SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Jeff Black, professor at St. John's College, a unique great books college with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Jeff has served as an associate dean of the graduate program at St. John's, and he's been a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, resident Fellow in Civil-Military Relations at Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Air Force Academy. He's author of Rousseau's Critique of Science and several wonderful essays on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Our discussion today explores what the so-called great books are, how reading them can provide a liberal education, and why they're still relevant and perhaps more relevant than ever in today's political and cultural landscape. Jeff Black, welcome to The Free Mind podcast. I wanted to talk to you a bit about great books and great books education. This, I suspect, is foreign to a lot of our listeners, that there are great books, why they're great, how they educate. And so I thought we'd have a little conversation about that today, and I wanted to start by asking you what makes a book great. What is a great book?
JEFF BLACK: Well, thanks, Shilo. And thank you for having me on. It's a pleasure to be here. Yeah, so this is a hard question. I teach at a school that is sometimes called a "great books" school. And the faculty itself disagrees about what makes books great. So lemme give you a sense of my idea about this and also where I see the difficulties or the complexities. The first thing that occurs to me is that it's tempting to think that a book is great because it has a great effect in history, right? So I guess I call these famous books or books that seem great because they're famous, and I think ultimately that's a wrong way to go about looking at what makes a book great. But it's not a bad place to start, because there are some books that seem to have had a big effect, they've maybe caused revolutions, or that a lotta people are very impressed by. And often, those are the books that we look to to think, "Hey, is this book really great? We should read it." And then I think if the book is truly great, what you find is that it has two qualities, and I call those qualities intensity and extent or comprehensiveness. So I'd say this: for me great books are the books that turn out to be very deep, you look at any part of them, and you put a question to that part, and it gives you a kind of answer, and also very extensive, even comprehensive, that they talk about the whole of human life or they offer a whole possible world. So whereas, a lotta books, they're part of a world, and they talk about part of a world, I think each great book could be understood as a world in itself. Now, those might be weird answers. What d'ya think? Does that strike a chord with you?
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that makes sense to me. I wanna touch on two things you said. First, you mentioned some great books might actually have practical effects in the world. In other words they might cause a revolution. One can think of Locke's great book Two Treatises of Government and its influence on the American Founding. But then you say, even more profoundly than simply being famous or having some effect, these books touch on some… Would you say perpetual question, some question that has a wide variety of answers which different minds have come at through the ages, these sorts of things, and that the answer that's provided to the question is an answer which is a piece or part of a whole, of the world, or that that answer attempts to create a world, which of the two?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense to me. I guess the first thing I'd say is about the question. You used "perpetual." But I really like the word "enduring" for that. And here's the way I think about it. It does seem like lots of things change in human life. But human life, life that we've recognized as human, is only tens of thousands of years old. And a lotta things, I think, change so slowly they've more or less remained the same during those tens of thousands of years, so they're the same for us as they were for the human beings who first started writing and started conversing about these matters, and those, I think, are the enduring questions. And a good stand-in for a more precise formulation of those questions would be just something simple like, "How should I live?" In other words, the sense that human life is a question or a problem that asks for a solution. So that gives you a first indication of what an answer might look like. “Live like this” is a kind of answer. And I take it that “live like this”is describing a world. “Live like this” kind of says everything that you could encounter more or less fits in into this whole that the author has thought through and it all should make sense. Now, the question, though, of how great books provide their answers is interesting. What's your experience there? Is it that you discover the answer and then you're done with the book? Mine is, I think, I keep coming back to them.
