About The Greatness of Great Books

Eva Brann
St. John's College

Opening Address for "The First Fifty Years of the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame," Wednesday, 4 April 2001. Reprinted With Permission.

There is cause for much celebration at this fiftieth anniversary of the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and cause also for some anxiety and some mourning. There is something incantatory in the title of our celebration, "The First Fifty Years of the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame," as if it were meant to incline the heavens to grant another half century to its not altogether sanguine supporters. And there is something unwittingly sad about the title itself of the program whose longevity we are here to celebrate, "the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame," as if a great university were not in itself supposed to be a program of liberal learning and all the professions taught there free professions.

Well, let us make the most of the hard fact our celebratory title expresses, the fact that liberal education has fallen on hard times. Making the best of a hard fact for those of us whose proper work it is to learn and teach always involves this: seizing the occasion to think ourselves into the depth of the matter, to try to reach bottom. As you will see, I am not arguing for reviewing programs, adjusting to the times, considering clientele, or any of those foolishly prudential calculations to which we all occasionally feel ourselves driven. It is because, I have to confess to you, I have an almost unshakable faith in that one great book that first considered the relation of learning to its political conditions: Plato's Republic.

In my seven years as dean of the Annapolis campus of St. John's College, I had three heroes, a local hero, a national hero, and a supra-spatial hero. As we all know, to the young, a hero is someone to be like, but to an adult, a hero is someone to consult in the privacy of one's soul--a vivid image that answers in an hour of interior reflection. My local hero was Jacob Klein, a dean of my college who was to our program somewhat as your Otto Bird was to yours, a stabilizing second founder. My national hero was Abraham Lincoln, who, I like to think, would, in his humane wisdom, have been a wily and appreciative protector of our programs. And the supra-spatial hero was the Socrates of Plato's Republic, who, I thought, taught me an invaluable practical lesson. Most of the celebrants here today will have read this book of which Rousseau discerningly said in the Emile that "those who judge books by their titles take this for a treatise on politics, but it is the finest treatise on [public] education ever written."

Well, I would amend this dictum: it is a book that tells how practical judgment flows from high learning. And the way it tells us about that is to say nothing. Consider how the governors of the best city are educated. They study what we now call the liberal arts, first the quadrivium, that is, mathematics and physics, and then the trivium, comprised in dialectic. All that is in preparation for what we now call ontology, the study of Being, the "greatest study." And after that, do these leaders-to-be of the best thinkable community study public administration, educational programming, dean-soothing, and student-attracting? No such thing. They go down from the heights of learning and guide their city--just like that. For Socrates thinks that wise managing flows directly from some period of sojourn with the highest--or deepest--matters, depending on the way you imagine the architecture of the world.

Of course, a skeptic might object, Socrates' model of the unintermediated application of metaphysics to management takes place in a city built to the specifications of philosopher kings. To which I would answer that we too in fact live in a republic that is not inhospitable to spots where intellectual substance is directly at work, and that the communities of learning are the very places where such learning could and should inform administration. Another skeptic might now worry that I am advocating the rule of ideology. I recognize and appreciate this worry: things farthest apart often appear to be identical, and so it is with ideology and philosophy. Yet the latter is, actually, in admittedly uneasy conjunction with a healthy pragmatism, the best cure for ideology. I even think I know how to tell them apart and how to keep ideology at bay while making the world safe for philosophy, but perhaps that is a problem best saved for our conversation after this talk. For the moment my long digression had only one aim: to persuade you that it is good for us to be driven from time to time to rake up the roots of our activity--good intellectually and very practical for a long and happy survival, partly because we will know better how to maintain our programs within and partly because we will have more convincing rejoinders to our opponents.

From the beginning the central activity for both our programs, yours at Notre Dame and ours at St. John's, has been the reading and discussion of Great Books, in capitals. We live, I think, in a remarkable and, in its harsh way, invigorating time--the first time, to my knowledge, when the pedagogical value and even the existence of such books have been impugned as a kind. Surely through the two and a half millennia of public education people--students out loud and the public in its heart--have mumbled and murmured about those stuffy, dry-as-dust classics and their administering jailers, the schoolmasters. But that the intellectuals themselves should engage in a learned and sophisticated betrayal, the treason of the interpreters, that is surely a new thing upon the face of the earth. Whatever else it might do, it gives urgency and complexity to what would otherwise be a flabby question with a formulaic answer: What about the greatness of great books?

