Why read the great books? Apart from fulfilling some antiquarian dream or feeding an ego pining for intellectual praise, these books serve a useful purpose. That the books are (usually) old is of little consequence except in evidence that these books are important enough to have survived so long. Hence, we do not read these books because we think old is best. Then, do we read the great books merely to convince ourselves and others that we are intelligent? On the contrary, reading the great books will inevitably prove how unintelligent we are.
The simple answer to the question “why read the great books?” is education. Despite much lofty subject matter, reading the great books imparts a surprisingly practical education. This education occurs in three ways: factual, mechanical, and philosophical.
Explore Troves of Knowledge
As the fundamental curriculum of a classical education, the great books are a path to education well-trodden for hundreds of years – some for thousands of years. No set of books possess greater breadth nor depth than the great books. These are the books that shaped the cavernous minds of the “Renaissance man”, but also of those singular giants: the poetic mind of Shakespeare, the historical mind of Gibbon, and the scientific mind of Newton. Reading the great books is the core of a liberal education, and no substitute curriculum will make one a better reader or thinker than these books.
In the great books, sampled by sets like the Great Books of the Western World and the Harvard Classics, one encounters the best of literature, including Homer, Cervantes, and Tolstoy. In these same sets, one learns not just any poetry, but the best poetry with the likes of Chaucer, Wordsworth, and Longfellow. Then, a reader comes across not just any plays, but the great Greek plays of Aeschylus and the fullness of the works of Shakespeare, not mere abridgements. In reading these prose, poems, and plays we have already now achieved a fine education in the so-called “language arts”. One may wonder, “But what of the mechanics of the language arts?” Grammar, spelling, and vocabulary is there inherent to the reading of these books – and the best of each.
But while one may think a course of study based on reading books would cease educationally here in the language arts, one would be quite wrong. In fact, the surface of knowledge uncovered by reading the great books has only been scratched. In reading the great books, we don’t just read history, we read the finest of histories, from Plutarch, Herodotus, and Gibbon. Beyond these obviously historical texts, any literature is itself a glimpse into history. As Susan Wise-Bauer, author of the Well-Trained Mind and the Well-Educated Mind, explains, history is innately intertwined with literature:
“When you read chronologically, you reunite two fields that should never have been separated in the first place: history and literature. To study literature is to study what people thought, did, believed, suffered for, and argued about in the past; this is history…History can’t be detached from the study of the written record. Nor should literature be removed from its historical context.”Susan Wise-Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind
Thus, in reading any book we kill many birds with a single stone. In reading, we study the language arts and history simultaneously. Similarly, this dual language arts and historical study is extended into a triune nature when other topics like philosophy, theology, and science are expounded by a book. The simultaneous benefits of reading such books only increase, as will be made plain.
Reading Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, and Hume, we learn not only the most important philosophies, but also the history of philosophy, its language and methods, logic and argumentation, and how to think about our world. Who better to learn of theology and religion from than the greatest theologians (and anti-theologians) of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, and Nietzsche? One can learn much of psychology, too, from the likes of Freud. The great books are rich in knowledge of politics and government, and by reading Aristotle, Machiavelli, The U.S. Constitution, and Locke we know more about politics than many a politician today. From Smith and Marx, we learn the fundamentals of economics (though I do believe the Austrian school of economics to be lacking in most great book sets).
Even where reading books seems wholly insufficient – the realm of science and mathematics – the great books offer invaluable education. By reading the works of Euclid, Galileo, William Harvey, Newton, Faraday, and more, one will not (admittedly) become proficient in the practice of science nor especially mathematics. However, reading these original works of science and mathematics will educate the reader greatly on the philosophy, history, and methods of the hard sciences. Reading these works will develop a conceptual understanding and familiarity with scientific vocabulary that will enable intelligent discussion in the world of numbers and formulas.
The great books taken as a whole contain a wealth of information, with tremendous breadth and depth in every field of study. Robert Hutchins succinctly expresses the incredible teaching power of these books:
“The great books were written by the greatest liberal artists. They exhibit the range of liberal arts. The authors were also the greatest teachers. They taught one another. They taught all previous generations…”Robert Hutchins, The Great Conversation
While more than capable of forming an impressive primary education, the study of the great books never concludes. For most, a lifetime intersects the study of the great books less than wished, and many more decades could be spent on their pages.
