American Culture

Great Books and how to use them

Patrick Dineen, one of the guiding lights over at Front Porch Republic, had an interesting post a while back. I’ve been giving it some thought, because it’s been nagging at me for a couple of months now. It’s called Against Great Books. And just to clarify, Dineen isn’t against all great books—just some of them. His arguments are interesting, and I believe mostly persuasive.

Persuasive might not be the right word—intriguing might be better. I think Dineen is on to something here. But I think that, taken literally, it sets limits that Dineen, in a piece that’s ultimately about limits, might not want to see emerge. Dineen’s post is based on a lecture that he has given in the past (perhaps more than once), and involves making some interesting and bold claims about how our educational and cultural assumptions have evolved:

I hope to raise questions about, if not books that are great, about books that promote a certain kind of Greatness. I do so in order to defend the reading of books and the ideal of liberal education, which means that we may need to be somewhat more discriminating in our recommendation of Great Books. For, there are Great Books that defend the reading of books, and Great Books that reject a book-centered education. The arguments of these latter sort have increasingly won the day – ironically, it is a set of Great Books that have contributed to the decline of the study of Great Books.

Dineen’s point is that these books inform us in different ways, and we need to start learning the lessons of exactly how they inform us. Descartes would have us read no books. Well, even leaving aside the possibility that this might be simple hyperbole—Descartes would have written really good advertising copy, undoubtedly—I think it oversimplifies what Descartes’ lessons actually are. That’s OK—a little hyperbole is necessary from time to time to get the debate going.

But Dineen is making a more fundamental claim, that we read Great Books because “these texts teach something substantive: not merely a way of thinking…. but rather, a particular and substantive set of conclusions that make the teaching of these texts – as opposed to any texts or lessons – essential and necessary.” Dineen amplifies further:

I would even argue that part of the central necessity of the Great Books is not only because those who read them can encounter and be influenced by their arguments, but because, at their most expansive, they have had a considerable role in shaping human society – even the lives of people who did not read the books. As parts of broader culture from which they at once take sustenance, and which they in turn influence, the ideas in the Great Books have shaped a world in their image and guided not only individuals, but a whole civilization, in fostering a way of life.

Dineen then goes on to quote some scenes from a novel by Wendell Berry (Andy Catlett), which as is sure a way to get my attention as I can conjure up, where Andy as an adult is reflecting on his grandmother, and he wonders if she’s ever read Paradise Lost. Dineen then goes on to expound on why this is important, both for an understanding of the novel and the world view, and as a key to Berry’s thinking about the world. And he cuts to the chase here, discussing the contrasts between the two towns that feature prominently in Berry’s fictional universe:

This contrast of longing for something more – so characteristic of Satan in Paradise Lost – is contrasted to a kind of acceptance of the world as an fallen place that may require more endurance than transformation. Port William, like Andy’s Grandmother, seems to have adopted the teachings of Paradise Lost while Hargrave seems to have turned to a different set of ideas.

Berry has returned recently to a reflection on the role of books in shaping a worldview – and specifically, the influence of Paradise Lost – now to suggest that it was a part of the older wisdom of older books to teach us not only about what we ought to aspire to do, but also about what is inappropriate and forbidden.

Dineen gets to the nub here, following a discussion of a recent essay by Berry (written following the 2008 financial crisis):

Berry here writes of the intention of authors of a number of books that aimed to educate humans expressly through a commendation to understand the limits of human power and knowledge. A similar argument has been made by Roger Shattuck in his 1997 book Forbidden Knowledge, which includes chapters on Paradise Lost as well as Goethe’s Faust. In both cases, Great Books such as Paradise Lost sought to inculcate a sense of limits, a cognizance of knowledge inappropriate to humans, an effort to cultivate a capacity to accept and endure rather than the impulse to transform and escape, and sought to foster and encourage an education in the accompanying and necessary virtues that are required in a world in which such limits are recognized – virtues such as moderation, prudence, and avoidance of vices like pride and hubris.