SHILO BROOKS: Certainly, it seems to me the greatness of a book could be predicated on the degree to which one can continue to return to it and it provides a wellspring of information. The way I put it to my students sometimes is that I change but the books stay the same, yet it appears to me that the books are changing, because I read them when I was 18 and, then 25 and then 30 and 40 and 50 and 60 and every time I come back to them, they say something to me deeper. I'm able to get some new piece of wisdom out of them. As I age, their greatness becomes manifested to me all the more because their profundity speaks to me more as I've lived more life, as I've experienced more of the world, as it were. That occurs to me as something about a... It's not a book you read once. It's not a comic book. People talk about great movies in this way or great songs. You could listen to a great song 1,000 times, or a great movie, you watch it however many times, and there's always something there for you. I think a great book is that principle writ large. I wanted to return to one thing you said though. You mentioned in response to my question about the way in which great books pose or attempt to answer perpetual, and you put it enduring, questions. You said or at least it seems to me that this would presuppose that human nature doesn't change. If these books can still speak to us, the Iliad, what it is that Homer was trying to communicate or write about or get at, Plato, Spinoza, Nietzsche, all the way through history, there's something distinctively human, permanently human... And that would have to be the case if the questions were enduring. So I'm curious. Does the very notion of a great book or a canon of great books like the one that's presented at the school at which you teach... Does that presuppose the permanence of a human nature for which these enduring questions can have meaning?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, I think it does, although maybe not in the sense that people usually think of when they think of an enduring human nature, right? In other words it's very tempting to say, "Oh, I've got this question for the world. I've got this difficulty, and in order to get the answer, I'm gonna turn to human nature. And it will tell me what has to be the case." And I think it's a little more nuanced or complicated than that. I'd say something like this: the range of human possibilities is more or less fixed, but it's very extensive. And at various times in history, we're not really aware, unless we make a tremendous effort, exactly how broad that range is. And also, at various times in history, there are human possibilities that are easier or harder of access. So some human possibilities get stressed. Others recede into the background and become very rare, very difficult to achieve. And so I think what we more usually encounter as human nature is local constraints on us and they might not be as binding as they seem to us locally, that the real constraints, the real range of possibilities that should guide us, are often beyond what our sense of our possibilities are right now locally, as I was saying. So I do think that there is a human nature. I think it likes to hide, like all other kinds of nature.
SHILO BROOKS: It can be covered over and exposed according to the circumstances. In other words political circumstances, cultural circumstances can reveal or conceal aspects of our nature, and those political or cultural circumstances can conceal those aspects for so long that we almost think those aren't part of that nature anymore when in fact they're there, in your view, but they're just dormant and could be awakened again by other cultural or political circumstances.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, this seems right to me. So one series of great books that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about is books written by Nietzsche. And one of the things that both impresses and also puzzles me about his thought is that, on the one hand, he seems to think that being the way he is, is a permanent possibility for human beings or a durable possibility for human beings and, on the other hand, he seems to fear that there might one day be no more people like him. And I guess that could be a factual outcome, right? It could be the case that there just are never any more of one kind of human being. That would be a great loss. But I do think that, ultimately, I come down on the side of the view that these possibilities will endure as long as human beings are substantially like they are now.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, don't get me started on Nietzsche. [Jeff laughs] I'm gonna have you back on [laughs] for the Nietzsche podcasts. But your reference to him... I certainly agree with what you say about his thoughts. Occurs to me though when I think of Nietzsche as a writer of great books, let's say, that Nietzsche more than many other authors even in the canon of the great books is in conversation with those who came before him. He's in conversation with Plato. He's in conversation with Christianity, with the Bible. He's in conversation with Schopenhauer, all kinds of writers. And so is it a distinctive feature of a great book that they speak to one another? In other words one can go to Barnes & Noble, and one can buy the latest romance novel. And, while I don't deny the great virtues of romance novels [chuckles] at all, I don't think that those novels are speaking necessarily to one another or trying to answer these fundamental or enduring questions, as you put it, whereas great books can. And, if there is a cannon, there seems to be authors who are in fact name-checking one another. Nietzsche will use Plato's name. They're directly in conversation with one another. So can you say something about the way in which the great minds speak to one another and whether, within the series of great books, whatever they are, there is a kind of conversation or is that illusory and we're just making that up.
JEFF BLACK: No, no, I think it's real, and I think you've given the "Masterpiece Theater" or PG-13 version of it. I'd call it they're cursing at one another across mountain tops or something like that. Lemme try and explain what I mean by that. If it's true that one sign of a great book is it contains and implies a world, that it aspires to be comprehensive or total, that means it tries to exclude other worlds. That means that it has to take on other worlds and say, "It's me. It's not that other one." And that means that... It is a conversation. That's an entirely apt word, but it doesn't quite capture what I think is a degree of necessary antagonism that makes the interaction between great books very dramatic and very exciting. On some level... I don't wanna be too melodramatic about it. But the whole of existence is at stake: what is the truth about the way of things? What is the truth about existence? "I, Plato, say one thing." "I, Nietzsche, say another thing." And the existence of Plato, for Nietzsche, is, on the one hand, an incitement, "Somebody else did what I'm trying to do," and, on the other hand, some kind of problem, "If he did it, if he completed an account of the world that satisfactory, there's no place for me, certainly not as his equal or even to surpass him," right? So there, I think, is a kind of antagonism that's different. Romance novels could imitate one another. They could applaud one another. They can be fashionable and, therefore, like one another. And the same is true of scholarship. Lots of books respond to one another, but they don't have this edge to them that says the whole of existence is at stake.
