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The Transformative Wisdom of Great Books

“What are you going to do with your degree?” After many years I have at last finished my coursework for a master’s in Great Books, but I have not yet come up with an answer to this question that is both gracious and honest. What they are really asking is: why does a homeschool mom need a master’s degree? What is your career plan? What economic benefit will you render to your family (and society) to pay for this degree? The answer is that I am not especially concerned with what I will do, at least so far as a career is concerned. I will do the next thing, which is what has always happened, regardless of my plans. But I hope to become more human, and a wiser and more virtuous one at that.  

I set to write an enumerated list of “lessons I learned” through several years of deep dives into some of the greatest works of the Western canon. But if you finish an intensive study of great books and are left with a list of lessons, I rather think that you have missed the point. Because if you have really read them as you ought to read them, and read them long enough, then you are not the same person who has learned lessons – you are a different person altogether. 

Forgive me for quoting Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine once again. “And thus, though Wisdom was Himself our home, He made Himself also the way by which we should reach our home.” When I began to study the great books closely, I left my intellectual home. It was a fairly comfortable home. I knew what I thought about most things. I had a clear theological tradition in which I was raised and a different (yet related) theological tradition that I chose as an adult. I had the same vocabulary as my friends and family, the same perspective. I had all the answers and knew only enough to know that I ought not to have all the answers. 

The path of wisdom is a new way. It is not one more pass around the same path which we have always walked. It means listening to the greatest minds of the Western tradition, listening to them on their own terms, and understanding what they have to say before evaluating or responding. I have always read books (usually old ones), but this was a new way of reading. I was not reading for cultural literacy or to mount a completed book upon the invisible intellectual trophy wall. I quickly realized that I could no longer read to “know what was in them.” Who can read The Republic or Nicomachean Ethics once or twice and know what is in them? What arrogance! If you are reading for content acquisition, you can at best have a vague familiarity after two readings. But you can be transformed by reading The Republic once through shifting your gaze from knowledge acquisition to idea contemplation.  

What is a soul? What is being? What is justice? What is virtue? How do we know? How should we educate? The questions from just one Book of The Republic extend on and on because that is what the great books are. That is what is considered to be remarkable about the Western great books tradition: it is a conversation about the great ideas carried out over millennia. When these ideas are the focus, then true transformation can take place. Wrestling with these ideas and listening to the past is the way of Wisdom, the way by which we reach our home.  

I did not quite realize what this pilgrimage would cost. Your entire intellectual landscape is upended, unfamiliar. To let go of the wisdom of the age is akin to putting away a childhood blanket in a bureau drawer. To steep your mind in pre-Enlightenment, pre-Reformation ideas becomes tricky business if you remain a Protestant as I have (albeit an Anglo-Catholic one). There is a nervousness about deference to ideas that are not direct quotes from Scripture, raised eyebrows, and perhaps even theology quizzes.  

You become simultaneously more open and more close-minded. Fewer ideas can be counted as a matter of “personal preference” against the weight of the entire Western tradition. At the same time, if you have trained yourself to reserve judgment until you truly understand, you will find yourself more willing to listen, to clarify, and to wait to pass judgment. This is intellectual integrity, but it can appear similar on the surface to a careless sort of open-mindedness. 

This is the cost. But there is great gain – the sight of a deeper reality. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20, ESV). The earth was created through and upon wisdom, and seeing with wisdom allows us to see the world as it really is. My former perspective of what sort of place the world is now seems to me thin, bereft of beauty. Augustine writes that the way of wisdom is not a way that lies through space but through a change of affections. “For man is never in so good a state as when his whole life is a journey towards the unchangeable life, and his affections are entirely fixed upon that.”  

The wisdom of those gone before teaches us to love what is good. So, find a great book. Read it well. Read it again. The mind you save might be your own. 






2 thoughts on “The Transformative Wisdom of Great Books”

  1. Carrie Grassmyer

    “But I hope to become more human, and a wiser and more virtuous one at that. ” Thank you! This is a question I have been contemplating over the last year, or should I say “fragment”, the thought of why it is to become more human? Your thoughts bring it up again, and for now, I have rested on this, ” the Lord thought it was important to become human to help us gain Him.” And ending with a question, ” How, can I become more human ( albeit a wiser and more virtuous one ) to help myself and others gain more of Him?

    1. Guillermo Gini

      Dear Carry, I would say this: Christ is the perfect man; if readind the great books helps you become more christlike then you are becoming more human, more virtuous and wiser. When you show the resemblance of Christ to others then you will be a blessing to them and help them gain more of Him. I don’t mean I have done it, but I believe that is a possible answer to your question.

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