“Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.”
“It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”
Imagine for a moment, you have just finished eating dinner with your family. You have been living without power for months. You planned for this, of course. You have plenty of food, you are safe, and there is heat if it is winter in your part of the country. As is your family’s custom (let us assume), you take turns discussing what you are thankful for, despite the circumstances. Afterward, the table and dishes are cleaned and everyone gathers into a family room. But what are you going to do? The chores are all completed. All of the puzzles you have have been completed many, many times. The board games you have have been played many times over. Maybe some members of the family play instruments, and you have a short time of playing, dancing, and singing. Eventually, though, the mind will need something substantial to consume. Physical survival is extremely important, obviously. Is intellectual survival also important? I submit to you that it is.
I often tell my children that I have the history of Western civilization in my library. You may be thinking that I have a large library. I don’t. In fact, the books I am referring to only take up a couple of shelves. The younger ones don’t quite understand what that means, but my older kids are beginning to understand that if something were to happen to the electrical grid, we couldn’t get copies on the computer. No one could. Of course, if one has a generator (or really strong batteries) then one could still access copies that are stored on a device, but how long will the generator last? How about the batteries? In a real TEOTWAWKI situation, everything will eventually run out, except for what individuals, families, or groups of families can produce for themselves. Having hard copies of certain books is simply wise. It goes without saying that one should consider books on vital survival skills. For example, I recently received a book for my wife originally written in the 19th century entitled The Frugal Housewife. The book focuses on a number of practical remedies, recipes, et cetera that one would have used over 150 years ago– a time when there wasn’t an electrical grid. My goal here, though, is to discuss books that are necessary for the maintenance and understanding of the ideologies that have produced Western civilization. In a TEOTWAWKI situation, it is possible for younger generations to grow up without understanding this important history. More importantly, though, it is possible for adults, who do understand that history, to forget about it in the midst of literally just surviving.
Having a good library of quality books will make all the difference in the world, emotionally and intellectually, once the “lights” have gone off for good, or even for a considerably long time. What books should you have? One of the great enemies of the Western world, Islamic terrorism, has as its stated goal the destruction of Western civilization. It is likely that, once the grid goes down, access to what are often referred to as the “great books” could be severely limited or altogether lost. Sure, there are hard copies located in libraries across the country, but libraries are normally in cities and no one wants to go into the city in a TEOTWAWKI situation. Those books will be lost– burned or looted, likely. Some of you reading this will recall that the library at Alexandria Egypt (approximately 2000 years ago) was burned. The scrolls and works are gone forever. What knowledge did we lose from the ancient world because of the destruction there? We will never know completely. I strongly encourage families to secure, either in anthology or individually, copies of the “great books.”
Why are such books necessary? Isn’t it also important to secure good copies of quality fiction? I think good fiction would be essential in a TEOTWAWKI situation. Good fiction can be read over and over. For example, to this day I can still laugh when I read the section in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Jim is considered to have power over witches because of a hair ball he found. Reading Mark Twain will never get old. It is also important to note that some of the “great books” are fictional in nature. However, the “great books” are great because they address foundational issues related to human beings, God, ethics, the State, and economics. Our own system of government, for example, has its roots in Greek and Roman political life. Thomas Jefferson had recommended reading lists of the “great books” that he encouraged friends and family to read. Jefferson also believed there was great pleasure in reading the classic works.
He observes: “to read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury;…I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.” Jefferson read the classics not only for the knowledge acquired, but also for the mere pleasure of doing so.
Aristotle believed that human beings were meant to flourish according to their design. The word for “flourish” is the Greek word eudemonia. Think of your garden you planted this past summer. If the garden had everything it needed, according to each plant’s design and need, then your garden likely flourished and you had an abundance of fresh food to eat and store away. If your garden did not flourish, then there was something absent (not enough water, good soil, or sunlight) that it needed. Or, possibly there was something present that it did not need (e.g. weeds, pests of various kinds, or, if you are like me, a giant Black Walnut tree right next to your garden). In like manner, human beings need certain things to flourish. By design, we need good food with vitamins, minerals, and clean water. However, we also need intellectual exposure to good, interesting, and meaningful ideas.
