How the Great Books Rewired My Brain
Posted on February 20th, 2014
Aquinas himself had a Benedictine “Great Books” education at Monte Cassino.
In the five years I have worked at Benedictine College, my wife, April, and I have longed, hoped, pleaded and planned for a Benedictine College Great Books Program. Our old friends Edward Mulholland and Susan (Orr) Traffas have finally accomplished the goal: The program starts this Fall, in time for Hoopes Child Number 2 (of 9) to take it. (Click here for details.)
Those nine Hoopes children are in more than one sense the direct products of the study of Great Books. April and I met each other at the now defunct St. Ignatius Institute, a Great Books Father Joseph Fessio and friends started the program up the street from his Ignatius Press headquarters in San Francisco. We also met Humanae Vitae there.
I drifted into the program by chance (I’ll have to tell you that story some time). At the time, my only education had been at public schools, including a year at the University of Arizona. I was adrift without direction or ambition. The Great Books restored order to my mind and purpose to my life.
1. The Great Books taught me that Truth exists and is knowable.
I had spent a lifetime being taught the doctrines of individualistic relativism and finding it dissatisfying. People said “your truth” was just as true as “my truth” — but that couldn’t possibly be right. If that was true, then why were they saying that what Martin Luther King Jr. did was good and that what Richard Nixon did was bad?
The high school offered no answers. I took an Introduction to Philosophy class at U of A that made an attempt to provide morality without God. That was even less satisfying. If morality is man-made, then the world is a battleground of powerful people vying for dominance, not powerful ideas rising to their proper place.
Then I transferred into the Great Books program, by chance, in large part because I wanted to live in San Francisco.
Reading Plato and Aristotle for me was like a thirsty man drinking from a fire hydrant. The pure stream of truth knocked me on my back and forced me to re-establish all my bearings.
After that came Augustine and Aquinas, and the world began to take shape around me. It was no longer a place of confusion and ambiguity where I had to invent my own meaning. I t was a place of deep mystery that nonetheless yielded rock-solid truths that I could hold onto.
Reading the Great Books gave me a peace of mind and confidence in the world that I would never have had otherwise.
2. The Great Books taught me that history isn’t a long march; it’s a long conversation.
Secular education tends to speak of history as the journey of mankind from darkness to ever greater light. We go from cold caves to heated condos, from loincloths to lingerie, from nuts and berries to The Olive Garden. Of course that also means we march from religion to science, crude moral codes to “lifestyles,” and from beauty to formalism.
Reading the Great Books taught me that, in fact, mankind has not moved from benighted ignorance to enlightenment. Each age has had its characteristic sins and virtues, its mixture of corruption and nobility.
By studying great modern works we also avoided the converse error: Thinking of history as a march from greatness to ever greater decadence. The most effective classes for getting students to fall in love with the faith were Dr. Erasmo (now Father Simeon) Leiva-Merikakis’ class “20th Century Literary Revival” and Father Fessio’s class in which we read Lumen Gentium from Vatican II, C.S. Lewis , Chesterton. (My study sessions reading Chesterton with April Beingessner ended in us falling in love with each other, too.)
Reading the Great Books forced me to see our time for what it is: A time of great sin and great virtue. Like every other time.
This gives the student of the Great Books a kind of humility that is freeing. We are not the protagonists of world history after all. God is, and we just play a role in his continuing story.
3. Reading the Great Books convinced me to go to Washington, D.C.
But don’t get me wrong. Studying the Great Books doesn’t lead to an intellectual quietism. Quite the contrary. When you see that there are fundamental answers to the world’s questions and that God is ultimately in charge, it doesn’t make you retreat — it makes you eager to advance.
At least that is what it did for us. When April and I graduated, our encounter with the Great Books made us long to see more people discover the happiness that only comes from living in conformity with the truth — from discovering the way things really are.
I went to Washington, D.C., where I found a whole network of people who had been similarly inspired by these powerful ideas. Alumni from my program got me started meeting people who were very well positioned in Washington. A Thomas Aquinas College graduate helped me land a job in a congressional office and before long I found myself as the press secretary of the Chairman of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee.
People from my Great Books program didn’t just succeed, they seemed to become leaders. There was a time later when people from my program were editors of the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, San Francisco Catholic and Catholic World Report and we were all covering the release of Pope Benedict’s first book, which had been translated by another friend from the program. Alums I know professionally have been authors, television reporters and elected officials. The ones I meet when they bring their kids to Benedictine College are doctors, lawyers, and business leaders.
Of course, a Great Books program isn’t about worldly success. But it happens. A graduate of Berkeley’s short-lived Great Books-based Rhetoric program told me the program there was ruined because ambitious students started thinking of it as a way to train your mind for law school.
They saw from a self-centered perspective what I hope I found from a God-centered perspective: The Great Books rewire your brain.
I’m forever grateful for the Great Books program I attended with people who have become my lifelong friends. The ideas we learned have taken flesh in our lives — and in our families. A St. Ignatius Institute reunion is always a sea of children. I’m now proud to say those children have another Great Books option if they want to enter the great conversation that their parents caught a glimpse of.
Studying works written centuries ago in different cultures doesn’t pigeon hole you into esoteric irrelevance — it puts you in touch with the fundamental truths that matter for all people in all places. And after that, you can’t stay the same.
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