Great Books and “The BEST” Books

Jeffrey Saks Tradition Online | January 6, 2022

There’s an interesting debate raging through the imperiled halls of the Ivy League’s humanities departments — and it has special meaning for Modern Orthodoxy as a religious community that has classically valued the encounter with worldly, humanistic wisdom.  As the relationship of those two realms of wisdom, often framed around the concept of Torah u-Madda, is receiving renewed ideological and institutional reassessment, we take note of trends in general higher education and society. This column is the first in a projected series exploring this topic and its importance in the coming months — see the index of all entires in the series.

Two recent books make parallel arguments for the necessity of a liberal arts education. Roosevelt Montás offers a memoir cum manifesto in his Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (Princeton University Press), describing how smacking up against the western canon in Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum transformed the life of a Dominican émigré and put him on the path to occupy a professorship and the chairmanship of that curriculum at his alma mater. He then launches on an impassioned tour of four specific authors—Plato, Augustine, Freud, and Gandhi—explaining the impact of those writers on his own development and offering an articulate argument for why the so-called Great Books, even with their largely dead white men cast of characters, still has the power to shape the lives of students and citizens.

Arnold Weinstein, of the comp. lit. program at Brown, has authored  The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing (Princeton), which asks, “Why do we read literature? [T]he answer is clear: literature allows us to become someone else. Literature changes us by giving us intimate access to an astonishing variety of other lives, experiences, and places across the ages.” Weinstein offers a refraction of the sentiment attributed to C.S. Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone.” The book plays off of interest in recent scientific research suggesting reading literature makes us more empathetic and shows it at work in the “laboratory” of the English graduate seminar room. “Good readers of literature “learn by identifying with their protagonists, including those who, undone by wreckage and loss, discover that all their beliefs are illusions…. [L]iterature’s knowing differs entirely from what one ends up knowing when studying mathematics or physics or even history: by entering these characters’ lives, readers acquire a unique form of knowledge—and come to understand its cost.”

Serving up a surprisingly critical review of these two books, Harvard’s Louis Menand, who also sits on a tenured chair in a literature department, bursts the bubble in a recent The New Yorker: “The humanities do not have a monopoly on moral insight. Reading Weinstein and Montás, you might conclude that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth. Take my word for it, we are not.” Et tu, New Yorker?

Columbia’s John McWhorter tilts his sword against Menand in a New York Times opinion piece, with an appeal to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Rousseau’s brutish “Noble Savage” (the former may have been an important influence on Rambam’s conception of personality development in Shemona Perkaim and De’ot; the latter character is you and I, in a state of nature, without our learning). When asked after the purpose of higher education, McWhorter’s mother, a university instructor, told 10-year old John: “After four years of college, students have, or should have, a sense of the world’s complexity, that everything did not easily reduce to common-sense observations of the kind you preface with ‘Well, all I know is …’ Mom had that right, I think, and Great Books lend precisely this perspective. Having a sense of how to decide what your life is for amid all the possible choices before you; understanding that the ethics of how civilizations and power operate is complex rather than reducible to facile binaries and snap judgments; tasting the elusiveness of the single, irrefutable answer and thus truly appreciating the wit of Douglas Adams’s famous proposal that the answer to everything is ‘42.’ One is, surely, a better person with this perspective under one’s belt.”

This debate has importance for us as a religious community. We value engagement with our own canon of “Great Books,” which are studied not only with the aim of acquiring practical knowledge, but as normative mitzva (first among equals), ennobled lifestyle, and device to forge the Divine encounter – “our life and longevity.” At the same time, engaging with culture broadly defined (but not without boundaries) – the canon being argued for and critiqued, even from within, among the writers surveyed above – we encounter the “best that has been thought and said” (to channel Matthew Arnold). In this spirit, “The BEST,” TraditionOnline’s weekly column, has been an attempt to survey some of those cultural objects and tease out ways that their consumption is potentially spiritually profitable.

Matthew Arnold & R. Aharon Lichtenstein

TRADITION’s readers who dip into the new volumes from Princeton University Press will, no doubt, recall the many teachings and essays of R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. Over a long and distinguished life and career, R. Lichtenstein championed the primacy of place and purpose of Talmud Torah in the life of the individual Jew and our collective religious community. At the same time he served as an articulate spokesman and role model for the value of the humanities in general, and literature in particular, to achieve and advance a variety of goals advantageous to the spiritual personality. The major thrust of his thought on the value of the best “Great Books” is that the encounter with that canon “provides a spiritual complement” to our lives as commanded worshippers of God.

In light of the ongoing public discussion of these topics, we offer the item below from TRADITION’s archive (Winter 2014): A bibliographic essay surveying R. Lichtenstein’s writings on these issues and a map of his half-century enterprise of articulating the potential benefits to religious life by engaging with works possessing “value in molding spiritual personality and moral identity.” 

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the editor of TRADITION.

Read Menachem Kellner’s response to this column here.

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