Why Read Old Books?

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.