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Great Books

Great Books, Partisan Hermeneutics

Over the past two years, I have had the good fortune of participating in three great books courses. The first two were at Columbia: one was a survey of Western literature, the other a survey of Western philosophy. The third was hosted by the Hertog Foundation, a right-leaning philanthropic organization, and it focused primarily on great texts in political philosophy.

My peers in each program reflected the ideological makeup of the host institution: most of my fellow students at Columbia were on the left, a majority of those at Hertog were on the right. The two classroom experiences differed substantially as a result — I found that progressives and conservatives tended to approach great books with very different methods of interpretation.

By “method of interpretation” (or “interpretative framework”) I refer to one’s theory of how old texts should be made sense of. Such a theory is necessary because it is often difficult to read texts that are hundreds or even thousands of years old and understand what they are trying to say. Much of what appears in them now sounds totally foreign to us. What was logically consistent may have become incoherent, what was just may have become immoral, what was perceived as natural may have been exposed as a mere matter of convention. We therefore require a theoretical tool—a framework or method, if you will—that answers questions such as: to what extent is a given author’s argument a product of historical circumstance? (Alternatively, to what extent does the author express an enduring truth?) When we approach an author, should we view each of his works in light of his other works, or should we focus on the context of the debates he was intervening in, or some combination of the two, or neither? Should we seek to uncover the author’s intentions? Should we use contemporary standards to praise or condemn his arguments?

None of these questions admit of definitive answers, and intellectual historians—those scholars whose job it is to study old texts—disagree vehemently about method. All great books seminars, however, must use some sort of method. After all, one of the purposes of great books courses is to, well, interpret great books. And to do that, you need a method.

In my experience, the problem is that instructors typically shy away from imposing their preferred method of interpretation on their students. This reluctance is probably justifiable insofar as students cannot become competent thinkers if teachers declare at the outset that only one interpretative framework is legitimate. Nevertheless, in the absence of being presented with other frameworks, students often resort to interpreting old texts through the lens of modern political ideologies. And this usually isn’t very helpful.

Both at Hertog and Columbia, students employed a method of interpretation that was very much a product of (or, at least, closely intertwined with) their normative commitments. Thus leftist students were more willing to criticize and dismiss old authors, to attack their (racist, sexist, etc.) prejudices, and to discuss the gaps and exclusions that their philosophies either entailed or created. By contrast, students on the right tended to approach those same authors with more charity: they forgave their inconsistencies, made allowances for their prejudices, and generally sought to rescue the timeless truths embedded in the books of ancient wisdom. Of course, it wasn’t as though leftists were indifferent to the permanent things the texts communicated or that conservatives ignored the oppressive doctrines espoused by the old masters. I am only pointing out some general themes.

Both methods have much to recommend them — and although I am more partial to the latter approach, I ultimately find both of them unsatisfying.

The method of interpretation endorsed by most of my left-leaning colleagues is moralizing to a fault. It focuses too heavily on what we today perceive as the moral shortcomings of the past: authoritarianism in Plato, misogyny in Aristotle, racism in Mill and so on. This moral zeal precludes the sort of deep understanding of texts that is attainable solely through detached, holistic analysis. To be clear, my point is not that we should disregard the troublesome aspects of canonical works, only that we should not reduce such works to their troublesome aspects. Whatever insight the books offer us is sure to be lost if they are simply derided as ethically backwards.

Lurking behind this approach is the assumption that the standards of the present are absolute, the pinnacle of moral enlightenment. For only someone who knows beyond all doubt that his standards are right can feel comfortable dismissing the thought of all those who came before. If there is one thing that the history of ideas teaches, however, it is an awareness of the limitations of human judgments. The luminaries of a given time period inevitably find faults in the work of the luminaries who preceded them; the certainties of a given age are almost always overthrown in favor of new certainties. The proper response to the enormous distinctions between different historical epochs should be humility about the verdicts of the present, not arrogance toward those of the past.

Interestingly, the method of interpretation favored by my conservative peers suffered from problems that mirrored those of the approach adopted by Columbia students. Where my progressive classmates tended to approach the classics with suspicion, conservatives usually read them with a fair bit of deference. That is to be expected: the canonical authors are figures of authority that come down to us through tradition, and it is in the nature of conservatism to respect authority and tradition.

My conservative peers thus tended to praise old authors for what they got right and to historicize away what they got wrong. An instructive example is that of the Founding Fathers. Conservatives laud the accomplishments of the Founders — the Declaration, the Constitution, the creation of the republic, etc. — even as they excuse the Founders for participating in slavery on the grounds that they were “men of their time.” But this is having your cake and eating it too. If one can make a transhistorical moral judgment in favor of the Founders’ liberal principles, then it should also be possible to make a transhistorical moral judgment against their ownership of other humans. One cannot use relative moral values to judge their slaveholding and objective ones to judge their liberalism.

So much, then, for my qualms. I do not want to propose my own interpretative framework here, partly because I do not know which one is best, and partly because different great books courses will have different needs based on the instructor’s strengths, the students’ preferences, the time available for study and discussion, and other such variables. There is no one-size-fits-all interpretative framework.

What I am suggesting, though, is that great books seminars would generally benefit from being more self-conscious about method. If method is not explicitly discussed at the outset, students will typically default to “Is this text consonant with my 21st century political ideology?” The choice, therefore, is not between conducting the course with or without a method. Rather, the choice is between conducting the course with a method that yields superficial interpretations, or conducting it with a method that enables a deeper understanding of the texts. I certainly would prefer the latter!


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