Henry David Thoreau once remarked: “[r]ead the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” This is sound advice for anyone. There was a time when American high schools and universities provided significant exposure to the “best books.” In the latter half of the 20thcentury, educators referred to them as the “great books.” Yet more recently, this body of texts – classic works of literature, philosophy, history, and culture – have been denounced and displaced at every educational level.
It’s unusual now for a student to read even excerpts from the great texts. The result is pitiable: we have generations of young adults with virtually no exposure to “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” (Matthew Arnold)
Teaching the great texts has diminished at an astonishing rate for numerous reasons, but two in particular stand out. For many professional educators, reading is increasingly oriented toward the marketplace and getting a job. Furthermore, humanistic learning has been dismantled by postmodern critiques, which maintain that texts are unstable, non-signifying, and without reference to truth.
At universities, the great texts are often deconstructed along lines of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. After several decades of such ideological demolition, students and parents have reasonably concluded that the humanities are badly politicized and irrelevant, and en masse have migrated to more sensible, practical majors.
But why should we study the great texts? St. Augustine of Hippo provides a coherent rationale. The often touted reasons these days for reading great texts – being “well rounded,” or articulate, or culturally “sensitive” – Augustine regards as either irrelevant or a deception. For Augustine, we read great texts for one purpose: to become wise. Reading for any reason other than the sapiential motive is trivial. The Confessions offers his clearest articulation of this view; he argues there that wisdom should lead to personal transformation – a matter of life and death.
Confessions is a book about books. Augustine measures his spiritual growth and conversion by what he has read as well as by what he has done: reading is the lens through which he interprets his journey toward conversion. He recounts his early literary education, reading Homer, Virgil, Terence, Cicero, Aristotle, Plotinus, Porphyry, and the sayings of Mani (founder of the Manichean Gnostic sect to which he was so long attached).
He learned to weep for Dido in the Aeneid, and gravitated from literature to philosophy – especially Neo-Platonic thought. Augustine learned the slow ascent from particulars (the domain of literature) to the abstract (the domain of philosophy) so characteristic of the great texts.
The most dramatic episode in Confessions captures beautifully why we read and where reading can take us. Influenced by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, Augustine was intensely drawn to Christianity. As he prayed and studied, Augustine approached full conversion to Christianity, but found himself tormented by his sins, especially lust, a subject upon which he is astonishingly candid. Many who have never read Confessionsnonetheless know his plea that God make him chaste, “but not just yet.”
At a crucial moment prior to his conversion, Augustine recounts an experience the context of which is grounded in reading and texts:
As I was . . . weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice form the nearby house chanting. . . saying and repeating over and over again “Pick up and read, pick up and read.”
Augustine interpreted this voice as a “divine command” to open the book at hand, Paul’s letter to the Romans: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh.” (13:13-14) Augustine comments, with astounding economy of expression, “I neither wished nor needed to read further.” The text had led him to integration, peace, and conversion.
In his exasperation while approaching conversion, Augustine had posed a fundamental question: “where should we look for the books we need? Where and when can we obtain them? From whom can we borrow them?”
Human beings don’t read simply for information, rhetorical skill, know-how – our real reasons are deeper. Near the end of Confessions, Augustine exclaims, “Let me confess to you [Lord] what I find in your book.” This prayer is an interpretive key to Augustine’s autobiography. Reading great texts over many years cultivated in Augustine the habit of wisdom, which equipped him to read the one book – the Word of God – which, read well, is the transformation and salvation of the soul.
The eminent modern literary theorist René Girard, reflecting upon reading and conversion, also confessed: “Great literature literally led me to Christianity. This itinerary is not original. It still happens every day and has been happening since the beginning of Christianity. It happened to Augustine, of course. It happened to many great saints such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa of Avila who, like Don Quixote, were fascinated by novels of chivalry.” With Girard and Augustine, I suggest we read the great texts because they take us on a journey toward truth.
When read seriously, the great books lead us to inquire, to doubt, to imagine, and to desire, but most importantly, to seek wisdom. It is not merely an exercise for practical purposes or for its own sake. Reading great texts teaches us humility, self-knowledge, docility, attentiveness.
Such reading may lead us to “pick up and read.” If we are particularly graced, we might even learn to say with Augustine at some point in our lives, “Let me confess to you [Lord] what I find in your book.” If such is the outcome, I can think of no better rationale for reading and teaching the great books.
*Image: St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul by Benozzo Gozzoli, c. 1463 [Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano, Italy]. This is fresco #12 of 17 from Gozzoli’s Life of St. Augustine that surrounds the church’s high altar.