SHILO BROOKS: Right, although you wouldn't characterize, I suspect, I don't think I would, the conversation among the minds, you mentioned Plato and Nietzsche, as a zero-sum game. In other words it's not simply as though, and I don't think you were implying this, either Nietzsche has the truth or Plato does. It's possible that both have a piece of it, and so it's possible that the endeavor is cooperative and not merely a contest, in other words, that in some cases authors reject wholesale the entire theories of one another. In other cases they'll take pieces of it and build on it, perhaps take it in a different direction. So it seems to me, in addition to there being these high stakes, the truth, existence, and the truth about existence, there's also in some cases a kind of growth or cooperation among these minds.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, that seems right. But ours is a... What would I call it? A syncretic age, an age where we like to just mash everything together. And so while your correction is entirely apt, I was overstating the case, I do think that the overstatement is helpful to us, right? In other words I think there's a sense in which people can come to a great books education thinking that it's a book club conversation among the great authors where they all more or less agree about everything and they all approve of one another simply and there are no difficult choices to be made. I really do think that it's more about difficult choices than it is about agreement although I don't wanna overstate it. And sometimes these authors conceal or understate the debt that they owe to previous writers. And so one of the things involved in learning about them is in fact uncovering how much they do agree. That's right.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that seems right to me. I like very much the notion that these great books are posing or presenting alternative answers, competing answers, to the enduring questions that you mentioned a moment ago. And for listeners who might not be familiar with those enduring questions, Jeff already mentioned some of these, but we have in mind things like what is justice something like in Plato's Republic and the exploration of that question in The Republic versus, say, the very legalistic exploration of those questions one might find in Locke or something like this based on contract versus the soul as a kind of way, a psychology of the soul. So the meaning of justice, the meaning of being, why human beings want truth, the nature of their erotic longings, and how those erotic longings lead them to behave, these sorts of questions are the kinds of questions that Jeff and I have in mind. And we're sorta making the case, I think, in agreement on this point, that these authors present alternative questions or alternative answers to these questions.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, that's right.
SHILO BROOKS: But it seems to me, Jeff, if it's true that these authors are in conversation with one another and if it's true that they're presenting competing answers to enduring questions as well as on occasion picking up the flag where someone dropped it and running further forward with it, a little bit of both of these, that this gets us to the subject matter of the institution at which you teach, which is that there is an education to be had in listening to this conversation, in weighing these competing answers, and in ultimately, if one goes as far as you went with your remark, deciding which of the competing answers is true and right and which ones are wrong. That would be the ultimate goal. It's not simply to leave it at, "Here are all these competing answers," or to leave it at the notion that everyone agrees, as you mentioned. It seems to me that St. John's College makes an offer to the student and it says, "Come and listen to these books. Come and listen to these authors in agreement and in argument with one another. This is the best pathway to liberal education. The best pathway is not to go to a school where you're gonna pick a major, select electives, or determine your own education. The best pathway is not to go to a liberal arts college and study only mathematics, only art history, only physics. But you need to come here and listen to the entire conversation, acquaint yourself with all of the questions, mathematical questions, psychological questions, political questions, historical questions, musical questions. Acquaint yourself with all of those and the competing answers. And that will be an education, and that education is arguably better and is more in keeping with the spirit of liberal education than other educations that go by that name." So can you give an account of how the great books provide a good and effective pathway, a better pathway, into the liberal education than other alternatives?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, yeah, so that is a very complicated question. Lemme just pull on a little part of it. And we can get started that way. How do you go from great books to the idea of a great books education? And I'd just say this, these books are in conversation with one another and, obviously, that conversation is conditioned by the order in which the books appeared in history so an earlier writer can converse with his predecessors but cannot converse with his successors, that the writers can only converse with the books that were available to them. All of these things, it seems to me, are somewhat matters of accident. Also, in all frankness, the books that we happen to know about as opposed to the books that were maybe destroyed or lost to history or might be hidden for some reason or another, maybe even recent books that just haven't come to light that might be great, that's also a matter of accident. So, accident has strung together a certain series of great books. And you read them in that series, which tends to be a chronological series. And that is our first stab at what constitutes a great books education. And the difficulty is that the way we then present it to the world is we say, "This is the canon. This is the authoritative series of text." And so I guess the first thing I'd wanna stress is that, while it looks on the face of it like the series of great books, the canon is authoritative, really, it's not. It's got to be open to revision or at least to thinking about why the books are there and why they are in the order that they are, if the order is best. So how does that sound as a start, that the first thing you need to do to turn great books into a great books education is get some kind of series and think about why you happen to have them in that series?
