the western canon

Why You Should Never Apologize For Reading The Western Canon

The Western Canon, even the Great Books program, has become highly politicized in certain circles.

OGB member Micah asked a question on our community Slack channel:

 What have y’all found helpful in introducing the idea that Western civilization isn’t terrible? Friends often comment that my books are too full of straight white men and “too Western.”

Last night I was telling a friend how excited I was about joining OGB and while explaining what it was, I tiptoed around mentioning anything “Western” knowing that critique was going to pop up. I’m disappointed in how I chickened out in the conversation.I’d really like to grow my rhetoric on this topic.

Michelle, a fellow educator, responded: 

You’re not alone. I feel very much the same way.  It’s not professionally safe for me to discuss the Western Canon in any way with my colleagues.  My college is actively working to “de-colonize” higher education, and I was recently sent to an “Equity Institute” for training in what is essentially cultural Marxism, Identity politics and Intersectionality.  This is the reason I joined OGB, to find a place where I can talk about ideas with others, even if we disagree.  I’m also hoping that reading these works will build my courage and ability to speak out, though I will probably have to leave my profession if I do so.

Why Is This Such a Hot-Button Topic, Anyways?

To this point, OGB Seminar Host and philosophy professor John says this:

 The reason why the Western Canon or “The Great Books” have become “highly politicized” and “hot-button” is because of the people who opposed them.  These opponents of the Great Books are sufficiently shameless to act like anyone who defends these texts against those calling them into question is somehow “politicizing” the canon.  Yes, there are people who attack the Great Books from the Left for political reasons, and there are people on the Right who defend teaching them for purely political reasons.  But these books existed long before our contemporary Left-Right divisions, and they will exist long after.  Why?  Because they are superior texts, as is evident by the questions they raise and who engages them.  Nietzsche did not shy away from reading Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Tertullian, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, Shakespeare, Locke, Kant, Goethe,  Rousseau, Mill, etc.  Considering the ways in which all the authors in the Great Books canon engage with each other and demonstrated a sense of compulsion in doing so, how arrogant is it that many of us in the 21st century think we should leave these texts behind?

It’s also worth pointing out how much the terms of debate around the Great Books reflect contemporary preoccupations (which are sometimes indistinguishable from “fetishes”)… “Moral values,” [is] a phrase we throw around casually today, but did not come onto the scene until Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals at the end of the 19th century. To say that morality is a “value” is to assume it is solely a question of worth, and that is not a self-evident truth in ages prior to Nietzsche… “Objective truths” and “ideologies,” are relatively recent ways of speaking and are foreign to many of the texts we read in the Great Books canon. “Ideology” is also a late-19th century idea. The whole “inclusive”/”exclusive” discussion is a 20th and 21st century ideological fetish. To read a book is an “exclusive” enterprise in the sense that I’m deciding to read one or a few books at a time as opposed to others. It’s a meaningless dichotomy, and there’s no point in trying to defend reading the Great Books in terms that won’t offend people who think this narrowly. They will always be offended because what drives their choices is a resentment (cf. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals) of whatever arbitrary thing they’ve decided should be excluded at the moment. And here is the incredible shortsightedness of the “inclusive”/”exclusive” dynamic: The fundamental complaint is that something or someone has been excluded by those who are stronger seeking their own advantage.The remedy is to exclude those who were strong to make them weak and promote the advantage of the weak to make them strong. It’s a vicious and destructive cycle that leaves us stuck with understanding justice solely as the advantage of the stronger and doesn’t question it. If only there were a text that took on that argument seriously…Oh wait–there is: Plato’s Republic.

Defending the reading of a book because it’s “old” only kicks the can down the road, and dodges the idea of a tradition for five seconds. In Book II of Aristotle’s Politics, he takes on the argument of Hippodamus, who proposes that one feature of the best regime is it honors people who propose innovation in laws. Aristotle sees why this may be reasonable, for innovations do come about in the arts (such as medicine), and we can see people abandoning laws that we would find bad (such as being able to levy a murder charge solely by rounding up a certain number of witnesses). This counters the idea that we should adhere to laws only because they are traditional, which prompts Aristotle to observe, “All seek not what is ancestral, but what is good.” “Tradition” was not always tradition. At some point, someone decided to hold one thing up over the other, and that person did so on that basis of declaring something is good, and something else not good. Now, while it seems here that Aristotle’s opened the door for something like “progress” (again, an Enlightenment idea that has no equivalent in classical Greek), he goes on to say that law is not the same as art, for while art can tolerate (and indeed welcome) persistent change, laws get their authority from being in place over long periods of time, and the consistent changing of the laws undermines that authority and poses problems for regime stability. Notice Aristotle’s argument works on two levels. First, he’s showing the precarious nature of law and regimes, and he’s not covering over the difficulty. Neither “tradition” nor “innovation” are suitable for addressing it. Second, he’s alerting us to this difficulty while never letting us lose sight of the fact that underneath all laws and regimes is a fundamental question, one that is open to all human beings in all places, at all times, regardless of culture: What is good?

