Becoming More Human Through the Reading of Old Books

old-booksSometimes the best part of reading a book is the thinking it makes you do while you read it—losing your place in the paragraph because your mind is running with the implications of an unobtrusive sentence. This happened to me while reading J.A.W. Bennett’s essay in the volume, Light on C.S. Lewis. There I encountered the following words: “In this sense medieval just as much as classical studies make men more humane.”

Bennett’s sentence launched me out of the paragraph and into a rapid sequence of concurrent ideas, bringing together a number of thoughts that form, I believe, a coherent whole around the necessity of reading well. Let me see if I can tease out the network now.

Bennett, Lewis’s successor to the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, is writing about the way that Lewis as a scholar inhabited the worlds about which he wrote as an academic. Lewis was very much a medieval man living in the modern world. And this fact is the first spark that ignited my thoughts, because Bennett’s assertion illuminates an implicit truth: Classical Studies—the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans—has long been the purview of the Classicist, who is an individual known as much by his living out of the ancient principles of the Greco-Roman world as for his expansive knowledge of its particulars. Classical Studies, in other words, is as much about inhabiting a worldview as it is about a kind of intellectual acumen. To study the Classics has traditionally (and rightly) been as much a matter of growing in your humanity as it is about the acquisition of knowledge. We do not read Homer in Greek in order to parse Attic so much as we read Homer in Greek to parse the human heart. We do not read Sophocles in order to pass an exam, we read Sophocles in order to expose ourselves to the innate tragedy of the human situation. Our growth is in character and knowledge coequally.


Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Bennett’s assertion, then, is that the Medievalist is every bit as much a student of humanity as the traditional Classicist. This arrested my attention precisely because of its implicit truth. Lewis was a student of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, so immersed within them that he became an advocate for their perspectives, employing them as vantage points from which to criticize and destroy the ethical, political, literary, moral, religious, and above all progressivist idols of the modern age. In this it was not that Lewis always advocated for the past against the present, but that he rejected wholesale the implied superiority of so-called ‘modern’ ideas, and he used the Medieval perspective—as well as the Classical—to advance his case.

So, Medieval scholars are like Classical scholars. That’s a simple enough claim to make, but why should I find this remarkable? Simply put, because of what is common between these two disciplines, namely, the inhabiting of an alternative worldview through literature. For both the Classicist and Medievalist, the scholar has so invested in the worldview of the past that it can bring a challenging perspective upon the present. Rereading that last sentence I am aware of an inadequacy within it, because it is not merely the act of investing in the past, but of doing so in a disinterested way. The true Classicist and true Medievalist is a person who reads in the past in order to experience and see the past as it was, not the past as our present sensibilities project upon it, edited and interpreted to modern sensibilities.

The reason why Medieval and Classical eras are both excellent studies for this kind of perspective is due to an important factor: in each era there was an implied, explicated, and even pervasive vision of true humanity. Both ages were deeply, unshakably, teleological. This shows up most clearly in the figures of both the Knight and the Hero. The Hero is the image of the flawed apex of humanity, centre of his own story he advances against the odds but is brought low by his innate flaw or the greed and envy of others. Greek literature labors to portray the great heights to which we as humans feel pulled, then measures this against the tragic depths to which we can fall. In all, the question of human meaning is at play, exposing us to our own need to become the best at being human we can possibly be. Similarly the Knight is an agent of virtue, striving as much against his own sin as against any foe. The image of St. George battling the Dragon captures this nicely—the original George was a martyred saint from the 2nd century, but his story was taken up by medieval imaginations and adapted. For the original George, the dragon is his own martyrdom—for the medieval George, the dragon is a physical foe to be defeated. In both cases, the question is primarily one of virtue. Knights slay dragons and rescue damsels because dragons are evil and damsels are pure. He requires personal virtue and purity of heart in order to accomplish his task.

Sir Galahad was fit, because of his virtue, to recover the Holy Grail.

Sir Galahad was fit, because of his virtue, to recover the Holy Grail.

The contrast between the Medieval and Classical ages and our own cannot be too greatly stressed. Both ages were teleological in nature, and being teleological they focused on virtue and the acquisition of virtue as their great values. The pursuit of virtue is the means by which humans become more human. Lewis as the Medievalist is like the Classicist precisely because both worldviews invite the student to grow in virtue as he masters his material. Mastery necessitates an expanding greatness in one’s humanity. But we, by contrast, inhabit an anti-teleological age, and therefore an anti-virtuous age. You cannot advance a human towards being more human if you have no idea what humanity is supposed to look like. In fact, what we have witnessed in the past century is the gleeful overthrow of any teleological worldview by means of appeals to progressivism. It is assumed, today, that we live at the best age in history. It is assumed that the purpose of human life is to keep on living as long as possible (which, I should note, isn’t actually a purpose). It is assumed that appeals to alternative ways of thinking about the world are backwards, outdated, and inefficient.

The narrative is one that admits only of advance and progression.

The narrative is one that admits only of advance and progression.

Our age, being so deeply disordered as it is, desperately needs the voices of the Medieval and Classical worldviews. (And, incidentally, I suggest to you that it is this disparity between ages which makes Lewis such an appealing voice in our time—he offers ordered thinking in the midst of chaos.) This brings me to the value of reading. It is vital—and by vital I do mean vital, as in pertaining to the essential life of humanity—that individuals read old books and read them well. We cannot speak to Medieval men, nor sit at the feet of Classical geniuses, but we can expose ourselves to their world through the books they’ve left us, and that process of exposure—of being influenced, challenged, and changed by another worldview—is an irreplaceable process for growing into one’s own humanity.

