Ignatius Critical Editions present great literary works, reject fad and fashion

“There is no nonsense,” says series editor Joseph Pearce about the Ignatius Critical Editions, “no feminist criticism, no Marxist criticism, no deconstructionism, no queer theory, no anti-Christianity.”

Joseph Pearce is series editor of Ignatius Critical Editions, which now consists of nearly 30 titles, with two more being published in 2020. (Images: jjpearce.co and Ignatius.com)

Truth, beauty, and goodness are under attack in many ways and on many fronts. One of the ways this attack is manifesting itself is in the insistent and nearly ubiquitous “re-assessment” of classic works of literature. The sicknesses in our society demand validation. Modern academe is engaged in a ruthless campaign of ideological eisegesis, reading modern perversions and politics into classic works, and thus attempting to undercut what is actually present in the text while trying to manufacture support for its own agenda.

For example, the claim that William Shakespeare was really gay, and his sonnets were love letters to his male lover. The ideologues see political oppression, sexual repression, or sly skepticism in just about anything. They willfully ignore Oscar Wilde’s lifelong obsession with the Catholic Church and his deathbed conversion, and turn a blind eye to J.R.R. Tolkien’s insistence that The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Catholic book. There are countless more examples.

To combat this trend and provide a corrective, Ignatius Press and Joseph Pearce developed the Ignatius Critical Editions, an ongoing series of classic works of literature, accompanied by critical essays from tradition-oriented experts. Pearce is the series editor, and has been the particular editor of many of the volumes. There are 27 volumes in the series so far, including Dracula, Frankenstein, Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and many more.

Two more volumes will be published soon in 2020: Romantic Poets Vol. II, and Canterbury Tales.

The prolific Pearce, who is also Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute and editor of the St. Austin Review, recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the Ignatius Critical Editions series and the importance of studying classic works of literature.

Catholic World Report: What prompted you and Ignatius Press to produce this series?

Joseph Pearce: As someone who has taught undergraduate students for many years, I am well aware of the hijacking of the study of literature by the advocates of secular fundamentalism. It is almost impossible to open a critical edition of any of the great literary works of western civilization without being affronted by the pernicious fads and fashions of the modern academy, whether it be in the form of feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, queer theory, deconstructionism or any of the other manifestations of the modern academy’s anti-Christian agenda.

The idea and inspiration for the Ignatius Critical Editions came from my experience of using the Norton or Oxford editions of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights in a course on Romanticism that I was teaching at Ave Maria University. I objected to the nihilistic and deconstructionist critical essays and introductions in these editions, which clearly served warped agendas and did not reflect the views or intentions of the authors of either work. I didn’t feel comfortable putting this subjective and objectionable nonsense into the hands of my students and decided that tradition-oriented teachers and students needed an alternative to this poison. I suggested the idea of the series to Father Fessio of Ignatius Press and the Ignatius Critical Editions were born.

Each edition contains the full text of the work, an introduction, and a selection of critical essays by some of the finest literary scholars in the world today. The crucial difference is that the introduction and the critical essays are all written from an avowedly and unashamedly tradition-oriented perspective. There is no nonsense: no feminist criticism, no Marxist criticism, no deconstructionism, no queer theory, no anti-Christianity. As such, the Ignatius Critical Editions offer a genuine extension of consumer choice, enabling lovers of literature to buy out of the secular fundamentalism sweeping through our public schools and universities and to buy into the rich Christian tradition that had given birth to these great books.

CWR: What makes a work of literature a classic?

Pearce: I would say that a classic is a book that deserves its place amongst the canon of Great Books, which begs the question of what constitutes a “great” book. I would answer such a question by saying that books can be “great” in two distinct and crucially different ways. They can be “great” objectively, in what they are, and they can be “great” subjectively, in what they have done.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is an objectively “great” book, perhaps objectively the greatest book, in its literary brilliance as a poem and in its sublime exposition of the supernatural destiny of homo viator (Pilgrim Man) in the light of the theology and philosophy of Christendom. On the other hand, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a “great” book subjectively in the sense that it is a work of literature that has impacted the culture of the past century to a great degree. It is, however, a eulogy in defence of homo superbus (Proud Man) and is, as such, an uncivilized work, lacking goodness, truth, and beauty. It is, therefore, not an objectively “great” book, which is defined by the degree to which it is civilized, but a subjectively “great” book, which is defined by the degree to which it has done important things to the culture.

