The Great Courses

A guest post by commenter Bill:

Often, it seems, traditionalists only figure out that they are traditionalists well after their youth. Certainly that is the case for me. If you realize late that the default history you know and the default reality you inhabit bear little relationship to what happened and what is happening, respectively, then what do you do?

But it is worse. Knowing little about history, art, philosophy, music and a lot about economics and statistics once seemed not just reasonable but desirable. Adam Smith’s pin factory and the benefits of specialization and all that. But now knowing little of these subjects seems absolutely intolerable. Furthermore, burdened with obligations of career and family, it’s not as if I can go back to college. And where would I go anyway? What to do?

“Read books” is fine advice. But time constraints mean that it will take a long time. Converting time spent behind a steering wheel to productive use seems wise. So, I have spent a lot of time over the last few years listening to courses from The Great Courses. Here is a list of courses I found both high quality and conflicting with consensus reality in the US:

World of Byzantium

Philosophy of Science

After the New Testament

History of Science to 1700

History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts

I have three questions for readers. First, what other courses from this or another provider are similarly both 1) good and 2) strong where consensus reality is weak? Second, I came across this specifically Catholic competitor to The Great Courses. It looks unpromising to me, but does anyone have experience with it? Third, does anyone have further general suggestions for post-formal-education autodidacticism?

16 thoughts on “The Great Courses

  1. The books of Father Joseph Owens, CSsR (deceased, was Professor at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto), especially History of Western Philosophy, Elementary Christian Metaphysics, and Cognition, are very good. Owens was a Thomist, and a great Aristotelian. These books help detoxify the intellect of Cartesian habits of thinking. Owens’ teacher Etienne Gilson is also good. For political philosophy, Aurel Kolnai is very insightful.

  2. While not offering comprehensive courses per se, I have found to be a great resource for lectures from orthodox Catholic professors and priests. They have a wide range of topics that discuss history, philosophy, theology and culture. Highly recommended, especially for long commutes or road trips.

    Another suggestion is to find a few like minded friends and discuss the Great Ideas that Western Civilization has grappled with. I find that this is always the most enjoyable aspect of learning.

  3. Three Great Courses recommendations: Patrick Allitt’s course on the conservative tradition was one of my gateway drugs into reaction. It won’t teach you anything about Maistre and the like, as the course is entirely focused on the U.S. and Britain, but Allitt gives the trads and paleos their due. Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition is a great place to start if you want to dive into the history of philosophy, and similarly, Phillip Cary’s Philosophy and Religion in the West is a good introduction to the philosophy of religion.

    Also, The Modern Scholar, an outfit very similar to The Great Courses, has courses taught by Peter Kreeft on ethics, Aquinas, Platonism, and the philosophy of religion.

  4. The Catholic alternative actually looks really good. They have Tony Esolen on Dante!

    I agree on that count. Slightly less promising is Reclaiming Feminism by Teresa Tomeo. I think there must be a prerequisite course called Why?, and I don’t think I would pass.

  5. Dear Bill:

    So you spend a good deal of time commuting and traveling by car? The courses are a good choice, but you should intersperse them with primary texts in “audio book” format. I wouldn’t even try to suggest which primary texts. Simply follow your interest.



  6. One characteristic of a reactionary, I think, is the belief that the good guys haven’t always triumphed in the great clashes of history. Sometimes they have lost in military clashes, sometimes intellectual, sometimes political. So reactionary reading will focus on primary texts by the losers, preferably texts written when these losers still thought they had a chance to win. The problem is that these writers and books are slighted or ignored in survey courses because they don’t fit into the narrative, except perhaps as villains. And for the same reason, they are seldom produced in audio-editions. Digitization of recondite books has greatly aided the reactionary cause in recent years, but we still need people with good reading voices and recording devices to turn them into audio files.

    Like you, I find that listening to audio files is a good way to learn in a age where one spends much of one’s time waiting at red lights and hunting through the grocery store for cheerios; however dense prose is difficult to follow when one’s attention is divided or frequently distracted. The interview format is a solution to this problem because the questions set up the answers and the dialogue slows down delivery. I wonder it the Orthosphere people might consider periodic podcasts along these lines. For instance, I would be interested in listening to interviews in which Bonald answered set-up questions about some of the most substantive posts on his old Throne and Altar site. Also, I’d find it very convenient if Kristor or Alan Roebuck read their longer posts into an audio file, since they would make good company on the drive to work. Periodic bull sessions on current events might also be interesting.

  7. A question; when you purchase a course on The Great Courses – do you get any additional documentation? I am thinking of reading lists, or material to prepare for each lecture?

    • Yes, you get a Course Guidebook which gives a synopsis of each lecture, recommended readings, questions to consider, timelines, glossary, bibliography, and sometimes maps.

  8. Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul has many great lectures at Although he is Protestant, he is very respectful (even admiring in some ways) of Catholicism. Very traditional and orthodox. My favorites: The Consequences of Ideas (history of Western philosophy), Contemporary Theology, Recovering the Beauty of the Arts, Worldviews in Conflict, Creation or Chaos, and The Psychology of Atheism. I also have many CD and DVD lectures from The Great Courses, but none of them can compare, in my opinion, with Sproul’s lectures.

  9. My general suggestion is to read fiction from Christian cultures, starting with the early poetic epics.

    Catholics should read “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer.

    Recommendations: Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Blaise Pascal, Francois-Réne Chateaubriand, Eric Voegelin.

    Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen’s diary – can’t read this one without crying.

    Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” – great fictional companion to Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “Nihilism”.

    James Stephens’ “The Crock of Gold” – the Great Irish Novel. Goes along (in my mind) with Akira Kurosawa’s “Red Beard”. Both touch on sickness and poverty.

    Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” – also Irish. About ghosts and male loneliness. See it on the stage if you can.

    Hilaire Belloc’s “Characters of the Reformation” – capsule biographies of Reformation figures. Catholic-biased – but is a ‘neutral’ history of the Reformation even possible?

    On the battle of the sexes (‘red pill’): August Strindberg. Dorothy Parker. Terence Rattigan. “The Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare.

    • I heartily second Earl’s recommendation. As one of my undergraduate English professors (a Greek Orthodox Monk) always insisted, a firm foundation in Homer and the Bible is a necessary condition for understanding the Western arts. Also, I have a brother in Moscow, ID, and I’ll be moving there when my present obligations are fulfilled. So I will shamelessly promote Moscow’s economy, especially when such a good product is involved.

      • Thanks! I just now saw your comment! We are very excited to be releasing the first full year “The Greeks” with the next three years “The Romans,” “Christendom,” and “Early Moderns” to follow.
        If I had to choose one “video” to give people an idea of what our course “Old Western Culture” looks like, it would probably be the “Iliad at a Glance” excerpt, by Wes Callihan.
        Watch it here if you’re interested!

  10. Hi Bill, here are two works that help reveal the nature of modern consciousness. Kolnai and Manent embody the spirit of non-partisan inquiry.

    ‘An Intellectual History of Liberalism’ and ‘The City of Man’, by Pierre Manent
    ‘Privilege and Liberty and Other Essays in Political Philosophy’, by Aurel Kolnai

    Kolnai describes the spirit of inquiry quite beautifully in a paragraph in ‘The Utopian Mind’, p.14:
    “I do not, in either philosophy or the pursuit of ‘essential’ knowledge, believe in neat definitions; it is by approaching an object, intuitively and discursively, from many sides, and by groping round its contours carefully and with a sustained readiness for self-correction, that we may best hope to penetrate its mystery”.


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