Historical study and the study of Great Books are, in a sense, natural enemies. Please don’t be shocked; it’s true. It’s a bedrock conviction of Great Books educators that you don’t need to know any history to read a Great Book. You can pick up any book—even one written thousands of years ago—and connect with it, be moved by it, and be transformed by it.
Historians, on the other hand, think you need context to understand old books, whether Great or not. We use old books, Great and not so great, to find out about the past. We call them “sources.”
We intellectual historians spend a lot of time telling our students that their prima facie understanding of a text—The Federalist Papers, for example—is going to be muddle-headed if they don’t dig a little deeper into the world of its author(s). They need to find out what the language and concepts the Founders used meant in their own time, and how the problems they were trying to solve appeared to them as participants in a long tradition of political thought going back to the Greeks. They need to know how the texts we call the Federalist Papers reached us, who edited them, and how they were edited (and yes, they were edited), what their intended audience was, and what was their hoped-for effect. They need to know how they were received, and what objections were made to them by the Anti-Federalists and others. They need to place them in the wider spectrum of political discussions going on at the time, beautifully illustrated in the two volumes of The Debate on the Constitution, edited by Bernard Bailyn for the Library of America (1993).
They need to do all this work, we history professors say, to avoid anachronism. If they don’t do the work of contextualization, they will commit anachronism, and anachronism is the historian’s original sin. If you don’t understand the context, you will misread the text.
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Suppose, for example, you formed the idea, beloved by Straussian scholars (famous for their disdain of context), that Machiavelli’s Prince was intended to be read esoterically. Its secret purpose was to communicate to later readers the message that Christianity had to be destroyed if European states wanted to achieve power. But scholars who make this argument generally fail to take into account that The Prince, like the Discourses and the History of Florence, was a text intended to circulate in manuscript only among a carefully restricted group of readers, a few dozen people at most. Machiavelli never wanted to have it published in print and have its arguments made the subject of general debate. He knew print publication would destroy his reputation (which it did: he was literally demonized in the sixteenth century). The only political text he published in his lifetime, The Art of War (1521), was a work whose morality was entirely conventional. There was a good reason for that.
Studying the historical context of Great Books, it is true, can have its hazards for the teacher. Sometimes, when we learn a bit more about their context, Great Books can seem less great. If we can’t accept that Machiavelli’s Prince is the effectual fons et origo of the liberal-realist conspiracy of modern Western intellectuals, we may not be so eager to read that work. When we understand more about Plato’s hostility to Athenian democracy, if we are ourselves committed to democracy, we can hardly approach the Republic or the Gorgias with the same reverence. If we realize what Aristotle’s real attitude was toward Athens’ famous cultural tolerance, and we ourselves are persons of liberal sentiment, it can undermine our faith in Aristotle’s authority.
All this may be true, but it shouldn’t matter. In Great Books education, it is precisely the difference between a famous author’s views and our own prepossessions that is supposed to educate us, to give us larger views. We hope that one result of reading those books will be that our students will form better and more mature ideas about democracy and liberal pluralism, ideas they will better be able to defend. We hope that their encounter with past thinkers will give them common ground for debate when they meet persons in the modern world whose views about such serious matters differ from their own. They can profit in other ways, too. They may decide, with Aristotle, that to maintain democratic societies, the beliefs democrats hold may not be the beliefs democrats need. They may learn from Plato’s Laws that religious faith needs the support of reason, and that all polities need religion.
In emphasizing the need to understand the historical context of Great Books, it’s not my intention to dismiss the idea that some books, even ones written thousands of years ago, have a universal message and can speak to us directly. This is the argument of Roosevelt Montás’s impressive, best-selling book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation. Reading this book, I was struck by his claim that Socrates spoke to him from the pages of Plato’s Apology when he was seventeen years old and living in a poor, Spanish-speaking enclave in Queens. It’s a testimony to the universality of the Great Books that, even though I was raised in a middle-class household in the Philadelphia suburbs and he in an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic, I experienced many of the same reactions reading Augustine, Socrates, Plato, and Freud for the first time as he describes in his book. In my studies of the history of Platonism, I’ve come across other figures in Western thought who were also deeply impressed by Plato, though not always for the same reason. In late antiquity and the Middle Ages, for example, the commonest first reaction to Plato was delight at the seeming harmony of his metaphysics with Christian creationism.
So let’s grant that some Great Books can speak to you across the ages, across social classes, and even across civilizations. Let’s even grant that misreadings of Great Books can sometimes be valuable, perhaps even improving our character and our practical reasoning. There are still reasons why historical study can help you read old books with greater profit and with a deeper appreciation for their wisdom.