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that sounds right to me. It is probably the best starting point for the question that I posed, because I was asking the question, "If these authors are in conversation with one another, does that conversation itself gesture in the direction of an education?" and you seem to be saying, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, we've gotta determine who gets to be in the conversation," and, not only that, "This conversation occurs by accident, and it's open to revision," and it would seem to me, and this is why I think your answer is a good one and not one that I had foreseen, that that process itself, in other words, determining what the canon is, what its parameters are, how it might change, how it might change over time, is itself [chuckles] a liberal education or at least requires a liberal education. See what I mean?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, yeah, the great books education is in part revising or learning about why the series of great books is the way it is, right?
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, and I think, as a faculty member at an institution that is sometimes called a great books school, I have a very live sense of the way we're always talking about... "Are we reading the right parts of this book?" "Are we reading the right book of this author?" "Might there be a better book out there?" "Should we read this other book together? Because it might be great." So what looks authoritative from outside is actually internally generated by the members of the series of great books themselves, by the books themselves, by their own criteria: what other books match up to Plato's Republic, what other books match up to de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, how do they speak with one another, who do they mention, should we consider those authors. And this comes to look from outside like something that gets called the Western tradition or the Western canon. But again, I think that a lot of the appearance of an authoritative list and of a geographically delimited or culturally delimited list is a matter of accident.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, and it's a matter of accident, are you saying, on the part of those who... Whoever we are, perhaps the faculty of St. John's, perhaps the faculty of the old Oxford or the people who translate the Loebs, [laughs] whatever the case may be, is it a matter of accident on their part? Or is it a matter of accident that these books were written and these are the ones that were written and others could have been written? You see what I mean? But these are the ones. So I'm asking, I guess, about the arbitrary character of the appearance of the books on the one hand, that this mind happened to have existed at this point and written this book and not another mind at that same point who wrote that book. That seems arbitrary or accidental to me and then, also, the choices themselves on the part of us who come after the writers, who say, "Well, this book of Plato's gets admitted," that maybe this book of Xenophon doesn't because he's inferior. It's a good example because [chuckles] Xenophon is not read at St. John's and was really popular at one point in history and then went underground, and it's only been recovered in the past 100 years. So both of these things seem to me to be accidental. And you seem to be making the argument that a large part of the task of a great books education... Before we even begin, there's this prior pedagogical task, which is to sort all of this out too. And those standards are all open. Those standards are up for grabs, what standards we're gonna use to determine what should be included.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, yeah, the way you phrased it seems entirely correct to me. And I just add a third dimension to it, which is if you're gonna have an institutional education where everybody comes and meets together and everybody knows what they're gonna be reading and everybody more or less reads the same thing and can talk with one another about it, you need to make some decisions, and you need all to agree on those decisions. And sometimes it comes down to something like, to choose Rousseau who is a writer I'm very fond of, Rousseau's greatest book is too long to fit into the series of great books, right? If we were to read it, we'd have to give up something else, and we think that something else might be better or more important. And because Jeff Black doesn't agree but everybody else does, Jeff is just gonna accept for the sake of having a common agreed-upon curriculum that we can all study and talk to one another about. So there's that third dimension of accident, I think, that comes from any embodied institution at a particular time in history. And the important thing, I think, I can't underline this enough, is the experience with greatness, right? The encounter with great books, living with them, getting to know them, that is what provides the internal standard that makes you more and more able then to find other books that are like them wherever you choose to look.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, [chuckles] it was very St. John's of you to present the democratic character of the canon. [Jeff laughs] "I've gotta compromise, and I'm gonna vote. But then all my votes are outweighed." This is a different way, I think, of bestowing. And I wonder if it's the authoritative way or what you would say about this. It's a different way of bestowing greatness on a thing. In other words, to do it democratically, that's not the only way one could do it. One could say, "Well, I'm the world's expert," on a thing, on Plato or something like that, "and I say that if we're gonna read one Dialogue, we're gonna read The Timaeus and we're not gonna read The Statesman," for these reasons. And so you say, "Well, at St. John's, with Rousseau, well, his longest book is, it's more than we can handle right now. And so I've gotta compromise," and these kinds of things. I just wonder to what degree you think it's sound policy to democratically bestow greatness, to bestow the mantle of greatness, versus, if there could be such a thing, the knower bestowing that mantle, ya see?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, I suspect it's a sound policy. But maybe saying that doesn't go very far, right? In other words I put it this way, I don't think, in making the choices of the canon that we make, we are determining greatness one way or the other. A book is great, or it isn't, right? And it could be that all of us, the folks who are making the decisions, don't understand the books well enough and if we did, we would see, for example, this is my own view now, things we get by sacrificing Rousseau's Emile are actually not worth it, we should be reading Emile, right? So the democratic process, I think, bestows a kind of legitimacy because you need consensus to have an education where everybody is participating to some extent. And you need consensus to have an education, also, where the participants feel free to exercise their own judgment and to learn publicly. But that doesn't mean that you're making the books great or determining what the great books are. That means you're hoping that you have it right, that you see the greatness of the books clearly and are making the right choices.
