An essay with the title above by Patrick Deenan came out a few years back, I saw it earlier this year and wanted to comment, but that abortive attempt became draft #103 moldering in my drafts folder. So, let’s do this now.
Deenan begins by restating arguments that Great Books are the core of any liberal education worthy of the name, but then casts doubts on that claim:
I have long sympathized with these arguments, but in recent years I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books. The broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.
Thus, those who insist upon an education in the great books end up recommending texts and arguments that undermine their own beliefs in the central importance of liberal arts education.
Certainly, from Descartes on, the philosophy in the Great Books consciously and actively discounts and dismisses everything that came before. The Reformers believed – correctly, in my view – that Aristotle, through the mediation of St. Thomas, was irretrievably tainted by Catholicism. Since the medieval world against which they were rebelling was intellectually formed and sustained by Aristotle more than any other writer, he became the enemy, and any who could trace their intellectual heritage and methods to him had to be destroyed.
As Deenan shows below, one philosopher after another proposed philosophies that might be classified as Anything Other Than Aristotle. Since the medieval idea of education was largely applied Aristotelianism as baptised by Thomas, it had to go.
Arguments against this form of education became common among elite thinkers in the early modern period, who sought to justify a new kind of science that had as its aim the expansion of human control over nature. Arguing strenuously against the content of books by authors such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon castigated previous thinkers for their “despair” and tendency to “think things impossible.” Asserting that “knowledge is power,” he rejected the idea that knowledge consists first in acknowledging human limits and claimed that it was necessary to wipe clear “waxen tablets” inscribed with older writing in order to inscribe new lessons upon them. Books were more often than not one manifestation of the “idols of the cave,” or illusions that obscured true enlightenment, and in the schools “men’s studies? . . . [were] confined and imprisoned in the writings of certain authors.” His book Novum Organum is devoted to arguing against the flawed inheritance of the past, including the arguments found in the great books of his age.
One charming aspect of Aristotle, especially when viewed after having read the early modern Enlightenment writers, is his willingness to identify limits. Was the world created or eternal? Who knows? the Philosopher answers. All knowledge of contingent things is contingent – such is life in this world of change, a necessarily humble life of uncertainty. With Thomas, we get invigorated to pursue even imperfect knowledge of Creation, because the Heavens proclaim the glory of God. In our imperfect and humble understanding of created things we experience the ineffable Divine.
But limits have gone from realities any sane man recognizes and tries to understand, which he might rationally embrace or challenge on a case by case basis, to something that is evil and to be overcome in all cases. A classic man, a victim, one might say, of the philosophy in those pre-Enlightenment Great Books, would first want to know himself and come to grips with his passions and his fixed days. If he were a Christian, he’d recall that all is grass and grace, his days are numbered, and it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. Yet God loves him into being nonetheless, and blesses him such that his life need not be in vain.
The post Enlightenment man has increasingly rejected any ‘despair’ or what the pre-Enlightenment man would consider proper humility, and chaffs at all limits. What began as a not entirely unsympathetic rejection of the limits imposed by a Church ends with the entirely insane rejection of reality. The very idea of human nature became nonsensical under Hegel and an affront under Marx. Whatever you found yourself to be at the moment could become something else entirely under the influence of the Spirit unfolding or History progressing. Limits oppress; to believe in any limits is to be an oppressor, even and especially when those limits exist by nature.
Novum Organum is now one of our great books—a great book that recommends against the lessons of previous great books. His work inaugurated a long line of great books that argued against an education in books. Another in this genre is René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which begins with a similar condemnation of book learning as an obstacle to true understanding. “As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors,” he wrote, “I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.” Books are the repository of foolishness: “When I look with the eye of a philosopher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless.”
Descartes’ view is shared, it seems, by scientists and students of science as much as by various ‘studies’ professors and their acolytes. The first group believes above all else that their study of nature is the only road to knowledge, doesn’t want to hear otherwise, and at any rate knows ‘philosophy’ only as delivered by the academic philosophers who infest their campuses. The student of science correctly concludes that Analytic Philosophy is at best useless, an overly-intellectual tail trying to wag the productive scientific dog.
The second group sees any philosophy that embraces limits as oppressive; they mistake the untethered emoting and manipulation of Critical Theory as the only necessary and pure philosophy. They rank themselves by how oppressed they are, and start in trying to kill each other at the first opportunity, according to the nature of a philosophy without limits.
