Common Ground for Great Texts: Part I
For all of us who teach in classical programs, we want our students to read great texts: the finest poems, plays, novels, and stories and the most exceptional readings in history, theology, politics, and philosophy. How does a book make it onto the list of great texts?
Let me answer the question by first stating what criterion we ought not to use. Then I will propose two good criteria for what we ought to read in classical schools. This post covers the one false criterion. I’ll save a discussion of the true criteria for next week’s post.
Here is a general rule for how not to choose texts for a classical program: With few exceptions, great texts should not be chosen for the nationality, politics, gender, race, religion or moral stature of the author.
Even when exceptions are in play, other criteria typically surpass the authorial one. Consider Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, for example. There, particulars of race, stature and other details are wrapped up in the author and the text, as they are in other similar works written by former slaves. But his is chosen over the others because of its superior quality, its beauty, its persuasiveness, and its surpassing ability to draw us into the story and to elicit sympathy and foster understanding.
This general rule is easiest to grasp when we consider imaginative literature. Works of imaginative literature are works of art, and art should more or less stand on its own, as paintings or symphonies do. They move us to feel this life, this human condition we have in common, even if we know little or nothing of the respective author, painter or composer.
Pride and Prejudice, for example, is not a great book because Austen was female. The humanity of her characters is convincing and attractive even for today’s young readers—male and female alike. Why? Because of Austen’s deft hand. She ingeniously creates a world where believable humans act out of a fairly extensive range of judgments and choices, betrayals and loves, neglects and responsibilities. These humans and their actions and words all ring true. That Austen was female does not add value to the complexity and believability of her characters.
That Hemingway drank heavily and ultimately committed suicide do not redound to The Old Man and the Sea, as if the only way to ultimately understand the Cuban fisherman is to read his thoughts and actions through the prism of the author’s darkest personal moments. Because of Hemingway’s masterful storytelling, any young reader can thrill at the old man’s adventure, despair at the loss of his great catch, and feel the affection that the boy Manolin feels for the aged Santiago.
Knowing Shakespeare’s religious affiliation, if any, is not a requirement for understanding the decision Ophelia makes to return young Hamlet’s “remembrances.” The first-time reader of Hamlet does better to carefully attend to every detail in the play that helps us understand why Ophelia does what she does: her brother Laertes’ warnings about Hamlet; her father Polonius’ propensity for spying, which extends to using his daughter as bait for the seemingly mad prince Hamlet; and Hamlet’s disturbing visit to her quarters. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to see how any of these details would somehow be illuminated by a religious key.
That a young Flannery O’Connor preferred the company of adults over that of other children or that she suffered from lupus lends no particular light to understanding O.E. Parker’s attachment to tattoos in “Parker’s Back.” And, although she was one of Catholicism’s most lauded writers of the last century, O’Connor rejected the title “Catholic writer.” Someone is either a storyteller or not, she believed, and it is not one’s religion that makes one a storyteller.
Nor, for O’Connor, did the meaning of a story rest in the personal details of the author. O’Connor consistently maintained that the meaning could only be found in the story’s details—the physical and psychological inventory. We do well to follow her lead on this matter. English majors and graduate students may rightly probe an author’s biography, including her faith; but, for purposes of introducing our classical school students to her fiction, our main task is to help them focus on the details in the story. Anything else is a distraction.
When we approach nonfictional texts, there is more latitude in looking outside the text. For example, in order to understand a term in one of America’s founding documents, we may need to consult a related document. We may need to read the personal letters of Jefferson for understanding a term in the Declaration of Independence—his choice of “happiness” over “property” for example. Likewise, we may need to consult Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention for understanding why the Framers chose one option over another—say, regarding whether to include a bill of rights.
Still, the caution regarding character holds true. Having a grasp of the author’s character is generally not important. More to the heart of the matter, we do not want our students to lose sight of the greatness of a classical text because of its author.
Let’s look at a case study close to home. Take Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his I Have a Dream speech, both written in the early 1960s. Here we find examples of a great writer who cites other great writers for reasons other than—or perhaps in spite of—those authors’ personal details.
On whom did King rely to make his case for the natural justice of universal rights and against the unnatural injustice of segregation? Among the sources King cited were two giants of medieval Christianity, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Specifically, he relied on their theories regarding the nature of law. Both writers predated the Protestant Reformation and remain central sources of authority within the Catholic tradition. But King, a Baptist minister, saw fit to invoke their authority as part of his effort to teach America about law, specifically unjust law—in this case, the laws that maintained segregation. For him, it did not matter that the natural law tradition held a more prominent place in Catholicism. What mattered is that the two greatest fathers of that tradition spoke truthfully of the order of law so that in King’s time that teaching could be applied to the immediate circumstances of 1960s America.
King cited the American Founders as well. He did so in order to support and clarify the concepts of human dignity and equal rights. Again, he referenced old texts to illuminate contemporary problems. One might wonder how he could cite the Founders. After all, some of them, including the chief authors of the Declaration and the Constitution, were slaveholders. Almost all of them participated in a compromise that permitted slavery in the South.
That was not enough, however, for King to dismiss the Founding documents. King knew that not only practice but ideas were at stake—not just overcoming segregation but establishing its removal on solid moral and legal grounds. Obviously, he did not hold up any of the Founders for their abject failures regarding slavery. Rather, he held up the true ideas they embedded in the Declaration and the Constitution and invoked them so that our legal and political practices would be ordered by the Founding principles. In other words, he broadened and elevated the case against segregation by linking it to the highest standards in America’s traditions and history.
For King, Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” was true in 1776 and in 1964. Its truth was not diminished by the fact that Jefferson owned slaves. Because the proclamation stood true, even if Jefferson did not entirely live by it, King knew it was recoverable generations later as a standard under which America could both end segregation and fulfill the two-centuries-old promise of equality. This is why he invoked it in his I Have a Dream speech, which in turn has itself become a great text.
If classical readers followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example, we would not measure the value of foundational texts by their authors’ character; we would value them for their principled content.
In my next post, let’s explore the best criteria for selecting great texts for our classical schools.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.