The following testimony is by Kelly Whiting, a graduate of West Point (1989) and Harvard Law School (1997):
I read several 100 greatest lists. I started in 1993 with the InteliQuest list. Over the twenty years after that I collected several more such lists and crossed off duplicates and then read what I hadn’t already.
I can order my view of them by area (ie philosophy, poetry, plays, novels, history, science, etc.) or would you rather have a single general overview? Or is there a specific area in which you want my conclusions?
That’s the first list I began with. It was 1993 and I was woefully under-educated in terms of western literature. If I were to make my own list it would differ by about half the books. But that actually is a good list.
Ok. 1. Worldly wisdom is a real thing, but very limited in its reach and in its application. What I mean is that what I found in reading great books of the western literary canon was that they struggled to apply even the simplest of worldly wise rules. For instance, logic. Simple logic, first expressed in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, is almost never carefully applied in any of the classic texts. It’s referred to, claimed, but not actually used clearly in application. It’s a lot like the claim of many “preachers” to “believe the Bible” loudly while never using or using it in ways that the text of the Bible doesn’t allow.
When it is used properly it’s reach is limited by the human struggle to know solid facts and then to apply logic to them rigorously. So even when used properly, it’s reach is extremely limited to very specific things, almost none of which have world-view implications.
So that’s my first conclusion. Human wisdom, while real, is
1. Extremely limited in its usefulness, and
2. Almost never actually used even by people who claim to use it and are believed to have used it.
Second,. myth and stories are much, much more powerful culturally and societally than facts and logical argument. Myths and stories grab peoples’ imaginations and rapidly spread and quickly become a normal belief without any rigorous thought of any kind. So for example, Darwin tells stories about his studies and then stories about what the things he saw mean and how they apply to “evolution.” Similarly, Freud tells stories about his patients and what he learns from them and how those things apply to human “psychology.” Neither use any kind of logical argument. At all. That’s not an overstatement. Logic is entirely nonexistent in either’s body of work. There’s not a single, testable syllogism (Deductive reasoning in which a conclusion is derived from two premises.) either ever presented. Not one.
But their views completely captured the culture and society. Why? The human weakness to accept and incorporate a “good story.”
Third, some men with great talent have used their literary skill to “smuggle” in sexual depravity to the culture. Literary skill is a function of using words and sentence construction that delivers powerful concepts in short passages or through lengthy stories. Both work. Some writers have been extremely gifted in the use of language and many of them have used that gift to spread wicked sexual ideas (I’m assuming for the purpose of normalizing their own desires).
So Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Fitzgerald. All of them were extremely talented writers. Their writing is compelling and powerful, grasps the human condition, and is deeply effective. But all three used that great gift to promote wicked sexual desires. I know that no one sees them that way. But I’ve read their works. They aren’t explicit. They’re sneaky and slip evil in under powerful phrases and well-told stories.
Fourth, the greatest tool I’ve found in our literature to understanding our world (by specifying our literature I’m leaving out scripture) is history and biography (maybe the purest form of history.
That field has yielded the greatest results in seeing and understanding our world and the human view of it.
I’ve read our philosophers from Socrates to Sartre. And while I haven’t read everything all of them wrote I’ve read all of the major works and for more than half I’ve read everything they’ve written. And I find human philosophy to be a swamp of uselessness. If I knew before I read them what I’d find I’d have never wasted my time.
Aristotle is worth reading. That’s basically where my recommendations end as to philosophy.
Poetry is something I have a weakness for. I really enjoy good English poetry. Even bad poetry somehow moves me. I love Shakespeare. Of all the English poets he grasped humanity and its uselessness best.
But there’s not a lot of human depth you can get from poetry and many of the English poets were dedicated, openly and loudly, to evil. Blake and Byron and Shelley and Yeats and Keats were all dedicated to spiritual evil openly. And modern English poets dedicated themselves to communism.
For novels, well there were many great novelists from the late 1700s through the early 1900s. There really haven’t been any since.
But novelists routinely use emotion to lead the reader to false conclusions. There are exceptions (Trollope and Dickens both did a good job of tying actions to outcomes but they’re rarities).
So my overall take on western literature is that it’s an exceptionally useful tool to understand why the western world is so deeply corrupt.
But you’ll not gain much in the way of wisdom from any of it.
I’m able to diagnose arguments and beliefs rapidly now in a way I wasn’t before dedicating myself to two and half decades of learning western literature.
But so what? There’s not much value in that.
Joseph Conrad and Henry James are my two favorite novelists. And Mark Twain is my third (but I prefer his travel writing to his novels).
So if I were to advise a young person what to read I’d refer to those three as to novels. Shakespeare as to poetry and plays. Aristotle as to philosophy. And then history and biography, and a lot of both of those.
A great quote from a Trollope novel I read two decades ago: “He thought he could touch pitch and remain undefiled.”
That’s what I mean about some novelists connecting actions to outcomes.
The Bible is an entirely different thing than all other books due to God being the author and maintaining its perfection. Its history is always exactly perfect. You don’t have to question any facts it lays out or claims it makes.
The ability to not have to be critical or to test its claims makes it an entirely different order of information than any other book.
It also demonstrates man’s true state in a way other books struggle with. They try to avoid negatives about some persons while magnifying the negatives about others. The Bible never does that. It just honestly shows you what someone did with no shading of it.
Also, it has direct instructions that ALWAYS work. If you obey what God says, the results will be what God says they will be. If you don’t, then the same thing. It never misleads and it’s never wrong. No other book can make that claim.
Finally it reveals our Creator and God to us so that we can know Him. No other book can do that. At all. Everything we know about God, spiritual things, heaven and hell, come from the Bible.
Also, it tells the future and it’s always correct. Men sometimes try to predict future outcomes based on their knowledge and they’re sometimes correct. Sometimes wrong given our human limitations. But the Bible tells the future with perfect accuracy.
I believe a person who honestly and seriously studies the Bible will have more knowledge and wisdom, even if they don’t study anything else, than someone who is an expert in all forms of western literature.
I remember once reading the comment that western literature was “a conversation with itself.” Meaning that the books, plays, poems, ideas contained in it were bounced back and forth and rehashed again and again and that it was self-referential as it quoted and copied itself repeatedly.
That’s true. And it highlights the lack of any true wisdom. Because it’s looking into itself, into human wisdom, and even when it quotes scripture (which many of the great novelists from the late 1700s-late 1800s do), they’re usually out of context quotes to make a specific point about something in their story.
Like Lincoln quoting Psalm 119 “His judgments are true and righteous altogether,” as a reference to God judging the United States rather than to the truth of His word.
I don’t begrudge my time reading and studying western literature. I felt the need to know it and I spent the time and work to learn it.
But I don’t think it’s something believers need. I do think it has far more value than any of the insanity being promoted today as education.
But all of it is a conflict between one type of worldliness and another, much more deeply evil version of worldliness.
For a believer, a focus on the Bible itself, supplemented with good history and biography, will give you all you’ll ever need in this world.
I hope that my comments are useful. I spent a great deal of time and work to master western Literature and culture. And I believe I know it better than 99% of Americans. I think there’s some value there. But not enough to justify all the time and work to get to it. But mostly I feel that it taught me how deeply useful and powerful God’s word is. Because there’s such a deep contrast between the best that man can come up with (western literature – which is the best man can do) and what God wrote once, in a single book. I don’t expect anyone to accept my judgments. I’m just a man. But that’s my final position. The Bible is worth any amount of time and work. Any amount. Western literature, the best man can do, simply isn’t worth the time and work it takes to master it.