Great Ideas Do Not Oppress—They Enlighten

Editor’s Note: John Stevens is an East Carolina University professor who directs the school’s Great Books program. He is the author of a commentary on Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” and articles on Greek and Roman poetry and philosophy.

I recently proposed to expand the East Carolina University Great Books curriculum. Amid general support, I encountered one group of faculty that erupted into the most vitriolic exchange in recent memory.

The opposition boiled down to this: Why should they support the teaching of books that had justified (or been silent at) the oppression and enslavement of women and minorities—the majority of the world’s population?

This brief skirmish in the canon war made me stop to ask why educated people should become enraged at the idea of teaching books read by the founding fathers and every educated person before the last century. My opponents’ underlying assumption seems to be that a modern curriculum should be political and be comprised of lessons on women’s rights, African-Americans’ rights, the self-determination of peoples, and freedom from imperialism. Of course, any good teacher brings a modern sensibility to the Great Books classroom and does not endorse sexism, racism, or imperialism. But that isn’t enough.

This outburst goes further, suggesting a new civic virtue that has thrown out the other virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance, leaving only a narrow form of justice. The paramount virtue is opposition to sexism, racism and imperialism, as if that equates to an education. My outraged faculty colleagues seem to dismiss the importance of knowing how to think, of understanding nature, and of developing a disposition of character that would enable one, for example, to control the temptation to erupt in vitriol.

True, there are many time-honored claims against the justice of the Great Books. For example, the misogyny of Greek poets was notorious. Hesiod, who wrote a generation after Homer and was much admired by Roman poets, famously quipped, “Don’t let a woman with a fancy tail turn your head with flattery and coaxing. She only wants your barn.”

In book one of Politics, Aristotle argues that some people are slaves by nature and may be justly “possessed” by others. Vergil justifies Roman imperialism in Aeneid during Aeneas’ underworld encounter with his father, who warns, “Remember, Roman, to rule the nations with power (these will be your arts): add law to peace; in war spare the submissive but fight to the end against the proud.”

But by reducing Greek poetry merely to a justification for misogyny, Aristotle to racism, and Vergil to imperialism, advocates of this new civic virtue dismiss open inquiry and ignore everything positive these books have to offer. Hesiod also wrote catalogs of heroic women; Aristotle provided an interpretive framework within which to debate slavery—and nearly sides with the abolitionists— and Vergil’s “proud enemies” were a metaphor for dark powers in the human soul where war truly originates.

Those who attempt to reduce Great Books to single ideas do violence to the public conversation. It is one thing for teachers of the very young to use excerpts from the Iliad to teach courage. It is another for adults to suppose that complex books have single definite meanings on moral questions. Mortimer Adler’s attempt to organize the Great Books according to an Aristotelian schema of Great Ideas is perhaps the most elegant form of this mistaken approach.

In the wrong hands, the reduction of complex works to single ideas has led to some of the great tyrannies in history. Socrates was sentenced to death for being the teacher of Alcibiades and Critias, who were instrumental in the fall of Athens into tyranny—even though Xenophon tells us that they did not want to study philosophy: they only stayed long enough to learn clever rhetorical tricks necessary to achieve political power.

There are many other examples. Alexander the Great believed that in order to become Aristotle’s “great-souled” man like Achilles, he needed the resources of the entire world to do the greatest good. Hobbes’ Leviathan gave justification for the absolutism of seventeenth-century monarchs like Louis XIV. Schopenhauer’s theory of the will was read by Hitler, but also by Beaudelaire, Proust and Yeats, none of whom felt the need to take over the world.

After every war, facile readings of the Great Books have led to new claims that they are politically dangerous. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, written during the gas attacks of World War I, mocks as sadistic the Roman poet Horace’s claim that “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” At the end of World War II, Karl Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies, which denounced Plato’s Republic for glorifying totalitarianism. Beginning in the cold war (and as a herd after Vietnam), scholars decided that Vergil can be tolerated because subtle clues suggest he secretly detests Augustus’ militarism and absolutism. And in the midst of our own Iraq war, the flawed basis for invasion has been partially blamed on “the noble lie” of Republic III, that sometimes in a democracy government must lie to get people to do the right thing.

If we rule out every book that could be the source of evil if misunderstood, we would have few left to choose from.

My faculty opponents are claiming new political virtues that supposedly supersede the merit of free inquiry through reading Great Books. But let us consider one of these virtues—truth-telling in government. How does one teach a citizen to desire truth for its own sake rather than because it conveniently suits our political desire of the moment? The Great Books teach such valued abstractions.

The books are thought-provoking texts that ask “the human questions.” Primarily fictional, they are ideal for educating the mind because their imaginary complex worlds and spheres of action arouse our curiosity over whether to embrace or reject their conceptions of our human experience. Popper’s claim against Plato’s Republic is a prime example: Plato wrote the work as a fictional discussion in which logic seems to suggest that to achieve a just society (by forcing all citizens to be virtuous), we must create a terribly repressive state. Plato imagines a reader sensitive enough to irony to reject the idea as absurd, however necessary and logical the case for totalitarianism may seem.

The open-ended structures of fictional worlds provoke different interpretations, and to entertain different interpretations stretches and tones the moral judgment. Of course, the Great Books also include foundational scientific and philosophical texts that provide important knowledge, but even these are primarily valuable for forcing the mind to consider whether to accept their conceptions of nature or logic.

One ancient argument suggested that if virtue were easy and pleasant, everyone would be virtuous. Virtue is something that requires effort both to understand and to begin to desire. Moral education seems to come about better from books that require active attention, close comparison of patterns of action, and repeated application of critical judgment; that is, engaged reading and re-reading.

The paradox of education is that before these books can help question absurd and dangerous political ideas, we must already be inquisitive, engaged readers. How are the Great Books to be established amid such prejudices in the modern university? And should Great Books be read if the ignorant may misuse them, possibly to become tyrants and destroy the state?

Fortunately, the very liberality of the American system usually allows even unpopular ideas to be taught. It is reasonable for faculty to object that we should not teach books that promote injustice, but, in fact, these books don’t promote injustice; instead, they entreat students to think more deeply about human problems and conflicts. And marvelous things happen when a community reads together. As one student recently remarked, “reading books with other people is more 
productive than reading them alone.”

Yes, education should be political, but in its most elevated sense in which we are all part of a rational dialogue, with tolerance for individuals and books that challenge the all-important political virtues of the moment.