Why Study the Great Books?

Tyndale's first-year programme integrates its courses in literature, philosophy and history in such a way that emphasises the foundational texts of the Western tradition from Ancient Greece to the present. For example, while studying Homer in their literature classes, our students simultaneously study the works of Plato or Aristotle in philosophy and the birth of democracy in Athens in history. The same pattern will hold true as we move from ancient Rome, through the Medieval period, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic era and on through the present.

In an era of increasing interaction between nations, movement among peoples and flattening of cultural distinctives, in a city that prides itself on multiculturalism, it might not seem obvious that a deeper exploration of the Western tradition is the right path for higher education to follow. Some words on the rationale for the programme might thus be in order first.

The basic premise behind studying the Great Books is that we must first master the tradition of our own culture before we are able to grasp other cultural traditions or their core texts in any imaginative or thoughtful way.

"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Philippians 4:8

Mastering that means, to use Matthew Arnold’s words, having ‘contact with the best which has been thought and said in the world’, but it also involves becoming aware of the prejudices unconsciously instilled into us by our own present culture. This is not merely an abstract and impersonal interest of a would-be elite; it has its origin in the love of perfection. It is not just a scientific desire for pure knowledge; it contains a moral and social passion for doing good on the basis of what is right irrespective of time or place. And therefore it brings not just the wisdom of our age, but of all ages.

However, we need to debunk the myth that we can approach any culture, including our own, without any biases - in an absolutely objective fashion. This does not mean, as it is often currently misrepresented to mean, that individual perspectives are impossible in a world in which objective truth is upheld, but rather that they are not normative. As the famous painting Las Meninas (1650) by Velázquez clearly depicts, the effect of individual perspective on objectivity is not a new one. It presents a multiplicity of individuals that are seeing things differently.

We observe: 1) An artist painting the portrait of a married couple (whom we only see in a distant mirror, but whose perspective we share); 2) They however regard their young daughter, who, surrounded by 3) onlooking attendants, is 4) proudly presenting herself in her new dress to her parents; in the background we even observe 5) an onlooker at the foot of a staircase. There are others here, but observing these will suffice for our purposes.

Yet the thing worth noting above all is that we observe all the actors in the painting ourselves. In other words, despite the diversity of perspectives in the painting, Velázquez's portrait suggests that there is a true and objective perspective on them all, which transcends the merely individual ones.

Objective Truth vs. Absolute Truth

The Enlightenment, however, in part due to the horrors of the Wars of Religion that set Catholic against Protestant, sought a more absolute sense of objectivity than one of tradition. The progressive thinkers of the day, the foremost of whom was Immanuel Kant, argued that it should conform to the categories of pure reason, putting it beyond the very possibility of prejudice. For the same reason, they argued that autonomy and self-interest should ground not only all ethical decisions, but all political and aesthetic ones.

Absolute Objectivity is a Myth

Ever since a German philosopher of the 20th century by the name of Martin Heidegger however, postmodern writers have emphasised the fact that our culture acts as a filter on what we observe and how we observe it. We always see through the lenses of our own culture, from its perspective. To put it more strongly, we are already prejudiced by our specific cultural context before we even start to encounter another. Even the language we use - some would say pre-eminently the language we use - steers us towards certain conclusions.

Whenever we study a culture we are thus invariably biased. But, you might object, this is no rationale for studying the Western tradition. It simply emphasises the problem of making an objective truth-claim about any culture, any tradition, any religion. We cannot make truth-claims at all! It does not press forth the claims for studying the Western tradition. We cannot say that it is better than any other; or that any patterns of thought in it are intrinsically superior.

Even if we wished to argue that it was, it would require far more space than this brief webpage. But that is not even the issue here. The issue is to question many of our contemporaries’ claim that ‘all cultures are equally valid’; or that ‘all religions are equally valid’, perhaps the chief implicit objection to studying the Great Books at a Christian university. For they object that we thereby take an exclusive perspective. It just seems narrow-minded and intolerant then.

We All Make Exclusive Truth-claims

Yet this objection is at best ironic. For when someone says that ‘all religions are equally valid’ and rejects the Christian claim that Jesus ‘is the way, the truth and the life’, that ‘no one comes to the Father except through him’, that person can only do so by making an exclusive truth-claim!

It simply disguises itself because it appears to reject truth-claims. But the claim that we are incapable of making truth-claims is itself a truth-claim! It just happens to exclude all religious perspectives - but its own - indiscriminately. But indiscriminate discrimination is not more tolerant of other views; it simply treats them with equal contempt.

The fact that it is only a construct of our culture would be apparent to us if we were actually to encounter another culture, e.g. if we were to go to the Middle East and tell them how 'obvious' it was that ‘we cannot know that a religion is true’. They would regard that perspective to be as incomprehensible as Velázquez would doubtless have regarded Picasso's 1957 subjective take on his famous painting!

What sort of culture would produce such a perspective then, if all truth-claims are also cultural products? It as a product of Western Enlightenment rationalism, which dictates that truth ought to have no formal content; that it should conform to ‘pure reason’. For since no culture and no religion can conform to such criteria, it follows that according to its dictates none are true.

And here we have a secondary reason for studying the Great Books of the Western world. The political correctness, the tolerance, the inclusivity of our day are not actually signs of openness to the truth of other cultures, or movements towards social justice; they are a symptom of the underlying belief that none of them are true. 'It's just a matter of one's perspective.' And since truth is impossible, they argue that the best we can be is sensitive to others.

Why is Tyndale’s Great Books programme so relevant today?

This apparent sensitivity to others is highly cynical. Rather than truly embrace diversity, it too readily capitulates to the fallenness of the world. For no society can act with justice or love where truth has been rejected as an illegitimate concern. God has created a world of diverse beauty and manifold splendour; but anarchy and chaos are perversions of it, not their essence. By embracing them we do not get true harmony but discord sung in falsetto.

By studying the Great Books at a Christian university we seek to replace banal political correctness with a love of true civic virtue; we seek to replace mere inclusion with a true understanding of social conduct based on who we are in Christ our Saviour and Redeemer; and we seek to replace our society’s cold tolerance with the love of God and neighbour.

By looking at the Great Books both before and after the Enlightenment, we add a sense of both perspective and content to fulfil the deep desires for a better society that lies behind contemporary appeals to political correctness, inclusion and tolerance, desires which have been frustrated by the twists of its self-legitimating (and self-defeating) logic.

What is your perspective on these pictures? It could be said that it is merely a matter of taste. Yet taste, like judgement, is informed by an understanding of what is beautiful; what is good; what is right; what is true. Since as Christians we declare that to be human, male and female, is to be made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), it means that such determinations can never take place in a vacuum and can never be made autonomously.

On the contrary, just as God himself once took on human flesh and lived among us (John 1:14), they take place in history, in a community and above all, in accordance with how God has revealed them to relate rightly in the context of human sinfulness which everywhere seeks to make its own determinations on what is beautiful, good, right and true, and thereby to repudiate what God declares to be so.

And so we seek to follow Paul's injunction in Philippians 4:8 "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, [to] think about these things." But we do so with a critical spirit, knowing that we need to understand not only our God but our culture if we are to be the 'city on a hill' the church is called to be.

Every age has its own outlook. It 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. And that means the old books...Not, of course that there is any magic about the past... People were no cleverer then than they are now, they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. (C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius on the Incarnation)

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