First of all, this kind of reading is vital because it serves to break the tyranny of progressivism. It is alluringly easy to be swept along with the great myth of our age—that we are in the best of times and only increasing (i.e., evolving) in greatness hour by hour. Literature forces us to ask if this is even true. Sure, I have powerful technology at my fingertips—or at least, other skilled workers have technology at their fingertips which lends to the illusion that I actually know how things work. The body of human knowledge has indeed swelled and our access to that knowledge has increased—but do I really know more? Or do I just know different things? Were I jettisoned into another age of time, how would I fare as a citizen there? Do I have the knowhow to survive in ancient Byzantium, or medieval Europe, or a Viking settlement? Is my knowledge really better, or just different? And that first realization is the beginning of much wisdom—I know different things, not necessarily better things. Those things I know may or may not be good; they may or may not serve to make me more human. Here the voice of another worldview illuminates the gaps in our own self-awareness. I can use a computer; is my computer contributing to my virtue? I can operate an automobile; is the automobile facilitating my growth toward classical integrity and heroism? Much of what we take for granted as the great knowledge of the present is in reality a great load of useless baggage and pretence. We think we are wise, but really we are fools—at least when it comes to great matters. We are great but in all the wrong places. Fat with knowledge, we are not fit with virtue. We know more, but we are not more human.

Could I survive? What would "being human" look like in another era?

Could I survive? What would “being human” look like in another era?

A second reason why such reading is vital is because it gives us a vision for virtue. Simply put, without a frame of reference how can an individual grow in virtue? When I have only eaten a diet of potatoes, how am I to judge a matter like cuisine unless I am exposed to other foods? The modern economic virtue of acquisition and the modern social virtue of toleration are single-food diets. Are there other ends for the human creature against which we can evaluate those foods? What about the virtues of self-sacrifice, giving, or magnanimity? What about the virtues of choosing the good, justice, and purity? The reader who exposes himself to the virtues of another time brings back to his own time the virtue of perspective; he now owns a foil against which he can evaluate his own time. With a solid frame of reference, he can make solid judgments.

A great book on the decline and destruction of classical education.

A great book on the decline and destruction of classical education.

But against these goods there is also a grave danger, one that I hinted at earlier when I spoke of reading the past as it was. One of the poisons of our age is the way it progressively, and aggressively, seeks to rewrite the past into its own image. Although “tolerance” is hailed as a great virtue, the progressive age is remarkably intolerant of diverging viewpoints, and engages in a campaign of reediting historic literature into an image that pleases the present. This happens especially with the pet-issues of today—gender identity, sexuality, racism, power politics, etc. Sherlock Holmes and Watson aren’t simply male friends, but secret homosexual lovers. American History isn’t primary about an experiment at a specific idea of civil government, but a narrative of oppression and carnage. Gendered texts must be edited to include both genders (or excise gender altogether) in order to forestall the implicit disruption of our present narrative. In all this, texts are not read as texts, but as opportunities to import whatever ideas might fancy the literary ‘critic’ of the moment. Incapable of imagining a world unlike itself, the modern world re-imagines the ancient world in its own image, spilling its inkwell over the pages of history which it doesn’t like, creating a bizarre Rorschach into which the reader can see, not what an author wrote or a worldview presents, but only what he wants to see.

This, again, is the reason for “disinterested” reading—reading the past as the past, in its own vision, and allowing oneself to be immersed in an alternative world. It is a (sometimes) intentional act of divesting one’s present interests and values with an eye to experiencing the interests and values of the past in and of themselves. This does not necessitate always agreeing with the past, but the reader who would grow wise and virtuous through his reading must protect against reading the present into the past. Simply put, are you reading old books for the virtues and stories implicit in them? Or are you reading with an ongoing narrative of offenses in the back of your mind, accounting more for issues of sexuality, gender, race, and politics, than for virtue, story, or even simply the world-as-it-was? Alternatively, the wise reader must also protect against falling so in love with the past that he rejects the present. The real world remains real, but our adventures in literature equip and shape us for life in that world.

As a matter of interest, it is noteworthy that there is another documented instance of a movement which believed in its own progress, believed itself to be the apex of history, advanced its own virtue against the virtues of the past, and excised or reedited those books which did not fit or challenged the overarching narrative: Nazi Germany.

“Why do you still advertize Coke?” Someone once asked a Coca-Cola executive. His answer, “Because people still take coffee breaks.” Why do we need to read old books? Because people are still immersed in a false, destructive worldview, and progressivism is a mendacious ideology that creates mendacious reading. While promoting tolerance it is intolerant of any world that questions its assumptions. We require as a tonic against such a force the reading of good, old books—books which faithfully present the worldview of the past, a radically different worldview, from which we can draw a greater, larger idea of what it means to be a human person. Homer. Sophocles. Aristotle. Augustine. Dante. Chaucer. Spenser. Milton. Mallory. Scott. Austen. And many others. And yes, Lewis. And yes, Tolkien. Against the incapacity—or rank unwillingness—to be challenged by other worldviews humans must open themselves to the challenge presented by old books and old worldviews. In this sense, our self-education will become the means by which we too become “more humane.”


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