In some blog posts, it is necessary to post a warning. This is one of those posts. I have known parents over the years that believed that they had learned the magic trick to make their children turn out perfectly. For some parents, this idolatry takes the form of a diet and exercise regiment, for some it is a commitment to some religious teaching or to family worship, for others the idol is classical Christian education. None of these idols, however, is the living God and all of them will fail without the grace and mercy of God. So, please don’t read this post and some sort of quid pro quo such as if I make my child read the Great Books, he will automatically turn out to be a great man of God and a superb spiritual leader. This is not the case. Joseph Stalin was a seminarian who doubtlessly read the Bible.
With the warning mentioned, I can now progress toward the topic of this post, which is: that an education that includes the reading of the Great Books is great way to prepare students to be spiritual leaders and to have confidence in Christ and willingness to stand for Him amidst the winds and waves of our secular culture. Here are three reasons why this is true:
Reason 1: The Examination of the Past Proves the Hopeless Insanity of Life Outside of Christ
The early church father Cyprian famously said, during a time of great persecution in North Africa that outside of the church there is no normal hope of salvation. This thought is borrowed during the time of the Protestant Reformation by the writers of the Westminster Confession, who say:
Chapter 25 (Of the Church), Section II.— The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ; the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
While this might seem harsh to our modern more inclusive ears, what they are saying is really not that controversial. If the Church is Christ’s Body, then there is no hope of salvation outside of Jesus. Christians have believed this since Jesus rose from the dead.
Too often, however, the force of this assertion is lost because Christians are saying it to each other. The world is telling us a very different story. Modern secularists keep searching for hope outside of Christ. We find this in the transhumanist movement that searches for eternal life through the integration of technology and biology. Others seek hope in the subjective. Still others seem to be saying that if we can find justice for all oppressed people then we can experience something like heaven on earth. Many of these searchers are quite confident that although they have not yet found this hope, that they will find it soon. Like Gatsby pondering the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock: maybe not today, but tomorrow I will run faster and achieve all that I want. It is challenging to see the absurdity of this in real time.
The reader of the Great Books, however, can find a more honest and hopeless paganism and a more forthright and examinable secularism. We see this stated both positively in Homer’s works and negatively in Virgil’s. In Homer, we see the despair of Achilles. He longs for glory, but by the end of the book, after his wrath has been satisfied, he does not find peace. He sees that Priam’s sadness over the loss of his beloved Hector is the same sadness that his father will feel when he is killed in battle (for he knows that he will soon be dead). He learns empathy but has no hope. The Odyssey is even more subversive. In it, Odysseus ventures into the underworld and finds Achilles. He tells his fallen comrade that the everlasting glory that Achilles desired is continuing in the land of the living. Achilles has become a legend—the goal of every pagan warrior. How does the spirit of Achilles react? He claims that he would give up all glory if he could just be a slave in the land of the living. Hell is hell for the pagan and there is no hope.
In the Aeneid, Virgil, at first glance, appears to give hope, but on further consideration, we find this hope to be false. When Aeneas ventures into the underworld, he is granted a vision of the future glory of the Roman Empire. The message is subtle but clear: you can have hope by devoting yourself to something larger than yourself. This is where the hope falls short, however. Rome and its Empire were not eternal. There is now nothing left of it but ruins.
Modern secularism is best judged not in the current, often muddleheaded, day, but by its highest modern and post-modern expressions. Modernist philosophy borrowed much from Christianity in the form of morals and a commitment to truth. It tried to replace faith in Christ as the foundation with faith is science or progress. When we have our mouth numbed when a tooth is removed or when we take a life-saving medicine, we need to praise God for the gifts of modern science. We also, however, need to see science’s obvious shortcomings. Science divorced from Christianity cannot tell us anything about morality. Is it better to love our children and provide for them or eat them like Zeus? Modern science is not equipped to answer that question. We see modern science in this unbelieving form clearly in the last book of Lewis’s Space Trilogy: That Hideous Strength. In that masterpiece, the evil men of NICE (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) imagine a “clean” world where all life has been removed—especially messy humans! Modernism can’t give hope.
Post-modernism laughs at hope and truth. We can see this in books like Camus’s The Stranger or Sartre’s grim play No Exit. They offer a view of life whose goal is to come to grips with absurdity, but no sane person can life out that worldview.
How does this provide an opportunity for students reading these and other Great Books to grow toward spiritual leadership? It can bring them to the point that the disciples find themselves in John 6. In that chapter, Jesus tells the large group of people following Him that they will have to eat His body and drink His blood. Many, hearing this, leave. Christ turns to the disciples and says, “Are you going to leave me too?” Peter answers for the Twelve, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). When students see that there is no hope in all of these other ways, it prepares them to be the kind of spiritual leaders that see Christ as their only hope.
Reason 2: The Great Books Present the Greatest Examples of Virtue and Vice enlivening the Moral Imagination
Leaders lead, but they can only lead well if they know the decisions that they should make and if they have the courage to make them. The Great Books stir the moral imagination and give us both warning and encouragement to make right decision for right reasons.
We can see how examples of vice have this sort of impact in The Divine Comedy and in books like The Twelve Caesars. The Caesars are the most powerful men on earth. They commanded great armies, accumulated great wealth, and brought order to many things. Suetonius, however, looks more deeply at these men and exposes their sometimes horrifically brutal viciousness and sexual perversity. After reading this book, one knows that power is not all than any leader should desire. No one wants to be Claudius or Caligula after reading Suetonius. The Divine Comedy, maybe better than any other book, provides stories and examples of moral failing that help us to seen what sin really does to us. We see examples like that of Farinata, a magnanimous Florentine whose good taste, generosity, and great wealth earned him many plaudits during his life. He is being roasted in the fiery tombs of the heretics because he would not heed the counsel of others. The world, and even Dante, treats him with respect and admiration. In Hell, however, we see him for what he really is: an obstinate, self-reliant man whose wisdom has brought him to eternal suffering. These failures demonstrate to future leaders’ paths that they must avoid.
Reason 3: The Study of the Scriptures with Discussion of Application Prepares People for Spiritual Leadership
One of the features of reading the Great Books in the Omnibus program is that you get to discuss them with others, and that you try to discuss them with the Scriptures in mind. This is obviously true when you are studying the Bible but this also true when we are doing the Biblical Analysis section of regular Omnibus discussions and the Summa Questions which often focus on applying what we have learned. This is like a game that my mom used to play with me when I was a little kid. She would make up a situation and ask me how I would handle it. This “application game” helped me to be ready when the real similar moral choices had to be made. The Omnibus discussions can have the same sort of impact. (Note to teachers: this impact happens best when you are not just telling students what the answers are but instead of encouraging them to think the application through and find a real solution.) Real growth occurs when the mind and the imagination are engaged!
So, remember the warning: no quid pro quo. The only thing that can make us to be the people God is calling us to be is God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Great Books, however, have been used by God to shape generations of leaders and provide them with the moral sense needed to stand against evil and cling faithfully to Christ. My hope is that reading these books with the young men and women that God has entrusted to us will be used mightily to prepare them to stand resolutely in trying times.