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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.

Becoming Affluent and Breaking Bad

Another classical downer: with material progress often comes moral regress.

Cranky Hesiod saw that in the fading tough world of early 7th-century Boeotia, as the advent of the city-state led to more claim jumpers, oath breakers, and crooked judges. The idea of the need for a daily struggle to survive to keep moral balance is best explored in the great tetrad of Roman imperial pessimists — Juvenal, Petronius, Suetonius, and Tacitus. If late republicans like Horace and Livy had hinted that a rich, globalized Roman Mediterranean was destroying the old rural Italian virtue, then the later four chronicled in graphic detail just how — and how fun it was to squander what others far better for seven centuries had bequeathed. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner might as well take place in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.

It is not just that plenty of slaves, purple dye, marble, forced vomiting, and piped-in water mean that we don’t have to rise at dawn to hoe the vineyard and bathe in ice-cold streams and therefore become lazy, corpulent, and decadent. Rather, material progress is usually accompanied by moral regress largely because of the leisure to master a critical consciousness and intellectual gymnastics well apart from the fears of religion: if we can explain, in a sophisticated and convincing manner, why something bankrupt is true, then it surely must be true: Vero possumus! Who is to say that Lindsay Lohan is not more interesting than Gen. Mattis?

Language in the postmodern world becomes more layered — and fluid — (compare “overseas contingency operations“ for terrorism or “investments” for deficit spending). The sophistic citizen has the leisure and training to third-guess ancient protocols. Without a soul, the good life here is it. Sarcasm, cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism so abound that there must always be a third and fourth meaning. The in-the-know smirk of Jon Stewart or David Letterman and the gobbledygook mush that pours out the mouths of our talking head analysts conspire to make us incapable of saying any of the following: ‘The Tsarnaevs are repulsive and evil. Their mother is unhinged. Fire those who let in these repellent people. Something has gone terribly wrong with the FBI.” Say that and you are guilty of a thought crime greater than the mayhem committed on the street.

Major Hasan kills 13 and wounds 29, yelling out Allahu Akbar as he shoots. In response, the head of the Army joins the Obama Borg (of Brennan, Clapper, Holder, and Napolitano) to lecture us that the greater tragedy in this “workplace violence” would be the loss of the Army’s diversity program. Next thing, the head of NASA might be lecturing us that his foremost aim is reaching out to aggrieved Muslims.

It is not just that Juvenal’s Sejanus, Petronius’s Trimalchio, Suetonius’s Caligula, and Tacitus’s Nero are evil, but that they are products of a society in which the more clever it sounds, the more clothes it has, and the larger the house it inhabits, the more amoral it becomes. If Rome did not have a Caligula, it would have had to invent one.

Thus the weird backlash romance that arises for Ovid’s Philemon and Baucis with their simple beech wood cups and daily material grind. From Virgil’s mythical Arcadia to Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, there grows always this wish of the metrosexual to give up the world of Justin Bieber, Facebook, and the Upper West Side for something simple and true — but perceived as gone forever.

How odd that these guys are not even happy when they win what they sought. By hook or crook they win Obamacare and now those who wrote the bill wish themselves and their staffs to be exempt from it, as if ol’ Doc’ is still around to practice folksy medicine out of his office at home. They want the dwindling rivers to run freely to the Bay deltas to allow mythical salmon to swim to the Sierra, but count on the awful man-caused reservoirs alone to give them the water to waste.

Palo Alto and Menlo Park got everything they ever dreamed up: Obama, diversity, vast cash redistributions, a left-wing governor and legislature, a new race/class/gender school curriculum, unionized state employees, a blue political class, vast riches from a green Silicon Valley … and what? The young millionaires scramble to get their children into one of the growing number of private academies so they will not have to study the curricula with the “other” and join the poorly prepared students who are the logical ramifications of their own ideology. If they had a drawl, it might be the South’s 1965-era academies all over again.

When I see the contemporary CSU campus — larger than ever, more administrators than at any time in its past, greatest enrollments in history, students on generous subsidies with an array of electronic gadgetry and new Camrys and Accords in the brand-new solar-roofed parking lots — and I hear of “crippling budget cuts,” “shorting the students,” and “a campus in crisis,” I assume that most of those who graduated in 1960 would find the current curricula a bad joke, and that today’s students would flunk most of the classes offered fifty years ago — iPads and Twitter notwithstanding. If the choice for today’s serious student with ear phones is either to text an earth-shattering “I just walked into the Student Center” or to memorize “amo, amas, amat,” then it is no mystery where the never-to-be regained minute goes, in this zero-sum game of 24 hours in a vanishing day.