Stretch the Mind
Though often a point of complaint rather than celebration, reading the great books is challenging. But, as Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren correctly point out in How to Read a Book, this difficult reading is a necessity to self-improvement:
“If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article…You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.”Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren, How to Read a Book
By wrestling with the great books, we frankly become more intelligent. Reading these books trains our minds to follow the paths of the greatest thinkers – and our minds may lag behind, take wrong turns, and lose sight of that great mind we are following – but we will be the better for it. Our minds will grow in their ability to follow complex thoughts, with greater perception, comprehension, and length of attention. Then, as the author’s ideas impinge on our minds, something else will happen: the gears of our minds respond and form their own thoughts, connecting the ideas of the page to other ideas from our experience, agreeing excitedly, or disagreeing vehemently. Abraham Lincoln, when returning to his law practice from his first forays into politics, recognized the cloudiness of his mind and turned to studying Euclid’s works to sharpen his mind. As Lincoln’s law practice flourished in the years afterward, we can assume that study did indeed improve his mind.
“Ultimately we read – Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree – in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests.”Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why
Besides thought itself, reading the great books – or any sufficiently wide and difficult body of books for that matter – will improve the mechanics of one’s reading. Our vocabularies, for one, will organically expand. From context and some repetition, these words make their homes in our lexicon naturally. The great books even present the wonderful opportunity of discovering the birth of new words – like quixotic, a word inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or many new words popularized by Shakespeare still in use today. Likewise, reading speed will likely increase over time, though not initially. At the start, reading the great books will likely feel like slogging through thick mud, as our minds engage with new words and names, complex arguments, and antiquated language; however, with persistence that resistance will lighten. As a sprinter trains with weights and finds himself faster when the weights are gone, so too do we read faster when returning to familiar, modern writing. Our minds sprint where once they jogged. Robert Hutchins, editor of the Great Books of the Western World set, wrote in the introductory volume The Great Conversation:
“Great books teach people not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books.”Robert Hutchins, The Great Conversation
There is no training of the mind like the training offered by reading the great books. Both skills of reading and thinking are honed, all while learning the varied subjects of the previous section from the pens of their greatest contributors.
While knowing the facts of history, a novel, or a science are useful and having a powerful mind to process those facts is indispensable, both points miss the ultimate aim of education.
“The aim of education is wisdom, and each must have the chance to become as wise as he can.”Robert Hutchins, The Great Conversation
The purpose of education is not merely to grow our minds or to know facts about various fields, but to understand the meaning of them, how they relate to one another, and how we may ultimately live better by understanding. The first is concerned merely with knowledge, the latter with wisdom.
Nearly any factual question can be answered in seconds today, but what of those questions to which elude simple answers? Perhaps more worrisome, do we even bother to ask such questions? No computer can calculate for us how to live a meaningful life, or how we should understand our place in the universe. Philosophy has and always will be a domain that only minds can contemplate. In this information age rife with screens offering unlimited entertainment and information, Harold Bloom asked in his book How to Read and Why:
“Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?”Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why
The answer to Bloom’s question, which he knew well, is the great books. The great books are the diary of our civilization. In them we get the opportunity to observe the heights (and depths) on mankind’s ideas about living well, understanding the universe and God, forming just societies, and all other aspects of the human condition. From these books we learn (or should learn) from man’s greatest blunders. We learn how old many of our “modern” ideas really are. We see how very alike yet alien we are compared to more ancient peoples. We see how the thread of an idea birthed at some moment in time grows, changes, is misunderstood, shrinks, disappears, reappears, is idolized, or spawns new ideas. Standing on the great books is like standing upon a mountain, which with every generation of writers and thinkers, grows to new heights and lets us see farther than ever before.
The Finest Curriculum at the Finest Price
The great books comprise an education like no other in substance and in form. Reading the great books is both rigorous and liberal (free). It is naturally open to inquiry and free from bias. No one person or organization has created this curriculum, protecting it from political bent and self-interest. Far from it, this curriculum is one freely elected by each generation, from Homer to us. And lest we think it stagnant and finished, remind ourselves that we, in this generation, are electing what books will be added to this curriculum. The great books are not a finished set of books, poems, and plays; they are an organic art in themselves that reflect the trajectory mankind has taken and where it is going.
Best of all, the great books are not some curriculum barred by paywall, nor by the expense of materials, nor even by copyright laws. The vast majority of books are published all over the world in dozens of different printings and editions. Free online versions may be found in a variety of places. This is a truly open source and free education, and represents the fulfillment of our natural right to education: all are free to learn from the pages of the great books.
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