I am listening to “Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.
I’m a life-long bookworm. I got my degree in English Literature. I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist. I wish I had the time to master the great books. And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history. However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.
Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw. And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.
Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach. He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:
- Does God or do gods exist?
- What is fate?
- What do we mean by good and evil?
- How should we live?
Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers. He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs. In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945. Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks: How did they come to such morally different conclusions?
Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history. I think he’s wrong.
Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives. I think he’s wrong.
Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us. I think he’s wrong.
Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person. I disagree.
Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story. I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.
Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor. I’m asking why we should read the great books of history? If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them. I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers. I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.
Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act. I think that’s wrong. I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.
Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers. Explicit answers are dangerous. We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment. Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write. But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.
History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.
If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research. Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.
This represents a schism in approaching reality. If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing. If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets. Books That Have Made History falls in the later category. My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.
However, they do make me ask: Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study? If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?
JWH – 9/12/12