Great Books and Preserving Civilization

by Christopher Flannery

The great books curriculum forms the foundation of APU’s Honors College. It might be more accurate to call it a great texts curriculum, because not all the texts we read are books—some are plays, some are poems, some are letters, and some are state papers, like the Constitution of the United States. Even more precisely, we might call this a great works curriculum, since we study great works of music and visual art, too, with field trips every semester to some of the great concert halls and museums in and around Los Angeles. We also explore nature, in a sense the greatest work of all, a product of the divine art of Creation. Books, however, lie at the heart of our scholarly inquiry—the histories, dialogues, memoirs, treatises, novels, and meditations of some of the world’s greatest minds.

We seek to understand great books from all times and places as their authors understood them. And this implies two things. First, that it is possible to distinguish between what is great and what is ordinary. Second, that it is possible for the human mind to liberate itself from the confines of the time and place in which it finds itself and understand human thought from another time. And if we can liberate ourselves in this way from our time and place, it is also possible to liberate ourselves from our race, gender, socioeconomic class, and other such contingencies, and understand something about things as they are.

As surprising as it may sound, the highest academic authorities, whose opinions dominate teaching in American undergraduate and graduate schools, largely deny both of these possibilities. This poses the greatest challenge facing higher learning in America. In the Honors College, we begin by questioning this prevailing dogma of our time, to open our minds to all times and to greatness. We invite our students to join us in the liberating—and reasonable and questionable—affirmation of the freedom of the human mind. That our minds are free is the most decisive condition of learning; it means that our conclusions are not determined by our race, gender, or class, but are free to be determined by the truth—truth about the greatest things.

But what is a great book?

Consider this: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (Boethius to us), a Roman who lived from about 480 to 524 AD, was among the most educated men of his time, and held some of the highest honors in the Roman state. Boethius saw Roman civilization vanishing. For him, Roman civilization meant largely an inherited Greek civilization, and Greek civilization was best summed up by the two greatest minds he knew—Plato and Aristotle, who had written their books in Greek 800 or 900 years before his time. He aspired to translate all of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works from Greek into Latin in an effort to preserve what he considered the essence of civilization for future generations.

He never fulfilled his life’s ambition—Boethius was unjustly imprisoned for treason at the age of 45. While in prison awaiting execution, however, he wrote his own great book, The Consolation of Philosophy—the first reading of the sophomore year in the Honors College curriculum. This book, in its own way, offered a distillation of the civilization Boethius hoped to preserve. It became one of the most widely read and influential books for the next 700 years in Europe. It was translated from Latin into German, French, Italian, and English as these languages came into existence. C.S. Lewis, in the mid-20th century, wrote that up until the mid-1700s, it would have been “hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love” Boethius’ book.

So what is it that makes a great book great? Boethius might define a great book as one that wise and educated people would most want to translate and preserve if they saw civilization vanishing. Lewis might say a great book is one that deserves the love—the fullest attention—of the best of minds. In the Honors College, we invite the best of young minds to give loving attention to great books, so that they may help preserve civilization for coming generations.

Christopher Flannery, Ph.D., is a professor in the Honors College. He is a native Angeleno and cofounder of eveninla.com, a site that celebrates American stories and music.

cflannery@apu.edu

Originally published in the Winter '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.