When my visual culture class at the College of St. Scholastica was discussing body art, one student displayed a tattoo on his forearm, beautifully engraved in his mother's handwriting, that said "Be kind. Be brave. Be brilliant" — the mantra she would repeat each day as she dropped him off at school. "I wanted to carry it with me when I left home," he explained.
At 245 pages, "Dead White Guys" is too long for even the most extreme tattoo, but it is parental wisdom for a child to carry when she leaves home. Matt Burriesci wrote the book as letters to his daughter Violet, or more precisely to the 18-year-old self she will be in 2028, in order to defend, explain and pass along his love for the great books of Western culture — works by Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, St. Augustine, Locke, Machiavelli, Marx, Jesus — authors he believes his daughter is unlikely to encounter in 21st-century schools.
Why won't she be exposed to these classics of Western philosophy? One obvious reason is that dead white men make up the in crowd whose toppling has been the goal of identity politics for the last 35 years or so.
But literary fashions come and go. A more insidious reason is that education is increasingly defined as a commodity, "a dojo where one trains to compete in the global marketplace; where you are ground and filed into a cog useful to a temporary machine — and when the machine becomes obsolete, so, too, does your education."
Because of this trend, Burriesci argues that reading the dead white guys is now "more important than at any point in human history" precisely because they "are not interested in promoting our illusions, and they do not care about authority. They are neither gentle nor polite. They teach you how to see through illusions and they demand that you question both yourself and your masters." Discussing Book I of Aristotle's "Politics," Burriesci wonders "if our leaders actually desire a country filled with responsible citizens — for such a population would be quite dangerous to the established order." Unlike the information-based training popular today, "these writers can teach you how to think, not what to think" — a threat to the ruling elites when they were written, and a threat to the ruling elites today.
Each chapter — each letter to Violet — focuses on a particular Great Book, explaining its central ideas clearly and concisely. Readers unfamiliar with the works will quickly grasp their essence, while those who have read them will get a painless memory refresher.
But "Dead White Guys" is much more than "Western Civ for Dummies": What Burriesci is passionate about is why these books matter, what they have to say to us in the 21st century about life's persistent questions, as well as more particular cases: Sept. 11 and its aftermath, for example, and income inequality.
The chapters frequently begin with a frank, often unflattering personal episode: staying silent while friends blew up frogs with firecrackers; making fun of gays; living a dissipated, druggie lifestyle. In each case, the personal material is spot-on relevant to the concepts under discussion, a testament to the growth and change that can occur when we examine our lives with courage, honesty, compassion and logic.
Of what use is philosophy? "Aristotle did not teach Alexander facts and figures," Burriesci reminds us, "he taught him 'good precepts,' including prudence, justice and courage. Alexander used these tools to conquer the world." This might still be too long for a tattoo, but it's worth carrying with us.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.