Our purpose in this course will be to examine the foundations of Western civilization in antiquity. We will look at the culture of the ancient Hebrews, of the ancient Greeks, and of the Romans, and we will likewise look at how these cultures interacted with each other, sometimes happily, sometimes not. In the process, we will focus on how the questions they addressed and the answers they found live among us and continue to shape our lives to this very day. For in a very real sense we are all of us, as participants in Western culture, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans still.
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Professor Shutt excels at creating comprehensive, comprehensible overviews of immensely complicated subjects. Along the way he puts Great Ideas and Great Works in their appropriate cultural contexts, telling us from whence they emerged and the extent of the impact they have had since. Armed with these insights, you can go to the actual Works and be that much ahead of the game.
But while that’s all good, there’s more. You also get Professor Shutt himself. He sincerely loves what he does and it shows. He never condescends; rather, he assumes you’re as interested in the subject under discussion as he is. Even better, he’s as astonished, amazed and just plain blown-away as you are by the insights under discussion. In a way he reminds me of Julia Child when she’d step back from a perfectly prepared roast and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” She wasn’t congratulating herself; she was admiring—and inviting us to admire—what the art of cookery is capable of. In the same way, Shutt invites us to explore and admire what the West is capable of. He takes an almost palpable delight in getting at the nub of things. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he loves the Western Tradition unapologetically. For anyone familiar with the trendy trajectory of academia, that’s enough to make these lectures a must-buy. I’ll add that these lectures are eminently listenable and stand up to re-listening as well.
With the notable exception of his talks on naval warfare, all of the above is true of every course I have from Professor Shutt: Medieval Literature, Wars that Made the Western World, Dante and his Divine Comedy and now Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. In 14 lectures we trace the development of three unique, distinct cultures that answered the question, “What is the good life?” in radically different ways, and yet ultimately met and melded in a synthesis that created the West we live in today.
Along the way Shutt examines what he calls the “fruitful tensions” between, for example, the Greek ideal of individual human achievement and the Judeo-Christian call to humility and holiness. Rather than reject the one and embrace the other, the West said yes to both. It occurs to me that besides being what makes the West so complex, saying yes to both is what makes us so easy to criticize. We don’t “make sense”; we don’t “add up” in a neat, seamless package.
As a Catholic I especially appreciate Shutt’s handling of Christianity and the Medieval thought which amalgamated the ideals of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Of course, as an academic he’s not about to advocate the Faith. These are lectures, not homilies. But he’s as enthusiastic about the Gospel of John as he is about the Aeneid. As when he speaks of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans, he keeps the focus on Christian ideas and ideals “at their best”, without any of the standard cheap shots. And, unlike most expositors of the Classical past from Gibbon onward, Shutt doesn’t view the advent of Christianity as a regrettable occurrence, a timid retreat from the rational, sunlit glories that were. I will venture to say, out of my admittedly slender knowledge, that he oversimplifies Saint Augustine's problem with Pelagianism. But he’s right about the clash between faith and works (more of that “fruitful tension”). By outlining the intellectual and cultural resonances and dissonances that created the West, Professor Shutt provides a reliable roadmap to, as he suggests at the very end, our own further and deeper reading.
I've listened to five of the Modern Scholar series and enjoyed them all. This one was the best yet. Professor Shutt gives many insightful comments and analogies throughout. His style is comfortable and engaging -- never dull. Finally, he does an outstanding job of examining the consequences of whatever event he is discussing.
I have already downloaded more from this professor.