Carol McNamara: The Greatest Books Teach Us Something Important with Every Encounter

The reading, knowledge, and Socratic study of the ideas and arguments we find in the “Great Books” are at the heart of a strong classical education curriculum—but what qualifies a book as a “Great Book?”

To earn the status of a “Great Book,” a text must reveal to us something relevant and important about ourselves in our own time but also teach us about the human condition as such—its vices and virtues, its ugliness and beauty, about human ignorance and wisdom, about the just and the good life. A great book does not merely address passing fads, or the small issues of the day, although those details are often important. It raises the perennial questions with which human beings are confronted every day, every year, every millennium. Ben Jonson, a poet and playwright, said of his friend and rival, William Shakespeare, that he was “Not for an age, but for all time.” Shakespeare explored human wisdom, folly, frailty, and beauty in every play and poem in a way that endures and speaks to every human generation, even in translation.

     A great book often begins with a question or a problem that requires reflection and discussion in pursuit of understanding. A great book inspires perplexity, wonder, or curiosity, and compels us to pursue the query or difficulty under consideration until we have sorted out fully at least the components of the problem, if not discovered an answer or solution. Rather than narrow or flatten an idea, a great text or story opens up a subject or insight for our intellect to examine and contemplate. In this way, a great text challenges us to have the intellectual and moral courage to explore our own fast-held opinions and to be open to the possibility that we are wrong or have at best only partial knowledge. The greatest books are the books we can read repeatedly and learn something fresh and important with every encounter.

     Furthermore, great books and texts preserve the arguments that the greatest minds have among themselves over time. Philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, poets, and historians of the most impressive rank read, study, and respond to one another. We read, study, and converse about the great arguments and stories as a way to learn and test ourselves against the best arguments available to us throughout time. The study of the most serious thoughts and ideas of the most serious human beings, wherever we find them, is the surest path to intellectual humility—the acknowledgement that our understanding is incomplete, and even fallible. This acknowledgement of what we do not know is the beginning of knowledge. This spirit is the spirit of a classical liberal arts education that proceeds through the study of the greatest books.

Disagreement occurs among thinkers across generations—ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary—and it happens even between the wisest teachers and students when they privilege the truth above vanity. Aristotle does not refrain, in his Nicomachean Ethics, from offering a criticism of his own friend, Plato. And this criticism addresses a dispute about the most important of subjects: the nature of the good. Aristotle expresses reluctance to pursue the examination of the idea of “the universal good” and all its perplexities because those who introduced the theory of the forms are dear to him. And yet, he persists in his examination because the pursuit of the truth is a higher end than the avoidance of a dispute with a dear friend. In fact, it is the duty of philosophers to subject arguments—even, perhaps especially, their own arguments—to examination.

     The great book that commenced my education was Plato’s Republic. It is the great dialogue that first led me to ask rather than assume I already knew the answer to the question: what is justice? Like so many young students before me, including Socrates’ companion and budding Athenian general and future traitor, Alcibiades, I assumed that I knew what justice was. But like Alcibiades, I could not produce a text or course I had studied on the subject of justice, nor a teacher who had provided lessons about the just to me. I simply assumed that I knew what I had never examined for myself. My understanding of justice was based entirely on the opinions I had received from others—my friends, the news, even books that I had read but not studied thoroughly. The Republic taught me to read thoughtfully, ask the most important questions, and then look for answers.

     Today, many question whether there can be great books, whether wisdom is available to human beings, and especially whether it is accessible through the texts and literature composed by minds that predate our own times. A classical liberal arts education—through the greatest books, texts, and stories—is the path to engaging freely with the ideas and arguments, and witnessing the human models of virtue and excellence that prepare us for a life that is serious and thoughtful, and in which we pursue the knowledge of how to avoid the dishonorable and unworthy and embrace the truly noble and good.

Carol McNamara, PhD, is the Director of the Great Hearts Institute for Classical Education.




Dr. Carol McNamara
Director of the Great Hearts Institute for Classical Education

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