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What is a good Great Books discussion?

An address to the students and faculty in the Great Books Program

At Mercer University, October 2005

By Thomas A. Huber

Mercer University

I’m somewhat embarrassed by the title of this lecture, for many of you will have already realized that I am about to say something about how one could recognize a good Great Books discussion by way of a lecture. And I in no way mean to suggest that a lecture can substitute for a discussion, so let me start with an apology. I mean an apology in the sense of the Greek word apologia, a speaking in the defense of something. I will, however, be most brief here and make just four small points – one sentence each – in defense of this lecture. First, classroom time is very precious and every single text you will read in the Program is greater than anything I will say – and more deserving of your discussion – so I thought it might be prudent to minimize the amount of time you talked about discussion in class in favor of discussion in class. On the other hand, many of you sometimes wonder what it is we faculty expect a Great Books discussion to be like, and so I thought it might be useful to put a few ideas before you for your consideration. Thirdly, we don’t exactly disallow lectures in the Great Books Program; it’s just that we allow the Great Books themselves to be the lectures that we then discuss. Finally, we’ll have some time after the snacks for those of you who wish to stay around and discuss what was said. So let me begin a second time, this time by explaining two words in my title, again with some brevity to save the bulk of the time for what comes later. I’m sure I could be vigorously challenged on each of these two points, but I don’t want to dwell on them just yet. We could talk more about this during the discussion. The very fact that we have a Great Books Program announces in words with capital letters that (1) we think there exists the category of greatness and that (2) we privilege texts, especially written texts – that is, books – in this Program as a way to a liberal education. As Eva Brann, a former Dean of St. John’s College notes, “we think that there exist great books; we have faith that we are able, nay obligated, to discern them; and finally, we believe that they are the books that ought to be formally assigned for the students to read [and discuss].” (Brann, p. 5) To say that some human activity, whether thought or action, is great is simultaneously to say that other human activity is ordinary or mundane. To say that human beings can act nobly or honorably is to say that human beings can also act ignobly or dishonorably. “The thought that there exists greatness not only in books but in other human enterprises defines and illuminates a certain kind of life. It is a life in which there is splendor and drabness, significance and insignificance, extraordinariness and ordinariness.” (Brann, p. 5) Each word in each of these pairs complements and completes the other. They are like two sides of the same coin, and both sides deserve careful scrutiny. Among other criteria, a great book is one that portrays and illuminates both sides of many of these coins as it explores human possibilities. Merely good books or worse do not often pass this test; they may fail completely, or they may portray but one side of a small number of coins. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be read. Each of us is free, of course, in this republic to read pretty much what he or she wants. But it doesn’t follow that we should spend the precious time while engaged in liberal education to consider less than the best. “I think most of my colleagues have the sense that the world with all its troubles is best served by those of its inhabitants who are imbued with what is noble, high, and good and who have occupied themselves with theories and visions of what is best in the face of all that can go wrong.” (Brann, p. 5) Written texts are privileged because, well, they’re written – they contain words, and words are pretty much the best way we’ve found to communicate unambiguously to one another what we’re thinking. This, in part, is because we’ve created the words and more or less agreed upon what each word means. Forms of communication adopted and adapted by humans from the natural world – like colors in painting; shapes in sculpture, theatre set design and architecture; sounds in music; textures that we can touch; and even tastes and smells in foods – are also important and so we include some of these in our program, but there’s just something different about words. Mathematical symbols and numbers are even less ambiguous than words, but they communicate little about what it means to be human. So words provide the best means “for the central activity, the one through which liberal education gives people their full human shape, … that of interpreting and finding the significance of everything whatsoever.” (Brann, p. 4) I think most can agree that we live in at least three worlds. There is the world of nature, that world containing all the “stuff,” the matter and the energy, of