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Why Study Great Texts?

What is a Great Text?

A great text is a "wisdom hotline from the dead back to the living" (A. Partridge, "Books are Burning").

I don't know that song. And what is "wisdom"?

Something other than mere information. There must be some difference, or T.S. Eliot's question "Where is the wisdom we have lost in information?" would not even be a question. Wisdom is truth about the highest things, the weightiest matters that concern human beings.

That sounds vague. Can you be specific?

Yes. God, man, the soul, the world. The connections between them. The whole of reality, as opposed to partial knowledge of its parts.

How do Great Texts dare to speak about these things?

First, they ask questions about them. Great Texts are always asking questions.

Like what?

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should a human being live? The big questions.

Do they raise the big questions so directly?

Sometimes. "How should a human being live?" is lifted straight from Plato. But Great Texts (and Plato himself) are often more indirect. They tend to raise the big questions in a more subtle way, using a variety of literary forms: epic, dialogue, poem, treatise, drama, aphorism, to name a few of the genres.

Who asks these questions?

You, in your more reflective moments.

So why do we need Great Texts? Can't we ask these questions on our own?

Sure. But--and I don't mean to be rude--you might get further if you have the help of thinkers who are a bit smarter, or more imaginative, than you are. (I mean truly great thinkers, not your professors, as charming and omniscient as they might be.) Great Texts shed more light on the questions, and their possible answers, than simply thinking in the void. At least that's been my experience.

But don't we already have the answers?

Contemporary culture usually avoids the questions. They're not fashionable. But it makes plenty of assumptions. If you ferret out these assumptions, and think about them long enough, you may derive some answers from them. So in a sense, it's true that our present culture has some answers to these questions. But are they the only answers? The best answers? The answers that are right for you?

Hmmm ... I've never thought about it.

Then think about it.

Okay. I don't know.

That's good. As Socrates says, it's better simply not to know, than to think one knows when one does not know.

Why do I need to know?

Because inquiring minds want to know! If Aristotle is correct, human beings by nature desire to know. Reality TV is fun, or at least addictive. But it doesn't help us much with, well, reality. It tends to shy away from the big questions, since raising them can be uncomfortable, not to mention bad for ratings. How can you make an informed judgment about the big questions, unless you are aware of the full range of possible answers, and the advantages and disadvantages of each? If you want to be really bold, you might say that such awareness is a condition of being an intellectual grown-up.

But everybody knows it sucks to grow up.

Great song. But I think Ben Folds means "growing up" in the conventional sense: mortgages, taxes, car payments, liability, interest rates, dealing with the new boss (same as the old boss), pleasing the in-laws, diet plans, retirement plans ... mundane and trivial stuff. In that sense, everybody knows it sucks to grow up. But the quest for wisdom is something else. It is liberation from unreflective immersion in the everyday‹what Plato calls the "cave" and Heidegger the "inauthentic."

If that's what you mean, then most adults aren't intellectual grown-ups.

Good inference. I think you have what it takes to be a penetrating reader of Great Texts. Chronological adults are not necessarily intellectual adults.

Did you think of that distinction yourself?

I wish I did, but I'm not that bright.

Where did you steal it from?

A Great Text, of course. Book 1 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

So the point of college is to cultivate the mind, to foster the intellectual and moral virtues?


So Baylor really is trying something new.

Something old and something new. Only in the last 35 years did people start to confuse a university with a trade school. (Nothing against trade schools. The point is just that any decent university will have a radically different goal.)

Are Great Texts for everyone who goes to college?

They're for anyone who wants to think about issues that concern human beings as such. Without Great Texts, you can become a specialist in some skill, a technician who reliably provides the means to whatever end the boss happens to require. Or you can become the boss yourself, in which case you will probably answer to whatever the masses happen to demand.

But what if you desire more than unprincipled efficiency?

Then you have to think about the big questions, understand the range of answers, and find the ones that are compelling. Which means, you have to learn to read Great Texts.

Why do Christians need Great Texts? Don't they already have the Greatest Text?

In Matthew 22:37, Jesus reformulates the Great Commandment of Deuteronomy 6:5: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." The Lord wants you to love Him with all your mind. Reading Great Texts will broaden and deepen your mind, and therefore strengthen it. The stronger your mind, the stronger your love for God is able to become.

But what does that have to do with faith?

Since you have a mind, you want to understand what you believe. This is what Augustine called fides quaerens intellectum, "faith seeking understanding." (A collateral benefit of Great Texts is that you can learn Latin and actually read those inscriptions when you make that trip to Europe.) Through reading Great Texts, you can develop a habit of contemplation that is helpful for spiritual growth.

What about non-Christians? Do they need Great Texts?

If they want to be intellectually mature (and why wouldn't they?), the answer is "yes." The big questions concern human beings as such. Any intelligent non-Christian wants to understand what he rejects, and why he rejects it. Both the most serious arguments against Christianity (or any revealed religion) and the best arguments for it are to be found within the Great Texts.

Can you find these arguments anywhere else?

Yes. But only in derivative, watered-down versions. Why would you want secondhand knowledge, when you can have the real thing?

Good point. But does Baylor actually let us read anti-religious Great Texts?

Of course. Lucretius' On the Nature of Things is not a defense of religion, to put it mildly. Not for nothing was Machiavelli compared to the devil. It's not clear that Descartes was a believer. It's reasonably clear that Hume was not a believer. Nietzsche is on the list. So is Marx. I don't think anyone's stacking the deck.

So Baylor takes the religious question seriously, as a question?

Yes. If it did not, it would simply be the mirror image of some non-religious universities whose curricula might be described as indoctrination in the core assumptions of secular modernity. The point of reading Great Texts is genuine liberation, not indoctrination in either religion or secularism. By deepening your understanding of the possibilities, the study of Great Texts can enhance your freedom.

But freedom means having lots of money. Are you saying that Great Texts will make me rich?

You need a richer idea of freedom. In Plato's Republic, the soul that devotes itself to money-making turns out to be the soul with the least freedom. Lots of other Great Texts talk about freedom. The idea turns out to be surprisingly complicated.

You ducked my question. Will reading Great Texts make me rich?

No. But reading Great Texts will provide certain practical advantages. If you can learn to read Dante's Divine Comedy with insight, or Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathrustra with any understanding at all, you'll find that anything else you have to read on the job will be a piece of cake!

But what if my primary goal is to become rich?

Then read Book 1 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle will tell you that it is impossible for money-making to be your primary goal. More importantly, he will explain why.

Fine. But I want to get a job. How can you expect me to major in Great Texts?

Most undergraduates, no matter what their major, get nervous from time to time about their long-term financial prospects. Don't let anyone play on such fears to convince you to major in a field that you do not find intellectually or spiritually stimulating.

Do I have to major in Great Texts? Can I just take some courses?

Yes. You don't have to be a major in Great Texts to profit from their study. Consider a minor. Or be really adventurous and pursue a double major.

How can I get more information?

Surf the Great Texts web site (perpetually under construction). Or come by to see us in Brooks Residential College. Knock on the doors of any of the professors. (That's what they're there for.) Someone will be glad to help you.