Against Great Books

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
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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.

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