as interpreted by Paul V. Hartman
Our Legacy - The Great Conversation

The "history" of civilization is really a literary tradition, which was once an oral tradition until permanently recorded in preservable medium. That literary tradition, in terms of the people who occupied Europe and beyond, and who settled the various parts of the non- European world, has been described as a "Great Conversation". Until recent times, that conversation, preserved in a literature which retreats thousands of years to the ancient city of Sumer in the Fertile Crescent, has been conveyed from previous generations to our own in a vehicle we have generally called the "Western Canon".

This Canon was everyone's literature and history simply because everyone was required to learn it. Required in the sense that you needed to regurgitate portions of it to get good scores on examinations, and also because it constituted an historical bedrock of recognized events, sayings, and opinions, deficiencies of which identified a person as uneducated or ignorant. Any "educated person" from Russia through Italy to Arizona could speak of events or literary works from the past with a common awareness, a wonderful advantage for communications and commerce. That awareness has been not only horizonal, crossing the borders of countries and the divisions of continents, but it has been verticle, uniting particular cultural groups in the course of time with their ancestors before and their children thereafter. Alas, since the 1960's, such communal and familiar knowledge has fallen victim to Political Correctness and the Diversity Police. In order to strengthen the self-esteem of certain designated minorities, obscure persons and writers are dredged up from the past and inserted into the required course work, displacing, in the process, persons or literary works which had long since earned the badge of greatness.

The result of which has been a deliberate dilution of culture, history, and literature held by the people in common. In our age, more people know more about uncommon things (by which I mean things of very little enduring worth), than at any time in the history of the planet.

Unfortunately for the marginally educated, much of the reasonably modern literature is strewn with references to the old, and the best grasp one can obtain of "history" is to carry it's study as far back as the available material allows. A person weak in the Canon will not know who is meant as "the noblest Roman of them all" or which female in history is being described in the line "age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety", to take just two examples from the literature of Shakespeare which, once upon a time, was known by any American high school sophomore. If a contemporary writer uses the phrase "four legs good, two legs bad", can the (typically) marginally literate college grad presume it is anything other than a reference to some environmental or animal rights issue?

However, all is not lost. Any individual still wishing to become an "educated person" in the true meaning of the term need only discover what that Canon once was, and acquire it. It is free for the taking, and anyone taking it can expect to be able to converse readily with anyone else who has taken it, on such things as the timeless questions and the eternal verities. I need only refer you to the Great Books Collection and you will have all the titles you will need.

In the interest of shortening the learning curve, I provide here (in response to several previous requests) my own distillation of the Great Books list, as I believe this abreviated list represents the literature of Western Civilization which retains the most relevance to our own generation, and which is likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

Simply put, a person not familiar with these works may be talking, but cannot be considered educated on anything but the most ephemeral subjects-du-jour, and they are most assuredly not participating in the "Great Conversation" as their grandparents and great-grandparents did before them.

Those already deep in the Western Canon, those who have Conversed with the ancients on the eternal truths, know that all cultures are Not equal: that some cultures succumb ignorantly to disease and others discover cures; that some build houses on sand, and others on strong foundations; that many curse the darkness and some bring forth the light. The edifying (and cultural) goal, therefore, is to pursue what Matthew Arnold called "the best which has been thought and said in the world". It is in the Western Canon. Regardless of who you are or where you came from, starting today, you can make it your own.

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