We should remind ourselves that “important” is emphatically not synonymous with “good”. Evil is important, in the sense that we do it or ignore it at our peril, but it is not good. The Third Reich is one of the most important chapters in twentieth century history but not because Hitler’s regime was good. Similarly, we should remind ourselves that “culture” is not synonymous with “good”. James Joyce’s book is a significant work of culture while, at the same time, being profoundly uncivilized, and therefore harmful to all that is good, true and beautiful.

The obvious analogy is with those other “cultures” that appear in nature. Biological cultures can bring both health and death and just as it is perilous to the body to see no difference between penicillin and e-coli, so it is perilous to the soul to see no difference between good culture (civilization) and bad culture (barbarism). It is, therefore, important to remember that cultures can be barbaric. The culture of death in the Third Reich led to millions dying in concentration camps; the culture of death in the Soviet Union led to millions dying in the gulag archipelago; and the culture of death in today’s institutionalized hedonism is killing millions of unborn children in abortion mills. These are all barbaric cultures ruled over by cultured barbarians. Let’s never fall into the trap of believing that something is good or civilized merely because it is cultured.

Now that we have defined our terms, we should be able to distinguish those books that are genuinely great or civilized, in the objective sense in which they mirror man’s true image as homo viator, from those that are only great in the subjective sense in which they have had a great and important impact upon history through their reflection of the beliefs of homo superbus, man’s self-deceptive and destructive alter ego. The former are towering testaments to the cooperation of the gifted with the Giver of the gift; high places from which we can survey reality more clearly; edifices that edify. The latter are towering testaments to human pride; high places covered with clouds that prevent us from seeing anything but ourselves; edifices from which we fall. The former are great in the sense that they shine forth the sacred heart of truth, goodness and beauty. The latter are great in the sense that they grate the truth, shredding its surface without ever reaching or touching its core.

CWR: There are those who say that the classics have little or no value, and that we should focus on modern works that speak more directly to our situation today. There is an emphasis on “representation” in media, being able to “identify with” characters in a given work. How would you respond to that?

Pearce: Only a fool or a charlatan believes that we have nothing to learn from our elders. In this sense we should see history as the science of the past which allows us to learn from the collective and collected experience of humanity over many centuries. The great works of literature are beautiful expressions of that collective inheritance, showing us the truth of the permanent things and the truth about ourselves that we can see reflected in the permanent things.

In short and in sum, reading the classics liberates us from the narrow-mindedness of the fads and fashions of our own time and connects us with the bedrock realities of what it is to be truly and fully human.

The classics enable us to judge the present from the telescopic perspective of the past. Good contemporary literature is always rooted in the past, in the sense that it is influenced by the great literary works that precede it. This rootedness makes good contemporary literature part of a continuum of culture. Any contemporary literature which endeavours to ignore the classics will be fatally flawed by its embrace of the shallow and the superficial. Such literature, in refusing the life-giving roots of tradition, will wither and die within a few years of its being published because, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, fashions are always coming and going, but mostly going! If an author is preoccupied with being “up-to-date” his work will very quickly be out-of-date and therefore unread and forgotten.

The classics, being rooted in those aspects of humanity which are perennial, have a shelf life measured in centuries, not months!

CWR: How do you go about deciding which titles to include in the series?

Pearce: In deciding which titles to include in the series, I make a particular point of selecting titles that are “canonical” and are already on the existing curricula of good Catholic schools, colleges and home school providers. This makes it easy for instructors and parents to choose the Ignatius Critical Editions as part of their regular program of instruction.

