Decolonising the Bookshelf: Why Great Books Matter

In the constant assault against Western civilisation, one of the new fads is to “decolonise your bookshelf”. In essence, this new form of vandalism wants you to burn your own books—those precious works of our artistic and cultural patrimony—and replace them with the new, vulgar and hateful works that now pass themselves off as literature. This movement claims to be advancing inclusion and diversity, but in reality it is moved by hatred veiled in the language of love. Now, however, is a great time to dive into the love that has so moved our artistic and cultural tradition to great heights and can lead us to new heights if only we have the fortitude to embark on the artistic pilgrimage.

Matthew Arnold wrote that art and culture contained “the best which has been thought and said” about the human condition and experience. Saint Augustine wrote that truth, wherever it is found, belongs to God: “Let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” This is one of the many reasons that Christians have never had a problem adopting the humanistic style of learning and education to bequeath a spirit of appreciative love and beauty for all “the best which has been thought and said”. It is something we ought to recapture for the survival of our culture that has been so moved by the unity of truth and love through the millennia.

Why should we read the great books? First, the great books are part of our inheritance. Our civilisation has cultivated a place for the great books, from the writings of Cicero and Virgil to more modern works from the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The repository of Western art and culture has so influenced the formation of our artistic and cultural consciousness that to ignore it is to ignore an important root that has given rise to the greatest sculptures, paintings and writings in the Western tradition.

Moreover, the great books bring us back into contact with the roots of Western culture. In an age of cultural sickness and deracination, any hope of cultural revival begins with the very roots of Western culture and civilisation. The marriage of Athens and Rome with the heavenly eyes of Jerusalem are the seeds that birthed the universities, Michelangelo and Donatello, Dante and Aquinas, Shakespeare and Milton. These seeds also birthed what we call, and still know today—however sick it may be—as Western civilisation. These are seeds that must be restored if that civilisation has a future.

But the most pertinent reason to read the great books is that they also teach us about love in their manifold ways. Let us now look at just a few of the great books we ought to be familiar with; great books that have inspired our forefathers to gaze upon the heavens and venture across stormy seas to build a civilisation of the heart—a heart, we know, to be good and noble despite what its critics say.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are foundational texts for the entire artistic and cultural tradition of the West. They influenced the greatest Roman poet, Virgil, and his composition of the Aeneid. While the Aeneid originally held pride of place in the West, the recovery of Homer and the philhellenism that swept the West in the nineteenth century brought Homer back to a place of prominence.

The Iliad, as we know, is the story of the divine wrath, mēnis, of Achilles. Spurned by Agamemnon’s theft of his war booty, Briseis, Achilles sulks in his tent as his comrades die at the hands of a resurgent Trojan foe. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles curses Priam and his sons, vowing to wipe out their seed from the face of the earth. He mercilessly slays Lycaon and Hector. Then, in the most sublime moment of the poem, Priam courageously ventures into the tent of Achilles to beg the return of the body of his beloved son.

In the tent of Achilles, the rageful killer has every opportunity to make true his vow to kill Priam and wipe out the seed of his avowed enemy. Instead, the love that a father expresses for his son breaks Achilles’s heart of stone. The two weep together in each other’s arms.

Achilles, in a moment of forgiveness, disavows his desire to kill Priam and returns the body of Hector to Priam. Homer ends The Iliad, an epic of war, on a note of peace. Homer’s crafting hand, it should be noted, tells us the true impetus of The Iliad: love through forgiveness which brings peace to a shattered world. That, after all, is how The Iliad ends even if we know how the rest of the story unfolds. Homer didn’t conclude The Iliad with the sack of Troy. He ended it on the single moment of forgiveness which brought peace to a war-torn world.

If we accept the continuity of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which we should on grounds of the synthetic narrative, we realise that the Trojan War began with marital infidelity and only ends because of marital fidelity. The infidelity of Helen and her elopement with Paris bring the world to war and gather all the heroes of the two epics. The Odyssey deals with the final journey of Odysseus, away from Troy and his captivity at the hands of Circe and Calypso, to his beloved wife Penelope.

It is easy to criticise Odysseus for his supposed infidelity. This misses the mark, as the likes of Eva Brann have shown. Odysseus, despite his time with Circe and Calypso, renounces the immortal pleasure of the divines. He realises he is really a slave of their passions by remaining with them. He rejects the illusory unreality of their false promises. The heart of Penelope, the flesh of Telemachus and the soil of Ithaca call him home.

