How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation
by Roosevelt Montás
Princeton, 248 pages, $24.95
Plutarch tells us that Gaius Gracchus (154–121 b.c.) devoted his life to civic reform, while Cato the Younger (95–46 b.c.) would “rather compete in valor with the best, than in wealth with the richest or the most covetous in love of money.” Impressive in both cases, no doubt, but what are the rest of us to do, who have neither a passion for reform nor a field on which to display our valor? What for us, beyond eating, drinking, money-making, and sexual contentment, constitutes the good life? Some, most notably Socrates, would say that the scrupulously examined life is the good life. But what if, upon examination, that life turns out to have been empty, sterile, marked by mistaken and irretrievable turns?
Not so easily answered a question, what constitutes the good life, but Roosevelt Montás believes he has found the answer, along with the good life itself, through reading, properly assimilating, and then teaching the great books.
The great books saved Roosevelt Montás’s life. The first among them to do so was a volume in the Harvard Classics series, containing some of the key dialogues of Plato, which when Montás was a sophomore in high school he extracted one day from the garbage near his apartment in Queens. Though he couldn’t have formulated it at the time, the book set him on a search for a higher life, “a life of inquiry and reflection.”
Roosevelt Montás was born in 1975 in the hinterland of the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States, without any English, two days before turning twelve. He had the good luck to come upon a teacher in high school who saw in him something worth cultivating, and who encouraged him to apply to Columbia University under the Higher Education Opportunity Program, which provided financial aid “to students who meet mixed criteria of financial need and academic under-preparedness,” both of which, Montás notes, he met “by wide margins.”
In Rescuing Socrates, Montás recounts his memories of his first year at Columbia: “While my English was good enough to be admitted to the College—if barely—my cultural fluency and ability to mingle with fellow students was nowhere close to functional.” Montás would remain at Columbia all his days, acquire his bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees there, and go on to become director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum from 2008 to 2018 and to begin a program centered on great books for low-income students who wish to attend college.
That Core Curriculum at Columbia was begun by John Erskine in 1920 under the course title of “General Honors.” Offered to junior and senior undergraduates, the course required that students read one classic work in literature, history, or philosophy each week. Erskine’s own definition of a classic work “is one that has meaning and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time.” Such works came to be known as great books. The Honors Course over the years was taught by such academic luminaries as Jacques Barzun, Mark Van Doren, and Lionel Trilling. Later, under the direction of Mortimer Adler, himself a student of Erskine’s, a publishing enterprise known as The Great Books of the Western World emerged, one brilliantly mocked by Dwight Macdonald in a devastating essay titled “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.”
Touting an education centered on great books while illustrating their significance in Montás’s own life, Rescuing Socrates argues that a great books education, far from being restricted to the wealthy, is “in fact, the most powerful tool we have to subvert the hierarchies of social privilege that keep those who are down, down.” Montás’s encounter with great books had this effect on his life, raising him well above the lowly condition into which he had been born. His title Rescuing Socrates should perhaps have been Rescued by Socrates. The book is in good part a success story—Horatio Alger, one might say, as bookworm.
I share with Roosevelt Montás the experience of having been saved by great books: in my case, by those offered in the great books curriculum of the College at the University of Chicago. “Saved,” with its religious connotation, is perhaps a bit strong; “uplifted” may be better. My ignorance upon entering Chicago was not as deep as Montás’s when entering Columbia, but it was impressive nonetheless. Before Chicago, the most serious book I had read was The Catcher in the Rye; I knew a fair amount about Walt Disney’s character Pluto but had not yet heard of Plato; and like all good Chicagoans, I pronounced Goethe Street “Go-thee.” Soon after I joined the ranks of those mostly Jewish boys and girls taught St. Thomas Aquinas by atheist professors at the University of Chicago, all that changed.
Throughout Rescuing Socrates, Montás interweaves his account of reading and teaching St. Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi with his own autobiography. He tells us at the outset that he has chosen to write about these four figures because, like him, “each of them experienced an inner transformation that made them into the figures we know today. In each case, the motive force was the relentless pursuit of self-understanding—the very kind of understanding that liberal education takes as its ultimate goal.”
In taking up his four authors, Montás recounts how reading each of them transformed him. His own background as an evangelical Christian gave him entree into Augustine’s Confessions, yet reading the book led him to a realization: “I must leave the evangelical faith and the church for good, perhaps for a different atheism than the one I came to America with, or perhaps for a higher sort of faith, one that grew from the soil of utter intellectual honesty.” Allowing that reading Augustine did not stimulate his faith in God, he claims that it nonetheless revived his faith in his own experience, “dignified and legitimized my tryst with Christianity, and affirmed my deepest impulse toward a life dedicated to the pursuit of an ultimate good.”
In reading Plato, Montás found striking similarities between Socrates and Jesus, as well as between Socrates and his own father. Like Socrates, Montás’s father was uncompromising—in his father’s case, against corruption in the Dominican Republic and against the baleful influence of the United States on the country. His father also made Montás feel that the family’s poverty, far from a mark of shame, was a sign of its virtue.
As for the influence of Freud, suffice it to say that later in life Roosevelt Montás entered a six-year bout of psychoanalysis (no fewer than four sessions per week) in his personal campaign for self-examination. “Analysis taught me,” he writes, “to look at myself in a certain askance way, to be attentive to what happens on the edges of consciousness, to be less certain of myself, and more suspicious of reason, sense, and sanity.” Psychoanalysis also allowed him to break free of his first, eleven-year-long marriage.
