Matthew Burresci’s Dead White Guys: A Father, His Daughter and the Great Books of the Western World is a blend of memoir and epistle. Burresci shares the wisdom he had learned from Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Niccolò Machievelli, Michel de Montaigne, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and others and stories about his life with his young daughter. The premise is that Violet is to read this book when she turns 18. Burresci hopes that Violet might avoid some of the mistakes he made, as well as understand why the world—its politics, traditions, and philosophies—is the way it is. This is a task for which I have much admiration. I imagine that it’s the sort of thing I might do if I had kids myself. (I might do something like this for my nieces and nephews—probably to the horror of my siblings.)
Burresci begins with Plato and establishes the pattern he will follow for the next 200+ pages and 2,300+ years of philosophy, history, politics, and economics. Each chapter begins with a brief biographical anecdote or reference to the preceding chapter before launching into the work of the “dead white guys” featured in Burresci’s volumes of The Great Books of Western Civilization. After Burresci gives his exegesis on the particular work, he goes on to explain why it will be relevant to his daughter as a young adult.
I am aware (and so is Burresci) that the entire concept of a canon is problematic. It is full of dead white guys. It should be expanded to include the voices of women and people of color. But, for good or ill, the texts in the series are the foundations of Western culture. We think the way we do, for the most part, because of Plato and Aristotle, Locke and Rousseau, and Smith and Marx. Understanding them by returning to their original meanings (as much as possible given the vagaries of translation) can give us a fresh leash on the way we live and think now. In fact, I was pleased to see that Burresci pointed out how far current thinking has wandered from the original. The chapter on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is terrific in the way Burresci points out what the “invisible hand” actually meant. Burresci follows his discussion of Smith by talking about The Communist Manifesto. Of course communism is doomed from the start, but Burresci uses the text to show how unsustainable our current (Western) way of life is. If nothing else, The Communist Manifesto shows us that history is cyclical and messy. Burresci posits that the world Violet will face as an 18-year-old may be a world in crisis as humanity works out a new system once capitalism collapses.
As I read Dead White Guys, I was unexpectedly moved by words I have read so many times before. Hamlet still makes me pause and slow my reading to savor the words. The Declaration of Independence reminded me of the ideals that, if truly embraced by our country, could make us deserve our wished for exceptionalism:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Yes, I know that the founders were not talking about women, slaves, or even unpropertied men, but the words and the longing behind them for a just, prosperous society is real enough. Imagine what we could be if we had the strength to conquer our vices and weaknesses?
Dead White Guys has its issues. Burresci will probably offend people on both sides of the political and social spectrum. He gives props to Marx (to a certain extent) while still promoting Christianity. He’s upholding the narrow traditional canon. And yet, the texts Burresci chooses for Violet still have power and truth—even after centuries and millennia.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 June 2015.