The Piety of Great Books

The Piety of Great Books August 27, 2011

I walked into a local thrift shop today seeking out bookcases and came home with the 54 volume set of of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Great Books series. Called Volume 1: The Great Conversation, it spans Homer to Freud with stops at Euclid, Chaucer and Swift. I saw Plotinus and Virgil and swooned. Now I need even more bookshelves.

The history of this series is fascinating. Education used to consist of studying the masters, of analyzing great literature. Latin and Greek used to be the mark of an educated person. If you didn’t know your Herodotus, you weren’t educated. The idea behind this series was to hearken back to the idea of a classical education, to give modern men and women to fill the gaps left by modern education.

It’s a rather ambitious idea. Responding to critics who said the works were incomprehensible to the average person, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins said:

Because the great bulk of mankind have never had the chance to get a liberal education, it cannot be “proved” that they can get it. Neither can it be “proved” that they cannot. The statement of the ideal, however, is of value in indicating the direction that education should take.

Hutchins seems to think that the series, and the desire to master it, is worthwhile in and of itself. That the pursuit of knowledge, no matter how arcane and lofty, is an admirable thing. That the journey, and not the destination, counts. He said something about the series which really struck me:

This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.

As much of modern Paganism is about reclaiming the spiritual heritage of the West, with it’s current movement taking root just as Westerners were abandoning Christianity for Eastern religions, I find the idea that the Great books series birth in 1952 coincides with the “coming-out” of Wicca rather fascinating. This idea of piety rooted in the wisdom of the West attracted me like a moth to a flame. I now have 54 more books, well-bound and in good condition. They exist in my home as an act of piety. I like that.

The series has it’s issues. I remember reading Pirsig’s criticism years ago. I have the older edition, in a printing almost as old as I am, so it contains works omitted in the newer edition and lacks the new additions. Most of these old classics have better translations available today, and with the availability of public domain texts on the internet, the series is likely obsolete.

Yet I like that I have this audacious project, this act of Western piety, this very human vault towards the sun under my roof. It’s like an eternal altar to the wisdom of my ancestors. There Virgil shall sit, that virtuous Pagan, unchanged, constant and reliable for my entire life. One day, perhaps he will sit on another person’s shelf, still smelling of my incense and cooking. These 54 books are a tribute to the enduring brilliance of the human spirit. I love that.

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