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Great Books: One Last Thought

May 18, 2022

Introducing undergraduate students to the “Great Books” is a good idea. And when I was an undergraduate at a research university (Pitt), I felt neglected by the many excellent teachers whose courses I took.

They were not devoted to undergraduate education and heir undergraduate courses explained the specializations that they were interested in. I remember going to a Latin professor in my Junior year expressing my desire to learn Latin. He told me I was too old!

I tried to “get out” of Pitt by applying to Chicago that had an excellent program in the great writers and philosophers of the West, but my grades were not good enough. At age 18 I didn’t know what “college” was all about. All I knew was that I needed to earn a BA degree to advance in life. Had I known what I know now about a “Liberal Education,” I would not have sought admission to Pitt.

Nor would I pursue the “Great Books.”

The concept of the “Great Books” skates around and avoids a central truth of Western culture. “The West” is rooted in Christianity—the “faith of our Fathers”—and was shaped by monastic orders after the collapse of Rome. Even Alaric—a Visigoth– who invaded Rome in 410 AD was a Christian and his Gothic marauders avoided the rape and murder that citizens of invaded cities were subjected to by non-Christian–“pagan”–conquerors.

That explains my being ill at ease by the approach we identify with Harry Jaffa at Claremont.

Jaffa’s approach was shaped by Enlightenment concepts enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and though “égalité” is revolutionary in intent and practice, “equality” is the mantra of Jaffa and his students.

I think of one student, my good friend at Notre Dame, Angelo Codevilla, who left Notre Dame ultimately ending up with Jaffa, I believe, because as a native of Italy, he was anti-Catholic Church. Of course, I too was a Lutheran and an anti-Catholic but I  “took” to Eric Voegelin and Gerhart Niemeyer like a duck to water. They were not Catholics either nor did they teach “Great Books.” They taught political philosophy.

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