in our persons, relations, institutions, etc. are shaped and constituted by claims of ultimate freedom from and sovereignty over the limits of reality).

Don’t get too Stoical reading Strauss et al. It’s good to delight in the gift of obedience, and I hear the Orthodox throw some great feasts.

avatar David April 8, 2010 at 11:22 am

Thank you Albert. You comment about being a Stoic Straussian is insightful and kind. Sometimes when I read Strauss I wish I could take him out for a beer.

avatar Paul Seaton April 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

Patrick, a general query: what’s the place, if any, of greatness in your thinking? (You know my suspicions on this score.). A 2nd query: what do you understand by ‘great book’? Perhaps you might use Bloom’s proposition as a starting point, or foil: I paraphrase: any text that presents a vision of the whole of everything, man’s place therein, and the main contours of the human drama. I think these issues underlie those you discuss.

avatar Mark April 8, 2010 at 6:31 pm

I do not teach but I work for a flagship public university in the souitheast. I would love to see these books read. Just read. Period!

Anthony T. Kronman’s appraisal is blunt: liberal arts and humanities departments in our universities have collectively blown it, sucumbing to the research ideal rather than “cultivating minds.” Given Deneen’s valid complaint that a curriculum of great books cannot do anything but promote a more fundamental relativism unless it takes place within a distinctive set of control beliefs and presupositions, at least students are exposed to books that can still teach.

I imagine the vast majority of our graduating students have not been adequately exposed to the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Milton, Locke or Thomas Reid, et al. seeing them as mere relics that have little applicability or practical import. Didn’t Wendell Berry write once upon a time, something to the effect, that these great books can be taught but they no longer teach?

avatar Wessexman April 8, 2010 at 7:01 pm

“I know plenty of Orthodox that would disagree with Cutsinger on Kierkegaard, especially important to me, my own priest. I am not familiar with Cutsinger, so I cannot speak further on his thesis.”

But are they doing this from modernist infected viewpoint? Existentialism is modernist through and through, it is based on infra-Intellectual(in the Platonic meaning.) subjectivism which is contrary to all proper mysticism I have come across. Mysticism whether is that of knowledge or love/passion but which ever one it is there is a great role for the Intellect, or bodhi in Vedanta spirituality, whereby one directly perceives truth and ones being and knowledge are united. This is the basis of all metaphysical and mystical knowledge and it is rejected by the existentialists in favour of infra-Intellectual subjectivism which cannot be a valid foundation for mysticism or religious truth of almost any kind.

““Taste and See” is an invitation to phenomenalism and existential derivative of meaning. No, I’m not suggesting that St Gregory Palamas would be a phenomenalist, but his argument against Barlaam and the formalization of the theology of divine Energia hangs on the notion that our experiences of God are not created things, but uncreated God Himself. For St Gregory, we participate in the actual life of Christ, not some neo-Platonic illusion or created shadow.”

I’m unsure how that is a criticism of the neo-platonists(who tend to be excellent thinkers.) rather than their actual beliefs(except that it is not Christ they talk about.). It is part of neo-Platonism and all genuine mysticism(from Taoism to the Plains Indians.) that one can escape the created and phenomenal world through religious and mystical experience. This is one of the major criticisms of the existentialists that they come pretty close to denying that one can escape “the created shadow” in any meaningful way; they art subjectivists.

“This leads many Orthodox (including myself) to think it would be easier for an existentialist to be Orthodox than a rationalist Calvinist. If I can get a mystic (in the corrupted modern sense) to accept the reality of my being, they are closer to Orthodoxy than any rationalist will ever be.”

Surely it would be greater still to be part of genuine, tradition with room for genuine, traditional mysticism which had no room for either modernist rationalism(which partly infects Calvinism.) nor existentialism.

I suggest you look into James Cutsinger, his work Not of this world, treasures of Christian mysticism is an excellent anthology.

http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/authors/James-Cutsinger.aspx
http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/products/0-941532-41-0_Not_of_This_World_Treasures_of_Christian_Mysticism.aspx?ID=94

In fact the Perennialists thinkers as a whole are well worth a read when it comes to metaphysics, cosmology and religion(particularly comparative religion.). Frithjof Schuon is above all a towering and amazing thinker.

http://worldwisdom.com/public/authors/Frithjof-Schuon.aspx

avatar Wessexman April 8, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Mark wrote

“I imagine the vast majority of our graduating students have not been adequately exposed to the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Milton, Locke or Thomas Reid, et al. seeing them as mere relics that have little applicability or practical import. Didn’t Wendell Berry write once upon a time, something to the effect, that these great books can be taught but they no longer teach?”

Hmm Locke’s work as great books, now you’ve opened up a can of worms there Mark. I’m sure we could discuss this for hours.

avatar David April 8, 2010 at 8:42 pm

I’m not an expert, but a recent convert. I think you misunderstand how differently the Orthodox see mysticism in contrast to other traditions. However, I look forward to reading the material you suggest.

avatar Tennessean muwahiddun April 8, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Adler responds from beyond the grave (From a eulogy of Father Virgil Michael, a Catholic educator and “Great Books” advocate. 1939):

“…But there is one objection which goes to the heart of the matter and which must be considered. To make a liberal education depend on the mastery of the liberal arts and on the reading of the great products of these intellectual arts, leads us to view the tradition of the West comprehensively. That tradition includes all the great works of religion, philosophy, science and belles-lettres and, since in the human order, imperfection is of the essence, even the greatest works will have errors and defects, and there will be many books of great importance intellectually because they are so largely and crucially wrong. At this point the objection has been made by some Catholic educators that the tradition of the West is divided into black and white, and that only the pure and true shall be admitted as the materials of Christian education. Not only is such a division impossible per se, because in all human work there are degrees of both truth and error; but more deeply the answer must be given that the truth shines forth most clearly in the widest context of errors it is able to rectify. It was this answer which Father Virgil, keenly appreciative of the catholicity of mediaeval learning, always gave to such an objection. Nothing can be alien to Christianity if it is catholic. Not only must it encompass the pagan tradition of the ancients, but it must similarly make modern culture its own — even the most deviating and antagonistic trends in modern thought — if Christendom is to be re-established in the modern world. But this cannot be done by putting up fences and staying within the tradition of books not on the Index. Father Virgil knew that the Index was not intended to restrict the field of education. He knew that the great flowering of Christian culture would not have happened in the thirteenth century if Christians had not read the books of infidels and pagans…”

The point being that some works are read because they are both influential and erroneous. Adler saw the entire tradition as useful in advancing a moral, catholic worldview.

