Why Read Classics?

{Ed. Note: Not to worry Books and Vines fans!  I will not often do articles like the one below — I mean to keep Books and Vines as a venue to highlight books, especially Fine Press books, not to preach my opinion on culture. However, just this once, I wanted to get the following off my chest!}

For years I have been meaning to write what I egotistically intended to be a world changing article on why reading classics is essential to being a ‘whole’ human being and why having enough people knowledgeable of classics is critical to the future of civilization.  Of course, a heavy dose of lamentation would be included, as it seems the number of people who understand the linkage between classics and the very foundation of what it means to be civilized is growing smaller by the year; not to mention the significant negative influence politically correct academia has had through their misguided slandering of the very works that define the essence of Western Civilization.

For a myriad of reasons, such an article never came to fruition. A few days ago I ran across a better article than I could ever write on the importance of reading classics, written by Victor David Hanson. Hanson laments that reading good books is a thing of the past, and offers some strong arguments on why it must not be so, for all of our sake. So, borrowing heavily from Hansen, here are some thoughts on the subject.

1) While health clubs have exploded in membership as millions of people deceive themselves into believing 30 minutes a day on a treadmill while watching Oprah is the key to staying youthful and fit, the numbers of people who realize the mind is the key to aging gracefully is minuscule. Like your body, your mind needs exercise, without which it turns to mush. The lack of physical exercise associated with overuse of TV and video games is certainly detrimental, but the lack of mental exercise it entails has even greater impact. As Hansen states, TV and video games are meant “to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought.” The exact opposite of mental exercise.

By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony — a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading. The actual vocabulary of our present youth seems to me reduced to about 1,000 words or so. “Like,” “whatever,” “you know,” “cool,” and other pop culture fillers now substitute for entire phrases, a sort of modern porcine grunting. The Greeks used particles to accentuate vocabulary and guide syntax; we used them instead of vocabulary. Our syntax, both written and oral, is reverting to “Spot is a dog”: noun, verb, predicate — period. How did incomprehensible slang, spiced with vulgarity, become an object of emulation? I used to listen to farmers without college degrees speak wonderful English; now to listen to a member of Congress almost requires a translator.

Reading classics is the best possible way to exercise your mind. Works of philosophy, history and literature force your mind to work, to think, to ponder.

2. Hanson accurately states, “Reading alone enriches our vocabulary; it teaches us that good writing requires a sense of melody as well as a command of grammar. Soon those well-read become the well-spoken.” Not much to add here, this is perfectly stated. When one’s ability to interact with others is limited to an electronics driven 1000 word vocabulary, don’t expect to be considered a master communicator…and you can expect that to hinder your career and success throughout your life. Reading great works is the best way to expand your knowledge, your vocabulary, your ability to write effectively and to think critically; exactly the traits that society depends on to continue to move human civilization forward.

3. Some argue that today’s slimmed down vocabulary and text-message/twitter driven ‘conciseness’ is good, eliminating superfluous words, eliminating wasteful speech, getting straight to the point.  WTF!!!  Only those with intellectual lethargy brought about by the lack of mental exercise mentioned above, or the inability to be well spoken because of a lack of good reading, can make that argument with a straight face. As Hanson mentions, “Each day our vocabulary shrinks, our thought patterns stagnate — if they are not renewed through fresh literature or intelligent conversation.” Unfortunately in today’s culture and in the media “those who read are few and silent; those who don’t, numerous and heard.” Be one of the few, and then do not be silent about it. What the world needs now is more people who speak up and lead, standing on the foundation of being well read.

4. A lack of wisdom, mainly resulting from a lack of reading good books, leads to a lack of humility in the human race. Those who know little invariably think they know a lot, due to their lack of perspective and philosophical/historical knowledge, never grasping that a cornerstone of wisdom is understanding how little we do know.

