On the “Great books of the Western World” and the questions that follow.
After 400,000 man hours of work by 150 scholars over a period of 8 years, in 1952 Encyclopaedia Britannica publishes a book collection known as the ‘’Great books of the Western World. Only 1863 sets were produced, the first two were given as gifts to queen Elizabeth II and then US president Harry Truman.
When referred to as ‘’Western values’’, most people rarely mean the values, culture, civilisation grounded in the Judeo-Christian ethic and its intellectual and philosophical foundation emerging out of ancient Greece and Israel which ethos can be further traced back to an ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, mediterranean landscape as the origin of those later contributions and influence on our world.
Nevertheless, it is the summation of the ideas, principles and understanding produced, we today refer to as ‘’the West”.
The 54-volume set covers categories including natural sciences, history, mathematics, biology, poetry, politics, philosophy, ethics, economics and is produced by the most influential minds and ideas of the last 3000 years affording anyone taking on the mammoth task of even begging to understand them with a true liberal education.
Not exclusive to others, why have these works withstood the test of time and (despite any accompanying flaws) have also earned a kind of prevalence in our world? Is that merely chance?
What’s most commonly put forth as criticism to their unjust claim to a position of authority or preferability is the locality of their origin and that of its proponents. For unclear reasons, this critique places primacy on what could be argued to be the arbitrary happenstance of geography while al-together overlooking the movement and evolution of thought and most importantly, the transcendence of this set of ideas and their utility in the admittedly desirable and tangible outcomes produced in their application.
In ridding ourselves with bias, how can this be answered objectively, is there anything special about these propositions? From Homer or Aristotle and Plato, to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas or Dante, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Or Bacon and Descartes, John Milton, Adam Smith, Newton, Kant, Hegel or Tolstoy, why them?
Is it not out of the amalgamation and continual evolution of their ideas over the centuries that we have abstract concepts such as human rights, value of the individual, liberty, freedom of conscience, rationalism, objective pursuit of truth, self-criticism, property rights, equality before the law?
Why are these concepts something valued across time and place? Why is it that when applied in say, Japan or South Korea or somewhere in Africa, those citizens seem (by their own standards) to enjoy an improvement in their circumstances and have reaped benefits? Could there be a case made for their universal applicability in the direction of something worth pursuing?
Can individual or societal flourishing take place in the absence of these concepts?
Even if reality and the history of the West has often fallen short of its own ideal, has there been another set of founding principles or a civilisation that has contributed more to the true progress and fulfilment, not of particular group or class of people, but of the vast majority of individuals and arguably, mankind as whole?
Why is it that people have been choosing to migrate to countries mostly (or at least having the proclaimed intention of) being governed by those classically liberal principles? Did the West get something right?
Are these ideals then worth pursuing, can the West survive the sublimation of the principles that have established it in the first place? What would the alternative devoid of these look like and would one choose (freely) to live in a place not adherent to these?
It is not clear why for a reason other than wilful blindness, the modern mind struggles to understand that even when accounted for its shortcomings, the reality produced by these abstract notions are the anomaly rather than the historical norm. Nonetheless, maybe in excess, freedom is also a vice..
If there’s something of value in these ideas how does one grab a hold over them? Acquiring these books does nothing but the establishment of property rights over them. The act of purchase is simply the prelude to possession, full ownership exists when you make something a part of yourself.
It is then of central importance that we are conscious and deliberate in the ideas and beliefs we take under our dominion, for they become us, and we become what they produce.