This multifaceted question is an ocean from which several rivers branch. First and foremost amongst these rivers is the question of (1) For whom, exactly, are the Great Books dangerous: teachers or students? This question itself admits of several sub-questions, but we will settle on (a) the issue of discussing both difficult and controversial topics (which itself admits of its own draft) for a teacher, and the confronting difficult and controversial topics as a student.
On the teacher side of the question, the first obstacle and danger of teaching the great books is the question of capacity and knowledge: am I myself capable of understanding a strange, foreign, and deeply studied text which has not been “cracked” possibly for thousands of years. Let us take Homer’s Iliad for example. The text either orally received or as a text (I believe that the oldest physical copy we have is from around the 3rd century BCE) is around 3,100 years old, a mixture of Ancient Ionian, Doric, and Aeolian Greek dialects, and features a pantheon of gods far from familiar to today’s average audience (though the Percy Jackson series does actually help with this a little). Beyond the language and cultural differences, the questions brought up throughout the text are difficult in nature: what is the point of an honor based life-style if all people are rewarded in the same way in the after-life? Why should one fight for a stolen woman (Helen), if one’s own concubine (Briseis) is taken by one’s commanding officer? In instances where gods turn the tide of battle, what is the place of the human will? What even is Homeric double determination? The whole time a teacher is confronting the difficulty of the concept of this text, a teacher must also, elegantly or not, confront explaining to a likely teenage audience what a concubine is; how Homer’s physiological descriptions of punctured organs have been borne out by macabre physicians, and how slavery, banishment or death largely exhausted the store of Ancient battle-field punishments. Oh, and the text is pre-Christian, so the text itself is a mine-field on no fewer than three different levels (1) accessibility of language and content (2) philosophical and psychological rigor, (3) issues of differing cultures and political correctness/cultural sensitivity. Is such a text really worth the hassle and tremendous potential for embarrassment for a teacher, particularly a young one? How tremendous such a text’s value must be to have a teacher risk his or her reputation (as both intelligent and scrupulous) just to teach it to a herd of students. Well, let us then consider what dangers a student must then be exposed to in reading a great book like Homer’s Iliad.
A student encounters a world with a different political structure, religion, and beliefs about race and gender equality which is highly, highly violent (at least in this text about Wrath and War). What then is the value in learning from a text which is so replete with images and notions which might, at the least, be considered unsavory? For one, this text is part of the history and being of all Western European and Americans’ heritage. Regardless of where culture stands today, philosophy, epic poetry, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, and a host of other arts (warfare, for example) found their first recorded expressions in Archaic and Ancient Greece. Second, the Greek political system offers several valuable lessons about how to live in a civil way, even during warfare. Achilleus, early in Book I, wishes to kill Agamemnon for the dishonor that Agamemnon heaps on him, and he would have except the goddess of War, Athene, grabs Achilleus by the hair and stops him. This is generally interpreted as Achilleus’ better-nature or unconscious restraining him from doing what his passions screamed out for him to do: to kill. This sort of restraint is what society is founded upon–letting reason or better judgment temper and guide (or even at times suppress) powerful emotions in service of a greater cause. This is but one of many, many valuable lessons in a text full of blood, death, and bitter sorrow. Is it worth it then for a student to risk the scarring he or she might receive from this text due to its extreme images? Yes, absolutely, because this text represents in simulacra events which could easily still happen, but worse and on a larger scale. Our weapons are so much more violent now. A student having some insight into the horror of war might either: (1) be better prepared for the actuality of war (and emotional conflict on a smaller scale), and/or (2) be more likely to pause to consider the fall-out of acts of violence and whether, on a small or large scale, they are worth it. These are questions young students face in considering these texts. These are questions every citizen of a democracy will at some time face in his or her life.
The next important question is this: Can any text truly be dangerous in an era of universal multiculturalism and the internet? This question is perhaps even more honest than the questions before it; in an era where seemingly anything can be seen, learned, or accessed from the relative safety of one’s own home, is an ancient text like Homer’s Iliad, which has been studied, vetted, and receives nearly universal acclaim, in any way more violent, ignorant, lascivious, or iconoclastic than what exists within the dark depths of the world wide web (or the contemporary world itself, for that matter)? This question, honest as it is, almost does not require analysis. One need only type in the very words just mentioned to one’s browser to see examples ten times worse in terms of 1) violence, 2) lasciviousness, 3) outrageously ignorant and offensive acts (lacking culture, taste, or knowledge), and 4) iconoclasm. Today’s world is very, very small thanks to connectivity beyond the wildest dreams of even one-hundred years ago. It is not our foundational texts which are the problem today; it’s our own selves, and the pettiness we all house within and refuse to face.
The fourth question is: is a text dangerous which showcases a world with a different political structure (sort of an oligarchic tyranny in the case of the Achaians and a Kingship for the Trojans), a different pantheon of gods and religious observances (hekatombs, libations, prophecies, and divine intervention aplenty), and ancient and in some cases, outdated philosophical leanings? The answer is largely and immediately–no. Like, above, with access either to a television, a computer, or to a person with either television or the internet, one is bound to be exposed to: the political uprisings in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt (from the past few years); bitter and heated debate about the extent of global climate change, and even Texans who still wish to secede from the Union. The number of active representations of differing religious, political views, and philosophies current in the world today is only matched by the tremendous ease of access to each ( viz. Google).
The fifth question is more difficult than the preceding four, and as such, it may deserve its own chapter by itself. I will, like Aristotle, simply state it and address it in a further work (but I actually will address it): Is it more dangerous to risk being convinced by an author or to live in ignorance? Which horror is greater?
In the final analysis, it appears that Great Books are dangerous only insofar as we exist in a dangerous world. They offer nothing novel in terms of violence, gratuity, lasciviousness, or any other of a host of apparent vices. The culture in which we live is replete with its own easily accessible repositories of crude and low culture. The Great Books, however, at least offer an edifying and cultivating message; a pioneering and persevering spirit; and a heightened sensibility of justice and nobility–at least in Homer’s Iliad–to go along with the all too contemporary realities of the violence of war, the weaknesses of man, and the impoverty of his will and spirit.