The War Of The Great Books


Though the battle of the Great Books has increasingly been waged with political cudgels, there is nothing intrinsic to the study of the classics tending toward a particular political persuasion. Bennett is, of course, strongly identified with the Reagan administration, and Bloom is known as a scourge of the academic left. Yet Hutchins was a New Deal Democrat, whose career after Chicago centered on liberal causes fought from institutions (the Fund for the Republic and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions) that to conservatives epitomized dangerous left-wing politics.

In truth, the Great Books are both profoundly conservative and perilously radical: conservative because they assume there is a repository of wisdom containing abiding truths; radical because engagement with them can upend unexamined assumptions and arm one with whetted knives of critical thought. A Great Books education, as William Bennett attested from experience, can “shake you up a little, get you breathing, quicken your senses and animate a conscious examination of life’s enduring questions.”

This may be a laudable goal, but it is a view of education normally alien to a culture steeped in utilitarian values. Americans avoid philosophic speculation, Tocqueville noted, and use tradition only as a source of useful information in their perpetual quest for better ways of doing things. Bloom, frustrated by this characteristically American disdain for the life of reflection, has nevertheless found the country in agreement with him as it undergoes one of its periodic moods of guilt over alleged cultural philistinism. The rush to buy The Closing of the American Mind, the renewed sales vigor of the Great Books of the Western World, and the increasing numbers enrolled in adult and junior Great Books programs testify to a new affirmation that"ideas do matter.”

“Where would Emerson find his scholar now?” Alfred Kazin asked in these pages recently. In Allan Bloom and his call for a return to Socratic wisdom? Probably not. Emerson, who more than any thinker defined the place of ideas in America, desired a “philosophy of insight and not of tradition.” He urged every age to write its own books and warned that reverential study of great books might produce only great bookworms. Still, Bloom shares with Emerson the passionate belief that books “are for nothing but to inspire.” The Great Ideas are not ends in themselves or objects to be possessed, but guides for identifying and achieving the good life.

Yet certain points of agreement do not augur any final truce in America’s battle of the books. Our culture is split between what Emerson called “the party of the Past” and “the party of the Future,” the former upholding tradition and its wisdom, the latter looking ahead to greater days and new ideas. The party of the Future maintains the loyalty of most Americans at most times. That is why the ancients must struggle just to hold their ground. Yet we will not call for their surrender. For as our nation sails swiftly into an uncharted future, we will always throw wistful glances at our past, the only compass that can give us our heading.