Nothing is so intimidating to the modern reader as the classics. Why read Aristotle, Brontë, Descartes, and Lavoisier when plenty of more trendy, exciting books have been published within the last ten years? The Great Books are intimidating, lengthy, and give your brain a workout. All of this is true, but leaving them off your reading list means missing out on a conversation with the greatest philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and inventors the world has ever known. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis not only makes a strong argument for reading the Great Books, but also offers encouragement for reluctant readers. This collection of great literary works has shaped the society we live in and changed the way we view the world, and they deserve a place on the desk of every student, the nightstand of every adult, and the bookshelf of every bibliophile.
People tend to make a lot of excuses for avoiding the Great Books, and one of the most common is a sense of inferiority, which Lewis says “springs from humility.” Many people believe that only scholars can read the classics, but ironically, the original work is often much easier for the average person to understand and as a bonus, is not cluttered with the superfluous thoughts of commentators. Not only that, but firsthand knowledge of the classics is incredibly valuable to the modern reader because it is absolutely essential to understanding and interpreting modern literature. A familiarity, or at the very least an acquaintance, with the Great Books allows a reader to catch subtle references, as well as recognizing common plots and their variations, the various types of characters, and developing critical thinking skills and an independent mind. While arguing for more exposure to the Great Books, Lewis also stresses the importance of a balanced “diet” of both classic and modern literature. The new and the old complement each other, and allow us to compare and contrast the ideas and arguments of various authors with different backgrounds.
This is not to say that the classics are inherently better than modern literature, but they are less risky. While there are certainly many good books that have been published in our time (some of them are even well on their way to joining the pantheon of Great Books), the classics have stood the test of time and are always a safe bet when choosing your next book. In comparison, finding quality literature among more recent publications requires more work and discernment on the reader’s part. Nor am I arguing that the quality of literature has become degraded in recent times. In every period of history, the vast majority of published works are not worth a reader’s time. Time is the best test of a book’s value. The Great Books are old books not because old books are better, but because they have been deemed worthy by generation after generation of readers.
As Lewis notes, one of the most compelling reasons to read the Great Books is the opportunity to learn from both the mistakes and triumphs of past generations. This not only gives us insight into history and the effects of past events on our own lives, but also helps us to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. When we compare the society in which we live to those which the classics so vividly depict, we can gain valuable insight into the way our actions shape the world we live in, for better or worse. These great literary works give us a lens through which to clearly view our own society, and illustrate the often far-reaching consequences of our actions on civilization.
In his introduction, Lewis describes reading a Great Book as a chance to “meet one of the great philosophers face to face.” Reading Summa Theologica or Hamlet is like a chance to sit down with Aquinas or Shakespeare and have a conversation, get to know them, learn about their likes and dislikes. Who doesn’t want to meet their heroes? Descartes, Darwin, Dostoyevsky, they’re all only a page away. And sure, it can be nerve-racking to meet a celebrity, but while it’s easy to convince ourselves that their writing is too advanced for us, that we could never understand what our literary heroes have to say, to live a life devoid of the classics because of these fears would be to do ourselves an injustice.
In conclusion, reading the Great Books doesn’t require a postgraduate degree. You don’t have to be a scholar in order to understand the ideas that have shaped our modern worldview. Part of the reason they are called Great Books is because the ideas contained within them are so well-expressed: they are related simply and clearly. The benefits to adding the classics to your reading rotation include a better understanding of modern society and literature, intellectual development, and the chance to get to know some of the greatest men and women in history on a more personal level, through their own words. The Great Books really are for everyone. Whether you’re interested in philosophy, theology, science, or literature, you will certainly find something within them to inspire some great thoughts of your very own.