the universe in its myriad manifestations. There is the world of art, that world containing all that humankind has achieved and leaves as human artifacts, from space ships to Beethoven sonatas to Newton’s theory of gravity. And there is the world of knowledge, that reflective realm or sphere in which we think about the other two worlds and how we exist in relation to them. This is the world proper of words and texts. We might find a human artifact like a prehistoric hand axe, and with careful discernment and experience we might be able to surmise something of the culture that produced it. But the artifact doesn’t reveal everything its maker was thinking as he or she fashioned the hand axe. But written words could allow even this record to survive. Texts are artificial memories that store externally the inventions of the human imagination, the discoveries of the human intellect, and the inquiry that gave rise to and shaped them. Texts can be lost; they can be ignored; they can be twisted beyond recognition and turned into textbooks; or they can be studied. We choose to study some of the greatest of these texts. And we pay special attention to words, because words, I contend, are not merely symbols that abstract and then represent the world in diminished and sanitized forms for our human use, but portals that present the world to our human intellect and sensibility. Words are windows; and like windows they may work in either direction. With words we humans call other humans to the window to peer through at the world on the other side of the glass. We have to see through the glass with minimal distortion if we are to see what is being pointed out to us. This means we have to choose our words carefully, thoughtfully and artfully. But might not the world on the other side of the glass also be calling us to the window by those very same words? Is it possible that something of the world on the other side of the glass is also in us and articulates its dumb thoughts through our words? I’d better leave this extravagant idea, which I blame on my recent reading (or misreading) of Heidegger (headgear), but need I also point out that a silver coating on one side of the window glass can make a mirror, and so words also allow us to gaze at and contemplate ourselves as well as the world around us? Perhaps we should get on to the main topic. The activity most often displayed in a good Great Books discussion is best described by the phrase reflective inquiry. The word inquiry derives from the Latin quaerere from the stem and root quaer- meaning to seek or to search or to ask for. Adding the prefix in- gives us to seek into or to search into. It carries the connotation that the seeking or searching or asking has a goal of obtaining something. Many English words derive from this Latin root quaer-, words like acquire, request, quarrel, conquest, inquisition, query, question, and quest. The last two words, question and quest, remind us that inquiry as an activity includes both an opening move – a question – and an extended activity in time – a quest. If Aristotle is right and “all human beings by nature desire to know” (Metaphysics, 980a) then questioning is an erotic act of the intellect. “A genuine question is, when still within the questioner, an expectant vacancy, a receptive openness, a defined ignorance, and, above all, a directed desire of the intellect. When launched, that is to say, uttered, it has a revealing double capacity: It can be asked either of a fellow human being or about things. When addressed to a human being, it is a demand for the [speaking], the sharing, of truth. When addressed to things, it serves notice that the world is held responsible, that it is thought to be able to answer, to speak out its depths, to be endowed with reasons. In either case, the condition of asking is the hope that the question can draw to us something we are in want of and that if ever we receive an answer we will be – for a while – fulfilled.” (Brann, p. 143) Your best questions should be “intellectually visceral,” just like a hunger pang is to the body; they should get your intellect’s attention like a beautiful sunset attracts your aesthetic sensibility. These are the kinds of questions we should be discussing in the Great Books Program. Typically, your teachers will come to class with an opening question. If they’re like me, they’ve thought a long time about this question, and it’s a real question – a question for which the teacher has no final answer yet, but one for which he or she knows, or at least strongly believes, the text has something important to say and probably quite a bit to say. It’s a question that had its source from inside the text itself, not a question imposed on the text from outside. These opening questions usually deserve to be pursued by a quest of the class. Perhaps you won’t stay on this quest for the whole discussion, but the question shouldn’t be tossed aside like yesterday’s news. Too often students want “to move on” from an opening question into the numerous scattered questions that the class has collectively brought to the table. The potential problem here is shallowness, that common