January 22, 2009

Great Books

The thesis that Great Books are the source of education is one that has a long historical pedigree: one particular facet of that debate is explored in a book reviewed in the city journal recently. But regardless of that article, it is a debate which is worth having. I have a problem with a great books approach- not because I think great books should not be read (the thesis that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Hobbes, Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Mill, Nozick and the rest are wiser than the average citizen, average student, academic or dare I say it blogger is one that I do not object to at all) but because you cannot understand great books appropriately without reading them in context.

The arguments that I will make here are more fully developed by Quentin Skinner. Essentially you can view every book or argument as existing on its own- and also as existing within a context. Every book has a long context and a short context. Take Hobbes- his Leviathan is definitely based on a reading of Thucydides (he translated the Greek historian after all) and Aristotle, mentioned in the text. But Hobbes's Leviathan is also based, as Professor Skinner has discussed, on arguments going on at the same time between theorists like Francis Rous the younger and Anthony Ascham about the nature of political promises. You cannot understand Hobbes without understanding that he was deliberately responding to both kinds of debate. Even better take a text like Locke or one of Plato's dialogues, both of these are not merely implicitly aimed at contemporary debates, but explicitly. Locke's Treatises are directed against Sir Robert Filmer. Plato's characters in his dialogues are often contemporary philosophical figures: it would be stupid not to realise that Plato was in dialogue with those philosophers.

Context is important- both for understanding what a text was written for and to understand what the words within a text actually mean (even if a text is doing something with those words which attack the contemporary definitions- Hobbes and natural law is a great example). On the other hand, there is another principle we should not forget: we should not fence in great texts behind walls of obscurity. I have no problem with the term middle brow- and indeed the more people read these texts the better. That is because the texts often do something to the people who read them: Livy for instance is a text who I only know in isolation (I have read a smattering of other Roman sources) but it is one that is enriching my mind at the moment, provoking my historical instincts and giving me food for thought. Learning is hard- but we only stop the process by suggesting that there are two alternatives absolute knowledge (for which context is indispensible) and absolute ignorance: actually learning is a process as well as a destination and the process is personally important. If we recognise that then we can see that a great books approach is a good didactic tool- go out and read Cicero and Plato and Locke and Rousseau- but as well go deeper and read around, read the historians who have studied the context and the sources which are the context ultimately of the great books you read.


goodbanker said...

Change the title of this latest posting to "great blogs", and your passage about "enriching my mind..., provoking my historical instincts and giving me food for thought" applies to your pieces. (In fact, was this your subliminal message?! Either way, keep up the good work!)

James Higham said...

Never forget - John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Goodbanker- I haven't been posting enough recently- asthma and tiredness not to mention work is to blame!

James nice joke :)

James Hamilton said...

In respect of the actual "Great Books" series that was hawked from door to door in the US, two things strike me: firstly, just how many boys and girls got their intellectual start from them, often in entirely unpromising circumstances, and, secondly, just how difficult the print in those tomes was to read. Small font, two columns, dusty paper - like trying to read Shakespeare from some Victorian family's treasured/never used copy.

Hope you're back on your feet soon, TG.

Gracchi said...

James I agree entirely- the aim of popularisation is a noble one and given the impact of the Everyman series in the UK I'd suspect that the great books series was a good thing in the states.

Maladjusted said...

Dear Gracchi,

Thank you for another thought-provoking post. They seem rather rampant in this place, as if they might be at home here. No wonder you take your name from a famous couple and not a famous person! You are (as I believe someone said of Clive James): "a brilliant BUNCH of guys."

Also: I very much agree with your praise of the middle-brow, although
this post also reminds me of a very mild prejudice that I have against Quentin Skinner in relation to some of his remarks against Strauss. (I know, incidentally, that you have precisely the OPPOSITE prejudice).

Thus: as much as I agree with the remarks about the two different senses of 'context', I can't help wondering whether there is anyone who would disagree with this position?

Thus, it is surely uncontroversial that a text belongs to a given context and that finding out about that context is a necessary propadeutic to reading the text. The context will consist, as you say, in both factors arising from its historical situation, but also
the fact that the author obviously transcends her situation sufficient
to be a) responding to texts from earlier epochs (e.g. Thucydides), and b) such that he is capable of writing something other than a book called "The Zeitgeist and how I bottled it."

But if a book transcends its context, then it is, as you also say, also presumably possible to have -some- appreciation of a text without being an expert on the historical details (or to have read every book in the author's library.) Vive le..er...brow...moyen. (Sorry.)

