When Stalin sardonically responded to a request by Winston Churchill to consider the views of the Vatican on the future of Eastern Europe with the quip, “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” he probably did not imagine that it would be entire legions of free-thinking people, espousing the liberal ideas the Church had helped cultivate, who would bring down his Soviet empire. But that is exactly what happened. The Soviet Union did not crumble under the boots of NATO armies, nor was it burned away in a nuclear hellfire of Western ICBMs. No, the Soviet Union was brought down by the force of ideas, the very same ideas upon which Western civilization was built and by which it continues to thrive.
How did this happen? Well, in terms of the minutiae, the tale is complicated. But in its grand design, the “how” of the downfall of the Soviet empire is quite simple: The pen really is mightier than the sword. Or, at least, it can be. What really matters is finding the right pen. What matters even more is understanding the wisdom that pen has delivered to paper. This is the mission of an education in the great books of the Western tradition, and it is an assignment from which we, as a society, have been absent without leave for far too long. It is high time we remedied this neglect of our intellectual heritage that is the foundation of our strength.
In concluding his essay “The Great Conversation,” Robert Hutchins wrote that “if we aim at a world republic of law and justice, we must recover and revive the great tradition of liberal human thought, rethink our knowledge in its light and shadow.” He continued, “We have not the option of deciding for ourselves whether or not we shall be liberal artists, because we are committed to the proposition that all men shall be free.” Part of being a citizen of our republic is learning to appreciate what it is we defend—why it is (borrowing from author Matthew Spalding) “we still hold these truths” that Jefferson so eloquently wrote about to be self-evident. All men are equal in their right to pursue happiness, but not all men choose to embark upon the long and difficult journey of educating themselves to learn how we have come to that conclusion, and how best to defend its fruits from those who seek to tear down the civilization we have created.
In a speech delivered in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, then-Senator Robert Kennedy spoke about the duty and responsibility of using the great lessons of the past to help shape a better future:
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
“If Athens shall appear great to you,” said Pericles, “consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty.” That is the source of all greatness in all societies, and it is the key to progress in our time.
It is in this tradition that I have made it my (probably decade-long) goal to read through the Britannica collection of the Great Books of the Western World. The physical collection can be found on eBay or Amazon for anywhere between $300-$800, but various online reading lists publish links that provide free online access, from sites across the internet, to nearly every piece of literature in the collection. “Give me a place to stand,” the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Archimedes one quipped, “and with a lever I shall move the whole world.” Someone else has provided you with the lever, for free and only a click of a mouse away.
NEWSREP readers know better than most that “[N]o one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping toward destruction. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.” That great historical struggle is an epochal war of ideas. You need only choose to stand, and together we can engage with the centuries of collected wisdom of those who have moved the world, arming ourselves for our own role in this struggle. After all, a man’s destiny arrives whether he has prepared to meet it or not.