An Introduction to the Great Books

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Death of Socrates by David


There are fundamental works in every discipline that have shaped the modern world. Great books are to be found not only in literature and philosophy, but in the sciences, social sciences and all branches of learning. Modern critics may disagree about what constitutes a "great" book, but the fundamental mysteries of nature and especially of human nature remain. Homer's Iliad will be a great book so long as a single person wrestles with what it means to have a divine soul trapped in a human body, so long as the needs of the many impose upon the happiness of the one, and so long as there is interest in what is meant by "civilization". The Iliad and other great books do not teach us the final answers to such fundamental mysteries. But they do suggest the questions we should ask.


The writing of all great books is a dialogue with the great minds of the past.

Milton, Areopagitica     

There indeed, my dear Glaucon, is the whole danger for man. Therefore we must take special care, each of us, to ignore all other studies, and ardently pursue the learning of this one alone, in the hope that we might ...become able and knowledgeable enough to discern a good life from a bad one...

Plato, Republic X 618b-c     

In the earliest periods of history when publication was difficult and the ability to read rare, only what was considered "great" could be preserved. Our age has quite the opposite problem: information technology has made possible the publication of even the most mundane details of life. The great ideas are still preserved, but one must search for them more diligently than ever.

What distinguishes an education in the great books is not merely a focus on works devoted to the human condition and the essential qualities of nature, that is, its content, but also the way these things are studied. Too much of modern education is conceived as a transfer of information from the teacher to the student. But education does not consist in the acquisition of information.  It is an awakening to the possibilities of life. A teacher ponders what the right questions are. The student (a Latin word meaning "the zealous one") seeks the answers.

The great books are traditionally taught by the Socratic method. Students read for themselves, make their arguments, answer one another, and seek the truth of the matter with a tutor who acts not as the possessor of all knowledge, but merely a fellow seeker of wisdom who has wrestled with the texts and questions before.


"Take the following parable of education and ignorance as a picture of the condition of our nature. Imagine mankind as dwelling in an underground cave... In this they have been from childhood, with necks and legs fettered, so they have to stay where they are. They cannot move their heads round because of the fetters, and they can only look forward, but light comes to them from fire burning behind them... What do you think such people would have seen of themselves and each other except their shadows, which the fire cast on the opposite wall of the cave ?"

Plato, Republic VII 514a-515a     

Graduates of institutions that practice this form of education are able not only to read and think analytically, but to express themselves with an admirable precision that one might call "expert" or "critical" or "philosophical". A mind armed with this content and these skills is not only better able to achieve whatever it wishes, but has become truly educated. This kind of student is able to go on learning, that is, to live the life of the mind, and is able to lead others and give light to the darkness...