Review of The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy


I have been reading The Great Books: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature and Books That Changed the World: The 50 Most Influential Books in Human History because I am looking for books to read to develop my course Readers are Leaders. This post is a review as well as a reflection on the works covered in The Great Books.

Initially I struggled while reading The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear, and thought it was dry and too academic. I decided to take a closer look at my feelings and prejudices toward The Great Books and discovered that I was simply tired of reading about Greek and Roman tragedies, which are the first few books that are covered. I was also tired and wary of all the war imagery and “gods” with larger-than-life egos, behaving very badly. After acknowledging my feelings, I got into The Great Books and started to enjoy the experience.

In The Great Books, Anthony O’Hear provides detailed summaries of the books he covers and I am wondering if he isn’t doing a disservice to the reader. With so much solid information given to you, why would you want to read those classics? He goes from chapter to chapter and you are right there with him. You also get a handle on the context of the book, and what was going on in society when it was written. When I was reading about Dante’s Divine Comedy, I passed through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, I was right there with him on the journey.

I also noticed with these great works of literature that O’Hear discussed, the authors often built on the works of others, similar to the way innovators and great thinkers who changed the world, built on the works of others. The Aeneid by Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) is Homer’s Odyssey, except he reverses the outcome of the Trojan War. Shakespeare’s The Tempest mentions Virgil and Ovid. And some of the characters in Divine Comedy are The Who’s Who in the Bible, and it also mentions many of the classics: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Aeneid, Homer’s The OdysseyI. And Virgil is at Dante’s side as guide and mentor when he goes into the Inferno (hell). From Divine Comedy you realize that Dante is very knowledgeable and learned about the classics, the Bible and contemporary works back in his time. And this is true for many of the authors whose works are covered in The Great Books. Have all the great works of literature been written already?

Using the works of others raised an interesting issue. Back in those days, there weren’t copyright laws, or they weren’t as strict as they are today, and that was very instrumental in furthering society, not just in literature, but also in the inventions that we now take for granted. When we use the works of others, what is considered fair use? What about mash-ups, the process where artists pull from the works of others to create something new? Are copyright laws here to protect us, or are they preventing us from leaping forward and innovating and building on what’s been done before? What if someone used your work and created something much better, and in the process gave you credit, would you be okay with that? There are really no easy answers to these tough questions, but they are worth thinking about.

The works covered by the author include:

  • Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey
  • Greek Tragedy
    • Aeschylus’
    • Sophocles’ Theban Plays: Antigone
    • Euripides: The Bacchae
  • Plato and the Death of Socrates
  • Virgil: The Aeneid
  • Ovid: Metamorphoses
  • St. Augustine: Confessions
  • Dante: The Divine Comedy – Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise
  • Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
  • Cervantes: Don Quixote
  • Milton: Paradise Lost
  • Pascal: Pensées
  • Racine: Phèdre
  • Goethe: Faust – Part One, Part Two

I didn’t read many of these classics in university because I didn’t major in English Literature, so I missed out on the discussions. But, the Great Works is a great substitute because it helps to further your understanding of the book. However there is always a danger when you rely on one source, one person’s frame of reference, that’s why I have been reading other books of this kind.

Though I thought that The Great Books by Anthony O’Hear was too long, the time was well spent reading it because it furthered my understanding of the great books mentioned. After the fact, I realized that it makes a great reference book. I recommend The Great Books from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Goethe’s Faust: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature and Books That Changed the World.