SHILO BROOKS: Right, and that's what you would say that you all at St. John's do. You've gotta get the show on the road. [laughs] So books have to be chosen. Books have to be read. Compromises have to be made. This seems just practically true to me. And I wanna emphasize that, as you've already well put it, it doesn't close off the notion that new books could be admitted or that old ones could be or should be jettisoned. I like your view of the canon as something which is not canonical [chuckles], which changes, which can change. And in a certain way, I wonder if this would map onto what you said about human nature earlier. As human nature's possibilities and all of their manifoldness are exposed or withdrawn, perhaps preferences change, and therefore, the canon changes, and the idea of what greatness is changes. I can envision a world in which Achilles is not seen as a great man but as a very violent and oppressive man, a toxic man, versus, say, a world in which Achilles might be viewed as that man to whom everyone should aspire to be. And so this occurs to me, that the greatness of a book could change according to the natures, perhaps, of the people making these decisions.
JEFF BLACK: Well, you've touched on a very important question. I'd just like to bring this out. The question then becomes something like this. Is it better to offer great books... If you're choosing among them, you have a series of books you think are great, and you have to make some decisions as to which you're gonna focus on, is it better to offer books that stress human possibilities that are close to the possibilities of the people who are studying them, that are relatively prevalent possibilities? Or is it better to offer books that suggest the most alien possibilities to the people who are reading them? And here I think, pedagogically, there's a real conundrum. I'm reminded of something that Nietzsche says, and I'm gonna get the quotation wrong. But it's something like, "There's no surer way to corrupt a young student than to teach them to value people who agree with them more than people who disagree with them." And so on the face of it, the education is best that confronts you with the great possibilities of the great books that are most different from the things you think, right? So there's a marker I could lay down. And that would be fine were it not for the very human tendency to become angry at alien things and, especially, alien takes on things that we care very deeply about, right? So if the great books education is meant to give you a full sense of the scope of human possibilities, one of the things it has to say to you is, "This thing that you care a lot about, this thing that is the way you're living your life now, it might not be the only way to live. It might not even be a good way to live." And it's hard to know how to broach something like that with somebody. I can tell a little story here. I used to be the head of the Graduate Institute at St. John's. And I'm told that when the program was originally decided for the Graduate Institute, what they would do was they would start by reading a modern book on a particular subject that was meant not to be great and then they would read a great book that addressed something similar to what was addressed by the modern book explicitly. And so by that contrast, it was meant to show the students how much better the great book was than the modern book. And I can see some advantages to starting students on what's more familiar to them, but I think there's also pedagogical difficulties with setting certain books up to fail and pedagogical difficulties with just confronting people with alien possibilities and saying, "Look, this is obviously better," right? So exactly how to get students to start thinking about the possibilities that are depicted in great books is a very tricky pedagogical question. And I think it's always decided on the fly and in the particulars.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, the question is very tricky. But it would seem to require at least one common notion, [Shilo chuckles] to use the Euclidean term. We'd have to agree on something before we even set sail. And that is that we can commune with people who are different from us. In other words the power of imagination is encompassing. I am not Achilles, I am not Booker T. Washington, I am not Frederick Douglass, but I can sufficiently read their writings or read about them to such a degree that their lives can in some way become my life and that part of my life is their life. We're not utterly and completely alien to one another. We're not utterly and completely different. The power of imagination and the commonality of the human is enough to be able to make me or to put me in communion with them and to be able to learn from them. And that I have to believe, it seems to me, from the beginning. Or else I can just say all of these books are written by people who are primitive, who are different than me, the world has changed, their experience is not my experience, and there's a wall between the two of us such that I could never know their experience. This kind of sentiment can't produce an education of the sort that these "great books," quote, unquote, attempt to provide. Does that seem right?