Finally, from Gandhi’s Autobiography, Montás learned to ask “to what extent . . . advancing my self-interests compromise[s] my well-being.” He proclaims that Gandhi’s commitment to “‘the Eternal Law of Truth and Love translated as non-violence’ touches a reality I sense in the deepest part of my being.”
Of the four authors taken up in Rescuing Socrates, Freud is the shakiest thinker. Montás senses this, referring in his pages on Freud to “the dogmatic certainty with which Freud insisted on his many dubious claims.” Yet he proposes that, “as with all thinkers from the past, our moral censure has to be applied with discrimination and historical awareness. ‘In what way are they right?’ is almost always a more productive and a more difficult question than ‘In what ways are they wrong?’”
Freud, however, was wrong about so much. Let me count a few of the ways: on sibling rivalry, on jokes being chiefly acts of aggression, on penis envy, and on that crowning, that keystone piece of nonsense, the Oedipus Complex. (“Oedipus, schmoedipus,” an old joke has it, “the main thing is a boy should love his mother.”) Then there is the chilling determinism in Freud, who held that all the cards were dealt out so early in life. This determinism has set all serious literary artists against Freud; Vladimir Nabokov rarely referred to him as other than “the Viennese Quack.” And who can measure the accumulated grief Freudian analysts and psychiatrists caused for so many of their patients by attempting to resolve their non-existent Oedipus and other complexes?
As the nutritionists tell us we are what we eat, so do intellectuals tend to think what they read. Some, like Montás, take things a step further and act on what they have read. I, for one, cannot think of a single book that has changed my life so directly as the books Montás takes up have changed his. Enriched my life vastly, yes, many books have done, and I hope a few more will continue to do before I depart the planet. Perhaps I am more of a Matthew Arnoldian than a Roosevelt Montásian, content to have been exposed to the best that has been thought and said and thereby to have widened and (I like to think) deepened my understanding of what is significant in life.
Montás holds that the true mission of liberal education is not scholarly but existential, not epistemological but ethical. It is concerned “with the subjective experience of being human and with the basic character of the human good.” By encouraging self-reflection, liberal education transforms us. This can only be accomplished, Montás maintains, by skillful teaching. To his credit, Montás does not ever say that he is such a teacher, though my guess is that he probably is. After thirty years of my own university teaching, I have come to believe that the person who thinks himself a good teacher, like the person who thinks himself charming, usually isn’t.
I had no great classroom teachers at the University of Chicago. My one classroom memory is of the poet and critic Elder Olson reading a passage from a poem by Yeats, remarking how beautiful it was, pausing, exhaling, then adding, “Pity I can’t believe any of it.”
Never an especially good student, I, who began university teaching in my mid-thirties, put much more energy into my teaching than I had into my time as a student. I also came to believe that not everyone is capable of being educated, including those who have gained entry to some of the country’s most highly regarded schools. Not just the ability but the passion for reading great books is available to a small number of students. How they attain to this passion remains a mystery.
When I was at the University of Chicago in the middle 1950s, there were some students who failed to understand the importance of what they were reading, but who nevertheless went on to become successful physicians and lawyers and, in some instances, powerful money-makers. At Northwestern University, I found that the novels of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather were not truly available to all my students, though they could pass exams and even write adequate papers on them. This was not owing to anything so crude as their want of intelligence or unwillingness to learn. For in my classes at Northwestern, so-called “good students” abounded. My best guess is that they don’t really get it because they didn’t feel the need to elevate their lives above worldly success and material comfort.
Montás spends several pages setting out the hard road that liberal education has to travel in the contemporary university, with its fixation on practical results. He is no admirer of the deconstruction and postmodernism that have enfeebled much teaching in the humanities. He also holds that the current emphasis on diversity in higher education “is to abandon the very idea of education and to turn students into interest groups, each lobbying for its own special curricular accommodations.” He understands that the significant difference between education in our day and in earlier centuries is that in earlier centuries education saw its task as that of raising up students, whereas now, with the goal of providing more education for more people, the momentum is largely in the other direction. “I hope that we shall not consciously or unconsciously drift towards the view that it is better for everybody to have a second-rate education, than for only a small minority to have the best,” T. S. Eliot wrote in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. With the current day’s emphasis on “practical”—that is, job-gaining—education and on artificial diversity and inclusivity in higher education, Eliot’s hopes, it would seem, have been all but soundly dashed.
Roosevelt Montás does not wish to eliminate what today passes for “practical education,” but instead desires to make liberal education its prerequisite. He believes in education “not for making a living but for living meaningfully.” Putting not his money but his heart where his mouth is, for three years he taught English as a second language, and for the past decade he has taught a three-week course for high-school seniors from low-income families that begins with Greek texts, goes on to Enlightenment writers, and ends with a final week devoted to the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and other key figures in American history. He reports a high degree of success among the course’s students, measured by the fact that nearly all of them have gone on to enroll in college, and several eventually in graduate school. Let us hope that, when the time comes, he does not neglect to inform St. Peter of this work.
Joseph Epstein is author of Gallimaufry, a collection of essays and reviews.