Societies of Chaos

Most classical literature, let us admit it, is anti-democratic, moralistic in a reactionary sense, and deeply pessimistic — and therefore if not a corrective, at least a balance to today’s trajectory. Would you not wish to see in advance where zero-sum interest, $1 trillion deficits, 50 million on food stamps, $17 trillion in debt, and the quality of today’s BA degree all end up?

The world of fourth-century Athens is one of constant squabbling over a shrinking pie: “Don’t dare raid the free theater fund to build a warship. Pay me to vote. Give me a pension for my bad leg. The rich should pay their fair share. You didn’t build that. That’s my inheritance, not yours. Exile, confiscate, even kill those who have too much power of influence.” It is not that the Athenians cannot grow their economy as in the past, but that they despise those among them who think they still can.

The message reminds us that the health of the commonwealth hinges not on material resources, but always on the status of the collective mind. Usually the man who sees this — a Socrates in 399 BC, a Demosthenes in the shadow of Philip, even a shrill Isocrates — is branded a nut, ignored, or done away with.

In Roman times, the same “bread and circuses” themes arise. Let us be honest: to the ancient mind, the most dangerous thing is the empowered mob that wants to be lied to (vulgus vult decipi). Travel with Petronius to Croton, and you might as well be in Washington.

Examine today’s headlines: as I write this, the Pigford farming settlement is shown to have been simply a way to grant hundreds of millions of dollars of somebody else’s money to political constituencies on the idea of “fairness.” Reparations, not legitimacy or legality, is the issue. The number of disability insurance recipients has reached an all-time high. We may be living longer, with superb health care and fewer physically dangerous and exhaustive jobs, but apparently we are less able to work. The government is advertising in Spanish to encourage people to spot those in need in of food stamps — fifty million with EBT cards are too few. The attorney general of the United States swears that those who entered the United States illegally will be deprived of their “civil rights,” if not granted amnesty and eventually citizenship. So old, so boring, so ‘”we’ve seen this all before” and where all this leads — to the New World Order of Alexander, to the banquet at the House of Trimalchio, to the crumbling estates in North Africa where aging grandees hide behind gated estates terrified of what they helped to create.

Classical literature really does remind us that the problem is usually caused by doing the opposite, once we have arrived, of what we once did to get there. Our ancestors built Hetch Hetchy to give us drinking water, irrigated agriculture, flood control, and cheap electricity; once we enjoy all that, we have the luxury to scheme how to blow it all up.

In this regard, the Tsarnaev monsters were valuable symptoms of the present age, or perhaps pseudo-Romanized tribesmen right out of Caesar’s Gallic Wars: The endangered “refugees” freely revisiting the supposed deadly environment they escaped; the shop-lifting mother damning the country that took her in and cheaply resonating jihadist themes; the “domestic abuse” charge lodged against the “beautiful” boxer Tamerlan; the abject failure of the repeatedly warned FBI; the self-righteous Mirandizing to stop inquiry about other possible threats; the immediate liberal effort to blame the U.S. (e.g., as if the liberal Boston world of our first Native-American senator and up-from-the-bootstraps Secretary of State John Kerry must be an especially harsh, cruel society, where help is rarely afforded the needy and redneck prejudice is ubiquitous).

If there are 500 murders a year in gun-restricted Chicago, or Sandy Hook still takes place in idyllic gun-regulated Connecticut, or pampered “refugees” slaughter their most generous hosts in postmodern, tolerant Boston, there must be a message of some sort of enduring good and evil here.

Be Not Afraid

Great literature and a knowledge of history serve as friends that reassure us that we are neither crazy nor alone. We can anticipate disasters rather than always having to learn through them. We expect paradoxes, given human nature, and so we do not need to weep over what happens to us, as if it is unique and unprecedented.

One day in April 2008 I went to sleep and now I woke up to April 2013. The new normal is zero interest, 7.5% unemployment, no ammunition on the shelves of America’s stores, a new debate over using the words “terror” and “Islamist” 12 years after 9/11, laying off air-traffic controllers amid a $3.8 trillion budget, and the thug Vladimir Putin doing more than the FBI to protect us from the terrorists among us.

But all that is up on the shelf. And so I think I’ll pull down Thucydides or Dante for comfort that we are not alone.

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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!
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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You can buy old books on Amazon for $.01. It figures.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
-To think the ancient poets wrote that all without regular links to other writers.
1 year ago
1 year 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."
1 year ago
1 year 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.

1 year ago
1 year 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.

1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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?
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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.
1 year ago
1 year 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...

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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