What Does it Mean for a Book to Be “Great”? A Conversation with Wes Callihan, Martin Cothran, & Andrew Kern

In the world of classical education, we talk about “Great Books.” However, other than a handful of obvious works (those by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and a few others in particular) there is much debate about which books should actually fall in the category of “Great Book”. Which raises the question: what does it mean for a book to be great – is it an actual measurable category of assessment? To find out, I asked a couple of people who have thoughts on the matter, ostensibly anyway. What’s their conclusion? Well, I’ll let you decide. Here is their conversation.

It’s been edited for clarity.


Andrew: I don’t see how you can measure the greatness of a book – at least not in terms of quantity, but I do think greatness means something. For one thing, a great book is one that expresses great things greatly. As a result it has an effect on readers and continues to do so over time.

Martin: But we can, in fact, do plenty of things the process of which we cannot explain. I could not tell you how my eyes work. But I know I can see. Likewise with every other of the five senses: I can do what I know not how I do.

There is a difference between knowing how we do something and knowing how to do it. Therefore, the fact that we do not understand the process by which something is done cannot be an argument against the fact that we can, in fact, do it.

Wes: I agree that great books are those that express great things greatly, and would argue my agreement this way: all through history the people we consider the wisest (pagan and Christian alike, Quintilian to Isidore to Lewis) have held that truth, wisdom, and virtue are greater things than power, wealth, and selfishness. And the books to which those same people, or their sort, have always pointed as expressing those superior things best are the same in every generation, though of course with minor variations around them: Homer, Plato, Cicero, Vergil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, etc.

Or to put my argument another way, a great book is “quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est”.

Martin: The word “great” in Latin is magnus. It is an interesting word grammatically because it is one of those Latin words that has both a qualitative and quantitative sense. If you talk about a “great army,” you are speaking in a quantitative sense; if a “great man,” you are talking in a qualitative sense. In fact, where you place the word (before or after the noun it modifies) depends on the sense in which you are using it.

The problem with a question like “Can we measure greatness?” is that it seems to assume that the word “great” is merely quantitative in nature. The word “measure” comes from the Latin via the French. The root Latin word (mensura) means something like “size or quantity as ascertained by measuring.” And apparently the French derivative (mesure) has the sense of a limit or boundary.

Whether or not we can say how we can say that a book is great is irrelevant to our confidence in the fact that we can say a book is great.

In short, because the question seems to come loaded with assumptions that ill fit it to be applied to anything qualitative, you in fact limit your assessment of the qualitative thing being assessed by even asking it.

This creates problems when we are addressing something aesthetic, although even aesthetic things have a quantitative aspect that can be measured. We “measure” a poem, and music has “measure.” But, since this is only one aspect of these things, measuring them seems only to enable us to capture a part of them, not the whole. There is the more elusive part of any aesthetic thing which, it seems to me, cannot be encompassed by any technique we might apply to it. And if it cannot be encompassed, it cannot be measured.

St. Thomas talked about the aesthetic having integrity, proportion, and splendor. Obviously proportion can be measured, and maybe integrity (I’m not sure), but certainly splendor cannot. It can only be beheld.

Which makes me think of Chesterton’s remark that we should seek only to get our head into the heavens, not the heavens into our head. Maybe greatness can be measured by the extent to which it eludes measure.

Wes: I agree with Martin that measurement is problematic, although I think “measure” can apply to quality as well as quantity (the “measure of a man” or “man is the measure of all things” use it qualitatively I think). So how do we measure “great”ness?

The only possible way to talk about words is to use them as they have been used. We may or may not agree with received usage but that’s the only possible starting place. So, what have people thoughout the history of the civilization of which we are the inheritors meant when they talked about a great book? Is there a common cultural consensus? A consensus patrum? We all believe so.

Andrew: In the broadest sense, measuring speaks of comparing something to a standard. That is why Martin could point out that we can measure things qualitatively. So greatness can be “measured” in the sense that you can compare it to a standard.

That’s easy when you are measuring a quantitive thing against a quantitative standard: the length of a nose against a ruler.

It’s relatively easy when you measure a more simple thing against a standard: an ice skating performance against a man-made measure of 1-10, which I would regard as a quantitative invasion of the qualitative. That it is simple is reflected in the way boys measure a girl’s attractiveness on a scale of 1-10 – or at least did back in the 70’s.

The more complex the splendor (to borrow Martin’s word again) of a thing, the harder it is to force into a quantitative mode of measurement. Motherhood, for example, is a great deal harder to assess than the physical attractiveness of a young lady. Epic poetry is harder to assess than popular lyrics.

The more radiant the potential splendor of a work of art, or really any human act, the less value a quantitative measure has. At some point, and I think this point is reached rather early, quantification becomes destructive and the only thing that fits is the judgment of the wise and skilled.

Martin: Obviously we know that we can make aesthetic judgments, partly because of the fact that it would be absurd to maintain that we can’t. If I cannot know that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is aesthetically greater than Spongebob, then I can’t even imagine what I can know.

I think the problem here is that we think that in order to have confidence in any kind of judgement, we must be able to explain in abstract rational terms of how we make that judgment. And since we cannot explain our aesthetic judgments in this way, we think therefore that we should have no confidence in them (even though, in our heart of hearts, we do).

But we cannot explain the most basic of rational presumptions in those terms either. We have no abstract rational explanation for the Law of Non-Contradiction. There is no argument for it because it is the assumption behind all argument. It is, in a sense, pre-logical. All we know about it is that we find it among the most deeply satisfying of any truths. It is self-evident. It is something we accept as a first principle on the basis of pure intuition.