I want to unpack that question, to attack it in parts and to try my answers on you, to talk about later on. I must tell you that I've never believed much in the kind of feckless question-asking that curls up like blue smoke dissipating into the illimitable sky; I think that whoever says Q should also begin on A, since the framing of a truly-meant question involves the outline of a possible answer.

These then are the elements of the question that I discern:

  1. Are great books a kind, and if they are a kind, is it a natural or a conventional class?

  2. Why do these books exercise a kind of repulsion? If greatness is a term of approbation, why does not the whole world love these books and prefer to be with them over any available amusement? And don't even think of smiling--it's a humanly revelatory enigma.

  3. Are there determinate criteria for recognizing a member of the class? Are these criteria such as to establish an affinity among great books, or are they that strange sort of mark which makes all the members of the kind mutually incomparable?

  4. Do great books have a natural connection to programmatic liberal studies, and is there a peculiar pedagogy that goes with them naturally?

Let me now try out my answers on you.

  1. First, I am persuaded that great books are a kind, and even a natural kind. To put my claim in the most assertive way, I think you can separate out a great book from that huge and wonderful class of very, very good books, without which literate life would be too grandly simple for us moderns to bear--too grandly simple and hence also too unstimulating for our fast-paced intellects. Believe me, we ought to reflect on what it does to us to live amidst scores of good books on any conceivable topic, which, if we absorb them, endanger our ability for quiet independent thought and if we ignore them put us in peril of inexcusable ignorance.

    How do I come to think that great books form a natural kind? It goes way back to my junior year, I think, at Brooklyn College. We had certain requirements to work off, and I hated them. I'd put off my classics-in-translation credits far too late, and never was a more unreceptive student dragooned into what proved to be her fate. What a sign from heaven that I, who have spent my teaching life in an all-required program, should have been dragged into its beginning by a routine fulfillment of one such requirement!

    We began with the Iliad, in the old translation by Lang, Leaf, and Meyers, as I recollect, a version stately or stuffy, according to one's taste. I was full of rebellion and recalcitrance and I flunked--a first in my life--the early examination the professor gave us. Goaded by pride, I set myself to studying for the next one. And so I woke up to two things at once: the book called the Odyssey and my teacher called Professor Alice Kober. I saw a dumpy, dowdy, uncharismatic person with bottle-bottom glasses and a charmless demeanor. I heard a teacher of quiet, undramatic intensity, and I have never forgotten what she said to us once: "How do you tell a great book? Your hair stands on end and the back of your neck tingles." I fell in love with Homer, with my teacher, with those classics all at once. I don't think I've ever again floated in such clouds of glory. In those days you didn't just go and talk to a professor, but she must have noticed something because she offered to teach me Greek. She died that year before she could make good her promise, and I only discovered recently, when Simon Singh published his book on code-breaking, that she had been a pathbreaker in the decoding of the so-called Linear B tablets which were the palace records of the Homeric kings.

    I am not being funny in citing Miss Kober's indices for telling greatness in books. This physiological reader response is not a criterion, an internal mark of such books, but rather an external index, an effect. But if such books do produce such arousals, and only certain books do it in just the way she meant, then here is something natural about that kind and its relation to us, for it is hard to argue that convention can produce these reactions, particularly in the post-adolescent barbarian that I was then and that most American students are now. (I should inject here that I like, even love, our post-adolescent barbarians much better than the over-trained transatlantic scholars of former days.)

    The going academic opinion of our day is double-tongued. It says on the one hand that the tradition that hands down to us the class of great books is a convention established by the powers-that-be to enforce their own dominance. And it says on the other hand that there are no great books anyway, because all books are equally testimonials to the social circumstances of their times, and the oral testimony of an illiterate peasant may in fact tell us more than the high-flown propaganda of the classics. All texts are covert documents; all documents are serious texts.

    The first argument, that great books are stealthy instruments of domination, might have weight if these books were really a class of one. As it happens, they form a quarrelsome, or more politely, a dialectic tradition, within which no position stands unopposed: who should rule, who should own, even who should read and what--on nothing do these books agree, and ever-renewed radicalism is their modus operandi. The claim of inherent conservatism is so patently absurd that it is not easy--though necessary--to discover the grain of truth embedded in this as in every notion.