companion to a “free-for-all, wide-ranging discussion” that tries to cover all bases, but never dips below the surface of vague recognition. It may be better to sound the water for the depths possible from the opening question. Your quest may get refreshed by new questions that arise in their turn, or it may stay within the text to interpret it and determine the significance of this interpretation to the question, or it may move (temporarily) outside of the text to ask if what the text suggests is “true.” The truth, after all, is what the question is after. Whatever form your quest takes, it should be intense, involved, and vital. I say reflective inquiry because the quest and its guiding questions bend back (the root meaning of reflective) eventually onto the questions and the quest themselves. That is, eventually we question the questions as it were, to see what they themselves have to tell us about the world or about being human. In Plato’s Republic (Book VII) we find the first description of a liberal arts curriculum. And in this curriculum, as Socrates points out, there are two directions of inquiry. “One leads by deduction from the axioms and postulates down into” the particulars of a specialist’s field, like Euclid’s propositions rooted in the soil of his definitions, common notions and postulates. The other leads “upward in the sense that it takes the axioms themselves as questionable and rises to inquiries above and beyond them.” (Brann, p. 2, Eight Theses…) Reflective inquiry simply reminds us that we have both diagnostic questions and reflective questions. Reflective inquiry is best achieved in the Great Books Program by discussion. To discuss derives from the Latin verb discutere, which means literally to strike asunder, to shake apart,or to scatter. A Platonic description for the type of discussion favored is dialectic, another favorite of Socrates. I like the word dialectic because it shares the same stem and root as the word intellect, which is, after all, what dialectic is supposed to train. That stem and root is leg-, which means to gather together (especially fruit) or to collect or to assemble in the Latin word legere or to enumerate or to say (by choosing one’s words) in the Greek word legein. Other words cognate with dialectic and intellect include collect, elect, legion, and even lecture, a collection of words to be spoken. So, if during a discussion we shake apart a text or a proposition of a classmate into pieces, the intellect should collect them together again. Specifically, the intellect should choose from among the possible meanings of different parts of the text the one that allows the parts to cohere into a meaningful whole. This often frustrates students because when considering an isolated incident in the text it is often possible to entertain and support many interpretations. But parts of a text can only be interpreted reasonably and made sense of in the context of the whole text. Not all seemingly reasonable interpretations of isolated incidents can be warranted when the larger text is asked to bear the weight of them. It helps to have many intellects illuminate possible meanings to different parts of the text and to recall for everyone relevant pieces of the dis-cussed text that must be fitted back together into a meaningful whole so that they are noticed by each individual intellect. There is yet another important point to make about dialectic, at least according to Plato’s Socrates. When disagreement arises among students about the meaning of a part of the text, students often use “eristic, not dialectic, with one another.” (Republic, 454a) Eristic is the use of argument or persuasion for the sake of winning the argument, rather than for the sake of discovering the truth. Dialectic is the use of give-and-take discussion for the sake of discovering the truth. The difference between the two can usually be measured by how hot students get under the collar during the exchange. In a discussion, listening is as important – no, more important – than speaking. In a Convocation Address to the St. John’s College Graduate Institute in Liberal Education, tutor Cary Stickney emphasized the importance of listening: “[One thing that made the last class so good was that] we listened carefully to one another, with generosity and respect. To listen with generosity is to hear what is most interesting and powerful in another’s words, to take them as saying the best thing they can mean. To listen with respect is to go beyond the politeness that blandly allows everyone an opinion and to ask for the reasons by which another’s opinion could become your own.” (http://teachinggreatbooks.pepperdine.edu/stickney.html) Listening is an art just as is speaking. If we listen only so as to hear the pause signaling when we can “jump back in again” with our next point, we do the speaker and ourselves an injustice. We are merely engaging in eristic, not dialectic. Listening carefully can save one’s life – I mean that metaphorically and literally. In Book Eleven of The Iliad of Homer, Achilleus, “standing on the stern of his huge-hollowed vessel/looking out over the sheer war work and the sorrowful