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great books

One of the most surprising things about The Divine Comedy is how passionately Dante denounces the popes of his era — not as a Catholic dissident, but as a faithful, believing Catholic. If you thought separation of church and state was a modern idea, read Dante, who wrote the Divine Comedy in the 14th century. For Dante, worldly power passing into the hands of the Church, and in particular to the Bishop of Rome, was a disaster for both Church and State. When the Sacraments became instruments of statecraft and geopolitical maneuvering, as they certainly did under the papacy in Dante’s day, the means of salvation is profaned and compromised. Prue Shaw says that in this way, Dante was like the Solzhenitsyn of his day: someone who put his life at risk by denouncing abuse of power. It is impossible — well, impossible for me — to read Dante, and to learn details of what led to his prophetic stance against papal abuses, and believe that the marriage of Church with State is ever good for the Church. Winning The Culture War, Losing Far More

But do contemporary human beings really vacillate between a post-Cartesian quest to reduce the meaning of reality to the expression of the will and a suicidal nihilism that despairs of that task? Many great minds have answered yes. But others have contended that, while the waning of Scholasticism and the rise of rationalism and scientism have lessened the social authority of Christianity, this has led mostly to the rise of new sorts of pagan idolatry—commodity fetishism. On this account the world shines abundantly, and the apparent inability of modern persons to believe in a god derives from Descartes only because he led us to accept only what we could know for certain—and as Aquinas confirms, there is nothing more certain than the pleasures of the senses. While openness to the sacred gifts of our sensory lives would perhaps lead us to issue vague prayers of thanks amid our concupiscent gorging, it would not really alter the gorging. Nihilism or Idolatry: All Things Shining

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The most important questions that should be asked by any reader, listener, or viewer of a book, a song, a movie, or any other medium, are “what is this telling me about myself, who I am, and who I should become?” Everything written, ultimately, has some anthropological assumption, some belief, hidden to a greater or lesser degree, about what people are and what they should be. Books like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and others in their ilk have a vision of man which most of their readers fail to consider fully but imbibe nonetheless. Cicero, Horace, Plato, and others like them also have a vision of man, and one that reaches much higher. Cicero, Horace, and reading great books

Not many people will read Whitehead’s recent book in this generation; not many will read it in any generation. But its influence will radiate through concentric circles of popularization until the common man will think and work in the light of it, not knowing whence the light came. After a few decades of discussion and analysis one will be able to understand it more readily than can now be done. Henry Nelson Wieman

Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point, Straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard— I drove my weight on it from above and bored it home, As a shipwright bores his beam with a shipwright’s drill the men below, whipping the strap back and forth, whirl and the drill keeps twisting faster, never stopping— So we seized our stake with its fiery tip and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core and the broiling eyelid burst— its crackling roots blazed and hissed— as blacksmith plunges a glowing axe or adze in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam and its temper hardens—that’s the iron’s strength— so the eye of the Cyclops sizzled round that stake! Homer

Plato suggests that the moderation of our worst inclinations is a perennial problem in politics, and the onus is upon us to build the kinds of communities and laws and foundations that will ensure that we do not collapse into tyranny, either individually or as whole states. Nevertheless, Plato did not appear to think that any kind of institutional framework could endure for long enough to categorically reform human beings to the point where we lose the taste for tyranny altogether, even in our dreams. Kant’s, and Pinker’s, claim is much more far-reaching. Both believe that the coming together of multiple stands of modernity have in fact altered fundamentally what we are. "Are We Getting Better?" A Review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

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In conclusion, Pinker’s modern man eschews violence not because he loves his fellow-man, or God, or even his own soul. He does not love other men because he first learns to love his family or his people. Rather, he is peaceful because he feels a vague blend of sentiments toward other living things and wants to be free to make his own choices. What those choices should be, however, cannot be informed by the organic culture that preceded him. He is, after all, autonomous. Pinker’s non-violent man is the lawless, hearthless, stateless man of Homer. He is the Bible’s Cain who wanders the earth. But since he is less likely to be hunted down, at least for the time being, he has become the happiest of all men. Fondling as Flourishing: Steven Pinker’s Hymn to Autonomy

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Faith, the least exclusive club on earth has the craftiest doorman. Everytime I’ve stepped through its wide open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (via quotasians)

Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the esthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away. Christopher Tolkien

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[Orwell] himself seems to have thought that the exigencies of poverty, ill health, and overwork were degrading him from being the serious writer he might have been and had reduced him to the status of a drudge and pamphleteer. Reading through these meticulous and occasionally laborious jottings, however, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which he became, in Henry James’s words, one of those upon whom nothing was lost. By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage. The Man On Whom Nothing Was Lost

Reading great books is vital for anyone who wishes to become a liberally educated human being. There is a great need these days—there has been for a long time now—for academic programs devoted to liberal education. Such programs are sprouting all over the nation, many of them at Christian colleges and universities. But an overwhelming trend toward the non-liberal persists. All too often we confuse education with professional training, genuine understanding with know-how, and learning with achievement on tests and with measurable results. The professions are, to be sure, necessary and noble—necessary because they minister to the demands, needs, and wellbeing of everyday life, noble because they inspire lives of achievement, service, and self-sacrifice. But human life is not co-extensive with professional life. There are also the lives we lead apart from our jobs and professions, the lives we lead in so far as we are human beings. It is this life, human life insofar as it is human, that liberal education seeks to cultivate and perfect. It is the life not of our business but of our leisure. It is the life we lead when, free of the burden of working for a living or striving for professional achievement, we are left to ourselves, to our families, and to our friends. It is the life that finds us, after a long day’s work, huddled up in a cozy chair with a book, or listening to some of our favorite music, or enjoying conversation with friends. It is also the life of our moral action and activity as citizens. Winged Words: On the Importance of Reading and Discussing Great Books

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