St. Louis, Missouri
First, there is Professor Shutt's infectious enthusiasm for the works he's discussing and even more for the insights that can be derived from those works. Then there's his openness to cultural concepts (Beowulf's heroic manliness, for example, or the piety of the Dream of the Rood) that aren't that popular in the academy these days. He never resorts to cheap shots at the faith or ideals of the Middle Ages, never lapses into that "chronological snobbery" (C. S. Lewis' term) that assumes everyone and everything that came before us is somehow inherently less worthwhile.
Instead, he takes you on an amazing journey through many of the high spots of Medieval Literature, one that will either send you back to reread Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lais of Marie de France or send you forward to finally read those Icelandic Sagas and Troubadour lyrics you somehow managed to dodge in your undergrad days. Unlike most of the lectures I've heard in my life, these bear re-listening. Shutt is that rare type of professor who isn't afraid to admire what others marginalize, nor is he embarrassed by the concept of "truth".
Professor Shutt excels at creating comprehensive, comprehensible overviews of immensely complicated subjects. Along the way he puts Great Ideas and Great Works in their appropriate cultural contexts, telling us from whence they emerged and the extent of the impact they have had since. Armed with these insights, you can go to the actual Works and be that much ahead of the game.
But while that’s all good, there’s more. You also get Professor Shutt himself. He sincerely loves what he does and it shows. He never condescends; rather, he assumes you’re as interested in the subject under discussion as he is. Even better, he’s as astonished, amazed and just plain blown-away as you are by the insights under discussion. In a way he reminds me of Julia Child when she’d step back from a perfectly prepared roast and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” She wasn’t congratulating herself; she was admiring—and inviting us to admire—what the art of cookery is capable of. In the same way, Shutt invites us to explore and admire what the West is capable of. He takes an almost palpable delight in getting at the nub of things. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he loves the Western Tradition unapologetically. For anyone familiar with the trendy trajectory of academia, that’s enough to make these lectures a must-buy. I’ll add that these lectures are eminently listenable and stand up to re-listening as well.
With the notable exception of his talks on naval warfare, all of the above is true of every course I have from Professor Shutt: Medieval Literature, Wars that Made the Western World, Dante and his Divine Comedy and now Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. In 14 lectures we trace the development of three unique, distinct cultures that answered the question, “What is the good life?” in radically different ways, and yet ultimately met and melded in a synthesis that created the West we live in today.
Along the way Shutt examines what he calls the “fruitful tensions” between, for example, the Greek ideal of individual human achievement and the Judeo-Christian call to humility and holiness. Rather than reject the one and embrace the other, the West said yes to both. It occurs to me that besides being what makes the West so complex, saying yes to both is what makes us so easy to criticize. We don’t “make sense”; we don’t “add up” in a neat, seamless package.
As a Catholic I especially appreciate Shutt’s handling of Christianity and the Medieval thought which amalgamated the ideals of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Of course, as an academic he’s not about to advocate the Faith. These are lectures, not homilies. But he’s as enthusiastic about the Gospel of John as he is about the Aeneid. As when he speaks of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans, he keeps the focus on Christian ideas and ideals “at their best”, without any of the standard cheap shots. And, unlike most expositors of the Classical past from Gibbon onward, Shutt doesn’t view the advent of Christianity as a regrettable occurrence, a timid retreat from the rational, sunlit glories that were. I will venture to say, out of my admittedly slender knowledge, that he oversimplifies Saint Augustine's problem with Pelagianism. But he’s right about the clash between faith and works (more of that “fruitful tension”). By outlining the intellectual and cultural resonances and dissonances that created the West, Professor Shutt provides a reliable roadmap to, as he suggests at the very end, our own further and deeper reading.