What are the Great Books? Classical Education Books to Enrich Study

Classical education has deep roots in Western culture and literature, and reading is an integral part of this tradition. Finding the right books for your curriculum can be daunting as there are so many to choose from. In this article, we will explore some of the best books for those who want to engage with the classics, either for academic purposes or simply for personal enrichment.

We’ll also have a close look at what living books are and how they’re different from the great books in classical education.

Let’s take a closer look below.

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What are Great Books?

Classical education has been around for centuries, and some of the books associated with it are timeless. Whether you’re looking to learn more about the great minds from history or find a path toward self-improvement, these great books in classical education are sure to inspire.

From Plato’s Republic to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, many of these titles have become staples in educational systems worldwide. They explore topics such as philosophy, mathematics, ethics, and politics – topics that remain relevant today. For those interested in literature, Homer’s Odyssey and other works by Virgil, Shakespeare, and Dante provide insight into storytelling techniques still used today.

Those looking for tales of adventure can turn to works like Robinson Crusoe or Moby Dick, which provide gripping stories that also offer lessons on perseverance and survival.

Short List of Great Books

For readers looking for a short list of great books essential to understanding classical education, there are a few classics worth attention to: The Bible, the Illiad, The Odyssey, and The Republic.

Let’s discuss them below briefly and look at a few other favorites.

The Bible

The Bible is hands down the most famous and popular book of all time. This timeless work which claims to be inspired by God himself, offers guidance, hope, strength, and encouragement from God’s word. It speaks to all ages with powerful lessons about faith, life, and love that are relevant today as ever.

The Illiad

Homer’s epic poem, the Illiad, tells the story of the ten-year siege of Troy by Greek forces, focusing on the mighty warriors Achilles and Hector. Written around 700 BCE, it is one of the oldest surviving works in Western literature.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey is another ancient epic poem written by Homer sometime during 7th or 8th century BCE. This work follows Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after fighting in the Trojan War as he encounters all sorts of dangers, from mythical creatures like Cyclopes and Sirens to vengeful gods such as Poseidon. It has been praised for its themes of loyalty, love, and friendship, among many others.

The Republic

Written in 360 BCE, it is a Socratic dialogue exploring justice and its role in society. It introduces the famous allegory of the cave, which has been cited and interpreted by thinkers over centuries since its publication. In addition, it also elaborates on his theory of ideal forms, where he addresses concepts such as knowledge, truth, and beauty.

Nicomachean Ethics

Another classic work is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which was written around 350 BCE. This ethical treatise by Aristotle explores moral philosophy by examining virtue and happiness as well as other topics such as political leadership and friendship.

Shakespeare’s Works

One of the most influential works among the great books is William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. His works are essential to understanding the English language as well as providing an insight into our society and culture.

Here is a short list of great books in classical education that incorporate Shakespeare’s works (from The Norton Anthology of English Literature by Stephen Greenblatt et al.):

  • Julius Caesar,
  • Romeo and Juliet,
  • Hamlet,
  • Macbeth and
  • King Lear.

The significant worth of these plays and sonnets is one of the reasons so many students study Shakespeare’s works in their classical high school education today. (BTW if you don’t know much about classical education, check out the video below, which will convince you why this is a great way to educate children.

Want a Large Great Books Booklist?

So, where can you get a comprehensive list of all the great books for all grades? Check out this complete homeschool booklist for Grades PreK-12th Grade, which is primarily made up of classical books.

You’ll find all your favorite (and the hardest to read)  great books there.

Living Books vs Great Books

Living Books vs Great Books is a debate in the homeschool world right now.

What is the difference between these two types of books?

Living books are written engagingly and conversationally, with the author often discussing their personal experiences and opinions. They focus on presenting ideas rather than facts, allowing readers to form their own conclusions and opinions.

In contrast, great books are considered classics within literature.

These books include works by renowned authors such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Austen.

Great books offer an accurate historical representation of events from the period they were written in, providing insight into the history or culture that was present at this time.

They often require more effort from the reader by challenging them with dense topics or philosophical questions which can be difficult to answer or understand without prior background knowledge of the subject matter.

But, there are some similarities between living books and great books in that many books on a living books booklist come from the classic great books.

This is perhaps mainly because Charlotte Mason (the founder of the term ‘living books’ was herself a classical educator. Mason realized the value of some classical books but felt others were tedious and could put children off learning more than they would encourage children into the world of learning.

Classical Education vs Charlotte Mason Education

While homeschooling has become an increasingly popular option for families seeking a unique educational experience for their children, the decision to homeschool can be overwhelming, with so many different homeschool approaches to choose from.

One major choice is between classical education and Charlotte Mason education, two distinct approaches that vary widely in philosophy and execution.

Classical education is centered around the traditional “grammar, logic, rhetoric” approach to learning and reading classic literature. It emphasizes memorizing facts and acquiring knowledge of language arts and mathematics through repetition and drills.

Charlotte Mason education focuses instead on developing creativity, imagination, observation skills, and critical thinking abilities in students by introducing them to nature studies, foreign languages, fine art appreciation, and more within a framework rooted in Christian values.

When you study with a Classical education curriculum, like Memoria Press, you’ll almost always be getting a rigorous curriculum that requires a lot of hard work (for example, students will probably do a Latin curriculum and do lots of memorizing).

But, when you study with a Charlotte Mason curriculum, things are much easier as there is much less memorization. Children don’t have to do heavy memorization work, and learning is from fun and enjoyable storybooks.

After spending a while looking at the two curriculum types, I’m convinced they both have their pros and cons. The one you choose should depend more on your family than ‘which of the methods/curricula type is best.’

Want to Learn How to Homeschool?

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The $67 Course

Looking to take your homeschooling to the next level? Join Rebecca Devitt’s online Homeschool Parenting Program and learn the strategies and techniques needed to make homeschooling a success! Learn more about the HPP here and signup here.

The FREE Youtube Channel

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If you’re not sure where to start, start with the following playlists:

You’ll love it and find it helpful and entertaining! Discover the channel here.

Conclusion on Great Books in Classical Education

In conclusion, classical education is an excellent method to explore knowledge and the great books of history. It provides a rich foundation for students to learn to think analytically, reason rigorously, communicate effectively and lead confidently. The great books of classical education provide diverse perspectives on human experience and offer timeless wisdom that can be applied to modern life. Through reading the classics, one can gain insight into the ideas, values, and beliefs of different cultures throughout history.

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