As I get more and more grown up, I wrestle with what it means. To quote one young but promising author, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things.” But what are childish things? Curiosity, openness, passion are childish things but not something one would aspire to “putting away.” Maybe the key is in the first part of the quote: mature vs immature understanding and thinking (speaking is but a function of these two).
What is mature thinking/understanding then? I would argue it is the ability to take a long view on the subject, a view informed by the context, by the history, by the knowledge of other opinions. From my area of former expertise, natural science, I saw that the ability to place facts and arguments within a larger picture 1. gives one a great advantage in speed and quality of assessing new information and 2. something that people without a systematic natural science education lack. Having a structure where new ideas can fit, of course, can be a disadvantage when and if that structure cannot accommodate a very large and very new idea (but how often does that happen tho?). Also any such structure is, by necessity, a product of the times and may be subject to the biases and prejudices of these times. OTOH, it is only by having a long view one can tell contemporary biases and prejudices from the “natural state of things.”
Liberal education is one way to acquire this structure, but not everyone can afford X years of his life and N hundreds of thousands of dollars for something as intangible and superficially useless as a “long view.” In any case such a long view needs to include one’s own life, for scale if nothing else; and at the usual college age (20, give or take) the life is still too short. An alternative is systematic and deep reading throughout life, which – like exercise preps you to meet old age before meeting a heart attack – presumably would prep you for a role of a wise elder instead of a crazy old man.
There are two important qualifiers here: systematic and deep. I’ll save the deep for a later post. What is the system that would make one’s reading systematic? One can go through the classics – as direct a chance to converse with humanity’s greatest minds as one can hope for; but what is “a classic?” Much ink has been spilled in deciding what belongs to the canon and what doesn’t, and the lists get revised with every new trend. Anyone can make a list but a list is too accessible for others’ meddling and amending. A decisive argument is to print a 50-volume library according to your list, however idiosyncratic – nobody can argue with a hundred pound of books. So two attempts were made: Harvard Classics (first edition 1909) and Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World (first edition 1952, second 1990).
Harvard Classics, 51 volumes, with a tagline “…I had more than once stated in public that in my opinion a five-foot — at first a three-foot — shelf would hold books enough to afford a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.”
GBotWW, 54 volumes with a two-volume inane compendium/ dictionary of ideas named Syntopicon.
No introductions: Lacking such help, how can one be expected to take an interest in such problems, vivid enough to Aquinas, as “Whether an Inferior Angel Speaks to a Superior Angel?,” “Whether We Should Distinguish Irascible and Concupiscible Parts in the Superior Appetite?,” “Whether Heavenly Bodies Can Act on Demons?,” and “Whether by Virtue of Its Subtlety a Glorified Body Will No Longer Need to Be in a Place Equal to Itself?” In fact, even with help, one’s interest might remain moderate.
Dr. Adler’s set of books is a typical expression of the religion of culture that appeals to the American academic mentality. And the claims its creators make are a typical expression of the American advertising psyche.
On the importance of Greek/Latin studies: But not one of them (multiculturalist classicists) really wishes to adulterate our core values from the Greeks, to live under indigenous pre-Columbian ideas of government, Arabic protocols for female behavior, Chinese canons of medical ethics, Islamic traditions of church and state, Japanese ideals of race or Native-American notions of private property. (from Who Killed Homer?)