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, yeah, that seems right. And there's a very powerful opinion out there that says something like you can't understand somebody if you haven't had the same experiences they have had. And my sense is that that opinion is actually true on some level but it just has too narrow an understanding of what an experience is, right? In other words it's too literal-minded, right? You can't understand what a car is unless you've ridden in a car. But there are novelistic depictions that engage the imagination, as you were saying, and there is the ability to provoke thoughts in other human beings by writing that produces experiences in the reader that I think are enough to get the essential commonality, the essential durability, of something fundamental and, therefore, a fundamental alternative on the table and shared between the writer those many thousands of years ago and the readers today.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah, that's what I have in mind. I sometimes tell my students that you only get to live one life, you yourself, so, "You, Sally, you get to be Sally simply. But there's a way, a very clever way, for you to live 1,000 lives and be 1,000 people. And what you must do is read 1,000 books from all sorts of different kinds of people from all historical times and all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds and political views and metaphysical views and, whatever, religious views, whatever the case may be. When you read Melville, you can become his characters, or if you read Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, you can become him, or if you read a novel by Tolstoy, you can become Anna Karenina," something like this, not fully and not wholly. But on the other hand, it's an opportunity to live a wider variety of lives than your own and, therefore, to acquaint yourself with a wide variety of human types of human experiences. And to cut yourself off from that from the get-go, to say, "That's impossible," well, that seems not only to limit you but to go against the intention of a person, like, say, Frederick Douglass, who sat down and wrote the narrative of his life so that it might be read so that it might be felt so that you might live it even though you're not gonna live it, we can't live it, but that he could put you as close as he could to something like that.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, it's amazing once you notice it, the contradiction involved in implicitly saying to somebody like Frederick Douglass, "Mr. Douglass, you believe that you can communicate essential things to me by writing. But I know [laughs] better than you do, Mr. Douglass, that that's just not possible. So I'm not gonna bother reading your book, which presumably cost you great exertions of soul to produce and you thought was more important maybe than a lotta other things in your life, because I know better than you do, what is possible for human beings." You gotta earn the right to make that kind of judgment. And I think that cannot be your starting point. You have to be more open to the thought that these folks in the past really can reach us. And it would be a great loss not to try to take advantage of what they suffered so hard to provide for us.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, this seems to me to get another question that I had for you. I'm not gonna let you off the hook on [Shilo chuckles] [Jeff laughs] is this education better or richer than liberal education as it might be understood elsewhere. But this gets us to the question, which I think, in some ways, we've already addressed, of the continuing relevance of the great books, especially in our time when such an idea can seem antiquated. It seems like what you and I have been saying is that it's, in a way, precisely in keeping with the spirit of our time if you're willing to grant that the imagination has power over the soul. If you're willing just to grant that presupposition, it's precisely in keeping with the spirit of our time to read the wide diversity of great minds, great authors, of men, women of all times, of all places, of all ethnicities, that this, in a way, can contribute richly to the goals of the spirit of our time or something like this, that these books are still relevant precisely because they embody the notion of variety, certainly the most important sort of variety, in my view, which is intellectual variety, people who disagree with one another, but also historical, cultural, et cetera.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, so let's see. I do think it's important. I like the use of the term diversity there, right? It does seem to me that, despite the apparent homogeneity of the authors, which is often apparent, it just means that we're not really aware of distinctions that they themselves would've made and the way they would have talked about their own identities. But the apparent homogeneity of the authors does make us think that they're all saying more or less the same thing and that it's a very outdated thing that's not helpful to us. I guess the other direction we could go would be to wonder about how great books education turns into liberal education and what liberal education means. Do you have a preference in terms of which direction we go? Would you rather talk a little bit about the question of relevance?
SHILO BROOKS: No, I think we've given an account of why the books continue to be relevant although I think that in order to agree with that statement you have to agree to several prerequisites which we've outlined. But it seems to me like a pathway into the question of what a proper liberal education is... How do I put it? Posing the question of what a proper liberal education is, might at the same time answer the question of whether the books are relevant. So why don't we do that.
