Christopher Perrin: The Trouble with Choosing a Great Book: Lessons from Socrates, Gutenberg, and Newman

I believe that some books are better than others and that some are truly great and worth reading in every generation. I have also written a longer article on how development of the canon of great books is analogous to the development of the biblical canon. In this essay, I want to say simply that even when we have selected a great book, the work is far from done.

Emerson said of Socrates and Plato: “Never had such a teacher a student or student such a teacher.” Plato loved his teacher enough to carefully record a vast amount of what he said in over 30 dialogues. Socratic thought is generally Platonic thought. But not in one obvious and ironic instance. In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes an argument for not having Plato write down anything, including what Socrates himself says.

This is a kind of joke in classical circles. Ha, ha, Socrates says, in Platoʼs written dialogue, that nothing should ever be written…I am so glad Plato ignored him! Perhaps you have laughed at Socrates over this point. Usually, however, Socrates has a point worth pondering. In this case, he argues that the recorded word is static and cannot defend itself, rebut, or offer a clarification or question. The recorded word is locked on the page, in a sense held captive—and once the word is captured there, we are free to forget it and certainly donʼt have to memorize it, because we can always return the word, where it is held, immovable.

Socrates argues that writing will lead to “forgetfulness of soul” by those who master writing, and “through lack of practice at using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from within themselves by themselves.” To Socrates, the alien marks of writing donʼt easily penetrate the human soul. Students, he says, will be given “an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it…they will hear many things without being taught them, and will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.” We all have witnessed this in ourselves and others.

The spoken word, however, is dynamic and free and engaged in a conversational dance in a communal search for truth. Socrates holds high the virtue of dialectical exchange and discourse that the written word can easily stifle and prevent. Is he right (write)?

Can a man sit in a library and read books on his own, alone, and become wise? This is the dilemma of the self-taught man or autodidact. Will he be sure to read the right things in the right order? Should he try his hand at geometry before algebra, or theology before philosophy, or does it matter? If Phillip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch to interpret Isaiah 53 (Acts 8), who will be sent to the lone man at the library? Can man live by books alone?

Socrates certainly says no. So do others in the classical tradition, like John Henry Newman. Newman does think (unlike Socrates) that we should study books, but he thinks (like Socrates) that we should study teachers, and that we should become “academic disciples” engaging in a “mutual education,” studying not just books but those qualified to write books, whom we call authors because they have authority to teach, guide, and mentor. There is truth in the adage that the best teacher is a good book; there is also truth in saying that the best teacher is a good teacher or one who has AUTHORity. Newman argues that “the general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch…from those in whom it lives already” and that “we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom.” Is it sufficient to read a great book without a good teacher?

Gutenberg, in 1440, invented the marvelous machine, the printing press. We might celebrate the fact that the first book he prints is the Bible, followed shortly by prayer books and other ecclesial publications. It only takes about 40 years, however, until another early Italian printer, Bernardo Cennini, prints the complete dialogues of Plato, including the Phaedrus. Now Socrates is not merely disseminated by hand-copied manuscripts (a 2,000-year run) but is set to flight on the printed page. Now, many thousands of readers could laugh at Socrates arguing against writing in writing. Surely the printing press is all good, and we can chuckle through the Phaedrus.

But the printing press is not all good. Like most powerful technologies, it summons forth both the good and the bad. Great literature (like the Bible) can now be printed, freeing up scores of monks to stop endlessly copying the Bible on the hides of sheepskin. But did they know the Bible better for copying it out by hand? Was it treasured more, taken to heart, memorized? What would you do if a visiting monk in 810 AD came to your monastery with a well-worn scroll of Augustineʼs Confessions, the first copy you had ever seen?

After the 1450s, the printing press would soon be publishing not just the Bible and Platoʼs dialogues, but bawdy romances (starting with La Celestina in 1499) and, before long, all manner of entertainment and amusing works. By the time Newman writes in 1852, he can complain of a profusion of print that distracts from learning:

What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes. Whether it be the school boy, or the school girl, or the youth at college, or the mechanic in the town, or the politician in the senate, all have been the victims in one way or other of this most preposterous and pernicious of delusions.

So for whatever blessing the printing press brings us, it also brings us delusion, distraction, and dementia. It prints our small list of great books; it also disgorges oceans of bile and bunk.

Newman thinks it is fine for presses to print a variety of publications—but we must not think everything in print is making a contribution to education:

Nor, lastly, am I disparaging or discouraging the thorough acquisition of any one of these studies, or denying that, as far as it goes, such thorough acquisition is a real education of the mind. All I say is, call things by their right names, and do not confuse together ideas which are essentially different…Recreations are not education; accomplishments are not education. Do not say, the people must be educated, when, after all, you only mean, amused, refreshed, soothed, put into good spirits and good humour, or kept from vicious excesses.

We should be choosy when choosing a book especially if we chose it for the sake of education. Newman suspects that we donʼt always call things by their right names. Is our “great book” really a book selected for amusement, recreation, or refreshment? Have we relaxed our criteria, forgetting for a moment that we are called to educate? Are we crystal clear on what education is? Newman called it “the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things” that was “almost prophetic from its knowledge of history” and “almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature” and has “almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.”

If a book aims at these things, then letʼs call that book good. Taught by a good teacher, it might even become great.

Christopher Perrin, PhD is an author, consultant, and speaker who specializes in classical education. He cofounded and serves full-time as the CEO/publisher at Classical Academic Press, a classical education curriculum, media, and consulting company. Christopher is also a consultant to charter, public, private, and Christian schools across the country.

Dr. Christopher Perrin
Classical Academic Press

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