The Past As Enemy Country: Why Teachers of Great Books Should Be Teaching History, Too

We need to study history as a subject in its own right, acquiring a deep appreciation for the story of Western civilization, with all its abysses of failure and all its deservedly celebrated achievements. 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 hostility to their own tradition that has become such a destructive force in our culture.
The historical parallels between fourteenth-century Europe and our own times can be useful in our current civilizational crisis. Petrarch aimed to create a new synthesis between classical and Christian civilization, to use the resources of antiquity to heal the spiritual diseases of his own time. What he and his followers created over the next century and a half is known to historians as the Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity. It followed a formula that can still work today.
Liberal justifications of liberal education are no longer effective. Teachers of humanities need a different way of defending the value of what we do and love. The Renaissance can teach us how to make a case for the study of old books that is compatible with the values of a pluralist society.
“Virtue politics” is modeled on the phrase “virtue ethics,” an approach to moral philosophy inspired by Aristotle and elaborated by the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. “Virtue politics” describes the central concerns of Renaissance political philosophy. Like the ancient Greeks, the Renaissance humanists had a richer understanding of what the state has to do in order to encourage virtue.