Following the first post on “What Makes a Book a “Great Book””, the next practical question, beyond “which” books are Great Books, is “what is the value of teaching the Great Books”? In the first analysis, especially at the high school level, this is a fair question. For example, the age in which we live demands for diversified reading lists, increased cognizance of differing learning styles, and a renewed focused on pedagogy. The Great Books, however, do not preclude any of the former considerations: they simply add depth and richness to them. Let me begin though by espousing the virtues of the Great Books curriculum, and if necessary, I will address criticisms in a future post.
As written in the first post, an aspect of a Great Book is that it allows for multiple true and rational interpretations on the intentions of its characters, the features of its plot, and the morality of its actions. For example, lively seminars have been held frequently in my class on the character of Odysseus as he is represented in Homer’s Odyssey. In particular, during the Cyclops episode, when Odysseus gets four of his men killed in the pursuit of a “guest gift” from the barbarous Polyphemos does debate become especially heated. Is Odysseus reckless to pursue something so small as a “guest gift” in uncharted lands? Should he just have resupplied his ship and gotten on his way home? Is he just greedy and reckless as Eurylochos will later call him? Or is there something more to his character? Are his inquisitiveness and desire always to win some greater reward, ultimately attributes which make him a good leader or a bad leader? All his men do at some point die, but even the poet admits in the opening lines of the poem: “Even so he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. . . .” (Homer, Odyssey, Bk I 6-9, Lattimore tr.) So, it is an open and debatable question who is at fault for the deaths of Odysseus’ men, and whether he is a good or bad leader, effective or ineffective. The greater value that is conveyed is that of personal responsibility: in a cruel world, can any person, even one’s captain, be responsible for the life and death of another person. As we are all mortals, the question holds eternal relevance.
As written just above, the second major reason to teach the Great Books, is their extensive relevance to a human’s life at any stage of development and in any age. For instance, in the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey, the action follows a young and boyish Telemachos as he makes his first journey beyond Ithaka, speaks against the hated suitors for the first time, and exerts command over his house and mother for the first time. What one sees is a boy become a man in the eyes of his people, enemies, father’s friends, and even, incredibly, his mother. When teaching high-schoolers, freshmen in particular, struggles with adolescent identity and its protean shifts are as constant as the waves of the sea are wine-dark. At what is generally called a “tumultuous” time in students’ lives, they perceive in Telemachos an image of themselves, made all the more valuable in that this image comes from nearly three thousand years and almost seven thousand miles. Such a disparity in time and location does not serve to isolate the students from the events but rather encourages them to feel how universal and shared their transformations are–and to what degree they may strive with elegance and strength (and possibly the help of Athene) towards a more concrete identity, far from the tumbling and evanescent waves of the time between childhood and adulthood.
The third important aspect of what Great Books have to teach students is that a life well-lived involves struggle, and anything worth attaining, one must fight for. Essentially, a Great Book, like the Odyssey, gives a young-person a clear and honest view of the world. During Odysseus’ journey home he loses all his men, all his ships, and all his possessions. Multiple times does he watch his own men die (at Skylla, Polyphemos, and the Laistrygones). No fewer times than twice is he stranded on the open sea without a proper ship (After his ship is hit by a thunderbolt at Thrinakia, and after his “raft” is accosted by Poseidon on the way from Kalypso’s island.). And through all that, Odysseus still has to fight 108 suitors when he gets home. Just to have to confront their families after he justly murders (or is it executes?) them, and then he has to leave Ithaka to die in “an unwarlike way away from the sea.” Few people would willingly choose such a difficult and iron-willed life, though many would admit a certain desire to be regarded as someone capable of doing so. And Odysseus, without sugar-coating, shows just what the cost of achieving one’s goals can be ad extremum.
The fourth essential aspect of teaching Great Books is that one learns that all things change (panta rei), and that recognizing reality against one’s ideas of reality may be the difference between success and failure, life and death. When Agamemnon returned home to his wife Klytaimestra, we learn in the underworld, his wife had taken a lover, Aigisthos, who with Klytaimestra conspired to and succeeded in killing Agamemnon. Beyond attempting to disparage all women for all time, Agamemnon also reveals his own incorrect perception of the situation and expectation as the culprits in his murder: “So there is nothing more deadly or more vile than a woman who stores her mind with acts that are of such sort, as this one did when she thought of this act of dishonor, and plotted the murder of her lawful husband. See, I had been thinking that I would be welcome to my children and thralls of my household when I came home, but she with thoughts surpassingly grisly splashed the shame of herself and the rest of her sex, on women still to come, even on the one whose acts are virtuous.” (Homer, Odyssey, Bk XI 426-435, Lattimore tr.) What Odysseus and the reader are expected to learn from this situation is that “things are not always as they seem”, and more, that one’s false expectations can have dangerous unto deadly consequences in a very real and sometimes savage world. Hope has tremendous value in shaping one’s view of what the world can be. Preparedness, however, has the increased value of preserving one from what the world is in order to realize one’s hopes.
Further posts on the “Great Books” will follow, and further revisions are always forthcoming. Keep following along; the journey is long, but ultimately, it will be worthwhile.