Keep your bling, give me the treasures of the Western Cultural Tradition

Wisdom quotation; created by L.A. Nicholas
In chapter 8 of the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom says, “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. … I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries.” This is a saying any true-hearted student of the liberal arts, like myself, can heartily endorse, but it is not a saying that would have much appeal in the modern world, most of whose denizens would much rather have the bling. I’ve never gone in much for wealth or celebrity, myself, but since I was a child I have always hungered for wisdom and understanding. This explains why, as I contemplate the Lenten call to almsgiving (and my own abject poverty) I am inspired to offer you, dear readers, the benefit of my education, which is among the few (and the greatest) treasures I have accrued in my life.

I’ve probably said enough on this blog about why I think literature (taken in the broad sense) is vital to anyone who wants to be wise and live well, so I won’t go over all that here (read my page on Literature and the Moral Imagination, for a summary of my ideas on the subject). I have arrived at these views after many years as both student and teacher, and I started this blog mostly because I wanted a forum to talk about such things. Modern universities don’t care much about imparting wisdom — in fact, I’ve heard academics (former colleagues) protest that it would be impertinent for the university to pretend that it had anything to offer students in the way of wisdom. So here, in a free public forum, I try to share with anyone who cares for such things a little of the fruits of my own study and reflection.

Now one of the deficiencies of my early education (guided, sadly, by my own unformed taste) was that I studied modern languages and literature long before I studied the ancient world; I made up for that deficiency to the extent that I was able, when I finally returned to my studies later in life, at the University of Dallas. In effect, I was educated backward, which caused me quite a bit of confusion. That is something I have always wished to spare my students, so I prefer to approach things in the proper order to show how ideas develop and grow as ages pass.

Some of the books I want to discuss on this blog.
Some of the books I'd like to discuss on this blog -- from Plato
to Andrew Seddon's latest sci-fi (time travel!).

So I propose for the time being to concentrate on some of the most ancient works of the Western literary tradition, those that form the foundations of Western thought and imagination, and and then to move slowly forward, to show how these works build upon one another, how they get woven into the fabric of what eventually became Western Christendom. As I suggested in my last post, there is great value in knowing well the great stories of our culture, and I know from experience that few of us have even passing familiarity with many of them.

Some essential works from the ancient Western world

Here’s a list of the ancient works that I consider most essential to our cultural/literary tradition. (Yes, it's a variation on the list in my last post -- a work in progress.)  I’ll explain as we go along why I chose these particular works. I hope you’ll follow along and contribute your own thoughts and questions as I discuss these treasures of our common heritage, beginning with the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions. (When I feel like I’ve covered these well enough to move on to medieval works, I’ll propose a similar list for that long span that we call the Middle Ages.)


  • Hesiod’s Theogony
  • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
  • Aeschylus’s Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides)
  • Sophocles’ Oedipus the King
  • Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Republic


  • Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” from De Republica
  • Livy’s History of Rome (Ab urbe condita)
  • Virgil’s Aeneid


  • The Holy Bible: Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), Gospels, Acts, Revelation
  • Augustine’s Confessions and City of God
To start with, I propose to discuss these three: Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, and Augustine’s Confessions — just in case you want to read along as we go. I do not pretend that I will be very systematic in my discussion of these works, or that I will even get around to everything in the list. I’ll try to bring out the things that I find most interesting and evocative, rather than presenting a series of scholarly lectures. I’ve chosen them chiefly because of the fund of stories they have contributed to our culture — stories that help us think about the nature and purpose of human life. Some I may linger over, while others I may skip through pretty lightly. I’ll always be more interested in the perennial appeal of these works than in some kind of antiquarian parsing of them. And I’ll be sprinkling in other things, as I see fit, rather than sticking strictly to “the curriculum.”

As the song says, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee.” I hope you will find yourselves in some small way enriched by my offering. If you have any burning questions — or bright ideas — about any of these works, please let me know. Comments, queries, and quibbles will always be welcome.
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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