All posts tagged: Great Books

Josef Pieper’s Critique of Western Civ

On February 1, 1950, just in time for Commencement Day, the eminent German philosopher Josef Pieper arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus. It was his first visit to the U.S., having finally been recruited by Waldemar Gurian (founder of the University’s notable Review of Politics) to teach for the spring semester. The speaker for the day’s ceremony, as Pieper notes in the recently published second volume of his memoirs, Not Yet the Twilight, was the young Congressman John F. Kennedy, whom he thought somewhat resembled Charles Lindbergh. In fact, two years before, Gurian had asked a Notre Dame colleague travelling in Germany to meet briefly with Pieper in hopes of encouraging him to come to South Bend. He got a message back saying “Nice man but doesn’t speak English.” Two years later, Pieper was successfully—if sometimes haltingly—lecturing to his American students in English. Before his arrival, however, Pieper had been cautioned by Gurian: “Theology, above all, is missing at this University; there is hardly any real philosophizing, and there is nothing of the …

The Great Books Aren’t Timeless, But They Can Still Teach Us

The 20th-century British philosopher Iris Murdoch once adroitly described the pathological condition of Late Modernity. “What is feared is history, real beings, and real change,” she wrote, further explaining that we fear “whatever is contingent, messy, boundless, infinitely particular, and endlessly still to be explained.”[1] This fear leads us to desire the unattainable because nonexistent, namely a “timeless non-discursive whole which has its significance completely contained in itself.”[2] Many historiographical efforts of Modernity, most notably the Hegelian dialectic, attempt to discover or invent this timeless and coherent system and ultimately fail. Another such attempt is that of the supposedly self-sufficient “Great Books” canon which, in its Christian education context, purports to represent a coherent tradition running from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome.[3] The opposing binary option to these projects is the postmodern nihilism that treats history as just another vehicle for the Nietzschean will-to-power. We will explore how contemporary theorist Quentin Skinner does away with this binary by providing a third way, a philosophy-of-history respectful of the past and at peace with the particular and …