When Odysseus journeys to the underworld and meets the heroes of the Trojan War, Homer reveals to us the revelatory message of the poem: the importance of the family. Telemachus has been out searching for his father out of love of him. Penelope has remained true to Odysseus despite all the pressures placed on her as a woman and queen. In the underworld, Odysseus meets Agamemnon and Achilles, who both speak of the eternal importance of family life.

Agamemnon bemoans how he was betrayed by his wife and her lover when he should have finally had happy rest in his parousia after a long absence. He also praises Penelope’s love for Odysseus. Likewise, Achilles rebuffs the praises of war showered on him by Odysseus. He only asks for knowledge about his son and says that he would rather be a poor tenant farmer with his family than master of the underworld, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead. But come, tell me the news about my gallant son.”

So Odysseus completes the journey of return to his family and is reunited with Penelope and Telemachus. With the divine intervention of Athena, peace is restored to Ithaca and to Odysseus and his family. The war began with marital infidelity. It finally ends in peace for our Homeric heroes because of marital fidelity. The Odyssey teaches us the supreme love of the family.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is the great Christian epic. Though most are familiar with the Inferno, it is imperative that Christians read all three books together to get the fullest appreciation of the work and Dante’s entire message.

The course of the Divine Comedy is a training and education in love for the poet Dante. Having wandered from the “straight and true”, Dante is guided through hell by Virgil. Over the course of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil set aside their petty differences and come to love each other through mutual dependence, and, at the end, forgiveness. In a loveless place, which is what hell is, trust leading to forgiveness is the only light that emanates in this bleak world. Furthermore, Dante learns mercy through his meetings with the various sinners he encounters.

Before proceeding into the final circle of hell, Virgil rebukes Dante for his dallying. Dante asks forgiveness. Virgil realises he has wronged Dante. The two share, here, the only moment of forgiveness in the whole of the Inferno, which permits them to proceed into the final lair of the beast and out to the slopes of Mount Purgatory to proceed on their journey to heaven.

If, in the Inferno, Dante learned the virtues of love in the form of trust, mercy and forgiveness, Purgatorio is where he learns to direct these virtues to lofty ends principally through relational conversation with the poets on the nature of love. When Dante and Virgil encounter the other great Roman poet, Statius, the three form an impromptu trinity—a relation of love bound together in loving conversation, just as Augustine described the Trinity in his magnificent work De Trinitate. Learning to order his love properly, and through the love that only relationships bring, Dante meets Beatrice and is ushered into the starry lights of heaven.

In heaven, however, Dante’s education in love still proceeds. Beatrice reminds Dante regularly that he should keep his eye on the true prize: God. God finally looms large in Paradiso as the ultimate destination of human love. The virtues of love Dante learned in hell, the order and directionality of love he learned in purgatory, meet their ultimate fruition in heaven as Dante—guided by his in persona Christi (Beatrice)—takes his seat with the choir of angels and saints to sing praises to God forever and to “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”. Forgiveness, friendship and God are the supreme realities of love according to Dante, who brought to fruition the grand tradition of the Western epic.

The “best which has been thought and said” teaches us about love. The love found in forgiveness, the love found in the family, the love found in God—the supreme and ultimate source for all other forms of love—are contained so beautifully in the great works of the Western tradition. From Homer and Dante to Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, the great books move us to a real spirit of charity.

Spending time with the great books will reignite the heart’s passion for beauty, goodness and truth. It will also reveal the counterfeit love (really lust and hatred) masquerading as art which is far from “the best which has been thought and said” and far removed from “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”. Through the great books we may discover the meaning of life and have the courage to ascend to the heavens once more. The health of our civilisation, and indeed our souls, depend on it.

Paul Krause is the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books, published by Wipf & Stock in July

2 thoughts on “Decolonising the Bookshelf: Why Great Books Matter

  • whitelaughter says:

    I enjoyed reading Dante’s Purgatorio, but never got around to reading Paradiso. You’ve persuaded me that it is time to correct that.

  • Alice Thermopolis says:

    The mystery is that yearning and absence, more than presence, arguably inspired these great epic poems. What matters is more the journey – actual or spiritual – than the arriving.

    “Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey,
    Without her you would not have set out.
    She has nothing left to give you now.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
    Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
    you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
    (C P Kavafy, Ithaka)

    Dante’s Vita nouva, or the New Life, some say is the best introduction to The Divine Comedy. It describes his relationship – mostly idealised – with the unattainable Bice, who later became the wife of banker, Simone dei Bardi, Dante tells us he met her for the first time when he was nine. He called her Beatrice, “the bringer of blessings”, and she became his poetic muse..
    Tomorrow, incidentally,, is the 700 hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321.. He died of malaria in Ravenna, aged 56, “mere hours after finishing the Paradiso”.

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