Why Read Great Books?

Original art by Sam Wedelich (samwedelich.com).

By Philip Tallon – 

In the last book of The Iliad, Priam, king of the Trojans, leaves the walls of his city to retrieve the body of his beloved son, Hektor. Under the protection of Hermes, the aged king makes a dangerous odyssey from Troy to the camp of the very Greeks who have been laying siege to his city for nine long years. Through divine protection, Priam arrives at the tent of Achilleus, Hektor’s killer, to plead for his son’s body.

In a book with so much violence, the encounter is surprisingly tender. Priam weeps for his dead son and death-fated Achilleus weeps as he thinks of his own father, who will one day mourn for him. In an epic poem that revels in killing, Homer unites the greatest of the Greek warriors and the king of Troy in a recognition of their shared humanity. Though opposed in combat, they are both “unfortunate mortals” upon whom the Zeus sprinkles a mixture of evils and blessings.    

After they share a meal, Homer describes the two men looking at each other: “Priam, son of Dardanos, gazed upon Achilleus, wondering / at his size and beauty, for he seemed like an outright vision / of gods. Achilleus in turn gazed on Dardanian Priam / and wondered, as he saw his brave looks and listened to him talking.”

Across battle lines, across generations, in their likeness and unlikeness, against all odds, the two great men understand each other. This scene is my core analogy and everything I will say after this is little more than imaginative commentary. The highly intuitive reader can stop now and will still get my point.

C.S. Lewis on great books

C. S. Lewis believed that reading old books can free us from the captivity of our limited perspective. “Every age has its own outlook,” Lewis writes in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. “[Our age’s outlook] is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.”

According to Lewis, the prescription for our narrow perspective is “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” Lewis’s argument is founded in a deep humility. We know that people of the past are fallible. We may scoff at their geocentrism or their ethnocentrism. But we must know that we are fallible too.

We also hold to “isms” that other ages would scoff at. Many of our notions would not make sense 1000 years ago. Nor will they make sense 1000 years from now. Old books allow for a kind of intellectual time travel that can correct our blind spots. As always, Lewis says it better, “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

Lewis’s argument strikes me as the most simple and basic of all justifications for reading great books. Great books (which are almost exclusively old) help us to recognize the “great mass of common assumptions” of our own day. By meeting minds with writers from other generations we see men very different from us, but we also see ourselves more clearly.

This is water

In his famed commencement address at Kenyon College, the late David Foster Wallace told the following joke:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

The mass of common assumptions and pressures of life swirl around us. We often fail to even register our age’s outlook because we know nothing else. The “real value of an education,” Wallace points out, “has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.” Education helps us to remain aware of the flow of common life that surrounds us and pushes us. Wallace concludes, “we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’”

As much as I resonate with David Foster Wallace’s insights, my experience makes me skeptical that most universities help students be aware of their own age’s outlook. In my rather jaundiced view, universities tend toward being intellectual micro-climates that reinforce and propagate the spirit of the age. Few schools spend much time on great books. And those classes that do read the classics often devote their energy to sharp criticisms using the values of the moment; sniffing around for traces of irrationalism, or sexism, or racism. It is possible to find all these things in old books, as in new ones, but Lewis’s defense of reading old books humbly and wisely assumes that we have not achieved the pinnacle of understanding. Old books can help to correct our mistakes.

Without this key assumption, it’s possible to read the great books without a meeting of the minds. We can read old books only to correct them, never to let them correct us.

Chronological snobbery

Owen Barfield once accused a young C. S. Lewis of “chronological snobbery.” Lewis had dismissed an idea as “medieval” as if the passage of time somehow eroded truthfulness. It is possible to read old books with this sort of snobbery, which can defeat the purpose of reading.

Approaching the classics with skepticism can reinforce, rather than challenge, our outlook. Having placed Ovid, or Erasmus, or Milton in the defendant’s seat and uncharitably questioned them, evaluating them through the lens of a range of popular ‘-isms,’ the great works of the past are found wanting and our age is found all the more sensible.

Speaking against this “chronological snobbery,” G. K. Chesterton wittily describes the meaning of tradition as the “democracy of the dead”:

“Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

Only by being willing to make an odyssey like Priam, out of the walled safety of our own outlook, can we truly meet minds.

