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Great Books Show Why Ideas Matter

By Fritz Hinrichs
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #11, 1996.

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Fritz Hinrichs


We live in a day when people rarely take an interest in ideas or see their importance to daily life. This widespread disdain for ideas has produced a culture where “practical issues” constantly triumph over theoretical questions.

In politics, theoretical questions like, “What is the proper role of government?” or, “What implications does the tenth amendment have?” have been replaced by a constant bickering over practical considerations about who gets the many government goodies.

In the church, doctrinal issues receive very little attention while practical issues like “contemporary v. traditional worship” produce enough passion to split churches.

In our everyday discussions, rarely do you hear people address the issues at the core of a disagreement. Rather, when someone wants to clinch an argument they will usually begin with a phrase like “Yes, but personally, I REALLY feel that . . . ”

A truly successful education will give a child the understanding that ideas do matter and that most of our practical decisions flow out of our understanding of the larger questions.

A child will be greatly helped in learning the importance of ideas by a home life ruled by unwavering principles. By raising a child to obey biblical principles and showing him through our own lives what it is like to actively pursue obedience to these principles, we teach him that ideas are important. He comes to learn that when the mind and the passions conflict with each other, the mind rules the passions, and not vice-versa.

As this child grows older, investigating ideas and their consequences will naturally become a pressing interest because he has been raised to see their relevance. A child who has only seen principles followed when they conveniently accommodate present whims will grow up cynical about anyone who takes the search for truth seriously.

As a student grows older, a successful education will provide him with the opportunity to see the importance of ideas to society and to his own individual life. To provide this atmosphere, a student needs books that grapple with the important ideas and issues central to human life. What people think is crucial to the way they live and act. Many good authors understand this fact and have written stories that show the significance of ideas in the lives of their characters. These “great books” give us the opportunity to discuss and gain an understanding of the moral issues surrounding the lives of the characters presented.

When students read Sophocles’ Theban trilogy, they are utterly revolted by Oedipus’ heinous deed. Unknowingly, he married his mother and killed his father. However, real success comes when they understand the deeper issue that Sophocles tries to get us to think about—whether Oedipus can use his might and intelligence to significantly alter the course of his fate.

Encouraged by his impious wife, Oedipus mocks the prophet Tiresias’ oracle concerning his awful deeds and boasts that his great intelligence can outwit the prophecies of the seer. Yet, as the play progresses Oedipus realizes that nothing he can do will change the fate he must fulfill and, indeed, has already fulfilled. In the end, Sophocles shows Oedipus’ willful attempts to affect his destiny as mere grist for the great grinding gears of invincible fate. However, even as Oedipus’ fate closes in around him, Sophocles does not let you forget that Oedipus is still an individual with a will of his own—Oedipus’ own determined and persistent choices bring to light his own ill-fated calamity! Sophocles very skillfully presents the reader with the tension between man’s individual choices and the fact that his life has been pre-determined.

A great writer, Sophocles presents this philosophical dilemma in a way that helps even a child to feel the urgency and weight of the question. After seeing Sophocles demolish Oedipus before the onslaught of an unyielding fate, the students have a deeper sense of the significance of the fact that we worship a God not only sovereign and Lord of the Universe but also one who hears us when we pray.

For the ancients, Fate was merely an impersonal deity to whom it would be meaningless to pray and the personal deities to whom one could pray (Zeus, Hera et. al.) were as hopelessly subject to Fate as the mortals themselves. Great joy ensues when students realize that the God they pray to not only listens and deeply cares for them, but retains total control.

Great books ask the big questions, but the Bible provides the answers. Even though they cannot provide us with any solid answers, the great books play a tremendously valuable role. You cannot know the profundity of the answers before you know the depth of the questions! As the knowledge of the law brings us to the gospel, so the knowledge of the richness and complexity of life leads us to fully grasp the virtue of God’s truth.

For a Christian, a successful classical education should not produce the blind and directionless euphoria for the classics so well depicted in the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Rather, the classics provide grist for our own mill, and our mill has very sharp teeth!

A successful student will derive a deeper knowledge of the truth of God’s word, in proportion to how deeply he looks at the questions life places before him! This knowledge will give him the intellectual confidence to go forth and bring all thoughts captive to Christ.

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