Why read old books? and how?

Allow me to get a little cranky here. Hopefully it will be understood (in light of my other writings) that I am not advocating a flight into the past. In fact, what I am suggesting is that living as an intellectual requires active engagement of the past in a manner that not only situates that engagement in the present, but moves it toward the future, as actively generating our own culture.

No civilized culture – so far – has developed or sustained itself without some kind of literacy, some textual remembrance of the cultures’ thoughts, values, and differences. Civilization depends to a large part on this processes of memory which assures the civilized that their existence is not temporary in a meaningless way, that someone else’s experience and creativity has been passed on to them as a wealth, which they are charged with protecting, maintaining, and to which their experience and creativity contributes. This would appear to be so obvious, the saying of it should be irrelevant. But today, with the surprising developments that now allow people to learn a purely instrumental, largely technological, literacy, we see also development of increasingly contemptuous attitudes toward the tradition. The teaching of literacy should provide instruction in respect for textual tradition, but often facilitates the development of this contempt for it.

On the one hand, we have those able to argue in writing that tradition is useless, meaningless, a waste of time, far inferior as a collective cultural effort to the production and consumption of wealth. Yet we also have those, like former Secretary for Education William Bennett or professed “Aristotelian” scholar Mortimer Adler, who argued passionately that the maintenance of our the supremacy of America, by military force externally, and by rigid laws of conformity within, is the only safeguard to the preservation of traditions of Western Civilization handed down to us. The function of the first attitude is obvious; why make effort to preserve a worthless past? The function of the second attitude is more insidious and more sinister; it generates the illusion that preservation of tradition in and of itself identifies a civilization; in other words, it does not argue a living, productive continuance of the tradition, but its mummification. But such preservation, in the present era, requires little effort; literally millions of copies of Plato’s Republic are now in existence, and millions of students each year are assigned to read at least the Parable of the Cave from that text. Is there any indication, just in these two facts – that copies of Plato exist, that students are assigned to read Plato – that indicates the importance Plato’s text has for our culture? Or whether it has any importance at all? Not really. These facts may only tell us that there is a kind of ‘Plato industry’ in the “market of ideas”. Plato’s text is published as the production of a certain kind of cultural wealth, the demand that the text be read is merely a training in the appropriate means of consuming that wealth. And we know this is likely the case, because students trained to read Plato are also taught the impossibility of successfully contributing creative efforts to the tradition to which the texts of Plato are said to belong. It is demanded, in all too many classrooms led by those teaching (with no passion for it)merely to earn a living, that we read Plato’s text, but we are not allowed to enact its philosophy; we are not allowed to disagree with it; we are not allowed the possibility of writing additional philosophic texts investigating issues raised in Plato’s text. In fact, pathetically, the only oppositional stance to Plato’s text allowed students in our schools, is a blanket rejection of the philosophic tradition of the West as a whole. This of course leads the student directly into adoption of the contemptuous attitude toward tradition which we have previously mentioned. But why should this be the case? Because many supposedly dedicated to “preserving” the tradition are really dedicated to preserving it for the wealthy elite (God‘s elect, among Protestants); they can actually tolerate those who reject the tradition altogether, as somehow spiritually inferior to themselves; but what really annoys them is the possibility of someone – clearly intelligent, clearly their equal – responding to the tradition as though it were culturally vital, as though it were not simply a wealth but a way of life.

Well, what does that mean, to say of a tradition (here, specifically a literary tradition) that it has cultural vitality? In the first instance (which determines all else to follow) it means reading and responding to a text as though the author were still alive. Aquinas not only situated himself in the tradition of Christian theology, which at the time was dominated by the powerful thought of Augustine, but also in the tradition of Aristotelian scholarship dating back at least to Boethius. Now, since legend has the texts of ancient Greece buried by Roman-Christian culture, we note the adoption of this tradition by Aquinas as rather odd; the common legend goes on to say that Aquinas was part of an Aristotelian “revival” as though the first important moment in the historical reading of Aristotle’s texts occurred in Aquinas’ own generation. Yet the text of Aquinas, whenever it addresses Aristotle’s text directly, always responds to Islamic Aristotelian commentators in order to situate its own reading. Most of these commentators had been dead for three hundred years. Yet Aquinas responds to them as though he were answering letters from colleagues at the University at which he happened to be teaching at the time. For Aquinas, there had been no “Dark Ages”, the tradition of philosophic thought begun in ancient Greece had continued to develop to his own day, albeit carried to other lands, and needing to respond to issues raised in other cultures with other faiths.

It is not the mere text that comprises a civilized tradition, it is the text taken with any civilized response to it as though living. Which means that the living human beings who choose to live civilized are the only meaningful arbiters of the tradition of that civilization. And they do so not because it is their tradition but because it is their culture. Aquinas does not address Aristotle as though dead, he does not address Avicenna as though dead, he does not address Augustine as though dead; in the culture of philosophic thought and literacy, the texts addressed embodied the living thought of their authors. Now we know that, epistemologically, such a mode of reading and response is rather an illusion, adopted by convention; Aristotle, Avicenna, Augustine, all had been long dead before Aquinas, and the various cultures they inhabited also being dead, there may have been signifiers in their texts which Aquinas was unable to recognize, let alone respond to them. But for the present, never mind; the important point is that this attitude toward texts of the past, that they are living thoughts occurring within a living culture, however illusory, appears to be a necessary assumption when one wishes to address such texts as part of a living tradition.

And to some extent, it is even the implicit pay-off for choosing to live in a reasonably civilized manner; to believe that I can read Plato or Aquinas as though they were still alive, as though they were communicating with me directly, I have found to bring me a great deal of contentment, as well as a certain amount of anxiety necessary to spark communicating back to Aquinas or Plato in texts of my own – the benefit of always reading critically. Thus the conversation continues, and I can feel myself belonging to it – perhaps an illusion, but not one I wish to be free of quite yet.

The entirety of civilization might be illusory, for all I know; but it is certainly no more so than any “marketplace of ideas,” and considerably more fulfilling and less disappointing over all.


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