Dr. Louise Cowan once suggested to doctoral students at the University of Dallas that the “great books” of the Western Tradition should be read because “the traditions that formed Europe and America must be preserved if we are to escape a descent into barbarism.” On the surface, this claim seems to imply that the “great books” possess an ethical potential capable of insulating us from barbarism; that is, they are capable of serving as a prosthetic conscience.
However, when one considers the example of Joseph Goebbels, who earned a Ph.D. in Romantic Drama from Heidelberg University in 1921, and yet clearly descended into barbarism through the murderous ideology of Nazism, Dr. Cowan’s claim would seem to be in jeopardy. Goebbels was surely acquainted with Vergil, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Goethe, Shakespeare and the like, but the encounter with “the traditions that formed Europe and America” did not prevent him from hijacking the arts for Nazi propaganda and facilitating genocide. It is therefore legitimate to ask: If the “great books” are capable of serving as a prosthetic conscience, why was Josef Goebbels unable to “escape a descent into barbarism?”
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Cowan about her claim and I presented her with “The Goebbels Challenge.” Her response was instructive. She said that she never intended to imply that these texts, in and of themselves, have the ability to change anyone. Rather, these texts should be understood as a kind of psychic techne, which is to say, objective expressions of the inexpressible structures of the human soul (psyche). They serve as signposts that point the way to an inner journey of self-discovery, but not necessarily so. The signs can be misread and the path can turn into a detour just as surely as it can become a means of transformation. In Arendtian terms, these texts can both create space for thinking and obfuscate it.
I would like to suggest the alternative term: liminal texts, to describe the books that have become foundational for Western Culture. This term intimates a wider canon of texts that can be understood as ethical thresholds that lead to new modes of human thinking and activity but also recognizes the moral ambiguity of these texts which is consistent with the moral ambiguity of the human will. The basis for this alternative term may be found in one of the liminal texts themselves, namely, Plato’s Phaedrus.
In the Phaedrus Socrates tells the story of the Egyptian god Theuth “who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.” Theuth recommended all of these arts to Thamus, the king of Egypt at that time, but in his recommendation of letters he claimed that the letters were an “elixir [Greek: pharmakon] of memory,” but Thamus realized very quickly that the use of letters would result in “forgetfulness” and not an enhanced memory. The letters, which is to say – writing, would prostheticize memory in a system of signs that could be read at one’s leisure instead of recalled through the practice of memory. Writing therefore, while offering a means of education, also possessed the potential for mental atrophy.The word Plato uses for elixir (sometimes translated “remedy”) is pharmakon. Derrida has pointed to the oppositional nature of this word. A pharmakon is at once a poison and a cure.
When liminal texts of the Western tradition are understood in this way the challenge of Joseph Goebbels is more easily understood and Dr. Cowan’s claim takes on greater significance. The ethical potential of these texts lies not in the “great books” themselves, or in the “great ideas” they preserve, nor even in the “great tradition” that they give birth to, but rather in their liminal nature which opens to those who “have ears to hear”; that is, those within whom the call of conscience has not been silenced. The call of conscience, as Hannah Arendt described it in the “Thinking” section of her posthumous The Life of the Mind, doesn’t tell us what we should do, but rather it tells us what we must not do if we are to remain friends with ourselves. It is “the anticipation of the presence of a witness who awaits him only if and when he goes home.” The liminal texts of the Western tradition provide a way of going home, but they compel no one to do so. They merely stand, like Wisdom, “at the crossroads,” “beside the gates,” and “at the entrance of portals,” crying out to all who approach “Live!”
 I am grateful to Dr. Philipp Rosemann for bringing the example of Goebbels to my attention.
 Plato. “Phaedrus” in Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, J. Henderson, Ed., Loeb Classical Library ed., Vol. 36 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 274d.
 Ibid., 275a.
 Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination, Barbara. Johnson, Trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 70.
 Arendt, Hannah. “Thinking” in The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1978), 190.
 Proverbs 8:1-36.