Culture of Life
In Praise of the Western Canon
When did you last read a great book?
BY Joseph Pronechen
August 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/5/08 at 1:20 PM
Browse the titles and skim the summaries on USA Today’s list of the top 150 bestsellers, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering how so much pulp and mediocrity can sell so well. From overheated tales of “forbidden love” to tawdry true-crime chronicles to sordid celebrity tell-alls, Americans seem to like a little corrosiveness with their summer reading. Where have all the great books gone?
Actually, most of the timeless classics that make up the “Western canon” of literature are as close as the nearest library or bookstore. And, with the summer reading season in full swing, Catholics are realizing that many of these can make an uplifting alternative to “what’s hot” today but will be quickly forgotten tomorrow.
That’s a lot of reading to choose from. Where to start? With that question in mind, the Register asked for a few favorite recommendations from professors and administrators at Catholic colleges that offer a Great Books curriculum (which stresses reading the classics firsthand and then discussing them in a round-table setting).
Several respondents named Plato’s Apology and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Thomas Dillon, president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., mentioned both of those, along with Blaise Pascal’s Pensées.
“In each you measure the proper human life by death,” he says. “Ivan Ilych is a tremendous book for getting us to reflect on our own lives and our own self-absorption and small pleasures without looking at the transcendent things.”
The highest good to Ilych, a mid-level Russian bureaucrat wholly absorbed with himself, is how he is thought of by those in authority and high in society. “Nearing death he realizes his life has been wholly devoid of love,” says Dillon, “but he comes to see that love is very important and entails sacrifice.
“The book, in a way, is a reflection on what is superficial and dishonest in our own lives,” says Dillon. “We can fool ourselves as well, as not being wholly truthful with those around us.”
Meanwhile, Plato’s Apology recounts Socrates’ defense while on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, showing that Socrates wanted to fool himself nor us to fool ourselves.
“What you see is a drive in Socrates for understanding truth and pursuing virtue,” says Dillon. “He’s clearly aware that we are mortal, and that the most important thing in life is to live justly and virtuously. Every time I read it I’m inspired to continue pursuing what’s true and to continue to act nobly and virtuously, and to look out not just for my own good but for the common good.”
Professor Mark Gillis at Magdalen College in Warner, N.H., says the Apology is readable, un-intimidating and perpetually timely. “Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living,” points out Gillis. That message is relevant today, he adds, “because we all live in a media bubble with constant distractions.”
Since he lived before the time of Christ, Socrates didn’t know what we know about God, and thus man, Gillis notes. But he was a dogged pursuer of truth.
“That taps into the Catholic view that we’re in the state of being pilgrims,” says Gillis. “We’re always on the way. Even though we know and see what’s true, we’re in the position of basically seeking more.”
Pre-Christian seeking is also at the heart of Homer’s The Odyssey, a pick from Robert Carlson, academic dean and professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo. “It gives us real insight into many of the great universal themes of human life,” says Carlson. “The major theme is so important today: homecoming.”
After defeating the Trojans, Odysseus begins a 19-year-long homeward odyssey, overcoming obstacles all along the way. “This idea of wanting to go home is one of the great universal themes of life,” says Carlson, “and there are always many obstacles in the way of accomplishing it.” We can also “relate that to what’s happening today and to the family and the destruction of the home.”
Carlson also chooses The Aeneid, Virgil’s Latin epic poem from the first century before Christ. The narrative switches gears to celebrate the founding of Rome, Western civilization and, especially, “the great virtues that people must possess in order for them to live and lead a cultured life, like piety, duty, simplicity of purpose in life and temperance,” says Carlson. “The great theological virtues are grounded in the natural virtues, and there’s no contradiction there. One leads to the other.”
He also singles out one of his favorite Shakespeare plays, Julius Caesar, in which Shakespeare raises a question that has launched 1,000 college debates: Was Brutus — a tragic hero — a good and moral man?
Switching gears, Dillon names Blaise Pascal’s 17th century Pensées (that’s French for “thoughts”) as a wonderful first-step text for candidates for evangelization. For one thing, he notes, the author challenges indifference, arguing that Christianity is a question of such vital importance that it’s for one’s own good to pursue and investigate the claims — either to refute them or follow them as true.
“Our chief interest and chief duty is to seek enlightenment on this subject,” says Dillon, as “all our conduct depends” on it. Pensées, he explains, shows that it’s impossible to say you don’t want to engage the questions raised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you’re alive, you’re “in the game,” and refusal to investigate the Gospel can cause you to lose by default.
“It’s powerful,” Dillon says of Pensées. It’s “a challenge to anyone to investigate these questions because the claim is that your immortal soul is at stake.”
It was in this work that the philosopher set out what came to be widely known as “Pascal’s Wager.” This is where he proposed that a wise person will “bet” that God exists, even though God’s existence cannot be proved by reason alone. For, he argued, a person living by this belief has nothing to lose and, potentially, everything — everything — to gain.
Back From the Abyss
For those interested in contemplating the idea of America in this election year, Gillis recommends Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
In 1835, with the world shifting from aristocracy to democracy, the French political thinker examined the young nation across the Atlantic. His observations ranged from the physical characteristics of the land to the social customs of the people — and more.
“It really helps you understand as an American what are the strengths as well as some of the blind spots in our culture,” says Gillis. For example, de Tocqueville wrote that our system brings many blessings while also opening up some pitfalls. An example of the latter: the American penchant for exalting the assertion of individual rights over the call for responsibility to the community.
“He’s talking about suburbia,” says Gillis, noting that many suburbanites today don’t know their next-door neighbors.
De Tocqueville saw this already in 1830, as he did the second major danger: Individualism “turns your attention too much to the body and not the soul, as opposed to a culture based on hierarchy and excellence,” says Gillis. You can have more widespread distribution of the wealth, but there’s a descent into materialism and an obsession with comfort and the body. “We’re going to be focused on external goods (the consumer craze) and the good of the body, and the soul might be lost. This is what he means by materialism.”
For that reason the author says Americans need religion in a big way, explains Gillis, because religion is strong where democratic cultures are weak. “Religion puts you in relationship with other people, whether parish or community, generally in serving people,” says Gillis. “Religion generally makes you think about eternal life and the good of the soul. That’s counteracting individualism. That’s why the Catholic faith is the perfect religion.”
Gillis points out that Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (The Relationship Between Faith And Reason), fleshed out many of the same ideas, including what happens when “the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. … [T]his is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going. … It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth.”
Great books — make that the Great Books — can help us start or continue along that path.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
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