My italics, btw. Now, I tend to agree with this, to some extent. I don’t know if it’s a novel approach to the Great Books—I’m not generally up on these sorts of things. But I can see where Dineen is coming from. Dineen is uncomfortable—as is Berry, and any number of other writers that come to mind—in a world where we have no limits. And what Dineen wants us to do—and I applaud him in this effort—is to be discriminating, or at least more discriminating than we currently are. This sort of thing has been Berry’s cultural message for the past forty years, and it continues to resonate. And a quick survey of our increasingly dire environmental predicament, which we can all do mentally in our heads right now, will tend to confirm these concerns. What kind of species has no moderation or prudence? A species bent on extinction.

But I’m not completely comfortable with where Dineen goes next. Because then we come to the discussion of how this central teaching of Great Books has been sidetracked, beginning with Francis Bacon, continuing through Descartes, and culminating with John Dewey. For all of these authors, Dineen argues, with some pretty good quotes, book learning was just not relevant. Because the aim of learning, of education, underwent a fundamental change in the past two centuries, as embodied in a revealing quote from Dewey that Dineen cites:

A savage tribe manages to live on a desert plain. It adapts itself. But its adaptation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are, a maximum of passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use. A civilized people enters upon the scene. It adapts itself. It introduces irrigation; it searches the world for plants and animals that will flourish under such conditions; it improves, by careful selection, those which are growing there. As a consequence, the wilderness blossoms as a rose. The savage is merely habituated; the civilized man has habits which transform the environment.

Dineen nicely traces the emergence of he view that the purpose of education becomes one of mastery, of control, best exemplified by Dewey: “Dewey argues that progress rests upon the active control of nature, and hence requires the displacement of the ‘savage’ regard for the past and, arguably, their inclination to make a home in the world as created rather than seek its transformation through human mastery.” And, as Dineen lays out, this has implications for discussions of liberty, one of the issues Dineen wants to address. Here he sums up (and I quote at length, because the paragraph warrants it):

What we see in this all-too brief précis of the debate between the ancients and the moderns is that two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of “Great Books.” The first of these conceptions of liberty 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 conception was advanced through a series of Great Books that argued against the study of Great Books, and rather asserted a form of human greatness that sought the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty did not seek merely to co-exist alongside an older conception; it required the active dismantling of this idea of liberty, and hence, the transformation of education away from the study of Great Books and instead the study of “the Great Book of Nature” toward the end of its mastery. The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government; in a constrained world, the human propensity to desire without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty as self-government 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 simply or merely to financial constraints or the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry or even science itself; preceding all of this was an argument made in many Great Books that the study of Great Books should be displaced from the heart of education.

All of this, I have to say, resonates to some extent. I work in an industry where the notion of economic limits is mythical—the belief that GDP needs to continue growing ad infinitum is completely entrenched among academics and policy-makers. And we see how well that’s working out. We live in a political culture where “Progress” has become inexorably intertwined with technological developments, to say nothing of ecological impacts that are resulting, for better or worse, in what is rapidly becoming an urban planet. And we live in a physical world where limits are being bumped into all over the place, in the sense that the boundaries to keeping the climate, and the oceans, and the land itself, in reasonable shape for human habitation are being crossed not only willingly, but cavalierly. Where is the moderation that would restrain this hubris?

And yet, and yet…. We live in a world where one of the two major political parties in the United States has declared war on science. In fact, Chris Mooney wrote an entertaining but thoroughly frightening book on the subject. And it’s a war that’s been aided and abetted by much of the media, not to mention the well-funded efforts of the anti-global warming lobby. Every day brings yet another example of the frightening ignorance of some—maybe even a lot—of Americans. It’s not just Americans, of course—one finds this on a global scale. But not nearly to the extent that one finds climate change denialism in the US, where it has become one of the fundamental articles of faith among the party that controls one house of the US Congress, and, like the terminator, shows no signs of ever stopping—it just keeps coming back. It’s relentless.

As a result, there’s a real danger that our future—perhaps even on a planetary scale, but certainly on more modest grounds as well—is being threatened. We know this. And here is where I think Berry might be on the side of science—he’s certainly on the side of knowledge—because we need science to tell us where those limits are. Some of us—an increasing number, in fact—understand that there are limits here, and they’re being stretched. Maybe we need scientists that are better informed about the limits to knowledge, and that there should be limits to our desires for mastery and control—but right now that seems less pressing that the fact that we need science to tell us about limits to the carrying capacity of the planet. Wait, there are—climate scientists and others have been banging on about this for some time now. I don’t imagine climate scientists are any more or less privileged than other scientists in their knowledge of Milton. It’s the rest of us who aren’t prepared to listen.

