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Works and Days

Why Read Old Books?

April 29th, 2013 - 12:01 am

We all know the usual reasons why we are prodded to read the classics — moving characters, seminal ideas, blueprints of our culture, and paradigms of sterling prose and poetry. Then we nod and snooze.

But there are practical reasons as well that might better appeal to the iPhone generation that is minute-by-minute wired into a collective hive of celebrity titillation, the cool, cooler, and coolest recent rapper, or the grunting of “ya know,” “dah,” and “like.” After all, no one can quite be happy with all that.

Classics are more than books of virtues. Homer and Sophocles certainly remind us of the value of courage, without which Aristotle lectures us there can be no other great qualities. Instead, the Greeks and Romans might better remind this generation of the ironic truths, the paradoxes of human behavior and groupthink. Let me give but three examples of old and ironic wisdom.

The Race Goes Not to the Swift.

The problem with Homer’s Achilles or Sophocles’ Ajax was not that they were found wanting in heroic virtue. Rather they were too good at what they did, and so made the fatal mistake of assuming that there must be some correlation between great deeds and great rewards.

How many times has the natural hitter on the bench sulked at the novelty that the cousin of the coach is batting cleanup? How often has the talented poet suddenly turned to drink because the toast of the salon got rich with his drivel? He should read his Homer: the self-destructive Achilles should have enjoyed more influence among the dense Achaeans than did the university president Agamemnon. By any just heroic standard, Ajax, not Odysseus, the Solyndra lobbyist, should have won the armor of the dead Achilles.

In the tragic world, thousands of personal agendas, governed by predictable human nature, ensure that things do not always quite work the way they should. We can learn from classics that most of us are more likely to resent superiority than to reward it, to distrust talent than to develop it. With classical training, our impatient youth might at least gain some perspective that the world is one where the better man is often passed over — precisely because he is the better man. Classics remind us that our disappointments are not unique to our modern selves. While we do not passively have to accept that unfairness (indeed Achilles and Ajax implode over it), we must struggle against it with the acceptance that the odds are against us.

Again, think of the great Westerns that so carefully emulated ancient epic: what exactly does Shane win (other than a wound and a ride off into the sunset)? Or Tom Doniphon (other than a burned-down shack)? Or the laconic Chris of The Magnificent Seven (“The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”)? Did he even collect his $20?

Or what about Will Kane (yes, I know, but a buckboard ride with young Grace Kelly to where exactly?)? Or Ethan Edwards (a walk to where after going through that swinging cabin door?)? Medals, money, badges? The lasting admiration of Hadleyville? Hidden gold from the Mexican peasant village? The mayorship of Shinbone? An hour with Jean Arthur?

Society is as in need of better men as it is suspicious of them when it no longer needs them. Most of Sophocles’ plays are about those too noble to change — Antigone or Philoctetes — who cannot fit in a lesser society not of their own making. Read E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and cry over the great Marines who were ground up in the Pacific. So often they were like Lieutenant Hillbilly Jones and Captain Haldane who saved the U.S. and are now all but forgotten. In today’s collective history, they are simply the anonymous cardboard cut-out race and class villains who needlessly decimated the Japanese out of racially driven animus and thereby bequeathed to us the abundance that we take for granted and that allows us such self-indulgent second thoughts.

Thucydides’ Pericles warned us that orators had to be careful when speaking of the dead lest they so emphasize the gifts of the deceased that such praise invoke envy in the listeners, who in anger realize that their own lives fall short of the fallen.

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Top Rated Comments   
My then-8th Grade daugher was assigned what passes for a research paper these days for her American History class with the instruction that she was to research and write about an important figure in 19th Century America but it could not be a White man. So, I introduced her to Stand Watie, a full-blood Cherokee, wealthy, highly educated, plantation and slave owning prominent citizen of the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Watie, who became Brigadier General Watie of the Cherokee Brigade of the Confederate States Army surrendered the last Confederate field command in May or June of 1865. Heads exploded!
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
To a society that twists the meaning of facts, they would have no problem twisting the meaning of fiction.

We have a Narrative Government and their Agenda Media, slavishly adhering to a pre-masticated notion of what the truth "should be". And, they create arguments based upon a phony "liberal" facade of "compassion, tolerance, open-mindedness, soft hearts"...when in reality they are quite the opposite. Or, what I call the Inversion Narrative.

The cult is driven to boredom with achievement. They would rather watch Lohan or Sheen because the train wreck is more fascinating than the one that runs on time.

They "say" that they admire the self-made man...that is...until he's actually reached achievement goals. Then, he is "the enemy", who needs to be "punished" and who doesn't "pay his fair share" and is "greedy". No matter that he scrimped and saved and toiled for years, it's the sin of success that stains his soul.

