The Eternal Argument ($24.95), written by Robin Finley, and published by Analytical Grammar, is a unique guide to understanding literature from ancient times up to the present. The author’s premise is that all literature focuses on the “eternal argument.” People throughout the ages have talked, argued, and even fought wars about this argument, which all comes back to how they see the world.
There are two basic worldviews: humanism, which is the belief that humans can, themselves, make the world better without a God, and theism, the belief that humans are inherently flawed and live best with rules handed down to them from a higher source, such as God. Throughout history, civilizations have tended to favor one side or the other. Interestingly, the prevailing worldview of society has swung back and forth through the ages, from the ancients, who lived by a faith in God (or gods) to the Greeks and Romans, who emphasized man’s ability to better himself and the world, to the middle ages, when adherence to high standards and authority was the focus, and so on. Literature not only reflects the author’s viewpoint, but reflects the worldview of each historical time period and how people of that time thought about themselves and their world.
The Eternal Argument explains that understanding this premise is the key to truly understanding literature as more than just “old books.” Analyzing the type of conflict in the book, and understanding the motivations of the protagonist and antagonist help the reader identify whether the author is promoting a theistic or humanistic viewpoint.
Robin Finley takes the reader on a journey throughout the ages, explaining the time periods and how historical events influenced the worldview of the people and vice versa. Did you ever wonder why the American Revolution and the French Revolution turned out so differently? It all depended on whether the people saw themselves as sinners that were subject to a higher law or as capable of bettering the world themselves. Finley chooses one book from each historical age, explaining how the story and characters reflect the age. She also provides a handy illustration/chart of the various historical ages and their time periods as a reference (since I’m not likely to remember exactly when the age of realism is vs. the romantic period)!
She then teaches literary vocabulary, the five elements of plot, the five conflicts in literature, and point of view. With these tools, a student is prepared to think more deeply about the books he reads.
Chapter 14 is entitled, “Now Let’s Apply All This to Books We’ve Discussed.” I love that! The author not only gives the reader the tools to analyze a book in various ways, then to draw a conclusion about which literary/historical period the book belongs in, but explains and gives multiple examples of what this analysis looks like. 17 different books are discussed in this chapter, giving the reader a resource to draw on when teaching these books.
I found The Eternal Argument to be a fascinating, enlightening, and very practical book and I will be sure to use it frequently as I teach high school level literature during the next few years. Emily enjoyed the book as well and we’ve found the discussion questions at the end of each chapters helpful. The author suggests that students and teachers read the book together, and it has sparked some good discussions so far. I will say that, even though the book is meant to be discussed, it is written directly to the parent or teacher and refers to “when you teach your students” frequently, so it was a little odd for a read-aloud to my student. Not a big issue, though.
The Eternal Argument is appropriate for reading and discussion with middle school ages and up and would make a great addition to the library of any English teacher, homeschooler, or adult reader.