What are the “great books”? Let’s begin with what the great books are not. Contrary to a common caricature, they are not a “closed canon” of elitist literature aimed at suppressing, oppressing, or even impressing anyone. There is no set “list” of great books that is either exhaustive or definitive. When lists are offered by institutions that study the great books, such lists are simply meant to identify a certain manageable number of eminent books that the institution incorporates into its own curriculum. This is not to say that other books are not worth reading; rather, such a list provides a plan of study that will hopefully lead the student into the sense of wonder that the great books tend to engender in their readers. In a sense, the great books are an embodiment of the human pursuit of knowledge—of the natural order, of human history, of oneself, and of God. Through the ages, different authors in different ways have shed light on the “permanent things”; they have helped us see truths about reality and the human condition, enriching our minds and fortifying our hearts. Studying the books they have written helps to develop what is distinctively human about us, our capacity for thought and speech and our ability to live freely in society.
The great books come from a broad array of disciplines, including (but not necessarily limited to) mathematics, natural science, literature, history, politics, philosophy, and theology. Although there is no set canon, there are certain conspicuous works that typically make everyone’s list—Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, Machiavelli’s Prince, Descartes’s Meditations, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and so on. Of course, many of the foundational works on the liberal arts are also considered great books—e.g., Aristotle’s Organon [logic], Euclid’s Elements [geometry and arithmetic], Ptolemy’sAlmagest [astronomy], etc. This is no surprise, since the liberal arts are the beginnings of liberal education and the great books in general are a natural outgrowth and development of the same pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Thus, the liberal arts and the great books are intimately connected; studying the one naturally leads to study of the other (and back again!).
Unlike our lesson plans on the liberal arts, which are organized into courses, our resources on the great books take the form of study guides for independent reading or reading as a group. Another difference between the liberal arts and great books materials has to do with authorship. Whereas the liberal arts courses are each created by one author and created in such a way as to be used as a whole, the resources on the great books are frequently compiled from a number of authors and no attempt is made to collect these materials into courses, since doing so would seem contrived and hardly useful for a teacher who already has a syllabus with designated readings in a certain order. Instead, the great books study guides are organized first by discipline and then by author and text. Where an author or text could reasonably be categorized in more than one discipline, we have tried to place the same materials under different disciplines for your convenience.