Heidi White: Great Books Always Talk to One Another

The Christian Classical Education renewal has its shared lingo, but the communal language we use is not trivial jargon—by it we mean something specific and intentional. Indeed, the fact that language is objective is fundamental to the classical and the Christian mind. When we talk about goodness, truth, beauty, wisdom, virtue, the great tradition, the dialectic, the liberal arts, and more, we refer to substantive realities whose meanings, functions, and ends are fixed points in a world losing its sense of reality. They have been passed down to us by way of an intercommunicating canon that continues to spark robust thought, formative conversation, and fruitful action. One such term we use in the renewal is “the Great Books,” which, like these other terms, refers to something actual. These are the books upon which Christian classical education is built, so the question remains enduringly relevant.

The Great Books are not simply books that are better than others. Rather, they are written works whose ideas and impacts are integral to human culture, books without which the world, as we know it, would not exist. This does not diminish the myriad of wonderful books that are not Great. The truth is that most of us will read and enjoy more good books than Great ones. Great Books are fewer because the books that either created or changed human culture, politics, and psychology are scarce compared with the vast library of excellent novels, poetry, essays, philosophy, and more that populate the Western literary tradition.

This means that the Great Books are always old. To be considered Great, a book must prove its worth over time, which is why the books of today (or even a century or two ago) are far too young to be considered Great. This qualification is neither pedantic nor pretentious, but practical. We do not yet know if world civilization is indelibly marked by, say, Austen or Tolstoy. Probably so, but we cannot be sure. To label Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice as Great is premature. Great Books identify themselves backwards over time. Since centuries have settled their legacy, the Great Books of antiquity and Christendom identify themselves with some ease, including the Hebrew Bible, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Virgil’s Aeneid, Plutarch’s Lives, the New Testament, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s City of God, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. These books, and others like them, form an unbroken chain of universal impact from their time until now. Remove even one of these books and Western culture, as we know it, is diminished. Great gaps in language, culture, politics, aesthetics, and philosophy appear, and the connecting links of human culture break down.

I tell my students that the Great Books always talk to one another. Later books respond to earlier ones, which forms and informs the surrounding zeitgeist. There is no Plato without Homer, no Augustine without Plato, no Aquinas without Aristotle, no Shakespeare without Plutarch, no Dante without Virgil. Furthermore, these books impact far more than one another. Without the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas, there is no historical Church in the West, Protestant or Catholic. Without Plato and Aristotle, there is no Western intellectual tradition or unifying political theory. Without Augustine and Boethius, Western philosophy and theology do not elegantly cohere. Without Shakespeare, the English language and the Western imagination is gutted. These and multitudinous other examples demonstrate how the Great Books forge the intellectual, political, and social spirit of their ages and beyond. In the classical education renewal, we call this ongoing dialogue between books the Great Conversation. 

The impact of Great Books is ubiquitous and undeniable, but the impact is not always good. Many Great Books are controversial, even immoral. For example, Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th-century political treatise, The Prince, famously champions cunning and duplicity as a means to acquire and consolidate power, giving us the representative quote: “the ends justify the means.” Machiavelli did not invent realpolitik but he codified it, subverting foundational classical and medieval ideas about monarchy, warfare, and civil discourse. The impact of The Prince was cataclysmic in Western politics and thought. Although reprehensible, The Prince is a Great Book, and I teach it every year in my Medieval Humanities classes, always in conjunction with Plato’s Republic and St. Augustine’s City of God. The resulting discussion about these three representative (but ultimately irreconcilable) political visions is fruitful for my students as they learn that the Great Books create controversy and chaos as much as they build conversation and culture.

But which Great Books should we read and teach? The Great Books are myriad, so how do we choose? Since the threads of the Great Conversation are traceable and identifiable between the books, I orient my teaching to the development of particular ideas or questions over time, such as “what is justice in the city and the soul?,” “can virtue be taught?,” and “what is real?.” In the classroom, I curate syllabi, assignments, and discussion prompts around these governing ideas, thus creating a navigable pathway through the Great Books. Each book becomes a firm stepping stone through the history of human thought and culture, and we become active participants in the Great Conversation.

Heidi White, M.A.
, is a classical educator, podcaster, consultant, and author. She teaches Humanities at St. Hild School in Colorado Springs and is the author of the forthcoming The Divided Soul: Reuniting Duty and Desire in Literature and Life.


Heidi White, M.A. 
Atrium Instructor at the Circe Institute

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