Jun 17 2009

Old Books

I’ve wanted to learn more about St. Athanasius for a while, ever since a visiting priest quoted him in his homily:  “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”  That got my attention; I’d never heard it put that way before.  Athanasius emphasized the Divinity in ways we don’t hear all that much these days, because he was battling the Arian heresy, which said God never became man.  That’s probably all I should say about that until I learn more.

photo by ryan_franklin_az

photo by ryan_franklin_az

So anyway, I was looking for a copy of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, hoping it would be available online.  (He wrote it in 318 A.D., but you never know, Disney might have bought the copyright.)  The copy I found has a very good introduction by T.S. Eliot, which is what this post is about.  The whole thing is worth reading (it’s not too long), but here’s the part that jumped out at me:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it. … None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.

I’ve always known we should read old books, but never known exactly why.  I resisted reading them because, frankly, many are deadly boring.  Especially fiction—classic fiction just doesn’t have the characterization and dialogue of the modern fiction I enjoy.  But Eliot explains very well why we should make the effort to read the old books anyway.  It’s a way to see reality through the eyes of someone who doesn’t see it through the same filters that we do.  A way to learn things that are hidden from us by our contemporary assumptions.

It’s easy for us to see some of the filters of the past.  Slavery would be an obvious example.  To civilized people today, slavery is so obviously wrong that we can’t even imagine debating it.  We can even see that it doesn’t make economic sense.  But to most people throughout history (and still in some parts of the world today) it was assumed to be a fact of life.  If your tribe won a war, you got to make slaves of the losers.  If your tribe lost, you became a slave—if you looked like you were worth feeding.  Plenty of people didn’t like it—especially the slaves, of course—but few people seriously thought it could be eliminated in entire nations.  They couldn’t see past that filter.

So, what are the filters or assumptions that we have today, that we can’t see?  By definition, I guess we can’t answer that question; if we could, we wouldn’t be blind to them.  But I think by reading old books, as Eliot says, and trying to see ourselves through the eyes of another time, we might be able to get a glimpse of those filters from the outside.

If I had to guess, I’d say one of our assumptions might be the importance and inherent goodness of personal freedom, especially economic and political freedom.  In modern Western society, we pretty much believe that unless you’re directly hurting someone, you should be allowed to do whatever you want to do.  There are exceptions, of course—gun control, recent laws against politically incorrect speech, and a few others.  But for the most part, we think people should be free to say whatever they want, live and travel wherever they want, worship however they want, work wherever and at whatever job they want, buy or sell whatever they want, eat whatever they want, read/watch whatever they want, marry/live/sleep with whomever they want, choose whatever leaders they want, and so on.

Now, I’m not saying these freedoms are wrong.  I’m just saying that we don’t even argue the concept of freedom anymore.  We take for granted the basic idea that it’s good for individuals to be as free as possible, as long as they don’t step on someone else’s toes.  That would have been a very strange notion to most of our ancestors.  That’s not because they hadn’t considered such freedom a possibility, but they saw it as an option with pros and cons in a way that we don’t.  They likely would have looked at our drug use, illegitimacy rate, and full prisons and said, “Hmm, I think you guys could use a little less freedom.”

That’s my first guess: freedom as an inherent good.  Maybe I’ll be able to come up with some others after I read more old books.

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