    But the other argument, that among texts there obtains the same equality that, as we egalitarians of humanity agree, exists in certain respects among human souls--that argument is even harder to grapple with. There is truth in the claim that every human expression is of interest and seriously interpretable. There is truth in the claim that the citizens of a democracy particularly ought to interest themselves in the discourse of ordinary life. And it appears to be a truth as well that our fellow citizens are not always naturally aroused by good books, that they do not always see their concerns represented by them.

  2. And so arises the second question: Why doesn't all the world cherish them as we do? Why have they been for ages the bane of students and now the butt of intellectuals? Well, I think I'll leave the intellectuals alone--it is their bread and butter to be against things. But there is still the evidence of ordinary people.

    Or is there? Do recall that this is not only a Bible-thumping, it is also a Bible-studying land. In fact those not altogether unjustly maligned TV preachers do stay true to their fundamentalism in knowing their Bible, both parts, inside out, so that their exegesis often has an intelligent freshness. And all over the country people go to the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, in privacy and in study groups, with that sense of approaching something at once high yet welcoming, which is the very effect of greatness in a book, though admittedly of a unique sort in the Book of books. All over the country, too, people spend Sunday afternoons in those equally maligned chain bookstores and Wednesday evenings in book club meetings--maybe not many people, but not a negligible number either.

    But in the universities it's not so good. This is now, and has always been, partly the fault of the teachers, and so, at the end of this talk I want to say something about teaching the great books or better about the inadvisability of trying to do anything so stultifying. But for the moment I want to put the other half of the blame where it seems to me to belong: on these books themselves.

    For they often show a repellent outside. Most of my surviving family lives in Israel, where they use the word sabra for a native-born Israeli. Sabra is a desert cactus, prickly outside and sweet inside. Great books are often like sabras, repellent at a first approach and subtly sweet upon entry. Who on opening the Critique of Pure Reason, the most worn-down volume in my library, doesn't experience a pressing desire to close it again, because Kant writes from the first page as for a reader who has already reached the last page? Who having the meritorious intention of completing the 1400 pages of Tolstoy's War and Peace doesn't want to give up after that opening soirée in St. Petersburg in which dozens of repulsive people with unpronounceable names make trivial conversation? And yet the one book turns out to be a grand edifice of stupendous clarity of design, and the second a stage displaying the most humanly engaging of characters ever depicted in words, and that tedious soirée looks in retrospect like the perfect portal to it.

    Why are the great books so often difficult of access, bad teaching aside? I think it is for reasons such as this: These books end in being an education, but they also require some education for a beginning. You have to know something to enter; you have to be preliminarily literate. They teach about life but they require some previous experience, you have to have lived some to learn more. They often initiate a new way of thinking and emphasize their radical originality by employing a new way of talking; you have to know the language to learn the language. And above all, though they mean to touch you where you live, they have no intention of doing what mediocre teachers so often preach, namely to start where the student is. On the contrary, they require going cold turkey on old habits and a leap into the unrecognizable unknown. In other words, there's nothing warm and fuzzy about great books, and people need a good shove for a first immersion, anything as long as it isn't an advertising preachment, a background lecture, or an introductory interpretation. Not the most elegant of these shoves but perhaps the most efficient is the programmatic assignment: "You read this tonight and tomorrow we'll talk about it. Never mind whether it speaks to you right off. Just do it."

  3. That brings me to the third and central element of the inquiry into the greatness of great books. I seem to have claimed that programmatic assignments may not be the worst way to penetrate the prickly exterior of great books. On the face of it this is an absurdity: Why should civilization's greatest gift be made into a scheduled chore and a measured-out imposition? Well, for the reasons I've just laid out: I remember in my college years carrying this or that great book around for weeks, wishing I'd read it. A kindly-meant compulsion was usually the catalyst, some due date or deadline. In fact, it strikes me now as the definition of benign teaching: to compel students to do what they long to do.

    But having assumed that awesome responsibility, teachers are now faced with telling students what to read for tomorrow. Not to mince words: You have to make lists of books that everyone should read. And it doesn't matter if only a few people do actually read them. They have to be the books that you think are necessary to the best life--for that is another way of saying: great books. I have claimed, and argued very sketchily, that there are some such books, books in quality pretty nearly discontinuous with the many very good books. (Let me here interject that the multitudinous mediocre books and the myriads of bad books are also recognizable classes, with their own charms and dancers, their genres and their mavericks, but these are not my subject for today.)

