Essay / Culture

Excerpts & Essays: The Great Books Reader

Here’s a 656-page grand tour of some of the greatest moments in Western civilization: The Great Books Reader, edited by John Mark Reynolds. I highly recommend it.

Then again, since I contributed to it, work with or for many of the contributors, and already like all the classic authors and modern writers in the volume, you’d hardly expect me to say otherwise. Don’t expect a review of The Great Books Reader from me; expect a recommendation. In fact, go ahead and consider this an advertisement. JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS, SHARE IT WITH SOMEONE YOU LOVE, BUY THREE OF THEM, ALL THE BEST PEOPLE ARE READING THIS, IT’S WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR ALL YOUR LIFE! That’s The Great Books Reader, from Bethany House.

Seriously, though, this book fills a specific niche, and you should have an accurate understanding of what it is before you decide to get it. The back cover boasts “the breadth of a great books program–all in one volume.” And it’s true, this book introduces you to so many classics that your head will spin. But it only promises the breadth, not the depth, of a great books program. What you get is about fifteen pages of primary text from about 29 classics, each preceded by a brief (not much more than a page) introduction by John Mark Reynolds, and followed by an essay by a contemporary scholar whose expertise or passion relates to that classic. Excerpts and essays: It’s a good combination for an introduction.

Everyone from general editor Reynolds on down is appropriately modest about what can be expected from these glimpses of the greats. Almost every essayist exhorts readers to go find and read the complete books, and an appendix even recommends the best translations (the translations printed here are mostly the free, public domain ones, which usually means circa 1900).

But every essayist is also in full earnest about the power of these classics to inform and inspire, even in these drastically reduced doses. “You are reading a book that intends to introduce you to a better life,” says Reynolds, and each essayist sings the praises of their respective authors.

Check out the table of contents for a complete list of contributors.

And here, to make the whole thing even more accessible, is a handful of quotable bits from the essayists.

Gary Hartenburg on Plato’s Republic:
“In Plato’s view, we only love goodness when we love it for its own sake.”

Jeff Lehman on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:
“For Aristotle, it’s not enough simply to act in accordance with reason once in a while. We must cultivate habits of virtue that develop into a firmly established moral character over a lifetime.”

Peter Kreeft on Augustine’s Confessions:
“It’s the gospel of the restless heart.”

Michael Fatigati on Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy:
“Without an overarching sense of providence guiding the world, all we’re left with is fickle fortune at the reins, and there’s no telling whether good will lead to good, or vice versa.”

Peter Kreeft on Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae:
“Thomas Aquinas fulfilled more than anyone else the essential medieval program of a marriage of faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, the biblical and the classical inheritances. He ‘baptized’ philosophy, especially Aristotle. He did not turn the Christian faith into a purely rational philosophy; he turned Aristotle’s purely rational philosophy into a servant of Christian faith.”

Anthony Esolen on Dante’s Divine Comedy:
“I hope, then, dear reader, that you will not approach this poem as if it were a mere artistic artifact. Such would be to sin against any work of truly great art, but it would be all the more disordered in the case of Dante. That is because Dante himself summons us to a deeper engagement with the world of man and the being and goodness of God.”

Diane Vincent on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
“What makes Geoffrey Chaucer such compelling reading is his creation of a riveting conversation between the ideal and the everyday…Such tensions are the root of much of Chaucer’s well-known, and often biting, satire, but it’s likewise the root of his insight into human relationships.”

Greg Peters on Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly:
“Given that we continue to live in a post-Christian culture that highly prizes so-called ‘learning’ and the primacy of reason, Erasmus’s text is a reminder that there is more to the life of the mind than simply learning for learning’s sake.”

Russell D. Moore on Calvin’s Institutes:
“It is not, in Calvin’s view, that we sin because we believe the wrong things; it is, rather, that we believe the wrong things because we sin.”

