Well, I’ve cracked Volume 1 of 54 of the set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World that I inherited from my grandfather, The Great Conversation, by Robert M. Hutchins. What follow are some ponderable words from Hutchins on that most ineluctable of human activities: work. My comments after the jump.
The humanization of work is one of the most baffling issues of our time. We cannot hope to get rid of work altogether. We cannot say that we have dealt adequately with work when we have urged the prolongation of leisure.
Whatever work there is should have as much meaning as possible. Wherever possible, workmen should be artists; their work should be the application of knowledge or science and known and enjoyed by them as such. They should, if possible, know what they are doing, why what they are doing has the results it has, why they are doing it, and what constitutes the goodness of the things produced. They should understand what happens to what they produce, why it happens in that way, and how to improve what happens. They should understand their relations to others co-operating in a given process, the relation of that process to other processes, the pattern of them all as constituting the economy of the nation, and the bearing of the economy on the social, moral, and political life of the nation and the world. Work would be humanized if understanding of all these kinds were in it and around it.
To have these kinds of understanding the man who works must have a good mind. The purpose of education is to develop a good mind. Everybody should have equal access to the kind of education most likely to develop such a mind and should have it for as long as it takes to acquire enough intellectual excellence to fix once and for all the vision of the continuous need for more and more intellectual excellence.
This is the educational path to the humanization of work. […] (15-16)
Sounds very much like something one might read from G. K. Chesterton, Wendell Berry, or Josef Pieper. Really, the whole thing—it’s just a slim little volume—has been very worthwhile, if a little on the democratic side. Keep in mind that this series, and thus Hutchins’ introductory essay, came out before the 1960s, which, say what you will about them, might well have demonstrated not only that liberal education had fallen by the wayside in America, but also that many of the people who were supposedly able to benefit from such an education were, in fact, not. Indeed, a few pages later, Hutchins is accidentally prophetic:
If the people are not capable of acquiring this [liberal] education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world. (18)
Hutchins, speaking for the editors, opens with an “if” for the purposes of posing an alarming hypothetical, yet one which he does not think is actually the case: “If A, then disastrously B…but, never fear! Not A, so not B.”
Well, I beg to differ. It’s definitely A, and therefore it is very much B. Liberal democracy is a cancerous lesion in the mind of Western Civilization. “Why, think you, is the world now so full of unfaithfulness, disgrace, calamity, and murder,” Luther writes in his Large Catechism, “but because every one desires to be his own master and free from the emperor, to care nothing for any one, and do what pleases him?” (LC I.154)
So, yes, the editors of the Great Books series were certainly more Whiggish and optimistic than I have been in a long time, but they were still good old souls, and their Great Books project was, I think, a noble one all things considered. I’m not going to rehash their reasoning viz. their principles of selection (many have wondered why the set stopped abruptly with Freud), but I will say that they acquit themselves well in their explanations…though not well enough for incredulous socialists, such as the cynical Canucks who wrote this dismissive piece of Philistine doggerel—the sort of thing that an innocent Google image-search sometimes uncovers. (Don’t worry: the only indecency you’ll find is censorious Jacobinism.)
In any event, Conrad’s excellent suggestion, “Reform and Renewal Begins With Us” by Anthony Esolen, inspired me to simply “begin” with a plan that I’ve had in my head for several years. While I read smatterings and selections of the Great Books canon (according to various schools’ definitions thereof), when I was an undergraduate, and have read more since, I certainly have never plowed straight through a set. I’ve mainly just appreciated the way the vari-toned canvas bindings of the Britannica series looked on my shelf, which I expect is half the appeal– I don’t mind nice-looking books! Still, it is my aim to actually read these books, and to frequently split my infinitives, over the next ten years.
Speaking of which, there’s a huge omission in the series: no Luther. Given that the original run of his own corpus was itself 54 volumes, one can acknowledge the difficulty of picking and choosing a mere 800-1000 pages…and perhaps be glad that they didn’t include him, given how horrendously he could be portrayed in such a span of pages, depending on who selected them. Ah, well. Like Sasse said, being Lutheran is a lonely way.
My approach for progressing through the Great Books will be to exempt the first three volumes from the reading plan (you’ll see why) and tackle the rest in tripartite fashion as follows: Vol. 4, Vol. 21, Vol. 38…
Each row represents the option to read the three books at once, or to read them in sequence. Either way, the historical setting gets varied. I may break the pattern in order to read both volumes of an author (cf. Aquinas, Shakespeare, Gibbon), but the foregoing is largely the manner in which I plan to proceed.
I own some of the non-English works in translations that I find preferable to those used in the series, so I may sub these in from time to time…perhaps right at the beginning, as I don’t much like Jowett’s Latinized translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey (in his rendering, it’s the story of “Ulysses” rather than “Odysseus”). But I do plan on reading most of the actual volumes themselves.
My next question is: who wants to join me in this endeavor? Because if you do, you can often find sets of the Britannica Great Books at library book sales. They’re not terribly hard to come by.
The reading reaction will not be live-blogged, so don’t feel like that’s part of the pressure. Really, there is no pressure. I just think it would be fun to be able to have arcane conversations about Archimedes, Cervantes, and Fielding with people at some point in the next ten years.