Brian Williams: Great Books Enrich the Human Spirit

This mischievous question tempts me to rush in spouting names of books across genre and subject matter, feverishly defending their inclusion through appeals to a potentially idiosyncratic understanding of the term “great.” But, I ask myself, pausing at the doorstep, “great” for what? Or “great” for whom? And of the arguably thousands of “great” works, which are the “greatest” and, therefore, the ones we presumably ought to attend to most assiduously given the limits of human finitude?

     Thankfully, before I rush through the door, I remember to consult the lawyer and historian Frederic Harrison, who was the first person to use the phrase “great books” in print. He points me to his 1886 essay, “The Choice of Books,” and reminds me it began as private correspondence with a young woman determined to cultivate what we might call “literary prudence.” Her need for this discriminating virtue was acute because her world was being flooded with a torrent of “literary garbage” and “bad men’s worst thoughts” pouring forth from a recent culture-shaping invention, the rapid printing press. Worse still, these books were flowing into and filling up the shelves of another recent innovation, the public lending library, through which they seeped into and stupefied the hearts and minds of indiscriminate readers. Harrison warns his young interlocutor:

Are we not…in continual danger of being drawn off by what is stimulating rather than solid, by curiosity after something accidentally notorious, by what has no intelligible thing to recommend it, except that it is new? Now, to stuff our minds with what is simply trivial, simply curious, or that which at best has but a low nutritive power, this is to close our minds to what is solid and enlarging, and spiritually sustaining. Whether our neglect of the great books comes from our not reading at all, or from an incorrigible habit of reading the little books, it ends in just the same thing. And that is ignorance of all the greater literature of the world. To neglect all the abiding parts of knowledge for the sake of the evanescent parts is really to know nothing worth knowing.

Harrison invokes Archdeacon Claude Frollo’s line from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, “Ceci tuera cela” (“this will kill that”), to express his prophetic fear that the lending library’s and the bookstall’s siren songs of “little books” and novelty novels would kill the desire and capacity to read the great works of poetry, literature, science, history, philosophy, and theology, whether ancient or modern. “When will men understand,” he asks, “that the reading of great books is a faculty to be acquired, not a natural gift, at least not to those who are spoiled by our current education and habits of life?” Harrison is keen to give the lie to the fatuous claim that it matters not what people read as long as they are reading. Nodding in agreement, I quote him a line from Frederick Buechner: “If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned; if there is nourishment, you are nourished; if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful,” and he nods in return.

     To help his young correspondent develop the discriminating faculty and capacity she desires, Harrison eventually offers an annotated bibliography of great works. Along the way, and perhaps most useful for our purposes, he refers, almost in passing, to the characteristics that distinguish “great” works from “small” ones. The great ones are “solid,” “enlarging,” “spiritually sustaining,” “abiding,” “nutritive,” and offering “solace” like a “draft of clear water bubbling from a mountain side.” They “bring harmony to our moral and intellectual nature,” fill “the soul with satisfying silent wonder,” and, if read across genre, could “perfect” the whole “nature and character” of the person who embodies them. I propose even more terms: “apocalyptic” because they uncover and unveil the depth of the human experience in all its glories, struggles, beauties, and brokenness; “nourishing” because we are holistically healthier and quickened for having read them; and “joy-ful” because they deeply please and regularly revive us with the refreshing delight our weary souls need. They give our oft malnourished modern selves more to be human with, more to be Christian with, more to be neighbors, citizens, spouses, and friends with.

     This ad hoc list of qualities and characteristics essentially serve as the functional “canon” against which any work, old or new, might be measured to determine whether it is “great” or “small.” I use “canon” advisedly because its Arabic, Greek, and Latin roots simply mean a straight stick of determined length (hence the etymological relation between “canon” and “cane”) against which other things might be measured and compared. By extension, “canon” comes to mean a set of governing principles, which is why the teachings of church counsels are called “canons” and people who teach them “canon theologians.” Scripture is the Christian “canon” because it is the authoritative norma normans non normata against which life and faith are measured.

     So “great books” are those which are solid, sustaining, truth-revealing, wonder-inducing, nourishing, joy-ful, and uniquely capable of enlarging the human spirit. As I turn to depart, Harrison reminds me they are also “abiding” because they quicken readers across space and time in similar ways—readers who, in turn, preserve them in an ever-expanding literary endowment capable of enriching subsequent generations.

     The second half of this disputed question now at least provisionally addressed, I return with some trepidation to the mischievous first part, and enter the room to name a few exemplary works that “measure up” to the great-making criteria, trusting that my interlocutors know that this list is merely illustrative rather than in any way exhaustive. These are not “the” great works, but each of these are “great works,” along with any that resemble them:

  • in the realm of literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Vergil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Donne’s “Batter My Heart,” Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man;
  • in the realm of philosophy and theology, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, Christine de Pizan’s The God of Love’s Letter, Calvin’s Institutes, Hobbes’ Leviathon, Nietzshe’s Beyond Good and Evil, Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem;
  • in the realm of education, Plato’s Meno, Isocrates’ Antidosis, Clement of Alexandria’s “Christ the Educator,” St. Basil’s “To Young Men,” Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon, Melanchthon’s “Preface to Homer,” Comenius’ The Great Didactic, John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, Charlotte Mason’s Towards A Philosophy of Education,  and Anna Julia Cooper's “On the Higher Education of Women.”

The value of a canon of great-making criteria along with an exemplary list of great works is that together they can tutor our literary prudence and that of our students, a virtue perhaps even more necessary in our own day than it was in that of Harrison’s and his young friend. Of course, context and circumstance may sometimes lead our literary prudence to the “good books” as well as the “great books,” but it will hopefully always steer us clear of the “little books,” of the lotus eaters that poison our hearts, dull our senses, and darken our minds.

Frederic Harrison, The Choice of Books and Other Literary Pieces (London: Macmillan & Co., 1886)

Frederick Buechner, “The Opening of Veins,” in The Clown in the Belfry (San Francisco: Harper, 1992)

Brian Williams (MPhil, DPhil) works at Eastern University as the Dean of the Templeton Honors College, an  Associate Professor of Ethics & Liberal Studies, and the Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities.



Dr. Brian A. Williams
Dean, Templeton Honors College; Dean, College of
Arts & Humanities; Professor of Ethics & Liberal Studies

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