JEFF BLACK: Let me say just one more thing, maybe, about relevance. And then I'll say something about liberal education. So the way you and I were talking I would characterize as synthetic, that we were starting from first principles and we were talking about reason to believe that the books could say something to us and reasons to say we don't know enough to simply reject that they can say something to us. But there's another way into this that's analytical. And I think it has a certain appeal. If you're really taken up by questions of the day, I think one of the things you'll notice is that there's a certain language that these questions tend to be expressed in. So I'll just take one word, the word identity. And sooner or later, when you use that word a lot, it might occur to you to wonder what the word actually means, right? We all have some sense of what we mean when we say identity. But what exactly is that sense? What are its parts? How do they hold together? And the surprising thing is that when you press on questions like what do these words mean or what do our fundamental categories with which we address questions of the day, what do those categories mean, you first end up with current authors. But those current authors end up citing, often as a kind of authority or kind of source, less current authors. And almost always, there's a kind of trail maybe not very clearly blazoned but a kind of trail that leads to the great books. And a good example would be Rousseau, who I think is at the root of a lot of current political terminology that we're finding very powerful and appealing. There's this feature of the great books that's kinda funny. Whereas we're used to a notion of scientific progress where we know more and more with each generation of scientists, there's a countervailing tendency where the initial insight tends to be brighter and more powerful than subsequent iterations of that insight. So as you follow this trail towards the origin of this concept that we use, this piece of the furniture of our minds, you find a little label on the bottom of the furniture that says, "Made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau," and when you show up in Rousseau's carpentry workshop, you find the plans for the idea, right? You find the original of the chair, right? And it's often much more impressive and complex and just educational than the version that we were using in our heads and moving around. So there's this other analytic sense of relevance. These are the people who made the tools that we are using to think about the problems today without knowing who made them, right?
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's a very nice way of putting it. And of course, when you say these things about Rousseau, I can't help but say no, no, Nietzsche's the one who has all the... [Jeff laughs] "Made in Nietzsche's workshop," because I see exactly that. And I'm sure someone who studies Heidegger, you know.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah.
SHILO BROOKS: You can see this all over the place, the fingerprints, in a way, of these people, of these great authors. Yeah, that's a very nice way of putting it, and, in a certain sense, that answers the question or at least gets us to the question which I've been dancing around the whole time, which is this as a liberal education. And by liberal education... I think that term is a loaded one. I think a lotta people don't understand what it means. Our board of regents, there was some talk some years ago to remove the term liberal education from the University of Colorado's mission statement because it sounded too political, which is clearly not what the term is meant... It means liberating, freeing, an education which frees the young person, which frees the mind. And so what your remark indicates to me is if you read these great books, what you can see is the source of the ideas that have currency today, which may not be identical to the ideas in Rousseau, as an example, but which bear his fingerprints or the marks of his workshop. And that itself is liberating. Because you know the origin of the ideas, you can go back to where it was first conceived and ask the why question to Rousseau and then trace the development of those ideas through history all the way to your own time. And that itself liberates you from the prejudice of simply having to ingest those ideas without knowing their origins and without knowing that at the origin there's a debate taking place between, say, Rousseau and someone else. You know what I mean? You can go back. And that is liberating because that frees you from trafficking in contemporary intellectual currency and permits you to traffic in the questions about absolute, as you put it, enduring, solutions and questions. That's a very different thing, and that's freeing.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, that seems right to me. So it is freeing in the sense that you're no longer using without awareness tools that cost somebody to make and without awareness of the cost that was paid, the choices that were made, in order to make these tools available or the motives of the first person who fashioned these tools, right? So in that sense, it frees you. And I think it frees you also in this other sense. There are a number of different ways of thinking about what liberal education liberates from. But I'd wanna put my finger on this one in particular. A lotta these terms have a dimension in which they excite our passions immediately. And so when the term gets used, we love or we hate almost immediately. And that is from a simple identification with or rejection of the term, "This term is mine. It belongs to my team. That term is yours. It belongs to your team. I love these terms. I hate these other ones." And knowing where the terms come from, knowing that they're complex, knowing that they were put together by somebody who was tormented by the choices and maybe wasn't entirely happy with the outcome, that, I think, makes it a lot harder to simply love or hate any of these ideas, right? The phrase I like, which I'm stealing more or less, shamelessly from Nietzsche, is it makes you more multiple. There's a part of you that loves it. There's a part of you that might dislike part of it. And I think that makes human beings more moderate, more able to listen to one another, and less likely simply to give in to passions of love or hate in ways that are detrimental to them, in ways that provoke fights over things that don't necessarily need to be fought about or that obscure common ground that actually exists. So I do think there's a moral component, if I can put it that way, to the liberal education, to being freed from more or less ignorant use of terms whose origins we don't understand.