And his only way toward redemption, is to join the cult in slandering everyone else who succeeds...from his new lofty perch at the top of the Inversion Narrative.

A vocal cult leader can inherit a ketchup fortune via marriage to a shrew, can bootleg whiskey, can seize the airwaves and block competition unfairly...and as long as his voice is shrill in contempt for the success of "others", he gets a pass as one of the "good guys".

Living in a hurricane of lies, slanders and treason may well find solace in the tales of the ancients. But, if taught at our indoctrination farms we call "schools" today, the morals would be corrupted and unrecognizable.

Gosnell hacking off the feet and hands of newborns as souvenirs in order to give women their "right" to "choose" life or death...would be buried beneath the cold, dark place where leftism resides in its triumph over we, the meek and timid...too fearful of our "likeability" to protest.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I, too, will print this important article; my purpose differs, however, from the other commenter, cindobindo.

What I will do is edit out some of the au courant political commentary, because I plan to render the essay as a timeless reference piece in support of the classics. This, I then will attach to the letter of protest that I am sending to my son's high school principal about a literature project assignment.

Although I had to promise my son I'd hold off til after he graduates, I am very angry about his senior project, in honors English, an analysis of four feminist poets, of course they must also be minorities.

Huh? Worse than lame or harmless.

This is to represent the culmination of four years of the study of literature? This horribly crafted, victim-centric, male hating, pornographic tripe is our son's big senior project. It makes me so sick, too, because one's projects sort of become a part of him and this is where the "educators" (scare quotes intentional) want to direct his energy and his beautiful spirit. (Insert primal scream here.) As I say, to those who will listen, teenage boys have no business reading feminist poetry at all, it is so demeaning to their essence.

This, at a Catholic school. I only acquiesced in sending him there, over home schooling, because he wanted the athletics and the social experience.

So very sad that even this Catholic school is dumbing down, as well as infusing toxic ideas into, the curriculum.

Back in the 1970s, my high school days were spent at a different Catholic high school. The study of Latin was a requirement, a smattering of these writers referred to above by VDH were presented and the marvelous literature of the English language formed the lion's share of our work in that department. Qu'elle disservice to our young people to have moved so far from all that.

Sad.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (95)
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You can buy old books on Amazon for $.01. It figures.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
-To think the ancient poets wrote that all without regular links to other writers.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
As Arnold memorably put it:

"Commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who constantly practise it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment--not of literary works only, but of men and events in general. They are like persons who have had a very weighty and impressive experience; they are more truly than others under the empire of facts, and more independent of the language current among those with whom they live."
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
The twin problem of how we use history are these:

A. It has been racialized/Jim Crowed into the ground.
B. All of history has been dismissed (European only) as misogyny, cultural appropriation, Orientalism, imperialism, colonialism, privilege, racism and oppression.

One need only look at Obama's remarks in Cairo about Islam spurring the renaissance to see this is true. Read George Saliba's "Islamic Science and the Making of The European Renaissance."

This laughable book takes a few astronomical observations by a few Arabs and says, "Voila!," Renaissance! It further explains that Islam didn't have a Renaissance itself cuz Baghdad fell to Mongols. How widespread is a "culture" that only exists in one city?

Ephesus, Alexandria and Syracuse - 3 important centers of learning - disappeared and eventually so did Byzantium. A "culture" is not a city. Saliba's argument reminds me of Afrocentrists who want credit for Egypt but mysteriously can't explain why sub-Saharan Africa itself never had that expression of monument building.

History itself is now a politically correct race-factory. Mitigation and excuses, blame and whining, now replace research, and the word "obvious" has taken a deep dark trip to the bottom of the sea. Even direct and continuous contact with Europe had no effect on the Ottomans. At some point you just have to accept "can't" and "didn't" at face value.

Liberals have censored vast swaths of history until Mughals, Ottomans, Abbasids, Aztecs and Manchus simply never existed. In British India, accidental or mismanaged famines become "genocide" and 1 to 4 million ethnic murders following the retirement of the British never occurred.

Nuance is gone, in favor of a faddist political agenda by history's also-rans who think they can cry their way to the moon.

51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
The twin problem of how we use history are these:

A. It has been racialized/Jim Crowed into the ground.
B. All of history has been dismissed (European only) as misogyny, cultural appropriation, Orientalism, imperialism, colonialism, privilege, racism and oppression.

One need only look at Obama's remarks in Cairo about Islam spurring the renaissance to see this is true. Read George Saliba's "Islamic Science and the Making of The European Renaissance."

This laughable book takes a few astronomical observations by a few Arabs and says, "Voila!," Renaissance! It further explains that Islam didn't have a Renaissance itself cuz Baghdad fell to Mongols. How widespread is a "culture" that only exists in one city?

