I think it best to open with a disclaimer: I am not a classicist. I specialize in the history of Christianity, with an emphasis on Jacobean England. But in our very efficiently staffed history department, all faculty members teach in the Core Curriculum. I teach “America and the World,” a course that uses core texts to bring the students into engagement with modern history, especially modern Western history, and more particularly American history. We have chosen the course’s core texts mainly for their bearing on ideas of proper governance and societal justice.
In our module on the 20th century, we include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. At first blush, it seems we’ve chosen this work for its commentary on government censorship, but it is better understood as an application of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (and associated Diagram of the Line of Knowledge), and therefore as a commentary on justice. That is how I teach it.
Of course, Plato’s Republic grapples with justice, and locates the key to justice in knowledge of the form of the Good. Such knowledge is the completion of the proper ordering of the soul. The Good shines its light on all other things, both ideal and sensible, enabling those with knowledge of the Good to perceive them as they are and hence to be ruled by reason. Reason rules the rational soul, which governs the spirit, and the rational and spirited parts rule the appetitive soul. Such a man, one who is ruled by reason, is a just man, and the just man is truly free. Plato illustrates the difference between philosophers, those who have knowledge of the Good, and everyone else, through the Allegory of the Cave.
Fahrenheit 451 may be seen, in turn, as an imaginative application of that allegory, with a protagonist who progresses through levels of knowledge and concomitant freedom until he becomes a just, free man. That progress takes place with the aid of individual guides, one for each level of knowledge, and takes place mainly through the agency of classic texts.
The idea that engagement with classic texts may help a person to become more reasonable, perhaps even more just, is a fundamental tenet behind Concordia University Irvine’s Core Curriculum. However, it is crucial that a person’s engagement with such texts be rigorous and critical: authors’ presuppositions must be recognized and questioned, unsupported conclusions doubted (or at least recognized as unsupported), strengths and weaknesses noted, and incompatibilities among the texts noted. All of this is to say that core texts belong to a quest not merely for knowledge, but for Truth, and thus that some texts—classic though they may be—usher us along the road to Truth at least as much negatively by their embrace of questionable notions as positively by their participation in Truth.
It is primarily as tools in the quest for Truth—a quest that entails crucial and fundamental disagreement—that the classic works of the liberal arts liberate us.
This is, I believe, where Fahrenheit 451 may fall short. In the last section of the novel, Bradbury seems to imply that classic texts of any variety and any perspective participate in the Good similarly and compatibly. The notion of conflict among them is glossed over, leaving the impression that simply engaging with classic texts is Good rather than wrestling with their conflicting ideas in a teleological quest for Truth. The discerning student who engages with the classics in the way Bradbury seems to favor, who encounters intertextual conflict without a teleological framework, is at risk of the same nihilism that characterizes the novel’s antagonist.
The next installment of this essay will, first, connect elements of Fahrenheit 451 to elements of the Allegory of the Cave and Diagram of the Line, then address Bradbury’s apparent shortfall in dealing with conflict among classic texts, which unwittingly leaves open the likelihood of nihilistic response to such conflict.
Russell P. Dawn is Associate Professor of History and Political Thought at Concordia University Irvine