SHILO BROOKS: That's a really wonderful poetic way of putting it. With the multiplicity you highlight, that part of them could love a thing, part of them could hate a thing, that it's all in the same human being, if such a person could exist, I would argue that person is, in a way, free. I think that's what you're getting at there. And this goes back to what you said at the beginning about the creation of the world, that not merely are the books an attempt to present a world. They attempt to turn you into one. In other words you become a world yourself. And by that I mean a person who is populated, if you'll permit me this term, with many people, a person who's capable of both seeing the great merits and therefore loving an idea or a position or a person and then also seeing it's great flaws and therefore hating or rejecting entirely a person or an idea or a position. This is a free person.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, and I don't wanna hide the possibility that there's a downside to this, and I'd say those sorts of human beings are not necessarily useful to political movements because they're the kind of human beings who say, "Well, yes, but on the other hand." Or they say, "Well, it's complicated. So let's lay out the difficulties," right? And what we need for politics often is allegiance, is quick action, is being faster than the other guy or being more numerous than the other guy, and those are things that you might become less apt for. But I do think the compensation is you're more likely to become a genuinely lovable human being and you're more likely to become a genuinely interesting human being if you contain multitudes in the way that you just described.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, I cannot put it any better than that. I have one parting question for you. Our time is short. You've mentioned that you're a big fan of Rousseau. I'm curious if your students over the course of your 20-plus years at St. John's... Are there any books that you find resonate with students in particular or that you might recommend to our listeners both young and old or at least young at heart that you find really do accomplish the sorts of things we've discussed today?
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, I think the easiest thing for me to say is to recommend books that are resonating with me right now, the books that, if I had world enough in time, I would spend all my time reading and thinking about. I do find that students are more or less attracted to certain books, but I do think that that attraction might be accidental in the ways that we were talking about earlier: if we happen to be at war, it might be that The Iliad is more interesting, if we're not, it might happen to be that it's less easy to understand, questions like that that have to do with the configuration of souls present in a class. But lemme give you the books that occupy me right now: Xenophon, who is not on our program, I find great. And so both the Socratic writings and his non-Socratic writings like The Education of Cyrus and The Anabasis; Rousseau I find rewards repeated returns, especially Emile, which is, I think, his greatest book and, I think, he thought his greatest book; and then a lot of Nietzsche, and I'd probably single out Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil as the books that I enjoy spending a lot of time with. So those are my big three right now. I don't know who your big three are right now, Shilo.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, that's pretty close. [laughs]
JEFF BLACK: Uh-oh!
SHILO BROOKS: You're a man after my own heart. I add to these things the writings of some of the greatest statesmen in history. I very much have enjoyed reading The Federalist Papers and learning some of the things that Jeff talked about some time ago the way in which men like James Madison were tormented by the choices they had to make, even Jefferson, I know that they're represented as people who made choices which were simply wrong and, "How could they have done it?" But, as Jeff highlighted a moment ago, reading these books, especially if you happen to be an American, The Federalist Papers or Jefferson's writings, Madison's writings, you can find these in various collected volumes, will give you some sense of the torment that these men faced, the difficulty in politics of coming to compromise, the need for the virtue of prudence, which is to say that some things have to simply be done incrementally. To learn that lesson is a very valuable one. So I only add to that those books. And then of course the great Alexis de Tocqueville, who in my view is perhaps the greatest psychologist of peoples that I've ever come across, not individual persons. That might be Nietzsche. But peoples, I think Tocqueville outstrips him. So start there everybody. And we're happy to recommend more. One thing I recommend to our listeners: if you're interested in more about what these great books are, check out the St. John's College website. They post their seminar reading lists for the year for the freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior years on the website. And so you can go and see what, in the view of this institution, the greatest books are in chronological order and take a stab at any of these that happen to interest you. So thanks so much, Jeff, for being with us today.
JEFF BLACK: Yeah, thank you for having me, Shilo. This was a pure pleasure.
SHILO BROOKS: All right, thanks, everybody. [kindly music continues] The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson. [music swells]