I accept the revelation of my senses in pretty much the same way. There are times when I feel justified in doubting them, but only on the basis of some other sense perceptions which I trust even more.

So if we accept the basic laws of reason and perception because they are deeply satisfying and self-evident, and despite the fact that we cannot justify them by some prior rational consideration, why can’t we say the same about aesthetic judgment?

There seems to be something about both the laws of reason and the evidence of perception that aesthetic judgment shares, and it is this: Immediacy. There are some judgments that are just immediate — so immediate that they are incapable of further rational analysis, and the judgment that something is great in an aesthetic sense, is among them.

Christ’s glory spills into the way we perceive and create everything at every level.

If I make the judgment that New York exists (even though I have never been there), I do it on mediate grounds. In other words, it is a judgment made on the basis of a number of intermediate considerations all of which would have to be recounted and that recounting would constitute an explanation.

But my judgment that, say, Michelangelo’s Pieta is beautiful, involves no intermediate steps. It is an immediate judgment, one the immediacy of which itself prevents any explanation. It has no explanation because there is simply nothing between my act of beholding it and the judgment I make about it–other than my sense perception of it, but that is an inseparable aspect of my act of beholding.

My judgment that the Pieta is beautiful is not true because I can explain why I think so; rather I can’t explain why I think so because, in fact, the Pieta is beautiful.

It is ironic that the judgments we think we ought to trust the most are the ones that are the furthest away from the things being judged. We have more confidence in our judgment that the New York we have never seen exists than that the Pieta right in front of us is beautiful.

That’s a little absurd if you think about it.

All of which is to say that whether or not we can say how we can say that a book is great is irrelevant to our confidence in the fact that we can say a book is great.

Wes: Since the acclaim of past generations is one way of determining the greatness of a book, then the longer a book has been around and the more generations that have loved it, the greater it is, right? And the more widely varied the cultures that embrace a book, the greater it is, yes? And the more kinds of people a book has appealed to — that is, the broader its appeal (to age, sex, status, vocation, etc.) — the greater we would have to call it. Agreed? Here I’m appealing to Lewis in his Experiment in Criticism where he argues for judgment based on the readers rather than the book itself. And so the more readers, the more generations and cultures and kinds of people, that love a book, the greater we could say it is.

Andrew: The other day I was talking with my wife, Karen, about raising children and how little a parent really knows about his or her children. We talked about how each child is the temple of God and that, therefore, there is within each child, a holy of holies which is his own private space that nobody else is allowed into except God. Karen pointed out how that was frustrating for a mother.

I’ve thought recently about how it’s also frustrating for a philosopher or an artist. In the inner core of everything made by God, there is this secret mysterious place that we can’t access. It’s not that everything is a temple, exactly. But as we are analogies of the heavenly temple, so everything physical is an analogy of us as earthly temples.

The atom, for example, has an insoluble core that holds it together such that all physicists can do is name it (strong nuclear force) and then rely on it totally for their understanding of all things atomic.

If we turn back to human activity, our works of art or creativity are very much like this. Every work of art is an embodied logos, an incarnate word, an idea made flesh. But what is that idea?

Well, in a fable you can kind of say what it is because fables are told so that you’ll draw a fairly specific conclusion.

A novel, on the other hand, if it is any good at all embodies the logos, word, or idea in every character, action, decision, and setting. You can start looking for the inner essence, but it will be so elusive that if you are a post-modernist or anti-logocentric you can happily conclude that there is no soul after all: “there is no there, there.”

Naturalists and nihilists do this across the board: freedom of the will, the soul, art as meaningful (as opposed to being either self-expression, abstract presentations for their own sake, or attempts to impress the viewer), the mystery of personhood, a purpose to the universe, etc. etc.

Beauty, therefore, is at best a feeling one has toward a work of art or, at worst, nothing. A mere word.

The Christian is free from this. He sees that the whole cosmos sings in the same key and that it tells one story and that key and that story are Christ. So His glory spills into the way we perceive and create everything at every level. We want to see the meaning in material things, so we learn how to do science. We want to express ineffable truths so we make works of art. We want to think, so we talk and demand that our words be meaningful.

The goodness of God expressed in the form of Christ radiates through every fiber of everything we encounter. Meaning, beauty, and love permit everything. But you can’t point to it and say, “There it is!” It’s the energy that moves things, like the soul moving the hand. But you can’t see it.

So it is with art. How can you measure the greatness of a book? First you have to know the logos of the art, say, of epic poetry. Then you have to know the logos of the book itself. Then you have to determine how well that logos permeates the creative artifact. If you can tell all that, you can tell whether a work of art is any good. But you’re more likely to feel it than to be able to explain why it is good.

Wes: In my last comment I mentioned Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism. Since the question before us is “what makes a great book?” and Lewis’s answer in that delightful little work is to look at the reader, it seems to me that we could look back at the history of reading and readers and draw some conclusions not only about which books are great, but why (that being our question). If we can identify what was great about the readers, that might tell us what made the book great – it’s great because it produces this or that kind of character, etc.

For example, what do we know about the character of the people who have read and loved Athanasius’s Life of Anthony or Cicero’s On Duties or Xenophon’s Anabasis? If they really were shaped by their reading of those works, and if their lives were great in some way (noble, honorable, magnanimous, courageous, virtuous, unshaken by fortune, generous, etc.), then surely the books they read taught those things well and, in some way, more powerfully than other books.

We know that reading books is not the only (or perhaps even the most important) way that men are made, but it is part of it, and to ask about the lives of the men who read, is to ask and perhaps answer about the books they read.

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