onrush” (11: 599-600), thinks he sees Nestor carrying away the wounded Machaon, “the shepherd of the people” (11: 597), from the battle he himself has refused to join. He sends his beloved Patroklos, “delight [of] my heart” (11: 607), to Nestor to see if he saw correctly. When Patroklos arrives, Nestor pleads with him and reminds him of what his father had said to him upon setting out to Troy: “You must speak solid words to [Achilleus], and give him good counsel/and point his way. If he listens to you it will be for his own good.” (11: 787-788) Nestor claims that “even/now you might speak to wise Achilleus, he might be persuaded/…since the persuasion of a friend is a strong thing.” (11: 789-790; 792) But if not, “let him send you out, at least … And let him give you his splendid armour to wear to the fighting, /if perhaps the Trojans might think you are he” (11: 795; 797-798) This latter piece of advice stirs “the feeling in the breast of Patroklos” (11: 803) and leads ultimately to his death. But this is not the first time Patroklos has heard the first piece of this advice. For Phoinix, sent “along with Achilleus [by Peleus his father] to make [Achilleus] a speaker of words and one who [is] accomplished in action,’ (9: 443) had earlier gone to Achilleus as part of the embassy to persuade him to return to the fighting. This Phoinix claims “that it was you, godlike Achilleus, I made/my own child [and] I made you all that you are now.” (9: 494-495; 485) Phoenix, whom Achilleus refers to as “my father,” (9:607) reminds him that even “the very immortals/can be moved” (9:497-498) by supplication and offerings for endearment. And then Phoenix tells the story of Meleagros, son of Oineus the Aitolian, who kills the fierce wild boar loosed by Artemis on the city of Kalydon as the Kouretes are attacking. “So long/as Meleagros lover of battle stayed in the fighting/it went the worse for the Kouretes … But when the anger came upon Meleagros … he … lay apart with his wedded bride, Kleopatra” (9: 549-551; 553; 555-556) and it went poorly for the Aitolians. Aitolian elders supplicated Meleagros; his father Oineus “again and again entreated him” (9: 581); “his own friends/who were the most honoured and dearest of all entreated him; /but even so [none] could … persuade the heart within him/until, as the chamber [itself] was under close assault … his wife, the fair-girdled bride [Kleopatra], supplicated/Meleagros, in tears, and rehearsed in their numbers before him/all the sorrows that come to men when their city is taken.” (9: 585-588; 590-592) Only Kleopatra can stir his heart. The story has an obvious message for Achilleus: don’t wait until it’s too late and you lose everything you could gain. But perhaps the story is intended even more for another’s ears. Only Patroklos, “sitting over against Achilleus, alone, in silence,” (9:190) might hear his own name in the name of Kleopatra. Patro-cleos … Kleo-patra. They are the same name, only reversed. Surely Phoinix, who knows both Patroklos and Achilleus and the love between them as well as anyone, has discerned the only possible chance for success. But Patroklos does not heed the message – perhaps he does not hear it – and Achilleus and Patroklos each sleep with a woman beside him at opposite corners in the shelter. And much later, when Achilleus is persuaded by Patroklos to “give me your armour to wear on my shoulders into the fighting; so perhaps the Trojans might think I am you” (16: 40-41), Patroklos does not listen well enough to follow Achilleus’ order: “But obey to the end this word I put upon your attention/ …When you have driven them from the ships, come back … for fear some one of the everlasting gods on Olympos/ might crush you.” (16: 83; 87; 93-94) We must listen for what is subtle, feint, or hard to hear as well as what is plainspoken and seemingly urgent and obvious. But speaking is also important and provides more than just something to listen to. I mean this in several ways. When we speak, we try to articulate in words the thoughts of our intellect. We give a thought tentative life in the form of words that we string together in sentences, words that invite others to come to the window of our thought. No medium is more faithful to our thoughts than words. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but there are no pictures of thoughts, just pictures of physical things. We do not merely “express ourselves” or “communicate” with one another in a good Great Books discussion, as if there were something completed with the saying of it. Too often sentences start with “I think that…” as if the “I” were more important to the point being made than what came after the “that.” We often invest both too much and too little of ourselves in what we say. We invest too much when we hope for praise or agreement or at least acceptance of our “Constitutional right” to hold such an opinion or view. We invest too little when we speak carelessly or predictably or with little clarity or justification. What we say should be thought of as an essay in that old sense of essay, which is to test the quality of something, to try something out. Speaking a thought that arises