Centuries later, this line of argumentation would be employed in the United States in defense of disassembling existing curricula oriented to the study of the great books. Widely regarded as America’s most influential educational reformer, John Dewey, in books that continue to exert great influence in schools of education, argued that learning should be accomplished “experientially” rather than through an encounter with books. In his short work Experience and Education, he argues strenuously that an education based in books transmitted “static” knowledge to a citizenry that needed to be better enabled to face a world of rapid change. Learning through books is “to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.” Accordingly, he founded an institution in Chicago called the Lab School. Laboratory was to replace library, experiment would substitute for knowledge gleaned from the past.
Dewey was also a Communist apologist, who rejected categorically the concept of objective morality. Think killing a few 10s of millions of Kulaks will speed the dawn of the Worker’s Paradise? The only moral question is: did it work? (And if it didn’t, it’s likely not enough Kulaks were murdered. But I digress.) “Static” knowledge is nonsensical under Marx – all is Becoming, nothing Is. What is needed, as spelled out by Freire, are children educated to be revolutionaries. Math? Reading? History? Pointless and dangerous!
Dewey makes this case in pointed terms in his book Democracy and Education, asking, “Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization?” He answers that “in a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development.”
Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends.
There is and cannot be any human nature – that would limit what people can become, and limits are evil in themselves. Instead, “their social activities as such” limit what we can become. (Dewey here deigns to consider civilized people as somehow more progressed than savages – he needed to get way, way more woke!) If one were to ask where these social activities come from, the answer is: History! The term ‘History’ as used by Marxists means the non-god god and unconscious consciousness that drives us forward, and on whose wrong side one must not get. That whole what happened in the past stuff is called history only insofar as it captures the non-active activity of the non-god god in causing Progress. They rarely put it this way, because it’s as stupid as it sounds.
Thus, two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of great books. The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist alongside an older conception, but requires the active dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the transformation of education away from the study of great books and toward the study of “the great book of nature” with the end of its mastery.
One of the contradictions yet to be subsumed and suspended in the dialectic is the hard or real science versus soft or fake science: everyone want to dress their claims in the sacred Lab Coat of Science, even and especially when there is no science, properly understood in the modern sense, involved. Mean people who believe in reality are going to challenge claims that sociology, psychology and modern education theory, for starters, are in any functional sense science. They do not measure the properties of measurable bodies; they do not follow well-established protocols such as using clear methods and publishing all data and subjecting all claims to skeptical replication. As Groucho Marx – the good Marx – said: the key to success in this business is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Since those older Great Books contradict all this, and the newer Great Books are irrelevant by their own admissions, they must be destroyed.
The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government. In a constrained world, the human propensity to desire and consume without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery. The decline of the role of great books in our universities today is not due merely to financial constraints, or to the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry, or even to science itself. Preceding all of this was an argument that the study of great books should be displaced from the heart of education.
The concept of limits includes both possibilities and consequences. I cannot flap my arms and fly to the moon, no matter how woke I am, and neither can anybody else. Why we can’t is a unaddressed problem for the Enlightened. I cannot eat everything in sight or have sex round the clock without the piper eventually demanding his due.
So we must learn to accept fat people as not fat, as beautiful and perfect right up until they drop dead of a heart attack or stroke or diabetes around age 40. In fact, what’s with this whole death thing? It’s so unfair! Thus the cult of Transhumanism offers the false hope that we can, ultimately escape all limits and their consequences. Somehow. And treatments and prevention of venereal diseases and babies must be assumed, free, and supported by all. Broken hearts are an illusion.
So, yes, the Great Books are not a solution to societal collapse and the perpetual ignorance of the certifiably educated when applied in our current state.
My only push back against Dr. Deenan is this: that read fearlessly and with a desire for Truth that will not bow to fad and peer pressure, the glory of the pre-Enlightenment Great Books will reveal the latter books to be superficial, dishonest and inferior. This does happen: someone, even someone not forewarned by Christianity, may read the Great Books and conclude that some – Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, the wisdom of the poets, and others – are much greater than the others. Some are worthy of a serious person. Many are not.
Alas, this sort of self-enlightenment and devotion to the Truth is not likely to be found among conventionally educated 18 year olds.