Rethinking the Great Books of History

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

9 thoughts on “Rethinking the Great Books of History”

  1. In some ways, it seems that the study of “The Great Books” is to engage in an anthropological examination of artifacts that reflect the answers to the “big” questions of life at different times in human history. It demonstrates these answers change over time (and often place). It also seems that such a study would be incomplete without reading contemporary works, for they, too, have answers that are quite different from that which has gone before.

    1. That’s my approach, to look at the great books as a history of human development. Professor Fears suggests they impart eternal wisdom, which I find hard to accept. I don’t believe in ancient wisdom or revealed knowledge of the ancients. I believe these great books represent the best thinking of their day, but I also believe we know a lot more and are a lot wiser today.

  2. I’ve listened to all the books you had mentioned in your post studying science during retirement as well as the Great Books by Rufus Fears (we have overlapping taste in books). I agree with your assertions about Fears perspective and your conclusion about ‘great books’.

    Nevertheless, I listened to the great books and loved it. I can’t usually follow the original books, but after hearing the professor summarize them in 30 minutes I got everything I needed. He did point me to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and I ended up listening to it through audible and loved it, because his philosophy as explained by Fears is more similar to mine than any other that I know of. That pointed me to the excellent history “The Swerve” about “On the nature of things” which is very similar to the Meditations.

    Fears lecture on the Gettysburg address is a must listen. After Fears explained it, I finally understood why it is so great. I never would have got that on my own.

    But in the final analysis, I agree with your take on the great books. There are better ways of discovering our proper place in the universe than reading the ‘great books’.

    As usual your posts are always well written and appreciated.

    1. Oh, I do like Fears summary of the books. I am learning a lot about the books from his 30 minute overviews. I doubt I’ll ever have time to read all these books, so this quick summary is great. I also read The Swerve and loved it. I also bought an audio edition of On the Nature of Things but haven’t listened to it yet. And Meditations is on sale at Audible this month, so I’m tempted.

      If I had all the time in the world I would read all these books. They help us make sense of history.

      I haven’t gotten to the lecture on the Gettysburg address yet, so I’m anxious to hear it now after your recommendation Gary.

  3. You know what a great book is? Anything that gets a kid to want to read.
    My grandson got hooked when I read him a poem ….

    Now I lay me down to sleep,
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
    If I should die before I wake,
    I pray the Lord my toys to take,
    So the other kids can’t have ’em

    “Where The Sidewalk Ends”
    Shel Silverstein

  4. How do you listen to a book? I’m serious. Audio books put me to sleep. They are fine if I’m driving for a hour or more, but if I have one on earbuds just sitting …. zzzzzzz
    It took me a month to get through Abe Lincoln, Vampire Killer, because I’d sit down and It puts me to sleep. I’ve tried several books, lots of catagories, things I have an interest in and it just doesn’t work. Do you audio book fans sit at a desk and take notes? What are you looking at?
    I have a loved one who has severe ADD and is a brillant writer – but can’t tolerate a print book. Goes thru 2-3 audio books a week.

    I’m wondering if this is an indicator of learning styles, brain wiring or something.

    1. Oh, I’m the same way. I can use listening to an audiobook to cure a bout of insomnia. Puts me right to sleep.

      I listen when I drive (with only one earbud), when I do the dishes, when I eat alone, or when I’m doing something that doesn’t put words into my head. I used to walk 3 miles a day and that gave me a lot of listening time, but I have degenerative back disease and can’t walk for exercise anymore. I can ride a bike, but I don’t like listening then. I’m thinking about getting an exercise bike, and I could probably listen then. I also listen at work when I’m installing a machine or software that takes a lot of time. I can listen in waiting rooms. I carry my iPod touch with me and find all kinds of time to get some listening in.

      Everyone is different though. I still read with my eyes too.

      Amazon/Audible just came out with technology that allows users to listen to an audiobook while reading the same ebook and the paging will be automatic. I’m thinking that will let me sit and listen without getting sleepy.

  5. I agree with your conclusion on the The Great Books. I, too, see it as something to help with your own conclusion of things and not to give us a direct answer to anything. They’re important, but not so important that they should govern all aspects of thinking. Excellent blog.

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