Thus, one can read Livy as one's first ever material about the Roman Republic (what could be better!) AND still understand him his work sufficiently to find insights applicable in 2009. Also, although Locke responds to Filmer in the First Treatise, hardly anyone (I suspect) reads Filmer while reading Locke because and not despite the fact that L. engages him so explicitly and for us, usually easy converts, at such tedious length.

Hobbes' "Leviathan" is also remarkable for how often he excoriates Aristotelian ideas -- knowing Aristotle thus certainly helps to understand him better, but you can read him wihtout it.

I just seem to recall, that Skinner
suggests on a number of occassions that there exists a breed called "Straussians" who basically say you can get everything you need to know about say, Hobbes, by reading the "classics" without having to know something as crass as that there might have been a civil war on in England at round about that time. But this is obviously insane and thus a straw man to which no "Great Books" person (not even Mortimer J. Adler) would subscribe

The Straussian point just seems (to me) to be that before the 19th century (Hegel's remark about reading the newspaper being the morning prayer of the moderns)an author might have spent even more time reading Livy than wishing for the explusion of the Medici. Also,
he might have called for the latter by invoking the former.

Skinner and Pocock have done some marvellous work. But I personally think the 'great books' thing is more potentially happily middle-brow than their own work.

Anyway, sorry for the length of this and again many thanks.

Yours is the third blog I've found after Ashok Karra's which I have found truly inspiring (the second seems to have been discontinued.)



Gracchi said...


An interesting reply which is why I've spent so long before I replied. Yes I don't see my point as uncontroversial- and I don't know enough about Strauss to say that Skinner's caricature is right- indeed one of my critiques of Skinner is that he himself is too Straussian- I personally think that Skinner overstates the degree to which Machiavelli is a factor in Republicanism in the English Civil War- as John Morrill said in his Ford lectures recently the civil war was more about the Melchizidek than Machiavelli!

I suppose the point where I would disagree with you is your last comment. I am not so sure that Hobbes say was responding more to Aristotle than to Ascham. I think that might be an impression we gather because we have normally read Aristotle and not Ascham. Do not forget that Hobbes was deeply involved in the politics of his own day- as for the sake of argument was Machiavelli (whose Prince is a job application to the Medici) and Locke (exiled in the 1680s as he wrote the Treatise with his master Shaftesbury). With Hobbes what is interesting is that Leviathan is clearly aimed at two issues: the contemporary political one- hence Part III which more people in my view need to study (Hobbes was obviously interested enough in it to devote a large part of his treatise to it) and the contemporary philosophical debate (which he had engaged in through Mersenne for years before). I do detect Aristotle in there as an object of scorn- actually my own feeling is that Thucydides and his description of stasis in Corcyra is more influential and important- but with the contempt for Aristotle I think that is about contemporaries' use of Aristotle rather than Aristotle himself. Thucydides differently has a hidden influence on the work because Hobbes when he translated Thucydides learnt from him.

In a sense what I'm arguing is that Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli (all of whom were in a certain sense politicians) aimed their texts at contemporary problems and audiences. Of course they were influenced by Livy, Aristotle, Thucydides- having been through their education they could hardly not be. And they aimed texts at those who had come through a similar education. But their texts were aimed at doing things in their own times- not in some cosmic debate between the 'greats' (many of whose names have dropped since from the parade of 'greats'- who now reads Justin?) but at doctrines and philosophies around at their own times.

That is lastly where I disagree with another one of your comments- I don't think these thinkers rose above their zeitgeist- I think that is an unhelpful metaphor. I prefer to think of them as people that later generations have seen as great- sometimes for an accidental reason to do with this being printed and that not being- sometimes because of an original move in the argument that they made.

Anyway thanks for your praise of this blog- I too read Ashok's and admire his- and yes come back again and again and again, you are very welcome.

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker I wish that had been my subliminal message- actually it was what the hell am I going to write this evening, oh there is this article- right here goes.

Its often the way my posts are generated!

Maladjusted said...

Thank you for your generous reply to my comment, Gracchi. I'm touched by the hospitality. The fact that we're talking about virtual space notwithstanding, it still feels kind of like being offered a place to stay on your first night in a strange city...

Having said that: I now really, really don't want to make you retract your offer by quibbling ad nauseum, so I will just say a couple of things and then be quiet for a while (at least on THIS post) so that I can stop clogging up your space until the next discussion.

First, I basically agree with everything you said in your reply to my comment.

