Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Great Books (cont'd.) ...

... Middlebrow Messiahs.

Beam sat in on a St. John’s laboratory seminar and found it “flat, flat, flat.” The same went for a seminar on portions of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (example: “Whether the proposition ‘God exists’ is self-evident?”). “Everyone had done the reading,” Beam laments, “but few could make heads or tails of it.” The problem, as Beam sees it, is that the students aren’t allowed to bring to the discussion anything outside the text. Beam imagines “a thousand interesting questions” that would have enlivened the proceedings: “Why did Aquinas feel the necessity of proving God’s existence? Who in the Middle Ages disagreed with him?”

To his great credit, reviewer Brendan Boyle, identifies the flaw in this reasoning:
Beam’s lament, moreover, reveals a deeply middlebrow fantasy shared by many. It goes like this: if only we knew more about the Middle Ages—had more information on Aquinas’s hometown, his antagonists, and his childhood—the Summa Theologica would give up its secrets. We might not even have to read it!

The best way to know more about the Middle Ages is to make some effort to figure out how people in the Middle Ages - like Thomas Aquinas - thought, and to at least entertain the notion that, even if they didn't think quite the way we do, they had thoughts very much worth getting to know.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:46 AM

    Interesting -- we have recently been looking at St John's for our eldest.

    When I gradulated, after nine (!) years and four degress at Villanova, I personally knew little. Later, my own autodidact leanings provided me with a Great Books type education because ultimately any intellectual integrity requires their reading -- they are great not just because of influence, but because of their thoughts and sometimes their presentations.

    Whether or not St John's does it right, it seems to me there is an awful lot to be gained in study of the Books -- and youth, although lacking in understanding of some of the issues, is a great time.

    After all, according to Tom Wolfe in Charlotte Simmons, there ain't much going on in college otherwise.