We have been sold a bill of goods by reading the wrong books, Dineen would argue. Not literally, but in terms of the approach to knowledge and progress that pervades western, and increasingly global, cultures. But there are limits—to behaviors, to models, to everything. And this used to include limits to our understanding of how the world worked—specifically, what we could do with the world, or our own little portions of it. Or, more specifically, Dineen would argue that we have been reading the wrong great books. It’s our own inability to understand limits that is placing us all at risk. We need Milton, not just for the majesty of the story of and the poetry, but because of the lessons that Milton, and Goethe, and Rilke have to impart.

All well and good. But there’s another issue, which is whether Dineen needs to set up such a polar opposition between, say, Milton on the one hand and Descartes on the other. Surely Descartes didn’t mean don’t read any books whatsoever. Rather, didn’t he just mean that when we read Aristotle, we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything that Aristotle has to say? And there’s that line about “a cognizance of knowledge inappropriate to humans.” This is a little stark, and just a bit of a straw man. My take is that there’s knowledge that is inappropriate to humans (as opposed to God and the Angels in Milton’s world) because there’s the lingering question, which history has answered in the negative far too often, of whether humans actually understand how to use the knowledge they’re acquiring. This is a subtle distinction that I believe is worth making—simply because I don’t want to have to take Dineen literally when he throws out a line such as this. And Dineen doesn’t throw out lines cavalierly—he’s clearly thought about this. But just because we don’t know how to use something at the moment doesn’t preclude our coming to so fuller understanding in a generation or two. And who gets to determine which domains this is applicable to? The “germ theory” of disease is not something that evolved just because the Greeks sat around thinking about it—in fact, the Greeks, and pretty much everyone up to the 18th century, got disease origins mostly wrong. It took the invention of the microscope to actually get things going. Surely this is what Bacon meant when he said don’t read books—get out there and look around.

To complicate matters a bit further, there’s a whole line of argument not discussed by Dineen that lay the root of our passion for mastery and control not to the emergence of a different world view in the 17th and 18th centuries, but considerably further back than that–in fact, in the roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Historian Lynn White first expounded this these back in Science in 1967 in an influential, indeed seminal, paper titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which White argued that the notion of mastery over nature–dominion–was fundamental to the Judeo-Christian view of nature. This thesis has proved controversial, to put it mildly, and has stimulated a lively, often heated debate, in theological and historical circles during the subsequent decades. It has also prompted considerable reconsideration what the Christian view of nature should be, much of it focusing on the concept of stewardship, rather than dominion. Much of this work is associated with the writings of theologian Douglas John Hall, distilled in his book The Steward, and elaborated upon subsequently. This debate continues and remains vital, even among fundamentalist Christians these days. And all of this confusion from one single Great Book. A pretty influential one, admittedly, perhaps more so than any other single book. But still.


Ironically, I also recently got around to Berry’s most recent book of essays, Imagination in Place. Note the clever title. Like all of his collections, it includes a plentiful amount of wisdom, the kind Dineen would approve of. Well, obviously, since Dineen has already made it clear that Berry has what Dineen believes is the right stuff. Which he does. Does Berry write Great Books? I don’t know. A Place on Earth is a great novel, and The Unsettling of America is already a canonical book. He is certainly one of America’s most important thinkers. As always, Berry’s style is unassuming, conversational, but insistent. This one is a bit more literary than many others, in that most of the essays concern specific writers that have influenced Berry, or those that he has been friends with—Hayden Carruth in particular, Wallace Stegner, Donald Hall, Ernest Gaines, Jane Kenyon. Artists of the local and the particular, all of them. Many of these are not just essays, they’re elegies, particularly the chapters on Stegner and Carruth (whose poetry, extolling the joys and travails of being a New England farmer, helped persuade Berry to leave New York and return to Kentucky). It’s a book of joyful literary criticism for all that, although Dineen undoubtedly also enjoyed Berry’s essay on scientism (as opposed to science, of which I imagine Berry vaguely approves). And, as always, it continues Berry’s lifelong concern about place, and how it needs to inform us. It’s from our sense of place that we learn limits, and a culture that has no sense of place is also one that will believe it has no need for limits.