John Mark Reynolds on Spenser’s Faerie Queene:
“Spenser rebuilds the unified cathedral of Christian thought, Dante’s vision, as a Saint Paul’s in London and not as Saint Peter’s in Rome.”

Robert Thomas Llizo on Cervantes’ Don Quixote:
“While we must not fall into the gnosticizing trap of seeing the world as only ideal, without any reference to the physical and tangible universe we inhabit, neither should we commit to a crass literalism devoid of imagination and poetry.”

Melissa Schubert on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:
“Here’s why I take comedies seriously: they present and celebrate the world in which we survive our own and others’ mistakes, follies, transgressions, and deep sins. However lightly, dimly, or bleakly, comedies revel in our survival– in the delaying of death and the staying of the curse.”

Thomas Ward on Descartes’ Meditations:
“We might say that Descartes set out alone to discover God but learned that God was with him in the search.”

Janelle Klapauszak on Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
“The ‘early modern project’ was to ground certainty in human reason. If this project fails, it may be simply because human knowledge depends on something else for its certainty.”

Jamie Campbell on Locke’s Second Treatise on Government:
“As an empiricist, Locke valued the role of observation in the development of any fundamental idea. What he observed was that existing notions of government were insufficient to maintain peace and prosperity.”

William Dembski on Newton’s Principia:
“Newton saw no contradiction in doing his best science and then immediately, in the same written work, giving it a theological interpretation.”

Joe Henderson on Wesley’s Sermons:
“Salvation, in Wesley’s understanding, includes more than justification. Pardon from sin and deliverance from the fear of death and damnation are only the beginning. Salvation also entails transformation, or regeneration, that enables happy and holy living in the present.”

John Mark Reynolds on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“Austen argues by demonstration and by showing the folly of alternatives. If you have not read the whole book, please stop reading this essay, go get a copy, and finish Pride and Prejudice. It’s a truth universally to be acknowledged that people who do not actually read all of a great book before discussing it spoil the power of the book when they return to it later.”

Hugh Hewitt on De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
“People want guidance for their souls once they are convinced they have them.”

Hunter Baker on Marx’s Communist Manifesto:
“Somehow, he was able to easily believe that human beings –those same creatures who’d created the systems he found so evil– would then turn around and employ state power magnitudes above what previously had been known to bring about a socialist paradise.”

Phil Johnson on Darwin’s Origin of Species:
“It may be that it’s a noble conception of God to suppose He supplied the first organisms and equipped them with everything they would need to evolve into more complex forms. Darwin’s objective, however, was not to support a noble view of God but rather to provide a scientific explanation of the history of life from which God was rigorously excluded.”

Frederica Matthewes-Green on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
“We may come to assume that whatever is dark and edgy is true; and to distrust joy; or even lose the ability to depict honest joy. Tolstoy shows us family, parenthood, romance in all their ordinary variety, and these images complement more harrowing works of art by reminding us of what there is to lose.”

Amy Obrist on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
“Yet while marital infidelity –or the fear of it– is intricately woven into each thread of the plot, it is first and foremost a symbol of other kinds of unfaithfulness. Falseness, deception, and lies are endemic to Russian high society.”

John Granger on Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karmazov:
“A Russian friend told me once, when I volunteered the only reason I would learn his language would be to read Brothers, that I wouldn’t need to study very long: ‘Dostoevsky writes like a newspaper reporter.’ What makes The Brothers Karamazov a book on everyone’s bucket list is that reading it is quite literally a transformative experience and we are better people, more human really, after the change.”

Fred Sanders on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals:
“He pioneered the strategy of discrediting Christianity by ignoring the question of its truth, in order to cut straight to his major complaint: Christianity is bad for human beings and other living things like the mind, the arts, and freedom. That attitude is probably the dominant tone of popular atheism in our time.”

Dale Ahlquist on Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
“It is a theme throughout Chesterton’s writings that faith does not contradict reason, but reason often appears to contradict itself.”

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