Gregory M. Collins
In a high school cafeteria segregated by bros, geeks, and emos, where would Adam Smith sit to eat his fish sticks? Apply this question to the academy: Where would he sit in a cafeteria segregated by economists, historians, and philosophers?
Perhaps he would eat at his own table. Smith is too philosophical for economists, too economic for historians, and too historical for philosophers. Yet this apparent lack of fit is, as Erik Matson persuasively explains in his essay "Why We Read Adam Smith", one principal reason why Smith is worthy of study. Writing in an age prior to academic specialization, he and his contemporaries understood that inquiries into the human condition should not be rigidly separated by disciplinary sphere.
Careful examination of the Great Books thus prompts us to explode the pretensions of specialization and raise vital questions about politics, taken in its widest sense, that weaves together religious, social, aesthetic, and economic patterns of thought. To wit: Reading both The Wealth of Nation and Theory of Moral Sentiments invites students to consider the role of sympathy in a world observers claim is powered by the cold levers of rational self-interest. What are some instances when we demonstrate compassion toward others even if we might not receive tangible benefits in return? How might we strike the appropriate balance between satisfying our economic preferences and cultivating our sentimental attachments with others that transcend calculation?
Aristotle’s description of his three types of friendship holds similar import for students. What is our deepest form of friendship today—those of utility or of pleasure? Or are some friendships good in themselves? How might we cultivate these higher forms of friendship in an age of social drift?
The truth is that no single course can fully plumb the depth of even one thinker in the Great Books tradition. Most students, and the general public, do not have the time to study the thinkers in a way that discloses their richest complexities. The best one can hope for is that the canon serves as a heuristic for the pursuit of truth—a stimulus for provoking important questions and furnishing at least some wisdom about human nature.
Smith’s Invisible Hand metaphor in The Wealth of Nations, for instance, surely does not comprehend all the shades and nuances in his thought (which is why I also assign selections from Theory of Moral Sentiments when possible). Yet the concept does serve as a point of departure for exploring the moral implications of economic self-interest and the relation between individual rights and the common good. As long as instructors inform students that the heuristic is not the end of the conversation but rather the start of one, the flashes of insight provided by the Great Books are an indispensable guide for further examination into the good, true, and beautiful.
Richard Hanania’s point that contemporary writers are more likely to provide relevant insights into current affairs is true when narrowly confined to technical questions about the novelties of the moment. We wouldn’t tap into the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas to acquire scientific knowledge about ChatGPT, TikTok, or the existential nature of Taylor Swift’s relationship with Travis Kelce (speaking of bros).
But if we broaden this inquiry to include questions about the purpose of life, the teleology of man, and free will, Thomistic theology and philosophy suddenly become far more germane to debates over technological innovation, social media, and the NFL’s temptation to profit off Swifties. Do social media promote human happiness? Do they forge deep and meaningful relationships? Do we truly have free will in an age of quantification and bureaucratization? Is $175 a just price, to use St. Thomas’ terminology, for a Kelce jersey? (The answer to this last question is a resounding no.)
To take another example, it might be imprudent to ask whether F.A. Hayek would have supported mask mandates. But his insights into the competitive price system as a reflection of consumer preference acquire immediate relevance when assessing the ethical implications of supply and demand during public health crises, such as the pandemic, or natural disasters.
This is precisely how I teach Hayek in my “Capitalism and Its Critics” course: We first read excerpts from “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and Constitution of Liberty, as well as Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil,” before engaging in a role play in which I assign different students to represent disparate demographic backgrounds (such as old, young, healthy, sick, rich, or poor). They then have to determine how best to spend their money during a hypothetical natural disaster, given the constraints of their particular circumstances. This exercise illustrates the importance of Hayek’s observations on the limits of the mind in penetrating the dynamics of market transactions and unveils fundamental questions about the moral complexion of commercial exchange.
These questions all suggest an instrumental approach to studying the Great Books. By contrast, there is an opposed tendency to read the Great Books for the sake of antiquarian curiosity. I always have to be alive to the possibility that some students don’t share my fascination for centuries-old texts. That’s why, in my “Capitalism and Its Critics” class, I make a determined effort to connect the canon to the present, assigning contemporary articles addressing 21st-century public policy debates. What’s a Rawlsian case for a universal basic income? What’s an Aristotelian approach to corporate social responsibility? What’s a Thomistic argument for or against free markets? Indeed, the student does not truly have a grasp of public policy unless he knows what conception of justice he hopes such policies will bring about—proportional, distributive, egalitarian, rectificatory, and so on.
There is the risk that, pushed to its extreme, such an approach diminishes the value of the Great Books. This exercise is appropriate, however, as long as it does not distort the thinkers’ own views beyond reason, nor overwhelm the pursuit of truth as a worthy undertaking in itself. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of studying the canon, for it fulfills man’s yearning as rational creatures to glimpse the eternal.
But there is another purpose of studying and teaching the Great Books in the pursuit of truth: Any flourishing civilization requires a general body of knowledge and wisdom that is transmitted from one generation to the next. The production and consumption of goods are necessary but not sufficient for survival and social well-being. Civilizations demand leisure—the contemplation of the good, true, and beautiful that resists the tugs of efficiency, convenience, and utility—in order to provide the religious and moral instruction indispensable for prosperous yet spiritually grounded political communities.
The study of the Great Books therefore contains a practical moral component: It cultivates excellence of character. An awareness of the seminal texts in the Western tradition reveals that many people came before us who held penetrating—and, yes, often superior—insight into human affairs. This experience nourishes an ethos of intellectual humility, guards against the frivolous passions of the hour, and teaches cool self-restraint. It resists our culture of immediacy fueled by social media, provides historical perspective and context to contemporary political debates, and encourages an element of detachment from the fugitive whims and demands of everyday life. In a word, immersion in the canon alerts us to the myriad ways we are indebted to our rich, if imperfect, inheritance of wisdom and knowledge. Examination of the Great Books teaches gratitude, not contempt.
The paradox is that intellectual humility also establishes a foothold for more recent generations to offer responsible criticisms of the old thinkers. With this deepened sense of philosophical maturity, students are in a better position to judge which parts of their cultural inheritance should be preserved, and which parts should be reformed.
In this spirit, the Great Books should not be frozen in time. Instructors should gradually incorporate newer thinkers into this canon, as long as its foundation is not swept away. This is why in my black political thought class, I assign brief selections from, among various canonical figures, Smith, Aristotle, and St. Thomas, in addition to Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bous and other prominent black thinkers. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal in his Letter from Birmingham Jail to St. Thomas’ conception of natural law is a classic, if familiar, example. Douglass’ appeal to Smith in an 1864 address comparing the “commercial fallacies” that Smith “exposed long ago” to race-tinged pretexts for slavery, while less well-known (though shrewdly noted by Glory M. Liu), renders a similar effect.
The study of the Great Books provides a crucial heuristic for beginning to comprehend the human condition. It builds up a treasury of wisdom that breeds the virtues of character, humility, and gratitude essential for the flourishing of a free people. And it is resistant to regimented specialization, instead awakening students’ imagination to man’s religious, political, social, aesthetic, and economic dimensions that warrant integration, not segregation. Perhaps, then, Smith would eat those fish sticks with the bros, geeks, and emos, in turn inching their tables closer together.
Gregory M. Collins is a lecturer in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University.