Reading the Great Books

Many moons ago I toyed with the idea of attending St. John’s College, which offers a Great Books curriculum — four years of reading and discussing and contemplating the canonical texts of Western civilization, from Homer to Nietzsche, from Genesis to Kafka.

In the event I was seduced by the excitement and ferment at UC Berkeley, and I passed on St. John’s, but I’ve always wondered what the Great Books curriculum would have been like.

Perhaps the next best thing, at least on the Internet, is Johnstonia, the website of Ian Johnston, a retired instructor at Vancouver Island University.

After a career of teaching the Great Books, Johnston has posted written versions of his lectures on his website, along with links to many of the primary texts (many of which are translations from the ancient Greek, German and French by Johnston himself). Johnston has generously made this material available for private and educational use and his website visitor meter shows more than 14 million hits.

Johnston’s lectures are thoughtful introductions to the texts in his syllabus. They often focus on the question “what vision does this text have of human nature and of the good life?” And he comes up with some intriguing answers. In his essay on the book of Exodus, Johnston posits that the ancient Israelites saw community and equality before the law as central to their vision of the good life. And his series of essays on the Iliad argues that Homer saw war as an inescapable fact of nature, as beautiful as it is terrible.

I’m looking forward to more encounters with Ian Johnston and the Great Books in the weeks and months to come.

Technical note: I’ve been doing much of this website reading on my iPod Touch using an app called Instapaper, which is an easy way to save web content for later off-line reading. It also works on laptops and desktops.

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One Response to Reading the Great Books

  1. Dave says:

    Thanks for the pointer to Johnstonia. I’ve been following my own little Great Books program for awhile. I wish St. John’s would put together some iTunesU material themselves.

    I really like Dr. Arguelles’ polyglot approach to Great Books education. In fact, he’s convinced me to include foreign language study into my regimen.

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