A couple of weeks ago Patrick Deneen of the Front Porch Republic wrote an article titled “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer,” which I found intriguing, and have finally gotten around to reading. I mostly read it to find out what these books were expected to be an answer to. If the great books are or are not the answer, what was the question? The question was apparently not: “what have a number of brilliant men been doing in the Mediterranean and the West for the past several thousand years?” A great books curriculum is the answer to that. As far as I can tell the question must have been something more like: “how can a student growing up and attending school in the modern culture of absolute relativism form (or, better yet, find already “traditioned”) a coherent and non-arbitrary world-view from which to read the great books?” Fair enough, that question won’t get answered with a modern liberal arts curriculum; it will barely get poked at with a ten foot stick in class, and there will be many contradictory contentions regarding it outside of class. So then I’m left wondering: why was that the primary question that a college does or does not answer? Perhaps I’m too modern myself. Or not modern enough? Or too post-modern? I don’t know. But whatever the case might be, that question seems not in the province of a liberal arts college, and perhaps not of any college.
Mr. Deneen’s suggestion at the end of the article was that colleges examine the great books from the perspective of a single tradition, say Catholicism. That’s fine. There’s only one undergraduate Orthodox college that I know of in America, Hellenic College in Boston; let’s say they examine the great books (way heavily weighted toward the Greek works) from an Orthodox perspective. Probably they won’t read, as Mr Deneen says of Great Books school, Plato and Aristotle up to Nietzsche. I suppose that Neitzsche would be relatively neglected, along with most of the European moderns. But I would never even consider going to Hellenic College unless I already had an affinity for Greek Orthodoxy. In other words, I would not go there unless I had previously answered the question of world-view. I suppose Catholic colleges have an advantage in that they have a good enough academic reputation that they attract students with an uncertain world-view. But all the same… I don’t see why I would expect to go to college to acquire a tradition. Even if I went to seminary it would be in order to learn more about the tradition I’ve already committed to.
But then… how do people look for a position from which to read or think or study? The term Fr. John likes to use sometimes is to “have the mind [phronimos?] of the Church.” One can try to study, pray, go to services, etc. — and eventually, after a number of years, one would begin to see everything “with the mind of the Church.” That’s assuming one believes in the Church and her teachings. That, of course, is simply begging the question. With enough time, effort, and faith it’s possible to know any tradition in that way from the inside. Great books programs are trying to do something quite different from that, and their success should not be measured by their ability to do that which they are not trying to do. But, then, still: how does one find a tradition from within which to look at things if it isn’t simply inherited? Some of the writers for the Front Porch Republic make much of this modern relativistic conundrum, saying that a tradition that is chosen is not really a tradition at all. I would reply simply that it is a difficult that may have increased in modernity, with each person being his own household and in some sense his own cultural unit, but in large part it has never been entirely absent from Christianity. the question might be between paganism and Christianity, or between pagan philosophy and Christianity or between implied and explicit Christianity, or Judaism and Christianity, but there is, ultimately, a question. In some sense I prefer asking the question to assuming it answered. Is Jesus Christ fully God and fully Man? Is the Holy Spirit truly God, and does He truly indwell humanity? Is God persons? What is a person? What is a nature? Is man an eternal being, or not, and is each person eternal as a person, or not? There is, of course, a sense in which one might simply inherit Christian theological answers. That would be much the safest and surest course. But if one is already of an age to attend a college or university then one already either has or has not inherited these answers, and already either does or does not have a tradition to be loyal to or choose outside of. If a person is already inside a tradition then they can read the great books from the perspective of their tradition and so avoid harm. If not, they will have to choose something or else give up: I don’t see how the college can possibly provide that decision for them.