An example from my own tradition: Ghazali mastered the works of the neoplatonists and published al-Maqasid al-Falasifah – the Goals of the Philosophers – which was praised by the falasifah of his day, before publishing al-Tuhafat al-Falasifah – the Incoherence of the Philosophers – the penultimate refutation of neoplatonism in orthodox Sunni Islam.

avatar Wessexman April 9, 2010 at 6:37 am

“I’m not an expert, but a recent convert. I think you misunderstand how differently the Orthodox see mysticism in contrast to other traditions. However, I look forward to reading the material you suggest.”

In some ways I’m talking more from an Orthodox mystical position than a more Scholastic Western Christian one. Certainly my view of mysticism is not something I particularly take from anything unique to the West, it is grounded in Christian Platonism. From my experience I think this is far closer to the Orthodox tradition of mysticism than the modernist and subjectivist ideas of the existentialists, as far as I know no genuine mysticism gives much credit any ideas like these.

avatar Sebastian April 9, 2010 at 7:17 am

As a U Chicago grad who knew Bloom, studied with some of Strauss’s offspring like Ralph Lerner and Joseph Cropsey and spent two years learning ancient Greek, I find this essay an excellent corrective to the knee-jerk worship of the great books curriculum, especially as embodied in a place like St. Johns. I found the vibe around St. John’s very amateurish and ungrounded. My criticism has less to do with the relativism such a curriculum may engender, less even with any religious consideration, but rather with the more practical matter that such an education leaves students unable to see the world in any way but as ideological battles. That is, the students who I knew who did not study economics, for example, earnestly believe politics is about ideas, or perhaps power, but lack the knowledge to see the obvious matter of wealth and resources. Great books students always struck me as possessing that naivete that gradually morphs into cynicism once the veil is lifted from the pure little world they had constructed by approaching problems as debates between books on shelves.

Students should learn the classics early and learn them well. They are in fact the basis for an educated mind. But the post-sixties fetish of great books a la Mortimer Adler and St. Johns cannot be the whole of education. As a corrective to American philistinism, it is a welcomed departure from a purely practical education. But the idea that reading great books – in translation! – can be a substitute for the older European, sentimental education is absurd. Better to learn French or Italian well, have a complicated affair with a girl from Bratislava who reads Milan Kundera while living in Rome, than to read bad translations of Aquinas in a sterile environment back in the States. I can vouch that on this Bloom would have agreed with me.

avatar Mark Shiffman April 9, 2010 at 10:09 am

I doubt any curriculum can be a cure for anything except outright ignorance. Thus a primary consideration for any curricular design should be identifying the texts about which no educated and thoughtful person should be ignorant or know only by hearsay.

It is probably teachers that matter most. I was educated at St. John’s, and it was really about five of the teachers I had (one a Christian Brother, one a fierce anti-communist and critic of the neglect of history at the college) that mattered most.

And in my own case I can say that the cure for the soft-Nietzschean relativism Patrick complains of (aside from teachers who pointed other directions) was partly accomplished by falling under the influence of the real Nietzsche from my first year. This helped me become a good critic of much of what I read, and it also gave me time to discover the ways in which Nietzsche comes up short. My point is that if you want to order a curriculum to work toward liberation from relativism, you have to start by going explicitly into relativism and then examine critical responses. And you have to have teachers who are up to the task.

avatar Extollager April 9, 2010 at 10:13 am
avatar Mark April 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Wessexman wrote, “Hmm Locke’s work as great books, now you’ve opened up a can of worms there.”

OK… drop John Locke. That particular inclusion was a minor point. I appreciate much of what Patrick has written, but I still think there is great value in reading and thinking about these great works of literature, poetry, philosophy inspite of the relativism and multiculturalism that abound on most university campuses. Yes, even Nietzsche! After reading him, why would any college student want to invite him to a birthday or graduation party?

avatar ta April 11, 2010 at 2:40 am

De gustibus non est disputandum is the correct tag.

It is sometimes offered as a variant of the dunce’s defence: ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’. On the contrary we are responsible for our preferences. Taste is a cultivated thing.

The Great Books study can only be a very limited selection of that canon because the average time allotted for a degree is not enough to cover them in any satisfactory way. I presume that the dismal compromise of a doorstop book of readings would be rejected by the votaries of the Grand Schema. What is left then is probably what most people get namely the attempt to develop the critical faculty which will serve to asses any book whatever. However lightly and provisionally held this presumes a point of view. Naturally this will be brought to the reading of whatever of the great books is appropriate to the chief area of study. A very close ‘ examination of this text applying the criteria that one has adopted will show whether these criteria are serviceable. As you mention the templates established by Aristotle and Aquinas are useful comprising as they do a demonstration of their power to elucidate and come to a conclusion.

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avatar David December 19, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Contra the implication of Kevin Jones, unlike Nietzsche, Ayn Rand is not a “relativist.” She is an advocate of reason and of values rationally grounded in the requirements of life.

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