For one thing, historical study helps you understand many texts that, unprepared, you really can’t make sense of at all. It’s hard to understand much of Confucius’s Analects, for example, without grasping the moral and political problems he faced in the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. I’m ashamed to admit the number of times I started and stopped reading the Analects before I figured this out. The speeches of Cicero can be as dull as dishwater if you don’t know what was going on in Roman politics. I certainly thought they were boring when I was assigned to read them in eleventh grade Latin class. Yet they are positively electrifying if you do understand the politics and know what is at stake: the triumph of tyranny, the survival of the republic. They are even more impressive when you realize the dangerous game Cicero was playing, and the very real risks he was taking with his own life. It was after he denounced Mark Antony in his Philippics that the outraged tyrant had him killed, and his hands cut off and displayed on the speaker’s platform in the Forum, from which he had so often addressed the people of Rome. Knowing that gives Cicero’s writing much greater authenticity, the way knowing about Solzhenitsyn’s life makes his Gulag Archipelago all the more powerful.
Even apart from such personally authenticating contexts, if you are reading a Great Book for the first time, you are going to miss a lot if you don’t know the history behind the text. I remember, as a young teacher in Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization program circa 1983–85, meeting with the other instructors during our weekly lunches to talk about how to teach Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration in Thucydides. We had all sorts of questions: why doesn’t Pericles celebrate, in an oration to honor those who had died in battle, the great military exploits that won Athens her empire? That was the usual custom of Athenian funeral orations, and Pericles didn’t seem to be ashamed of imperialism; in fact, he was proud of the Athenian empire. So why does he leave all that out? Why does he go on about how Athenians win their battles so effortlessly, for example? And why, for heaven’s sake, doesn’t he mention the greatest artistic achievement of his years in power, the Parthenon? We were all young teachers and a few of us were classicists, but nobody knew.
Later, studying Greek history, I found out why. He doesn’t mention the great victories that built the Athenian empire because they were mostly won by oligarchs, not democrats, men like Cimon who were his political rivals. He talks about the Athenians’ effortless superiority in battle because his picture of Athens is meant to contrast with the Spartans’ obsessive, all-consuming military regimentation. In fact, I finally realized, the whole oration is a point-by-point comparison of Athens’ democracy with the Spartan oligarchy. But you have to know a bit about the Spartan system to see the point of what Pericles is claiming. And it was only later, when I went to Athens and was lucky enough to be given a tour of the Panathenaic Way by Stephen Tracy, the head of the American School in Athens, that I saw with my own eyes why the speech doesn’t mention the Parthenon. It didn’t have to. It was delivered from a platform located directly beneath and in full view of the Parthenon. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!
But, to my mind, the most important reason that classical educators need to teach Western history and civilization now is not anything to do with how to read and study texts. It has to do with the environment outside the classroom. What concerns me, and what I think should concern all teachers of Great Books, is a cultural environment that undermines our enterprise and dulls the enthusiasm of students to engage the texts we teach. I’m referring to the widespread hatred for the civilization that produced most of the Great Books we read today: Western civilization. That hatred has arisen thanks to the iron curtain of disinformation that has been built around our past in recent decades.
We all know that reading books, especially old books, is hard. We ourselves, we teachers, know that these books really are great and that they can change lives for the better. If we’re good teachers, we try to make the case for them—we praise them before we set our students to reading them. That’s something that university lecturers have been doing since the Renaissance. Still, in our overwhelmingly visual culture, getting our students to turn the pages is hard. It’s that much harder when our students are bombarded with cultural messages intended to make them despise the Western past. On every side, via social media, the public schools, and the entertainment industry they are being told that the civilization that created those books was oppressive and evil. That hatred grants young people permission not to read old books. It becomes an ally of their sloth.
We can say to ourselves that students who are in the classical education movement or who are taking Core courses at universities like Columbia or Chicago are shielded from all that. They chose those schools because they want to read Great Books. Our students are different!
I’m not so sure. I don’t think it’s so easy to escape the current negativity about the Western past. That all-enveloping negativity is why our students need formal instruction in Western civilization. They need that grounding so they can recognize when the messages about the past they’re getting from the circumambient culture are false, or at least so terribly unbalanced, misleading, and hostile as to be effectively false.
By now, the malicious distortions of The New York Times’ 1619 Project are notorious; they have been exposed as substantially false by many distinguished historians. That has not stopped the Project from being turned into a curriculum taught in at least 4500 public schools nationwide. Its message is now further amplified in the form of a TV miniseries, adding the rhetorical power of images to the cultural prestige of elite media.
