Friday, October 14, 2016

A Declaration

The other day I found an article by Mortimer Adler lying around in my office. I must have printed it out at some time and forgotten about it. How it ended up lying on a table with some games and a stack of mail, I don’t know. In any case, I enjoyed reading it . . . again? In the article, Adler lays out some of the thinking behind the editorial committee’s decisions for changes of content in the second edition of the Britannica Great Books. I certainly didn’t always like what I read; some of their particular decisions rubbed me the wrong way. For instance, whatever and wherever hackles may be, the editors’ unceremonious abandonment of Tristram Shandy raised mine.

Much more useful and less ire-exciting was Adler’s explanation of the three criteria by which the board selected the books for inclusion: (1) relevance to people of all times, (2) reference to a wide variety of ideas, and (3) rereadability. About a book with the third characteristic, Adler says, “It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings.” Those lines certainly apply to one of the two books I’m immersed in right now: C. S. Lewis’s Miracles.

When I first read Miracles (as a teen), it was the most difficult book I had ever attempted. Just as with A Tale of Two Cities (the holder of my “Hardest Book” record for the previous six years or so), I loved it for challenging me as well as for other aspects. I had never read or thought about determinism or self-existence or theories of thought and consciousness, at least not to the extent Lewis’s arguments demanded. I had never read Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Locke or Hume or Kant or Darwin. Lewis’s synthesis of the issues provided me my first exposure to all this grand edifice. So you could say that he started my tour of the house by an inspection of the roof. The situation seemed reasonable to me until I learned enough to lean over the edge of the eaves and find that I couldn’t see any walls or foundation holding things up. I knew the supports had to be there (roofs not normally in the habit of just floating about), but they were made of a fine quintessence too subtle for my gross eyes.

Now on this, my third time through what I still consider Lewis’s most daunting book, I find it difficult because I’ve read Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Locke and Hume and Kant and Darwin. I find myself slowing down to examine the good professor’s arguments in the light of what his predecessors have said. To continue my image from before, I’m taking the time to inspect a few of the places where the roof attaches to the frame. And of course it costs me some effort sometimes to remember just what Locke or Kant said.

In any case, the book continues to grow. But it has the other characteristics Adler’s editors looked for, as well. Its main topics of God, nature, and reason concern humans of all periods of history, and it touches on many more of what Adler calls the Great Ideas: being, truth, beauty, democracy, progress, definition, change, cause, eternity, world, knowledge, physics, and more. Since it fulfills all three criteria, I, editorial committee of one, hereby declare Miracles a Great Book.

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