For all their many differences, the Great Books in this tradition argue that there is something in the nature of reality itself – whether we understand it as nature as described by the Greeks, or the created order depicted in the Book of Genesis – that limits human power and ability to transform our situation. The appropriate disposition toward the world is not the effort to seek its transformation, but rather to conform human behavior and aspirations to that order. Hence, the primary purpose of education is learning to live in a world in which self-limitation is the appropriate response to a world of limits. Education in virtue is a central goal – particularly the hard discipline over the human propensity toward excess, particularly in the form of pleonexiaor pride.
In order to advance this teaching to successive generations of human beings, education was largely ordered around an education in texts (and even languages) from this tradition (Greek/Latin; Classics and Bible). Every new generation needed a renewed education in the knowledge of human limits and the central necessity of virtue. Books themselves were understood to be a storehouse of wisdom from the past, a treasury and repository of hard-won experience and knowledge of these limits. What these books taught was itself a justification for an education centered around books. Because the present and future were believed to be fundamentally continuous with the past, the past was understood to be a source of wisdom about our condition as humans in a world that we do not command. An education in Great Books was itself a consequence of a philosophical worldview, and not merely an education from which we derived a worldview (much less sought an education in “critical thinking”).
I had a taste of just such an educational approach at Patrick Henry College, and can verify that it has just that effect. I’m not sure one can ever complete such an education though, because there are always more great books that need reading. But in those works one can find both the pinnacles of human success and the deepness of human failure.
As King Solomon famously wrote:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
It’s very humbling to realize that we have thousands of years of ideas, experiments, and failed attempts to guide us. It provides much more than mere critical thinking; it facilitates substantive thinking. But that substance shows us more failures than successes, more nightmares than utopias. And that itself serves as its own warning.
The vast collection of human wisdom reminds us of our limits. And it shows the consequences of forgetting or ignoring those limits.
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:11-14)