    My implied point is that, as pretty good books are quite often related to a fairly good life, so great books have a natural affinity to the best kind of life, or maybe more modestly and more plausibly, to the possibility of an occasional elevation of people's lives to a level beyond the ordinary. In enrolling our students in a great books program we implicitly invite them to a split and yet well-integrated existence--a life of solid, ordinary human continuity and a parallel life of extraordinary discontinuous hours of panoramic contemplation, each informing the other. For it seems to me that the acknowledgment of greatness has this unavoidable concomitant: that we are invited to live now and then above ourselves. That, of course, is the root of the difficulty we have with these books: they achieve human centrality through human distance, and we have to help our students to live these lives in tandem and to bring the distant near without bringing it down.

    So now to the point. Can I produce intrinsic marks by which to recognize them? Are there criteria and are they fulfilled? I believe the answer is yes and yes. Of course, I should acknowledge here that I have many illustrious predecessors in this effort; just in the past century Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Jorge Borges, and Italo Calvino come to mind. But here is my own.

    My first criterion is inexhaustibility. I have loved many a book or piece of music or work of art in my life, and I love them still (for there is no such thing as love totally lost) though in the nostalgic mode; when I go back to them I can, it seems to me, see right through them: they are ghostly loves that have lost their vivifying mystery. But then there are some that are always, on each reading, new. Partly this effect comes from the blessing of forgetfulness; there was simply too much artful detail in these texts for remembrance. Partly it comes from the boon of a matured attention; there are aspects that stand forth now that I was not prepared to notice in an earlier reading. In any case, the book is its own teacher, the teacher of itself: each reading is a preparation for a subsequent reading.

    Nonetheless, the first reading, the student's and the amateur's reading, is not a defective reading. This is the time when a great book makes its grand impact and leaves its indelible impression, wins us to lasting admiration and often to fascinated revulsion. But almost always the sense of depths or abysses that we have not begun to exhaust is part of the first and for some people the only reading. And since it is the beginning of intellectual virtue to acknowledge to oneself that one has only just begun to understand a work of great human gravity, even so incomplete an experience often has a lifelong effect.

    A second criterion is solidity. Inexhaustible as the text may be, there is a solid core of the book that becomes more solidly shapely with each reading. In such books answers coagulate and bring with them a comet's tail of questions that are so nearly ultimate as to demand acknowledgment as mysteries--questions that can neither be avoided nor satisfied. I know no great book of philosophy or of fiction that does not reveal, on an appreciatively critical reading, these limits, or to put it more dramatically, which is not eschatological, that is to say, concerned with the outer margins of what it is humanly possible to understand.

    But just because they do go to the limits, great books have a solid core, a bread-and-butter solidity. I mean that the teaching of the book, mind-boggling though it may be at first reading, when somehow grasped, seats itself in the mind as a well-cut mortise receives the tenon to make a neat joint. And I also mean that the doctrine, once assimilated, seems at the same time truly amazing and utterly sensible, so that, if it's philosophy, you say to yourself in turn: "How could the author have thought of this?" and "I've always known it." And if it's fiction, you ask yourself while in the middle: "How will the author ever bring off this denouement?" and when you've finished, "However else?" In short, great books rarely seem contrived or sophisticated. In our conversation I can give specific examples of their uncontrived subtlety and unsophisticated perspicacity.

    Of course, in their very tendency to click into the mind, they make life strenuous for the trustfully critical reader of a series of such books, since their intellectual doctrines mostly countermand each other just as their imaginative realms displace each other. To read more than one great book is to learn that not everything the mind accepts gladly as its own can be the inexpugnable truth or the sovereign fiction. And to face that fact is another intellectual virtue worth acquiring.