As I noted earlier, we should take the journey because, and this is important, people of the past may be right about some things that we are wrong about now. But let’s be more specific. The bravery of Frederick Douglass challenges our timidity. The moral perceptiveness of Jane Austen chastens our insensitivity to virtue. The precision of Aquinas chastises our sloppy thinking. Like Priam, we journey across the ages to meet great minds because they have something we need.

In the court of Camelot

This summer, I have been reading through Tolkien’s translation of Gawain & The Green Knight. A mini-epic, it tells the tale of grand joke played on the court of Camelot. It is a light and comic tale, but also one written with an ethical intent. As Tolkien comments, “[E]ducated men of the fourteenth century…were apt to read poems for what they could get out of them of sentence, as they said, of instruction for themselves, and their times.” Gawain’s Christian author, meeting us across the ages, offers the reader a vision of virtues for our times as well: virtues that we have lately become forgetful of, careful courtesy and honor tempered by humility.

During the Christmas revels, a great, green giant of a man strides into Arthur’s court. He challenges the famous knights to a game. They can take a swing at him, and in a year, he will take one swing at them. At first, Arthur volunteers, but Gawain politely convinces the king into letting him accept the challenge. Fearful for his king, Gawain’s words are crafted to honor the king while also letting him off the hook. “I am the weakest,” Gawain declares, “and in wit feeblest, and the least loss, if I live not.” In an age of frequent jibes and exaggerated insults, Gawain’s perfect manners throughout the poem reveal the coarseness of our own.

The carefully courtious rhetoric is effective, and it is Gawain, not Arthur, who swings the mighty axe at the green knight, beheading him. But the fairy knight’s body strolls over and retrieves the head. The severed head’s eyes open and its mouth proclaims, “See thou get ready, Gawain…To the Green Chapel go thou, and get thee…such a dint as thou hast dealt…a nimble knock in return on New Year’s morning!” And off the enchanted knight goes.

Gawain’s promise has been made, and he intends to fulfill it. As the year passes by, Gawain sets forth on his own odyssey to find the knight and meet his likely death. Fearful that he will not fulfill his pledge, Gawain grows worried as he searches in vain to find the chapel, his prayers grow more frequent and fervent. He prays the “Pater and Ave and Creed” that the “Cross of Christ” would give him speed to fulfill his deadly promise. Though a dim reflection of the martyrdom of Christ, Gawain’s resolution to face his death brings back to us the devotion of the early martyrs like Ignatius, who longed to be found worthy of a death like Jesus’.

Finding the Green Chapel and facing his death, Gawain fails his final test. He keeps secret a green sash that he has been told will prevent his death. Gawain flinchs at the first swing of the axe, the Green Knight pauses to chastise Gawain’s timidity. At the second swing, Gawain remains resolute, but the Green Knight does not strike Gawain. But the third nicks Gawain’s neck, revealing the uselessness of the sash, and exposing Gawain’s treachery. The Green Knight laughs, however, and praises Gawain as the most noble of knights. Ashamed, Gawain wears the sash as a sign of his “failure and the frailty of the flesh.”

As befits a comic poem, the reader sees in Gawain an imperfect model of virtue. As Tolkien points out, Gawain’s failure presents him as “a credible, living person.” In his striving and failing the reader recognizes kinship with the hero. Gawain is in many ways better than us, but he is also like us. We see him as a fellow traveller to the grave, saved by the “courtesy” of heaven.

Journey across generations

In our encounter with Gawain we journey across generations to meet minds. We see a man that is greater than us in manners and in courage, but also like us in needing the blessing of divine grace.

The Wesleyan way has many great things to commend it. It has been organized and enthusiastic. It has concerned itself with works of piety and works of mercy. But, balanced as it is between the high church and the low church – between the episcopacy and tent revival – it has not always strived to maintain educational traditions. We have built hospitals and church programs with relish, but have often allowed others to build schools. But old books are needed to renew our minds that we might test the spirit of the age.

Without great books, we cannot test ourselves properly. Without great books, we will not meet minds that will help us to see ourselves more clearly.

Philip Tallon (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. He teaches in the Honors College, a great books program for undergraduates. He is the author of The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016) and The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2012).

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