I mean, I would definitely never deny the role of contemporary political events/issues/figures in the thinking of Locke, Hobbes or Machiavelli. I'm actually quite embarassed that I might have come across as suggesting this. Surely, the only excuse for suggesting something like this would be total ignorance of the people we were talking about.(I mean, a Machiavelli not concerned with the travails of Florence? A Hobbes or a Locke who weren't concerned with the whole civil war and revolution things? I really hope I didn't come across as thinking that!

I also agree with almost all of your more specific comments, e.g.: I do think that Thucydides is a greater influence on Hobbes than Aristotle. In fact, I think (with Strauss) that it is the discovery of Thucydides that turns Hobbes' defintively away from the philosophy of the Schools, decades before he gets involved with the 'new science', such that he can develop the materialist metaphysic of "Leviathan". And, yes, his target is "Schoolmen", and thus Aquinas's "Aristotle" -- with various forgotten local inflections -- and not, as you say, Aristotle per se (unless by historical proxy.)

I also haven't read Ascham, and you are also definitely right to suggest that people in general (and sophomoric students like myself) tend to find a suspiciously miraculous correlation between what they've read and what they decide is of decisive importance. Vanity always tells us that the unread stuff (in my case Ascham) is nugatory whreas the stuff we slogged through has the KEY to all things -- such is our everyday sophsitry and I'm definitely as guilty as anyone of this.

On the more substantial points, I again think that I, ultimately, agree with you.

It's just that while I think that all the writers' we've mentioned
were doubtless influenced by contemporary events, and that they thus were indeed interested in 'influencing their own times', I also think that precisely -because- of such concerns with they also sought out truths about 'human nature', truths that -- they thought -- might help them ameliorate various contemporary problems, precisely -because- these insights that they woudl gain from beyond their own time would involve a transcendence of the prejudices of their contemporaries (who presumably qua contemporaries were in many ways -responsible- for the deleterious things thought by our authors to be going on in their lifetimes)

A first step to getting such insights would therefore have been -departing- from certain prevailing contemporary attitudes, such that one could then come back to the burning issues of the day with fresh insights and not simply with the platitudes of the age, which could obviously be seen as a cause of contemporary problems.

Hobbes and Machiavelli are, after all, famous polemicisists, continuously denouncing how 'x' prejudice of their epoch can, or will or is leading to political disaster and defending their own new, (true) discoveries against these apparent sophistries. M. speaks of the 'new continent' opened up by his new political science, H. speaks about the battle against the "Kingdom of Darkness."

Thus, I would suggest that Hobbes thought upon encountering Thucydides (decades before the Leviathan or even the trilogy that preceded it) that he could see human beings in Thucydides as well as Spartans and Athenians of the 5th century, in a way that proved certain ideas that were still powerful in his own time (Scholastic metaphysics and its numerous illegitimate epigones) to be so much guff. From here, he could then feel sufficiently liberated to claim to found a new political science based on the new (still marginal, and radical) 'natural philosophy' -- which gives the mechanistic sense to the chapters on the "Body" in the Leviathan.

This is actually all I meant by talk of 'transcendence of their own times', or of not being slaves to the Zeitgeist. We, of course, care about our own time, and want more than anything to effect the shape of it. But, it is also surely precisely because of this that we might try to get around some of the prejudices of our own time by reading old books.

Undoubtedly, to understand those old books, we need to see them as artefacts of their time, engaged in the debates and concerns of their time. But this is surely only the first, propadeutic step. Even if we don't believe in 'universal truths of human nature', we surely beleive that what's so good about knowing the context of something, is that in allowing us to better understand what we're reading we might then be better able to extract whatever truths the books contain, whether we think of said truths as 'for all time', or just 'useful for our own time'. And surely, if -we- still do this, then the writers of epochs who arguably made less of the the gap between past and present than we do, would be even more inclined to think that they could write in what Nietzsche called an "untimely" fashion, i.e. in a manner that showed their -unmistakable- concern with their time -- of course! -- but ballasted by the insights of other epochs who could not be seen as flattering the dominant ideologies of the age, precisely because these ideologies were as yet undreamed by them.

No more, now. I promise. It's a delight discussing with you Gracchi.

Looking forward to the next post.


Gracchi said...

Mal- the debate here ends only when we've run out of ideas! I enjoy it and enjoy your responses and they require thought- hence the late reply.

I suppose what I would agree is that we recognise Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke etc as doing something original or strange within their own times. They obviously thought so and thought they were exploiting a gap within the understanding of their own time- Hobbes for example was one such thinker. But I believe that we should think of that less in that 'untimely' sense- which presupposes a position outside time (a position I would deny you can ever take) but an original position.

