Great Books 101: Ancient to Medieval

“Literature & Liberal Arts at Hillsdale”


The word “literature” comes from the Latin word that means writing. Writing is akin to reason and speech, which are distinctively human gifts: they distinguish us from other animals on earth. The phenomenon of literature is essentially human. 

A letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail, written on May 12, 1780, encapsulates this course on the Great Books. Adams writes that his task is to make a revolution and to be a statesman for the sake of something beyond himself, and to which he must be obedient, which is summed up in the phrase found in the Declaration of Independence: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Likewise, investing the time and effort in reading great literature prepares us for something beyond ourselves. Great literature invites us to think about those times and places when our honor will be tested, and when our souls will be revealed for what they are.


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Discussion Questions 

  • What does it mean to say literature is “essentially human”?
  • How is John Adams’ description of his task as a statesman analogous to the study of great books?
  • How can reading great literature help to prepare the human soul for honorable deeds?

Q & A Session

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Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. Under Dr. Arnn’s leadership since May of 2000, Hillsdale College has conducted the $608 million Founders Campaign for capital and endowment goals, launched the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship (located in Washington, D.C.), expanded the core curriculum to include a required course on the U.S. Constitution, and established an Honor Code that all matriculates to the College sign. As a professor of politics and history at Hillsdale, Dr. Arnn regularly teaches courses on Aristotle, Winston Churchill and the American Constitution.

Dr. Arnn is on the board of directors of The Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute. From 1985 to 2000, he served as President of the Claremont Institute. Formerly the director of research for Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, Dr. Arnn is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education and The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What we Risk by Losing It. He received his B.A. at Arkansas State University, graduating with highest distinction, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate School.