I do not defend the Great Books because I’m interested in propping up the West, or “The Tradition,” or because I have a political interest.  As an educator, I disdain either the overt politicization of education or the suspicion that there is always some political motive at work.  I defend the Great Books because they do not shy away from asking and taking seriously the one transcendent question that does not belong exclusively to one culture or era:  What is the good life?  Does this mean other books have not asked this question?  No. Can you read books outside of the Great Books canon that address this question?  Yes.  But I can’t read everything.  Fourteen years of experience with the Great Books have made clear to me that these texts engage that question more deeply and thoroughly than others.  The endurance of these books for centuries and millennia would suggest that many others have come to a similar conclusion, especially the authors of the Great Books.  But this doesn’t mean I’ve “crowd-sourced” my judgment, for the secret to these texts’ endurance is in the texts themselves.  To anyone who reads them, it’s obvious their authors do not agree on the nature of the good life.  It’s also obvious that the question of the good life is unavoidable.

“The West Is Terrible” Argument

John also has something to say on this topic:

There is a lot I can say on this subject since I just successfully defended teaching the Great Books in front of several faculty who used these same lines of attack, but if you’re feeling prickly, do something like this:

I had a discussion with a colleague about Rousseau and Adam Smith.  This colleague dismissed Rousseau because “he was abusive to women” and “had many illegitimate children.”  At the time, my only response was, “You still need to deal with Rousseau’s ideas.”  Upon reflection, I wished I would have asked the following question:  “What if Rousseau wrote all the things you like in Adam Smith?”

So, to those who lament the lack of diversity or dismiss texts because their authors are of a certain race or sex, ask them if they would dismiss their own “critical” theories they support if they came from people of the race or sex they rail against.  At this point, they’ll either be like a bad Socratic interlocutor and not have the courage to answer the question, or they will have to admit that they value ideas.

Then your gentle but true response should be:  “If you judge ideas by their own merits, perhaps you should consider the possibility that the ideas in these centuries-to-millennia old texts have merits that explain their longevity.”

Member Dan also responds to this viewpoint:

I find the whole “the West is terrible” argument to be just astonishingly ignorant of history, and it is really an indictment of our education system that this viewpoint is so prevalent.

Somehow people with this viewpoint have come to the conclusion certain evils of the human condition (that have been universal aspects of every society across the globe and throughout time, and are in fact now thought of as evils only because Western philosophy developed to a point where these things were considered so) are somehow evils that are unique to Western Civilization, and the fact that these evils were ever part of our civilization makes it worthy of indictment and contempt.

Take slavery – the remarkable thing is not that it ever existed in Western Civilization, as it existed everywhere else in the world. The remarkable thing, the miraculous thing, is that Western Civilization uniquely determined that slavery was evil and ended it, both within Western Civilization and throughout much of the world. The British empire and the royal navy did more to eradicate slavery and the slave trade worldwide than any other institution you could name.

Take the concept  of individual rights, which formed the moral and theoretical basis for civil rights – also unique to western civilization. The list goes on and on.

By reading these books we are literally watching these concepts develop over the course of several thousand years. Learning how and why these concepts developed, so they can be preserved and advanced, is certainly worthy of study. It is hard to think of anything more worthy of study.

John adds:

The “slavery” dismissal about Plato and Aristotle aggravates me.  At my faculty meeting, I told them that if you actually read what Aristotle says about slavery in the Politics, you find no one meets the definition of a natural slave.  I said, “If you’re going teach Aristotle only to tear him down because of his “culture”, then you shouldn’t teach him.  And you’d be doing your students and yourself a disservice, because he–a philosopher in that culture–gives us an argument against slavery.”  Afterwards, several of the faculty came up to me and said, “I’ve never heard someone read Aristotle as closely as you have.”  But even better than this, a student was filming the talk, and he approached me and said, “From what you said, Aristotle is actually the original ‘woke,’ but in a serious way.”  Mission accomplished, as far as I’m concerned.

It is a very vocal minority that pushes this nonsense, and usually from the upper ranks of the faculty.  But from what I’ve seen from my own students, they are not buying it.  We have to do the good where we can and not get caught up on looking at things from a grand scale.  There are lots of good signs right in front of us.

“The West Vs. The Rest” Argument

Chris posses an interesting hypothetical:

If America and Europe disappeared off the face of the planet tomorrow, African and Asian Christians would continue to study Aquinas and Augustine and everyone and everything that influenced them. These books are “lindy” as Taleb would say. They’ve proven themselves timeless and long after the current cultural moment passes (and it WILL pass), the Western canon will still be with us

Brit says it simply:

We need to start somewhere, there is no reason that you can’t read the Eastern Canon as well, and that maybe in the future there will be an OGB East.

One of the many benefits of reading the works that came before us is that we can learn from their mistakes like wise people. If we choose not to avail ourselves of the many resources available to us, we are but mere fools and not better than any animal.

Dan references the program’s structure:

The best argument for reading the canon from one civilization at a time is the syntopical aspect – the “Great Conversation.”

In reading the way OGB is structured, we aren’t just reading great books individually in isolation, we are joining the centuries-long conversation between Western Civilization’s most influential minds, and as we progress through the canon, we will have read and been influenced by the same books that these writers were, which I trust will provide us with a richer understanding of these writer’s perspectives.

Also, since we live within Western Civilization, by reading the Western Canon we get the added benefit of understanding how our society became what it is.

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