It is highly unlikely that anyone reading this did not grow up with electricity. This means that most of us also grew up with television of some kind. Many of you, like me, did not grow up with smart phones or computers, but they are clearly a part of our lives now. I submit to you that we are engaged with ideas on a daily basis from many of these different sources. Most of these ideas are not always good or meaningful. In fact, more often than not, they are simply distracting, lulling us into a false sense of security and comfort, which is the plague of the modern, contemporary world. Yet, it is enough to provide a substantial distraction for us intellectually, even if we are not necessarily flourishing. Once these devices are gone, though, then what?
In a TEOTWAWKI situation, none of us want to merely survive. In other words, we don’t want just the basics of food and water. We want variety. If one is prepared then this is possible. On my property we have at least three different kinds of meat that could be indefinitely sustained in a TEOTWAWKI situation: goats, chickens, and meat rabbits. The process of growing fruit and vegetables speaks for itself, and most of you know what that entails. But what consideration have you given to the variety that your mind will need? How will you flourish intellectually? The answer is by acquiring a set of the great books of Western civilization. In the great books we have the whole of human experience. What is happiness? How do we find it? What is the nature of justice? What is the relationship between justice and happiness in an individual? What is the nature of this relationship in the state? What is the best form of government? What is the nature of physical reality? What is the nature of spiritual reality? What is the nature of God? What is the nature of man? How should God and man relate? And, of course, there are many other questions and topics we could touch on that the writers of old have already addressed centuries and millennia ago.
We must also address the cost and weight of such books. Here I can only say that the best way to approach the reality of buying and storing physical books is to consider an anthology set. It may cost more than tracking down used copies at library sales and other, reduced cost venues, but you will have them once and for all. You could also find lists of the great books on the internet. I have included a partial list below. One may also find that there can be subtle differences from one list to another, depending upon one’s emphasis and goals. Such a list can be useful if one wants to shop independently for the books. Recommendations for anthologies (by author) are below as well.
- The Iliad & The Odyssey (Homer)
- The Oresteia (Aeschylus)
- Three Theban Plays (Sophocles)
- The Bacchae (Euripides)
- Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)
- The Old Testament
- Meno, Phaedo, , Apology, Symposium, Euthryphro, Republic, Timaeus, and Phaedrus (Plato)
- The Nicomachean Ethics, Physics, Metaphysics, and Rhetoric (Aristotle)
- Roman Lives (Plutarch)
- On the Good Life (Cicero)
- The Aeneid (Virgil)
- The New Testament
- Apology (Tertullian)
- Metamorphoses (Ovid)
- Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)
- Apostolic Fathers (ed. Holmes)
- Apologies (Justin Martyr)
- On the Apostolic Preaching (Irenaeus)
- History of the Christian Church (Eusebius)
- On the Incarnation (Athanasius)
- On God and Christ (Gregory of Nazianzus)
- On the Unity of Christ (Cyril of Alexandria)
- On the Hexaemeron Caesarea)
- Apostles Creed & Nicene Creed Definition of Chalcedon Confessions, On Christian Teaching, City of God, Enchiridion on Faith Hope and Love, and On the Teacher (Augustine)
- Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius)
- Why God Became Man (Anselm of Canterbury)
- Ethics (Peter Abelard)
- Selections from the Summa Theologiae and Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (Thomas Aquinas)
- The Soul’s Journey into God, Tree of Life, and Life of Francis (Bonaventure)
- The Divine Comedy (Dante)
- Selections from the Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
- Lectures on Galatians, Heidelberg Disputation, Two Kinds of Righteousness, Small Catechism, and Freedom of a Christian (Martin Luther)
- Selections from the Institutes (John Calvin)
- The 39 Articles
- Great Books of the Western World by Mortimer J. Adler.
- Great Books of the Western World by Robert Maynard
- Gateway to the Great Books by Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer J. Adler, and Fred Steffen
- The World’s Great Thinkers by Random House (This set is not as comprehensive, but it is very cost effective and inexpensive.)
- Harvard Classics by Charles Eliot
Please note, I am a Christian and therefore believe that the most important book one should have in a home is a copy (or copies) of the Bible. However, it is also important, I have found, to be able to read some of the discussion on the development of these historically important doctrines.