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Great Books, Great Problems

May 2024
1min read

In his perceptive account of the Great Books program (“The War of the Great Books,” February), Benjamin McArthur, perhaps unwittingly, points out the central paradox in Mortimer Adler’s and John Erskine’s approach to the ancients. To pluck works of literature, philosophy, and history out of context—as Adler and Erskine did—is to enter the very intellectual vacuum that so many scholars today decry. If we do not give any account of the milieu that produced the words that we are reading, as well as the reverberations and reinterpretations of these texts through time, what makes Homer’s Iliad more worthy of our attention, or more self-improving, since that is what Americans seem to want, than the latest best seller?

If, as Emerson suggests, the American mind seeks insight rather than tradition, this in no way precludes historical thought. To read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove without knowledge of the Odyssey is to miss much of the modern work’s richness. Literature is not the myth of the isolated genius left us by the Romantics; it is a dialogue in time. It is the same story reshaped in the language and according to the world picture of each new age. Without history, we are deprived of a context within which to live and evaluate our lives, works, and values. We are left with nothing but the life of the self, which may explain the fact that selfhelp and popular-psychology books dominate the best-seller lists. Indeed, psychologists are forever urging us to break free from the spell of our histories, as if our pasts thwarted our fulfillment.

If Allan Bloom has alerted us to anything in The Closing of the American Mind , it is the debt the American intelligentsia owes to the monomaniacal Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a very straight line from Nietzsche’s fascination with the superman to Joseph Campbell’s redemptive hero/self, described over and over in his works, to the belief that only one’s own self is true—responding to which our universities design a curriculum of the self, be we female, black, Asian, or whatever.

I fear that once again we are looking for easy, trendy answers to difficult and painful questions.

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