after careful and generous reading or listening is important because it becomes a different thought when we hear it articulated and when others hear it for the first time. But it is put out there in the open to be scrutinized by everyone for meaning, relevance and judgment. We deepen the conversation when we ask each other for clarifications, for justifications and for responses. Often, conversations will spend much time on meaning, because meaning is logically prior to judgments of relevance and truth. The meaning behind questions or passages or just words in the text is not always easy to discern or articulate, but it is always necessary. This is, of course, another reason why written texts are what we spend the most time discussing. “It happens that [these] texts we read in a primary sense, books, are the ones in whose intended significance we are most entitled to trust and in whose interpretability we have most reason to believe.” (Brann, p. 16, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic)” Unlike the natural world that may not have any intentional significance and be beyond human interpretation, written texts of this caliber most obviously were intended to be both significant and interpreted, no matter how difficult these may be. And although the idea that we can “teach someone how to think” is dubious at best, we can give him or her occasions to think while discussing original texts, original in the sense of being the origin of something great. A good Great Books discussion, where speaking is thoughtful, plentiful, and manifold, is like thinking out loud. I say manifold because it helps if everyone speaks, because everyone’s ears hear differently, everyone’s intellect gathers differently, and everyone’s speech contributes differently. It just won’t do to expect the science majors to read carefully and speak about the science texts, the English majors to read carefully and speak about the poetry, the business students to read carefully and speak about the economics texts. As Socrates tells Glaucon, “we’ll deny, therefore, that the one who’s finicky about his learning, especially when he’s young and doesn’t yet have an account of what’s useful and not, is a lover of learning … But the one who is willing to taste every kind of learning with gusto, and who approaches learning with delight, and is insatiable, we shall justly assert to be” a lover of learning. (The Republic, 475c) We need the intellect of the humanities major reading carefully and speaking about science texts, because his or her intellect hasn’t been trained to read and speak about these texts in a particular way. For the same reason, we need every student to read carefully and speak forthrightly about every text. Perhaps a final word about speaking and how it contributes to a good Great Books discussion is in order. If discussion means to shake apart, then the text is logically prior to the discussion and gives to the discussion its material to be shaken apart and hopefully put back together in a meaningful way by the intellect. The intellect delights in finding meaning and significance in the text as manifested in wholeness. This intellect also knows that it is read more powerfully by the text than the text is read by it. But some readers come to texts, like biologists come to frogs, with scalpels in hand, ready to dissect, rather than to discuss. The nature of the scalpel doesn’t really matter much to the point I’m making, but it always matters greatly to the one wielding it. It may be the scalpel of a political reading – conservative or liberal – a religious reading – you name the religion – an -ist reading – whether feminist, historicist, socialist, deconstructionist – it doesn’t really matter. The scalpel is brought to the text and the text is dissected, usually no mercy shown. This type of mind delights in leaving the pieces strewn across the table, evidence of the power of “the modern analytical mind” over this text written by just another “dead, white European male.” This mind is now safe from the text and how the text might have read it. This mind is easily recognized in discussion, too. Its “ideology reveals itself in predictability” (Brann, Eight Theses, p. 4) and in its self-righteous insistence. The same analysis is brought to every text, and with the passion of a crusader. But as a biologist, I know the difference between a frog and a dissected frog – so do you. Now, what I have just described is a caricature, of course, for we all must bring something of ourselves to the texts – our experiences, our sensibilities, our intellects, our appetites – because there is no way to “check” these at the door, they’re part of us after all. And there are certainly sensitive and sophisticated ways to read texts that involve a method brought to the texts. But we must try to enter the world of the text and restrain ourselves to focus on what we share in common – principally the text itself and our general human nature. And there is a place and time for specific methods that can be brought to a text, but I don’t think they’re here in a Great Books discussion, perhaps in graduate school or in an undergraduate literary