Which gets back to Great Books, and how we should use them. There are several points to be considered here. First, which ones? I’d love to see Dineen’s preferred list, although I can take some guesses—Milton, Goethe, Pope, Berry. Who else? And who would he put in the other camp, aside from Descartes and Hobbes and Dewey? That’s an interesting conversation to have. Equally important, when should we read them? Now that I’m an old fart, I’m constantly struck by my reaction to reading books that I first read—or in some cases, tried to read—decades ago, when I was a younger reader. And there are some books that I just didn’t get then, but I do now. EM Forster’s A Passage to India is my favorite example—I thought it was unreadable when I tried to read it in my 20s. When I actually did read it three decades later, I was astonished at both what a great book it is, and how much I enjoyed reading it. Yesterday I sat through the eight hour production of GATZ here in London, which is a live reading/telling/play of The Great Gatsby in its entirety. And I was struck by what a wonderful, deeply complex book it was, a completely different book from the one I remember reading many years ago. Of course, Henry James still writes, as James Atlas once said, the kinds of books that once you put them down you can’t pick them back up again. But I’m struck by my reactions to the same books over different periods of my life.

I know, I know—it’s not just the books. It’s the entire system that’s built around them. This is when I get even more pessimistic than I normally am. I look at what’s coming out of business schools and the Chartered Financial Analyst program, people who run the banks and major financial institutions that are increasingly screwing everything up, and the amount of basic economic ignorance about the financial impact of economic externalities is astonishing. We now have increasingly larger institutions—financial and political—that are increasingly harder to control, and it’s not clear what will change this. Four or five years after a financial crisis that really did almost bring the global economy to a standstill, banks continue on their merry way as if nothing much happened back then. And for all the political will to effect some changes there, and there is some out there, it’s facing a nearly intransigent wall of inertia among the greater numbers who would rather do nothing. Crisis, what crisis? For most of these people, just reading Milton or Schiller is not going to do it. And I’d really like to hear Dineen’s suggestions about what to do with the Republicans in Congress, aside from voting them out of office, which doesn’t appear likely, frankly.

But he’s on to something, Dineen is. He’s got me thinking. I want what he wants–a much more localized world, that understands the limits of the land and the air and the waters, and of our own abilities. And particularly to our sense of entitlement. And what he’s proposing may, indeed, be necessary to get there–a change in our ways of thinking. Whether it will be sufficient is another issue entirely.

3 replies »

  1. Thanks Chris–I’m still sorting it out in my head, but decided I better get something up before it went the way of most of my posts–into the ether.

  2. The Enlightenment necessitates a move away from Great Books because, like all forms of authority, they are anathema to individual liberty. When we (Americans) read these books, we are instructed that it makes us part of a time-travelling chat-room in which each author chimes in during his/her (mostly his) lifetime. We are free to take or leave any of these ideas as they appeal to us. This is the wrong way to think about Great Books, I think. We should look at them, instead, as a chain reaction of thoughts which created the civilization in which we now live. We can trace the amorality, shameless self-interest, and godlessness of the 20th century directly back to Sartre, who lived in a world created by Nietzsche, who lived in a world created by Hegel. The ideas of one mind bloom into existence through communication to other minds, whether those other minds attribute the ideas to their origin or not. It is our duty to discover the origin of our present-day conventional wisdom, and the origins of that origin, in order to most effectively influence the minds of the next generation. We cannot remove books from the canon simply because we do not agree with them or because we fear them. They have shaped and will continue to shape our civilization through their fallout. We must instead refute them, answer them, build on them, write our own Great Books, so that tomorrow’s seekers of knowledge will have all the wisdom we now command, plus our own contributions, to help them going forward. I agree it is a shame that no one reads Milton anymore. No one reads anything anymore. The tendency now is to think of literature as a relic, belonging to the pre-atomic cave men who believed in God and raised their own food. Yet those cave men still exist. They make up most of the world’s population, and it would do them a great disservice to deny them the chance to sculpt the Earth into something better, just because we ended up with cheesy poofs and beer helmets.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. I have never read Wendell Berry, but I will very soon.

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