A man sits down to a banquet, and rather than eating only tomatoes, or only chicken, or only cauliflower, he sees that he has been provided with a huge variety, and so takes a broad assortment of foods, and gains nourishment and satisfaction from the whole banquet. Upon concluding his meal, his friend comes up to him and asks him which one bite he ate during the meal was the most pleasing and nourishing. Although he may know that certain foods he tried he disliked, chances are he will laugh at his friend, and rather than telling him anything, will attempt to get him to taste the banquet, and the answer his won question for himself.
This is precisely the position one feels when one is asked which particular book among the Great Books has been most influential on one’s mind. The question “which one was the best” presupposes that the books are all on the same subject, and that they are unequal in importance. But this is so far from the case that the matter becomes merely a question of opinion, opinion which will change from day to day. The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to give one malleable opinion of three books between which the writer of this essay cold not choose one over the other two. It is his intent that the reader will get a glimpse of the feast from which he has been privileged to partake, by bringing out a sample on a plate.
The first sample to be examined here is a “Shakespeare Salad”: out of the thirteen plays which we discussed in detail, it is virtually impossible to pick a favorite one. The different plots, conversations, comic romps, and tragic dirges made the readings incredibly interesting, but the glory of Shakespeare is in his colorful characters. He brings the hypocrite Iago to life with the same frightening exactness with which he portrays Macbeth’s self-loving blackness. Hamlet’s torments and struggles are presented so clearly that one cannot help but see death itself in a different light. The comedy and confusion of the people of Ephesus over two sets of identical twins creates a vivid an entertaining image of what is the natural result when people imagine they know everything. And these are but a few plays out of a whole collection of dramas. The characters are so three-dimensional and believable that the reader/viewer can see only too clearly the truths with which Shakespeare plays It is a shame that many people are so convinced that Shakespeare is only for stuck-up aristocrats and professors that they never read the plays and change their opinions. A Great Books feast would be nothing without the works of Shakespeare on the banquet table.
The Russian steak we can sample next was far too large to enjoy in one sitting. An enormous volume, Tolstoy’s War and Peace provides a deep perspective of Russian culture during the Imperial era. Beyond that, however, it is a story of the lives of particular people, one of the most prominent of whom is Prince Andre Bolinski, a silent, morose figure in the Russian aristocracy. Prince Andre disdains the society which he sees around him, abandons his pregnant wife in the hands of his sister and father, and removes himself to Austria, to the frontier where the war with Napoleon is taking place. When Prince Andre’s dreams of battle glory are shattered by a realization of what war really is like, and he sees what really matters in his life (his wife and child that he abandoned), the first part comes to a dramatic and moving end. Tolstoy’s descriptions of war, Russian society, true peace, and ruptured love are possibly among the most powerful and realistic portrayals ever written.
The third and final sampling from the banquet is the bread-rolls piled high in the center of the table, sweet because they have been backed by the greatest “Scholastic Chef” and healthy because this chef is a doctor (of the church). Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia occupied five entire weeks out of the third year of class. The scholastic method with which he presents his arguments is so solid that a rational objection could scarcely be posed against his statements. The reason for this is that he presents many powerful objections to his statements like a solid brick wall, and then proceeds to batter down these objections one by one, leaving little or no room for doubting his procedures. The brilliant discourse of the Summa makes it an undeniable necessity for the banquet table.
These three volumes have influenced the writer of this essay very greatly, so that he has been unable to put one of them over the other two. The mesmerizing writing of Shakespeare, the heart-wrenching beauty and reality of Tolstoy, and the solidarity of Aquinas have made their works truly great. But even as three tastes from the great feast cannot carry the whole satisfaction of the banquet, so these three works are not solely responsible for satisfying the hunger of human reason. It must be acknowledged that this essay was written based upon the opinion held at the moment by the author, and in another two weeks, after having pondered other Great Works in turn, the opinion as to which book was most influential may have changed. Any one of the hundreds of great works might stand up on its own, carrying its own lesson, and teaching the world something about humanity, just as a pineapple slice does not require a glass of punch to taste like a pineapple. But like any banquet, if one plate of morsels were taken from the feast, the feast would be lacking, even if no one was aware of the loss.