I want to share with you an article found at Memoria Press’s website by classical educator and author Martin Cothran titled, “What’s so Great About Great Books?” Regents Academy teaches the Great Books in our Omnibus classes, and Cothran gives a good, brief explanation why.
There are some books we set apart from the rest and call “great.” What do they got that the others ain’t got? Well, for one thing, they don’t use “ain’t.” But isn’t there something else?
What is a great book, and what makes it different from a book that is not great? Aren’t there differences of opinion on what constitutes a great book? And if so, isn’t this difference of opinion an indication that such greatness is, like we often say of beauty, in the eye of the beholder? And if there is no agreement on what a great book is, then is it even possible to call any particular book truly “great”?
To call something “great” is to attribute to it some combination of three virtues: intellectual, moral, and aesthetic. An intellectual virtue has to do with something’s truth; a moral virtue has to do with the good of a thing; and an aesthetic virtue has to do with a thing’s beauty. Ultimately, however, all of these considerations come into play for a book to be called truly “great.”
When we say a book is “great,” we may mean to say that it communicates some truth. If it is a book of nonfiction, this truth could be a particular truth about God, man, or the world. There are great books of philosophy or history that do this. Plato’s Republic and Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War may relate to us eternal or temporal truths that can tell us of our proper place in the cosmos or of our proper role in this world.
If it is a work of fiction, we still expect that it will communicate truths, although of a more universal kind, communicated in metaphor, parable, or allegory. Homer’s Iliad may speak to us of the folly of wrath. Dante’s Divine Comedy may communicate to us that we are pilgrims seeking the way to God and that we may find reason alone useful for a while, but that eventually we are helpless without Divine Grace.
We may also judge a book great by the moral lesson it teaches us. Aesop’s Fables, like much great children’s literature, is filled with practical wisdom that instructs us concerning what we must do to avoid the common pitfalls in life that often result from greed, ambition, and selfishness. The Bible tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of the charity we too should practice.
But there are many books we would not call “great” that instruct or impart knowledge to us or that tell us what we should do. A travel book or a repair manual do these things, but they are not great literature. There must be, then, something in addition to these moral and intellectual qualities alone that makes for a “great” book.
Great literature must not only inhabit our intellect and subordinate our will, but it must also capture our imagination. Without Beauty, Truth and Goodness are simply inaccessible to us. Unless our very desires are ordered to the True and the Good, our desires are ultimately without effect.
John Henry Newman spoke to this very issue:
“Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles … Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”
Reason and evidence may yield knowledge, and exhortation may bring about conviction, but what will breathe life into what we know—and know we should do? What will help us to avoid “praising one thing,” as Plato put it, “but being pleased by another”? What will resolve the problem that Allan Bloom once described as the “tension between the pleasurable and the good”?
What is it that will make us whole?
Classical Christian education operates according to the principle that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are the fundamental criteria, not only of a great book, but of a great education—of which the great books form a fundamental part.