Ephesus, Alexandria and Syracuse - 3 important centers of learning - disappeared and eventually so did Byzantium. A "culture" is not a city. Saliba's argument reminds me of Afrocentrists who want credit for Egypt but mysteriously can't explain why sub-Saharan Africa itself never had that expression of monument building.

History itself is now a politically correct race-factory. Mitigation and excuses, blame and whining, now replace research, and the word "obvious" has taken a deep dark trip to the bottom of the sea. Even direct and continuous contact with Europe had no effect on the Ottomans. At some point you just have to accept "can't" and "didn't" at face value.

Liberals have censored vast swaths of history until Mughals, Ottomans, Abbasids, Aztecs and Manchus simply never existed. In British India, accidental or mismanaged famines become "genocide" and 1 to 4 million ethnic murders following the retirement of the British never occurred.

Nuance is gone, in favor of a faddist political agenda by history's also-rans who think they can cry their way to the moon.

51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
You forget Smyrna, another important city, taken over in 1922 by an Islamist army, its considerable Christian population put to the sword, its spiritual leader, Christostom, if I remember his name right, dragged by his beard through the streets, his eyes put out, his hand lopped off as he repeatedly raised it to bless his tormentors, and he was then beheaded. Some Christians, cornered at the harbor,in terror for their lives tried to swim to foreign ships in port for safety, but were repulsed. The city was in Turkey, and the Moslems renamed it Izmir. Islam is and has always been the Dark Ages personified, spreading hatred,ignorance and illiteracy wherever it goes. Anytime they invade, churches, schools, universities and libraries are the first places destroyed, clergy and teachers among the first to be massacred,and are replaced by Moslem clerics, the schools and universities by madrassas and mosques.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
As of this week, I can now view the 'vulgus vult decipi' of California eradicating the Golden State from afar, since I am no longer a resident. I am free.
I am also in a part of the country that is distinctly anti-obama. Finally I am at peace.
Good luck, America. You've earned the scourging that the next two decades will bring upon you. Your vanity, foolishness and envy will be repaid manyfold, to your profound chagrin.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Like Hanson I am a California boy, know the areas of his haunts. Because no one discovered that I had 20/400 vision, I began the 7th grade with 1st grade reading knowledge. With glasses I learned to read and read and read. I read all the great books a boy's young heart could want, i.e., I entered cultre. Eventually I became a prof. of Germanic literature which led me to philosophy. READING lit. or phil. or whatever of value is a key to mature reflection. In Germany (where I live) I see endless documentaries on Nazism. But reading the precious diaries of Anne Frank open up the marvelously human world of a persecute young Jewish girl in away that historical documentaries do not. Reading Unamuno in Spanish opens up the world of internal struggle of a genius having lost his faith (very contempory here in Europe today). Alas, I never learned Greek and never got around to the Romans except for some poetry. So I can not plea for the "old books" (and bemoan the fact), but I do plea for "quality books", even in translation. Without books, this then 7th grade illerate would be a bum wandering about instead of a reitred professor having professionally wandered about various countries.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Have you read Victor Klemperer's Diaries? They are the adult equivalent of the Anne Frank Diaries. I read the first two, but not the third, which covers post-war Germany.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
The generations of the "old books" were a special people. They didn't politicize everything from A to Z. They could satarize politics without demeaning personalizations. They could make or take a position on the merits alone. They were ground in reality with great wisdom, common sense and even streaks of great humor unlike todays generations. They will be read when writers of today will long forgotten.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Zekie, are you being critical of Letterman, Maher, and Stewart again? Well, I can't blame you, they do politicize everything and demean their opponents, don't they.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not unless Letterman, Maher, and Stewart are centuries old literary authors of which I have not read anything they've written. Maybe you could enlighten us all with their literary works of old?
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Whenever I read your work Mr. Hanson... I am reminded of how truly uninformed I am (inspite of my education and age) and commit myself that much more to catch up. Thanks once again for your excellent insights.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, Professor, for another fine and enlightening article. It's both comforting and disquieting to see the historical parallels; comforting to know that our world is not unique and disquieting because there is very little we can do to subvert what these universal truths tell us about human nature. However, I think that our electronic mass media - more intrusive, ubiquitous and wide-spread than we could imagine it would become just a few short years ago - is creating a distortion, a disjunction in human perception that is very new with results that are unpredictable and, quite frankly, scary.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dan Brown, in his popular pop novel, ANGELS & DEMONS, observes an interesting judgment in the narrative: "The (mass)Media is the Left Hand of Satan". For the obsequious purveyors of this form of mendacity, Dante would provide a 10th Circle...where such of the damned are despised even by the Devil himself...

51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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