In an age of cultural pluralism, diversity, and progressive notions in education, a Great Books curriculum is considered at best a vestige from a delightfully uninformed past which had little to no knowledge of the sorts of technology, scientific breakthroughs, or lifestyles available today. What, then, could such a collection of old, uninformed, and outdated authors have to offer to today’s youth if they did not even know the current gossip on Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner? What does Pythagoras and his blacksmith’s hammer have to teach us about the vocal master-works of Ke$ha? And what could Plato tell us about the nature of justice when he himself knew no place beyond Ancient Greece (and possibly Egypt and India)?
The first objection, mentioned above, is that the Great Books are irrelevant to today’s culture. In a time featuring world-wide connectivity, world-scale issues involving economics, poverty, global-climate change, and potentially cataclysmic military initiatives, are not the thoughts of some old Greek or Roman thinkers simply anachronistic? The skeptic says that we are a more evolved and culturally literate (and actually literate) people than the “folks” from less technologically sophisticated times. It thus follows that books written in times with less technological and cultural awareness are therefore hopelessly outdated, does it not? The answer is no. The point of a Great Books curriculum is not to teach a student what he or she could just as easily learn from Buzzfeed, Gawker, or his or her friend in third period as they check their RSS feeds rather than listening to their teacher drone on and on. No, the point of a Great Books curriculum is to teach concepts, values, and actions which are timeless in their importance, but timely in their manifestations. Let us give examples.
When Odysseus was trapped on Kalypso’s island for seven long years, crying daily on the beach for release, was he not the picture of any innovator, youth, or even depressed person–marooned alone, without purpose, waiting for something, anything, to release him from his sorrow and bitter isolation through some activity and something meaningful? Is this not a situation which teenagers poignantly feel daily–a situation with which they could connect throughout space and time during their isolation? Is this not a situation which professionals encounter hourly as they work, estranged from their labor and the benefits of the outcomes of their works–wondering, hoping, that there is more for them? Have you yourself never experienced a time of extreme inertia where life seemed meaningless? No? Let us continue on.
In Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Philoctetes is an old friend of the now-dead Herakles, and due in part to his helping to bury Herakles, Philoctetes was awarded the invincible bow of Herakles, fated to help bring about the fall of Troy, greatest Asian city in the world at the time. Before he could make it to Troy, however, Philoctetes was bitten on the foot by a magical snake which caused a never-healing wound which would forever stink and cause him pain–so much pain that due to how frequently he moaned, the ever-clever Odysseus suggested that Philoctetes be left behind on Lemnos as the rest of the Achaians went forward to battle Troy. After nine years of fighting, a captured Trojan prophet, Helenus, tells the Achaians that Philoctetes must be brought back to Troy if there is to be any hope of the Achaians winning. The Achaians must convince Philoctetes to come, though, after abandoning him. Everything would be fine and easy, except that they cruelly, and secretly, left him on the desolate island Lemnos alone and injured, with no hope of escaping it. Spiffy. Even then, instead of pleading with him, they first attempt to trick him into coming back by having the son of his old friend Achilleus claim that he will take him home on a ship.
Therefore, Philoctetes is left with the following choice: go to Troy where he will be healed and win eternal glory–but have to help the people (particularly Odysseus) who betrayed him and left him for dead or remain on the lonely island, miserable, and in pain, but confident that the Achaians would lose the war against the Trojans without him. How is he supposed to overcome his tremendous bitterness and hate? Could we? Are we to think that only Ancient Greeks endured difficult decisions or suffered strong emotions? Would you, do you think, fight beside the very men who betrayed and left you to die if you knew it would finally bring relief from pain you had felt every day for nine years? Or would anger and bitter revenge get the best of you? Is there anything anachronistic about having to choose between principles and pain, former friends and current enemies? Or perhaps putting the past behind one, is simply a skill which only exists in the past and no longer has relevance? Let us continue to move forward.
In Homer’s Iliad the very first conflict which arises is between two powerful men, one a king and one a prince in their own right, Agamemnon and Achilleus. Achilleus is the strongest, most handsome, man in the Achaian army, and he has largely been responsible for the sacking of twenty three cities surrounding Troy, their enemy. He is also the son of a goddess, Thetis, who was once courted by both Zeus and Poseidon, though both wisely stopped pursuing her when they heard a prophecy that whomever she married would have a son greater than his father. Achilleus is essentially the ultimate soldier, except for his small insubordination problem, and he knows just how valuable he is on the battlefield. Without him, the Achaians will not defeat Hektor and the Trojans. Agamemnon on the other hand is the richest of all Achaians. He brought 100 ships with him (legendarily 1/10 of the total ships brought by all of the “Greek” nation-states); he is the brother of the man the war is being fought for, Menelaos, and he is the commander of all the Achaian armies because he “commands the most men”.
Naturally, Agamemnon and Achilleus come into conflict with each other. How could they not? Can you imagine the tension–neither of these men has ever known his better. One is the richest, and therefore the most powerful man in the world. The other is a semi-divine Fabio, who can kill any living man–and has never, ever lost a battle. Which man, then, when they come into conflict, is the more powerful? How does one even define power in this context? Is it one’s ability to fight and win? Or is it one’s ability to amass and control troops? Which skill wins wars (Ultimately it will be neither of their skills, but rather Odysseus’ extraordinary cunning.)? In this day and age, when technology, state-craft, and advanced weaponry have all been scaled to titanic heights, are we even sure exactly what makes a person powerful? Or a state? Is it information which gives strength, and why we maintain intelligence organizations like the NSA and CIA, and why the Achaians valued Nestor and Odysseus? Is it military might and advanced weaponry, like having the largest standing navy in the world, or why the Achaians valued Aias the Greater and Philoctetes with his invincible bow? Or is it something simpler like having the strength of one’s convictions? The answer defies easy resolution
Perhaps all these qualities remain important, and selecting their place in a hierarchy is second to recognizing their value. The point being made here, however, is that each and every Great Book has events, ideas, situations, conflicts, ideas, theorems, and/or moments which cause one to think, reflect, and reconsider what one thinks one knows in order to understand what one truly knows. And that in engaging in this thought, one has a clearer lens through which to view one’s everyday life and the moments and events which comprise it. In so doing, a person may become firmer and more confident of one’s convictions–and more understanding of the positions of others in one’s own day. These are skills which, though not rooted in this time, still have tremendous value in this time, our time, and will continue to have value long after our time is passed.