Why Read Old Books?

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.