Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Augustine, Aquinas, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Milton, and Hobbes. Why are these texts — today considered the Great Books of Western Civilization — still relevant to the needs of the 21st century? Why do we need to read about the Forms or the soul, in Plato? Why do we need to know what a thing’s end is, in Aristotle? Why do we need to read about one man’s spiritual journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, in Dante? Why do we need to read about a man being manipulated into killing his wife, in Shakespeare? When students discover that they will be primarily studying classical literature and Western Civilization, these are the questions that often come to mind.
The great books teach us how to live well. They cultivate virtue in us by teaching us to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty. Without truth, goodness, and beauty, one cannot be happy. Without truth, one is left with uncertainty. Without goodness, one is left with sin. Without beauty, one is left with a bleak world. Without the culmination of truth, beauty, and goodness, one is left with chaos—and can never pursue good life, which everyone either subconsciously or consciously aims at. The great books give us examples of how to live well. The great books teach us how to seek virtue and how to live as virtuous persons.
By reading the great books like the “Divine Comedy,” we are essentially engaging in a conversation with Dante himself, who is so much more advanced in wisdom and virtue than we are. Through this conversation, we are able to learn what mistakes Dante himself made that we can avoid, like acting on disordered loves. We can see how important it is for the good life to order our loves towards God. Dante’s mistake as a youth was his lust for Beatrice. When we travel through the Inferno, we see that those who let lust rule and guide their lives, continue that in the afterlife in Hell. Their lusts are their eternal Hell. After seeing this, as readers, we learn to properly order our loves to God. By reading Dante, we can get the same experience that he had, without having to voyage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. We do not have to start at square one in our search for virtue and the good life. We use Dante’s wisdom and experiences as starting points to approach the good life and God.
What we have in common with the ancients is our human nature, and this human nature has certain problems and experiences that are not limited to one specific time period. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” we see Odysseus encounter countless sufferings, but he always has the courage to endure for the sake of happiness. Suffering is universal to humans; no one goes through life without experiencing some sort of suffering. But what we get from Odysseus is the courage to pursue the good life in spite of suffering.
The great books teach us about humanity. When reading the great books, you enter into a discussion about what it means to be a full, flourishing human being. It may not give us all the answers, but it is a conversation worth being a part of because what it means to be human effects everyone. In college, we are trained in a specific field; but the great books train us in virtue, and in turn, how to be a flourishing, full human. We learn how to love God more fully with Dante and Augustine, how to be a citizen with Plato, what it means to be just in Shakespeare and Aristotle, and humility with Jane Austen. The great books are more relevant to humanity as a whole than any one specific field of study. They span across the ages because they deal with what it means to be human. The great books are worth reading because they give us the tools to be a full human. What other field of study deals with what it means to be human?