Great Books courses are richly rewarding – but they have a fatal flaw

The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, a staple of ‘great books’ programmes (Getty)

How to Keep From Losing Your Mind
By Deal Hudson
Tan, 384pp, £22/$24.95

In the 1920s, some influential academics were dismayed to find that many graduates of elite American universities were, not to put too fine a point on it, culturally illiterate. They lacked the knowledge that could be taken for granted among cultivated Europeans at the beginnings of their tertiary education, let alone at the end.  

The academics’ natural response was to attempt to address this lack, and so the “Western Civilisation Course” or “Great Books Programme” was born, and made compulsory (or strongly recommended) in many institutions. These courses frog-marched students through a carefully selected canon of Western literature, from the Greeks and Romans onwards, with excursions into philosophy and history.   

Under increasingly intense attack since the student protests of the 1960s, the system finally collapsed for all practical purposes in the 1980s. Deal Hudson is one of many who regrets this, and this book aims to enable readers to complete an approximation of such a course in their spare time. 

Anyone who does this will, I am sure, be richly rewarded in terms of enjoyment, as well as of broadening their cultural horizons. Furthermore, I agree with Hudson’s assessment that the ideology of those who destroyed the Great Books approach was misguided, and that what has replaced it has been a disaster. 

Nevertheless, it must be said that the Great Books system disappeared not because of external pressure on institutions, but because students and faculty no longer believed in it. They were no longer convinced of the objective superiority of the works it championed, or its implied story of the universality of human nature, the immediate comprehensibility of art, and human progress. Any attempt to revive a Great Books approach, even if only for private edification, must confront these issues, because the critics had a point. 

Take this claim of Hudson’s: “The fundamental questions are always the same, and the answers always resemble those of previous ages.” Imagine if we asked the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Aristotle, and St Paul what the fundamental issue of human life was. They would tell us, respectively, that it was to maximise sensations of pleasure; to act in accordance with well-functioning human nature; and to serve and honour God. Equally contrasting conceptions of life would be forthcoming from Homer, Marcus Aurelius and Buddha. This must be acknowledged if we are to understand their works, and those of people influenced by them. But the point will tend to be lost on anyone who accepts Hudson’s immediately preceding claim: “Cultures and societies are the cumulative results of age after age seeking answers.” It is this idea which gave unity and purpose to the old Great Book project – and it is wrong. We are not better people than the men and women of the 5th or 15th centuries, in part because it has not been a matter of developing better and better answers to their questions, but of changing the questions themselves. 

One problem with the old Great Books vision is that it suggests that, since they must, deep down, have been trying to answer modern questions, the older authors made only fumbling answers.  

As if arranged by a Whig deity guiding history, the answers will appear better and better as the cultural and social conditions, and the “fundamental questions”, of thinkers, approximate more and more closely to our own. 

For the same reason, the Great Books approach tended to judge art on the basis of how it appeals to us moderns, which is tantamount to judging how well it answers modern questions. Hudson quotes Victor Zuckerkand, author of The Sense of Music, approvingly: “One cannot insist too strongly on the truth that the experience of great music does not presuppose a special gift or special learning … it speaks a language that is understood … by everyone.” I am delighted to hear that the author managed to communicate great works of music to convicts in prison, but anyone listening to traditional Oriental music will discover that the quoted generalisation has strict limits. The Japanese ambassador who compared hearing Madame Butterfly to a dog howling at the moon would no doubt have agreed. 

The concept missing from this approach is that of a tradition. As Alasdair MacIntyre taught us, a cultural tradition combines a way of life with a conception of morality.  

It is tempting to think that what the Great Books programme had in mind was the tradition of post-Enlightenment liberalism, to which ancient and medieval thought merely contributed a few suggestive hints. The reality of Western civilisation is of a multiplicity of often competing traditions, which must be understood in their own terms if we are to appreciate their thought and their art, let alone judge between them.