Majoring in the humanities was probably the best academic decision I ever made. I have always enjoyed reading, but what I soon found was that reading great books well doesn’t just entertain us or teach us useful facts. It helps us rely less on ourselves—with all of our faults and blind spots—by listening to and engaging the minds of others through their written works.
Solomon is perhaps the clearest biblical example of the breadth of knowledge the humanities seek (although he had more than a little divine assistance to boot!). As we read in First Kings:
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore. … He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. (1Ki 4:29-33 ESV)
Later on, similar things were said of Daniel and his friends, who were “endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace” and who were taught “the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Dan 1:4). Even Paul, “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) knew something of the Greek poets and made use of them in both his preaching and teaching (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12). Taken together, these biblical figures understood something of philosophy, the fine arts, the natural sciences, literature, foreign languages, and civics.
Of course, I’m nowhere close to where they were (or are!), but reading the great books helps realign ourselves with the wisdom of the ages, rather than the spirit of the age. As Russell Kirk often argued, what modern society requires is to reclaim “the moral imagination”—“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events,” and “aspires to … right order in the soul and … the commonwealth.” And: “To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.”
Of course, true knowledge and true wisdom, comes only from above (Jam 3:17-18) and is revealed fully in Christ (Col 2:13) and in his word (1Co 2:6-16). But to grasp the difference between the wisdom of Man and the wisdom of God, you have to understand something of them both. Ancient wisdom, then, is not inherently opposed to scriptural truth, but instead an introduction into what God has revealed more explicitly his word (which is just one reason why preachers should read good literature).
While the Bible helped me see the heart and soul of reading, it was Mortimer Adler who first introduced me to the skills required to do it well. One of the assigned readings in my first humanities course was his 1972 classic, How to Read a Book. But Adler not only tells you how to read well, he also distills for us the experience of the ages through his list of 137 Great Writers and their greatest works. As Adler would certainly warn us, no list is the “end all, be all” of any education. Instead, I am reminded of the elegy offered by Fadiman and Major in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. By reading great books well, we begin “to fill our minds, slowly, gradually, under no compulsion, with what some of the greatest writers have thought, felt, and imagined” (xix). Of course, even this is merely a beginning:
Even after we have shared these thoughts, feelings, and images, we will still have much to learn: We all die uneducated. But at least we will not feel quite so lost, so bewildered. We will have disenthralled ourselves from the merely contemporary. We will understand something—not much, but something—of our position in space and time. We will know how we have emerged from our long human history. . . . Just as important, we will have acquired models of high thought and feeling. (Fadiman & Major xix-xx)
The question then becomes, Which list to use? I have some experience with three, but each is quite different from the others, often expressing the interests and views of its compiler. So Adler’s list reflects his extensive background in philosophy and Western civilization, and essentially stops with what had been recognized as ‘great’ by 1972. Clifton and Fadiman and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon help immensely by adding many non-Western or newer works, but they are lighter on nonfiction than Adler’s.
Not surprisingly, however, some books make it onto all three lists. And though I don’t think we should make too much of this (building a canon within the canon), these commonly-received works give us a good starting point for our literary endeavors. And though the resulting list is much shorter than the one thousand works recommended when these three lists are compiled, it still represents a substantive goal: forty-eight authors (or groups of authors) and over one hundred individual works.
Next week, Lord willing, we’ll see what the resulting list looks like. Until then, check out Russell Kirk’s lecture, “The Moral Imagination,” which is still one of the best introductions to the ethical function of literature I’ve ever read. For the even braver soul, read slowly through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially chapter 10, “The Virtues of Heroic Societies.”