Whatever Happened to the Great Books?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Unfortunately I was one of a handful of blacks at the college. Most of my life, with the spectacular exception of the UN School, I have been the "1 percent African/African-American" advertised in prospectuses of the schools I've attended. I use "unfortunately" here because St. Johns was not a school about Western heritage, it was and is a school that treats the Great Questions as sacred. Beauty, Truth and Wisdom are not concepts to be lobotomized and deconstructed a la Foucault. In other words, St. Johns is what a college ought to be, and blacks, as well as all races, should not be put off by the general homogeneity of the curriculum.

    John Stuart Mill was the son of the utilitarian philosopher James Mill, and educated by The Great Books at an early age. At 10 years old he was accomplished at both Greek and Latin. Mill the Younger read Xenophon, Shakespeare and Cicero at his leisure. I am the son of an African diplomat (a "diplobrat") who, at home and while traveling with father, received a thorough education in East African customs, art and history. No two people could be farther apart, and yet Mill spoke to me beyond the racial and generational divide. That's what a Great Work does: it bridges the yawning chasm of time and social background with the fundamental questions of human existence. Mill's comment on education still haunts me: "Universities are not places of professional education; they are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers or physicians or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings."

    Society needs its lawyers and engineers, but ought they to be trained at the undergraduate level? I think not. Would you rather be defended, operated upon or led by someone who was not liberally (small "l") educated? In many ways, this specialization leads to the vulgar yuppies trapped in the elegant prose of Louis Auchincloss, or the seedy operators in the legal profession, or the semiliterate teachers in many of our public schools.

    Once a general education has been achieved, then and only then ought a person go on, whether at the graduate level or at a trade school, to specialization and certification. Cornell's hotel management diploma does not an educated person make. Neither does a real estate or physical education major from the lamentable University of Rhode Island qualify someone as drenched in human knowledge. Nowadays, similar swindles like the California College of Arts and Crafts and Polytechnic University pretend outright to offer a full education.

    The liberal arts train the free human being; agriculture trains the farming specialist; public policy trains the politician; and gender studies trains... Well, I really don't know what gender studies trains, but you get my point. It is no wonder that nowadays our politicians are so deceitful, because they are, in fine, fractured individuals.

    In August 1995 at a dinner given by the scribbler William Styron on Martha's Vineyard, President William Jefferson Clinton told the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez that The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was his favorite book. In the nearly two millennia that this book has been in existence, it was lost for nine centuries then found again, and its title has metamorphosed from Aurelius' original diary-like Ta Eis (in Greek, "To Myself") into The Meditations, as it is known today. The Meditations is the noble, uncompromisingly honest, highly ironic and ruthlessly intelligent speculation of a philosophical emperor. Which demands the question: What do Bill Clinton and the Philosopher on the Throne, Marcus Aurelius, have in common?

    Well, not much other than the fact that one drops the other's name at swishy dinner parties. However: Marcus Aurelius as emperor of Rome was, for all purposes, the sole ruler of the world; similarly, Clinton is currently the leader of the sole superpower. Also, like Marcus Aurelius, Clinton was not born an heir to the throne, but rather became an American prince. But beyond those two superficial points all comparisons draw to a close. What Clinton has done with his great power boldly contradicts the writings of his favorite author. I am of course not entertaining the possibility that Clinton might be lying to seduce his fawning crowd.

    The Great Books belong to mankind. To argue that "the Great Books of the Western World" should be read for nationalistic reasons is tantamount to implying that women ought to read feminist literature at college and blacks should read African-American literature. Very David Duke, that. Education is not in the province of making people feel good about their gender, race or the geographical location of birth; education is about the search for wisdom and liberty.

    The Great Books, or rather "The Great Works," move beyond the parochialism of gender and race. What can Gloria Steinem say that hasn't been said more forcefully and elegantly by Medea? And St. Augustine, an African, was the bishop of the North African See of Hippo. Picasso and Modigliani borrowed heavily from the mysterious masks and sculptures of Africa. There are dozens of examples of internationalism, from The Analects of Confucius to The Waves of Virginia Woolf, from the paintings of Orozco to the fugues of Bach. And I defy any man, black or white, to read Xenophon's Anabasis without tears in his eyes.

    The Great Works are an international and time-defying conversation about the Big Questions taught by the world's greatest thinkers. Whether the extreme skepticism of Nietzsche or the supreme idealism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the solemnity of Thucydides or the bubbling, joyful satire of Petronius?The Great Works lengthen our attention span, teach us to cultivate our humanity, help us to fully appreciate what it means to be human and to exist. My African friend St. Augustine put it nicely when he said in De Libero Arbitrio in the remote shadows of antiquity:

    "When people approach the beauty of truth and wisdom and have the persistent desire to enjoy this beauty, it is not shut off from them by a close packed audience thronging around it; it is not cut off by the fall of night, veiled in shadow or in subjection to the physical senses... Truth is near at hand and everlasting to everyone in this world who loves truth and turns towards it."

    Ron Mwangaguhunga is an avid classics reader and senior editor at MacDirectory Magazine.