But the 1619 Project is by no means the only form in which hatred of the Western past is being inculcated. Unless they have been paying attention to changes in school history curricula (not something students or parents normally do), most people will not be aware that a cultural project to denigrate the Western tradition has been actively at work for decades. I’ve written elsewhere about this, describing how, during the 1990s, the history of Western civilization was replaced in K–12 social studies standards by the history of globalization. The little that most American students have been taught about the Western tradition has not been taught as a tradition, but chopped up into pieces and inserted into a global history where, as a rule, its dismembered parts tend to be unfavorably compared to other world cultures.
If you have ever asked yourself why young people fall for the cultural message that the history of the West is a history of oppression, there’s your answer: young people know little or nothing about the story of the West. They are told that Western civilization is morally corrupt because it had slavery, but they are not told that most world cultures engaged in slavery and other dehumanizing forms of human bondage and compelled labor. They are not told that the unique glory of the West was our moral questioning of the institution of slavery and its denial of dignity to fellow human beings, a questioning that goes back as early as the fourth century BC. It is rarely pointed out that only modern Western civilization was finally able to make the collective decision—thanks to its great wealth and to the influence of Christian reformers—to abolish slavery entirely.
Instead, there is a tendency in schools and universities today to teach that the West was uniquely evil, guilty of slavery, racism, genocide, militarism, global economic domination, uncontrolled, greedy capitalism, environmental devastation, monstrous levels of income inequality, and male oppression of women. Let’s not exaggerate: I don’t claim that this tendency is universal. There are still a great many schools, including many public schools and elite universities, where a sounder version of the Western past is still being taught. But the trend is not going in a favorable direction for those of us who teach Great Books. In the last five years, in particular, we have begun to hear “eliminationist” language from the hyper-progressives now setting educational policies in many schools and in state and federal governments. They argue that the history of Western countries should not be taught at all, lest students become infected with its racist, sexist, colonialist, and white supremacist attitudes. The Western past is not only a foreign country, it is enemy country.
This “successor ideology,” as Wesley Yang christened it, is bent on cancelling the Western past—or, more specifically, on reframing it as a narrative in which a radically modern ideology triumphs over and destroys the corrupt civilization of the Western past. In this narrative, relics of the Western past still, regrettably, survive—for example, in classical music and architecture courses or in Great Books programs—but it is only a matter of time before the just society of the future eliminates them.
Now, obviously, I think that eliminating study of the Western tradition from schools and universities is bad for the health of our society and politics. That’s why I’m writing a new history of Western Civilization with my friend Allen Guelzo. I’m a historian, and I think it’s unnatural and inhuman to try actively to forget your own past. I also believe that the reading of Great Books is unlikely to flourish in an extreme modernist culture that despises its history. In fact—and this is my main contention here—I would argue that the study of Western history and civilization should be considered as the indispensable infrastructure for all Great Books programs.
I am a great supporter of such programs, but if they have one defect—and in my view, it’s a serious defect—it’s that they neglect serious historical study. Studying a string of texts in chronological order, as we young teachers at Columbia used to do in the 1980s, cannot replace serious historical study. True, it sometimes stands proxy for it, as when Great Books teachers talk as though Machiavelli caused modernity, or Hobbes and Locke caused liberalism, or (my favorite) that the battle of Stalingrad was an encounter between left and right Hegelianism. I used this kind of explanation too when I was a young teacher at Columbia, desperate to impose some kind of historical framework on the Great Books I was teaching. But this isn’t real history.
We need to be studying the history of the West as a subject in its own right, acquiring a deep appreciation for the Western story, with all its abysses of failure and all its deservedly celebrated achievements. We can’t just be reading the Greatest Hits of its literary and philosophical tradition. Without historical study, we won’t even be aware of how those Greatest Hits came to us, how the canon of Great Books was constituted (in relatively recent times), and for what purposes. We need to help our students understand old texts at a deeper level, in less anachronistic ways. Above all, we need to arm them against the general hostility to their own tradition that has become so destructive a force in the present culture of America and the West. Studying Western history, like all historical study, will give them a sense of proportion, weaken the catastrophism and black-and-white thinking of the current woke ideology that does so much to undermine mental health.
A balanced, well-informed view of history is the best way to fight fanaticism. At this moment, that is precisely what Western civilization needs.
This essay is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the faculty symposium, “Why Read Great Books?: Liberal Education in the Twenty-First Century,” held on February 3–4, 2023, at the Morningside Institute in New York City.