Lessons from Great Books

As a sophomore-level history course, The Great Books: Antiquity introduces students to enduring literary works and ideas from the ancient world. In conjunction with English 10, representative texts in poetry, drama, history, and philosophy will be read with an eye to worldview analysis, the development of ideas, historical significance, and literary merit. In the process, students will contemplate enduring questions that bear on human flourishing, virtue development and Christian living. Students will apply logic skills and learn to use rhetoric to craft and participate in discussions surrounding the great ideas of timeless works from the ancient period of Western Civilization.

MCS also offers The Great Books: Medieval Age (Grade 11) an The Great Books: Modernity (Grade 12) courses. See Course Descriptions.


Dear students, 

The palace of Versailles is located sixteen miles outside of Paris. I learned that piece of trivia in World History class in 9th grade, and I have no idea why I remember it. On the other hand, there were countless important events and figures that were covered in my high school history courses that I can’t recall, and you too will forget much of what you learned in this class, feeling only a vague familiarity with names and battles that we touched on. Memory is strange that way. But there are things that I sincerely hope that each of you have learned and will take with you throughout your life. At the simplest level, I hope that you will remember many of the locations and dates that we have memorized this year, so that you will have the mental architecture to accommodate new facts and ideas into a more-or-less cohesive view of history. When you hear a fact like “The Zhou dynasty began to reign in 1046 B.C.,” I hope you are able to say to yourself, “Oh, that was just a little bit before the reign of David in Israel,” and remind yourself that the events of the Bible did indeed happen in the same world as the rest of history. I hope that when you hear mention of the Black Sea, you will be able to picture it on the globe and, perhaps, even recall that the Greeks referred to it as the “Euxine.” 

I hope that you will remember at least snippets of our catechism and that they will come to mind when you most need them: that you will recall in times of trouble that “all rests in the hands of a mighty power” (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus) and that “no purpose of His can be thwarted” (Job 42:2); that you will be able to recognize it when you see “the dominant exact what they can” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War) and stand up against such injustice, instead having “this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). I hope that when you are tempted to embrace our culture’s consumeristic vision of the good life, you will remember that “Great-heartedness and heroism and courtesy and justice and generosity are far more in conformity with nature than self-indulgence or wealth or even life itself” (Cicero, On Duties).

Some will say, “These facts that you have memorized are useless; I could look them up on Google in moments without wasting the time and repetition.” But that would be like saying, “I don’t know why you would buy that car; I could rent one for much cheaper.” Some things are worth owning and some things are worth knowing. When you memorize something, it literally becomes a part of you and I hope that you will furnish your mind with things that are worth thinking about, things that are of enduring value, things that are true, good, and beautiful.

I hope that as you have read some of the great works of antiquity, you have learned to understand (at least to some degree) and to appreciate the ancients. It is a marvelous thing to be able to pick up a book written by someone who died hundreds or even thousands of years ago and to get a window into their thoughts and their world. No doubt, it is a difficult task. We are forced to learn new vocabulary, customs, and ways of thinking; it decenters us as readers and makes us stretch our imaginations and our empathic abilities. But it is a worthy and rewarding pursuit both in process and result. As you read these books, written by the great authors of old, with all their flaws and humanity, I hope you could still see that by God’s grace they have truths worth learning, truths that echo the wisdom of God’s Word. I hope that Homer taught you that “all life is a battle,” that Aesop taught you to be content, Sophocles that virtue is better than comfort, Plato that substance is greater than appearance, Aristotle that you ought to seek the highest end, Alexander that pride unchecked will be your undoing, Maccabees that some things are worth dying for, Cicero that advantage and right are inseparable, Shakespeare that indulgence and disloyalty lead to tragedy, Josephus that dissension leads to failure, and the Apostolic Fathers that Christ is our model of endurance.

Some of you have asked this question and others have, no doubt, thought it, “Do we need the things we’ve learned in this class: the catechism, the anchor dates, the maps, the historical background, the ancient ideas discussed at seminar table, all the talk of virtue and transcendent truths?” Well, you certainly won’t die without them, if that’s what you mean. You probably won’t go hungry or be poor either, at least not physically. But there is a kind of poverty that results from not knowing the past or the ideas that have shaped your present, a starvation of a human spirit that was meant to feast on that which is “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praise-worthy.” A relentless diet of Tik-Tok and Snapchat will nourish your soul no more effectively than candy bars and ice cream will your body. A myopic, chronologically snobbish life will leave you malnourished, but with no appetite left for anything that might actually feed you. So, will you use any of this? That is not a question that I can answer. Rather, it is the question that you must answer day after day for the rest of your life.