Skip to main content

Great Books, Great Problems

March 2023
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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "April 1989"

As newlyweds in 1901 they were the first to climb the towering Montana peak, but when evidence of the feat surfaced after eighty-four years, nobody believed it

Authored by: The Editors

A Lucky Lady of the Sky

Authored by: The Editors

Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray

Authored by: The Editors

Pioneers of American Broadcasting

Authored by: The Editors

A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841

Authored by: Richard F. Snow

Wherever you travel in this country, you have a good chance of bringing a piece of the past home with you

Authored by: Oakley Hall

A journey of a hundred miles on a Wyoming interstate turns up the true stories behind the powerful Western myths

Authored by: Peter Davison

The author walks us through literary Boston at its zenith. But Boston being what it is, we also come across the Revolution, ward politics, and the great fire.

Authored by: Geoffrey C. Ward

Clues uncovered during the recent restoration of his house at Springfield help humanize the Lincoln portrait

Authored by: Christopher Weeks

The little town of Lebanon, Connecticut, played a larger role in the Revolution than Williamsburg, Virginia, did. And it’s all still there.

Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.