We have also published separate Study Guides for most of the editions. Each Study Guide contains everything a student needs to navigate their way through these classic works of literature, and everything an instructor or parent needs to assist them. There is a section in each Study Guide giving the historical context for the work; another section giving the “bare bones” of the plot; a summary of the critical essays that are published in the edition and related study questions. There’s a section listing “things to think about while reading the book” and, last but not least, a section of study questions enabling the instructor to test the student’s knowledge of the work. These study questions include questions on the factual aspects of the text, and a separate section of essay questions. With regard to the latter, each Study Guide contains a selection of several separate essay questions, pitched at various grades of student aptitude from high school to undergraduate level. This flexible approach will allow the instructor to choose the essay prompt that is most appropriate to the ability of the individual student.

Finally, each Study Guide contains a detachable Answer Key for use by instructors. This gives the answers to the general knowledge questions appertaining to the text and short summaries of the types of critical approach needed for the essays.

In supporting this series, instructors and lovers of great literature will be obtaining Christian-friendly editions of the great works of literature and will also be playing an important part in helping this important initiative grow in its positive influence on our culture.


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About Paul Senz 63 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

10 Comments

  1. Excellent ideas for an excellent project. Also a wonderfully needed undertaking. I will be looking into these editions for my kids as they grow, so as to counter the secular editions currently in existence. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity! God Bless & Merry Christmas! (It is still Christmas at the time of this comment.)

  2. I got the Ignatius Critical Edition of St Augustine’s Confessions for all participants of my Spiritual Life Book Study at my parish and it was a huge aid to our reading of that book. We loved it and thought it was superlative. It’s the ideal translation (Sr. Maria Boulding) with the best helpful, deeply knowledgable and faithfully Catholic Catholic notes by a good Jesuit priest. That’s the only Ignatius Critical Edition I have used but it is THE edition of the Confessions that a Catholic reader would want. GOOD JOB IGNATIUS PRESS! I am happy to see this series being promoted and hope Ignatius Press will add more titles of a kind that our Spiritual Life Book Study would read. I notice that they have Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy; it isn’t one I had considered for our study group but if it is as good as the St Augustine Ignatius Critical Edition that makes me more likely to want to suggest it to them because this series would be an aid to a fruitful experience.

      • For a few years our Spiritual Life Book Study read almost exclusively the works of the Carmelite Doctors of the Church (because that is what I am interested/informed about and what members kept requesting since I would talk about the other books with the consequence that there was interest in reading them), including St Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle (more than once), The Way of Perfection, and her autobiography (Life of St Teresa of Avila), by St John of the Cross the Spiritual Canticle, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and the Dark Night of the Soul, and Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul (an introduction to the Carmelites which so impacted one participant that after she returned to her home country of Indonesia and found out they have Carmelites there she eventually entered a community of Carmelite contemplative/active sisters).

        We also read St Augustine’s Confessions as mentioned, which I feel like was helpful to one participant discerning a call to be a priest, and are now reading a book I can wholeheartedly recommended as PERFECT for a reading group and really well done, Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s When the Church Was Young. It’s a book that tells chapter by chapter of all the major Church Fathers. And, though not a primary reason for its selection this book is a pretty great pre-seminary introduction to the subject for our seminarian-soob-to-be. We supplement that by looking directly at the writings of the Fathers as much or as little as participants desire to do. We also read the book Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft at some time in the past. That’s all I can think of.

        I try to make clear our group is oriented to spiritual growth not being “intellectuals” or literary people. I ask participants to do at least half an hour per day of mental prayer and go to confession at least monthly–so this particular group is specifically for people who are practicing Catholics who want to grow.

        We start each weekly meeting with Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours (I have a set of Shorter Christian Prayer books), then have a home cooked dinner together (it works for us that this is always some sort of vegetarian comfort food because a few of us participants don’t eat meat, and is provided and cooked by me for free, but with a freewill collection basket that goes to a good cause, usually something connected with the parish) and socialize, then in the second hour we discuss the chapter of the book. The weekly free delicious dinner is a big help to people to motivate themselves to show up and we have a pretty great little community of friends.

    • Beauty only a worldly value? Saint Augustine would not agree (“Late have I loved you, Beauty ever ancient, ever new…”). Nor would all those artists who created stained glass windows in churches so that the illiterate could understand. The late Stratford Caldecott wrote a masterful book called Beauty In the Word, Rethinking the Foundations of Education. In it he has an amazing little comparative chart on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. You really cannot separate them.

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