criticism course. I think one should delight awhile in the frog’s leaping and croaking and fly catching before one brings the scalpel in for analysis of another sort or before one tries to place the frog in the context of its environment. Teachers and students have different roles when speaking. In a good Great Books discussion we have teachers, not professors; that is, the teacher should be teaching, not professing to, the students. St. John’s prefers the word tutor. Both words – teacher and tutor – seem appropriate to our role. The word teach is cognate with the word token, which suggests that a teacher has something to show to or to hand to students. The sense here is that we offer or display something, which can be refused. The word tutor comes from the Latin tuitus, which means to guard or to observe. So a teacher’s role is two-fold, both to watch over and guard the discussion and, at times, to offer or show something to the students. The word student comes from the Latin studēre, which means to be zealous or eager. Students in a good Great Books discussion are not passive recipients waiting to be filled with knowledge; they are active participants in the quest for meaning, significance and truth. Students beat the bushes, as it were, trying to flush meaning from the words in which it lies hidden, and then question this meaning for relevance and truth. A good Great Books discussion depends on students who have prepared thoroughly for the hunt, although they don’t yet know the quarry. I’ve borrowed this hunting analogy from Cary Stickney, the St. John’s tutor I mentioned earlier. He reminds us that “one may hunt for amusement, as one may do anything to pass the time, even go to graduate school. But the hunter in the fullest sense is the one who may starve if he doesn’t find some game, and who may lose his life if he loses his way, or if the wrong beast finds him unprepared. The most intent, boldest, and best hunter is the one who has the most at stake, to gain or to lose. I think the best speaking and listening, the best reading and thinking and writing [in this Program] share a sense that our lives are at stake as we try to understand the books and each other and ourselves.” (Stickney, p.2) This brings me to my final point. What is all this reading and discussing and writing for? Cary Stickney has already hinted at the answer in what I just quoted. Our lives are at stake, usually the intensity, the fullness and the meaningfulness of our lives more so than the actual life, although I argued above differently. We believe that careful reading and discussion of these texts can make those lives better. Eva Brann writes, “Eventually almost everyone had better become a this or a that – a research physicist or a licensed plumber. But parents and the world owe the young some (let it be four) clear years for becoming not a this or a that, but for learning to be a human being, whose powers of thought are well exercised, whose imagination is well stocked, whose will has conceived some large human purpose, and whose passions have found some fine object of love about which to crystallize.” (Brann, ) This is the gift that is offered to you in the Great Books Program, at least at Mercer as a portion of your liberal education. But it takes both hard work and a willingness to let these texts read you even as you read them. I am never quite so sad professionally as when a graduating senior cannot find – or does not care to find – a single meaningful passage to read at the Junior/Senior banquet or is unable or unwilling to speak of how he or she has changed in some important way after four years of reading and discussing and writing about the Great Books. “To be alive is to change; not indeed blindly or aimlessly, but steadily and constantly,” writes Cary Stickney. Change is not something to be feared and avoided, but something to be welcomed and embraced. You have chosen this Program as an opportunity to help to shape the life you wish to lead and forge the kind of soul you want to become. No second major or other academic undertaking at Mercer holds quite the same promise for the human life you will live as submitting yourself to these texts and articulating your thoughts to each other during a discussion. I know there is a temptation to pretend not to care or not to believe that such things are possible. I know there are competing voices tempting you to reject the idea that there can be a canon of texts you should engage to be educated and tempting you to trash the very idea of greatness as somehow elitist and exclusive. Sirens that call you to a second major or another minor – anything that will make you a better job candidate – instead of completing the Great Books Program, a program designed to help you find a better life. But a good life – or at least a better life – is possible. And you should at least allow yourself to read these texts before deciding which chorus of naysayers you want to join. But you might be surprised; you might just find yourself at the beginning of a lifelong quest with great books as some of your guides. I wish all of us this hope for a good life, a life rich and deep and fully human.