In that sense I don't think that you should take Hobbes as more or less ipso facto dependent on Thucydides or Ascham until you have read all three. Hobbes definitely borrowed from both of them and from many others- incidentally John Selden is a huge hidden presence behind Leviathan- but to presume he must have borrowed from Thucydides more than Selden because Thucydides was further back in time I don't think is true. To put it another way do we think that Einstein borrowed more from Maxwell or Newton in finding his 'timeless' truths- I'm not sure that suggesting he borrowed more from Maxwell invalidates what he found.

In a sense I don't deny influence from either source- I agree with you that most people have both. And I would add a third set of influences- from those that philosophers talked to- Hobbes was a tutor afterwards and though we'll never know, any arrangement of teaching is a dialogue and Hobbes taught the same family for about fifty years (with interruptions). I do think that we forget that influence.

But as a last point, do remember that Hobbes and Locke and Machiavelli and many others always wanted to put themselves in the context of the ancients as well as the moderns. Great thinkers say like Milton were very aware of their reputations- so even when Milton was writing pamphlets, he kept back copies and sent them to the Bodleian. I'm not saying that Hobbes was not original- but I am saying that these thinkers stressed their originality to search, in Milton's case definitely, for literary immortality. Hobbes say definitely continues arguments from Grotius and Selden- as well as arguments from Thucydides and others.

Maladjusted said...

Dear Gracchi,

I think we have come to an agreement at last (which is, at a bit disappointing as I was really delighted by your suggestion that at "Westminster Wisdom" that we go on until we ran out of ideas. I will have to start another dialogue with you about a different post.)

So: I would happily concede, not just the majority, but in fact ALL of the points in your last post.

Thus: I am completely happy to take your advice on Ashram. Being, as I admitted last time, ignorant of him, I would be a fool not to take advice that said: "important figure for Hobbes: read, then judge!") I am also happy to have my Nietzschean 'untimely' expressed by your 'original'. It was never my concern to speak of something as grandiose sounding as 'outside of time': I only wanted to say 'not being confined to simply regurgitating the PLATITUDES of one's time as if an utterly ineluctable force of historical context permitted nothing else.'

In fact, the only thing I can think of to say is that I perhaps agree with your last paragraph rather more than said paragraph implies that I might. "Desire for literary immortality:" yes, yes and yes again.

I mean, it is precisely this kind of desire, that amongst other things makes one look to the "classics". It is certainly, as you say, a part of what impelled our trio of political philosophers (and -- god, yes -- Milton) In reading old books, it can be our hope to at once find things useful to our own time (as per our desire to intervene in a given situation -- respond to present day crises and so on), but if this is so, how much more useful are 'gret books' when they can also offer us somethign that is likely to AT THE SAME TIME aid our quest for literary immortality?

It is surely that which is -not of our time- in old books, that which is most foreign to our instinctive ways of thinking that seems to offer us the best chance of achieving BOTH of these things simultaneously.

Thus, for example: if I read Plato (as Machiavelli read Livy) I will think both that:

"Perhaps I will find wisdom here that will help me reflect on the important issues of my own age..." AND:

"However, insofar as said wisdom will not itself be the wisdom of MY time, it is likely -- precisely as such -- to be all the more useful in helping me in my desire to make an -original- contribution to my epoch (a potential bringer of fame).

Thus, the glory of reading ideas written by people who seemed to come from other worlds than mine -- I (at least temporarily and to a qualified extetn) leave the shores of my own time, only to come back to it. But upon returning from the voyage, how differently do I see everyting. My very pupils have shifted such that I now see things that would have remained indistinct before my journey (through Livy/Plato) and my subsequent return. (Think the allegory of the cave &c.)

By going to the texts of other epochs than my own I can hope to emancipate myself from the prejudices of my age. (do not worry -- I'm happy to grant -- at least for now -- that this only happens RELATIVELY, not absolutely.)

And there's nothing like emancipating oneself from the prejudices of one's age for giving one a chance of coming up with something original and not just finding oneself mouthing orthodoxies that we would not recognise as such without ever having confronted alternatives. This is why, for instance, adolescents with no knowledge of history who want only to be original so rarely succeed at being so.

This is also why I think we are now in agreement: yes, our writers are looking for immortality (as you said in your last reply) and yes they are looking to intervene in their own time (as you said in your first reply). And this is surely what leads us to great books: felt exigencies of our time + the desire to see (at least for a moment) PAST those exigencies to (maybe the fire in which they were forged) so that we might, by break at least some of our present shackles intervene in the present to make a different future.

Thank you again for this,