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Great Books vs. Philosophical Studies

May 8, 2022

Many colleges and universities offer a program of study of Great Books offered originally at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

When I was an undergraduate at Pitt I tried—unsuccessfully—to transfer to the University of Chicago because I felt that Chicago’s core curriculum taught what I needed to know.

Fortunately, I read widely and encountered Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek and met all three in person—while an undergraduate.

Like all young people from working class families, I was ill-trained for graduate studies in Political Philosophy, however, and struggled to learn Latin and classical Greek when I was in my early 20’s. Divine Providence intervened, however, and I was admitted “on probation” to graduate study at Notre Dame and studied with five great scholars–Gerhart Niemeyer, Eric Voegelin, Ralph McInerny, Henri Deku, Stanley Parry, CSC–and took a “directed readings” course on Plato’s Gorgias with a “Straussian” scholar, E.A. Goerner.

Compared to these other five, Goerner did nothing to improve my understanding and that began my dislike of “Straussians.” These are smart, even brilliant, men, but they have bought into a close textual reading approach to the “Great Books” that is a substitute for philosophy.

What they lack, I believe, is philosophical understanding and what the Straussians offer verges on a form metempsychosis–belief that reading a text brings you into communion with the soul of the author. In its extreme we’re in the realm of Madam Sosostris and modern gnosticism, not political philosophy.

My colleague at the University of Dallas in my first year as a college instructor, Frederick Wilhelmsen saw how limited that approach was and proclaimed to all who would listen that he had a Thomistic philosophy that transcended the Straussian’s close textual reading approach.

I remember Fritz Wilhelmsen when so many argue on behalf of Great Books programs and wonder how many are actually true philosophers and how many are ideologues.

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