    The last criterion I will mention (though I could think of several more that are less vivid in my experience) is the perfect fit of word and matter. I know books that have much elegant language and minimal matter, but I can't think of more than a handful that have great matter and inadequate words. I think that is because in great texts the substance shapes the expression; it is balled up where the matter is knotty, obscure where it is dark, neological where it is radically novel, and luminous when the matter shines. The style of a great text is entirely absorbed in the service of adequacy; the author thinks and imagines, and the thoughts and images attract the language that brings them out, that utters them, with the least possible deformation--or so it seems. There is, incidentally, a lesson to writing teachers in this criterion, if it is correctly observed: A writing exercise, writing for the sake of having written, is an offense against the end of language, which is to be about something. But that's another talk.

    These three criteria, then, inexhaustibility of detail and aspect, well-seatedness in intellect and imagination, tight fit of matter and style, have seemed to me intrinsic marks of the kind of book to be called great. To be sure, they require receptive attention on the part of the reader to show themselves, but they seem to be effects arising from the nature of the books themselves. In fact, the ability of these books to captivate and reward close attention might be the summary description of their quality.

    But such books are like human souls in this--that their species nature, that which makes them recognizable in kind, is always realized in individuals that are incomparable in their particularity. Each great book requires its own fresh reading, unobscured by general theories prejudicing its interpretation. The kind of book I am speaking of will not fail to meet these criteria, but how in particular it will do it is unspecifiable in advance. And why would one read these demanding books at all if they did not reward one always and again with unforetellable marvels? Perhaps this very originality should be a summary criterion, except that it marks no really articulable characteristic--perhaps we are back here to the bristling hair and the tingling neck. Nonetheless, it is just this ungeneralizable particularity which inspires the most companionable conversations and forges the fellowship of readers.

  4. And that brings me to my fourth and final answer, about the role of the great books in liberal studies and the pedagogy peculiarly appropriate to them. To take the latter, the pedagogy, first, since I have already broached it: Teachers should not obscure greatness with additive talk, but let the student come directly and immediately face to face with it in its unadulterated form and only then be discreetly helpful. That's about the sum total of it: No getting in the way--you cannot "teach a great book." While, as I said earlier, it seems to me a sadly self-imposed kind of mediocrity to temper assigned reading to the students' perceived preoccupation and preparation, the time to be where the students are comes when they have been set to grappling with these books; then attention-directing questions and clarifying responses are in order. The teacher's responsibility is to be, in the spiral of learning, at the same spot that the student is, but perhaps at a higher turn of technical clarity and complexity of interpretation. But why am I preaching to you, who know from your long experience as teachers and students what your books require!

Let me now end with a word about the relation, a close one as it seems to me, of Great Books to Liberal Studies. I could, of course, point to the old medieval tradition linking arts and authors. One of the great medieval texts on the liberal arts, Hugo of St. Victor's Didascalicon of c. 1120 A.D., is subtitled "On the Study of Reading." For Hugo the arts and the authors are reciprocally related: the arts are the skills of reading and the authors to be read are themselves the originators of the arts. This relation makes perfectly good contemporary sense and is in fact reflected in the Program of Liberal Studies whose semicentennial we are celebrating. Liberal study is inherently a preparation for interpretation, that activity in which freedom and discipline are most closely conjoined--a claim you might wish to challenge in a minute--and the Great Books are the most suitable texts on which to exercise the skills of interpretation, the arts of finding significance. But these books are themselves in turn artful works of interpretation that originate at one and the same time a view of the way things are and of the way to construe the way things are. The free arts and original books do indeed stand in close reciprocal relation.

Here is a concluding coda. I said early on that it seemed to me that devotion to great books was more alive in the land at large than a survey of the universities might show. There is also a small but vigorous resurgence of interest in the liberal arts, a revival of which programs like yours and mine are the beneficiaries. But since the host institution to this Program of Liberal Studies is a Catholic university, I want to recall yet another bright spot in the prospects of liberal studies. It is Pope John Paul's rousing call to philosophy set out in his encyclical of 1998, called Faith and Reason, which is addressed to clergy and laity alike. It is not to dogmatic metaphysics or to systematic rationality that he calls Catholics and their teaching institutions but to genuine, freely inquiring reflection, in a word to philosophy. I have not so far made the argument; nonetheless, I want now at the end to advance another claim that might run into opposition: that philosophy so understood and liberal study are convertible terms. If that is true and if I may be forgiven for a friendly trespass into concerns not strictly my own, I would say that the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame has received marching orders for its next fifty years far grander than the mere maintenance of its present excellence.

I and my college hope that you may flourish, for all our sakes.

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