We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Because a rare, brilliantly inventive mind from Caltech or MIT can craft a device undreamed of in the age of Einstein, we assume that we all warrant a share in his genius, as if our generation has trumped Einstein’s. We deserve no such kudos — unless animals at the zoo that find delight in their rote enjoyment of their hoops and bars can be credited with the architect’s sophisticated zoological design.

What better way to search for the path of wisdom and knowledge than by reading classics; there is nothing about your path through life that has not been traveled before, nothing that society faces today that has not been faced in the past, all of which is encapsulated in our great works.

5. Without the knowledge of our past and the wisdom and experience passed down to us through the ages in great works, we will inevitably fail in the future. The past provides a roadmap; pretty much anything that is happening or will happen has happened before.

Without some awareness that ideas are old and somewhat finite, and that we are young and ignorant, we assume that each new adventure must be novel because we alone — right now! — are experiencing it. If Barack Obama would read Procopius, he would learn the wages of his huge inefficient bureaucracy. Jerry Brown, the self-described Jesuit sage, should return to his St. Jerome, because the latter’s descriptions of an eroding Rome could just as well describe a drive down California’s 99.

Read people, read. You will see that so many of our problems today are preventable; we are ignoring the lessons others have learned for us.

Reading literature endows us not just with a model of expression and thought, but also with a body of ideas — and the names, facts, and dates that we can draw on to elucidate them. When I used to follow the career of the brilliantly destructive Bill Clinton, he seemed to be Alcibiades reborn — and thus was surely bound to share the same fate of those with enormous talent who are consumed by their own huge and unrepressed appetites.

Richard Nixon jumped out of the pages of Sophocles, another gifted Oedipus whose innate and unaddressed flaws were waiting dormant — for just the right occasion to explode him, for Nemesis to take him from the King of Thebes to itinerant blind beggar.

Obama? He came on the scene as arrogant and self-righteous as young Pentheus or Hippolytus and he is now learning firsthand the effects of his Euripidean smugness on others. Nothing that we experience has not happened before; the truly ignorant miss that, hypnotized by sophisticated technology into believing that human nature has been reinvented in their own image.

6. This blind arrogance rampant in society is dangerous. Most think of time and progress as synonyms.  The wheel turns, and one happens with the other. Of course, reality is that progress only happens with effort and intelligence; intelligence driven by knowledge which in turn provides wisdom which is the real basis for all progress. Our history is full of examples of regression in human well being, regression from a loss of the foundations on which our progress depends.

There is an arrogance of an age that comes with access to always better stuff. New technology prompts an assumption that there are always better things to come. Not true. Life was far better in Rome in AD 25 than in AD 425. Would you like to buy a house in Detroit today or in 1940? Me? I would rather drive down the central section of 101 in 1970 than tomorrow. Regress — material, intellectual, and moral — can be as common as progress, if each new generation proves a poor custodian of the laws, behavior, knowledge, and learning inherited from those now gone.

I would argue that we have been a poor custodian, for at least the last half century, and regress is inevitable unless we change our ways. We need to understand how we as a society made progress, how we grew rich, or else we will lose the foundation on which those things were made possible. To get that understanding, great works play a vital role.

7. Transcending our differences, becoming united, depends on common knowledge, a common basis from which to understand each other and the world we live in. As Hanson says “shared ideas and learning trump age, race, class, gender, all the supposed barriers that only government alone can trample down... In the ‘Pro Archia’, Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond. One would have to read Cicero to know that, and read much else to get the learning that fosters a common bond. This is where today’s political correctness has been most destructive to our future progress; academia today fosters division, not commonality, especially in their wanton disregard, I should say their intentional destruction, of the Western Canon.

8. “Literature and history belong to us all.”  It is not an academic elite that this message is meant for. It is the masses that matter; the masses that benefit the most from the knowledge that comes from reading classics. It is an educated populace that drives progress and prevents governments from over-stepping their bounds and smothering human freedom and progress.

We don’t need more technocrats who fool us that their Ivy League law degrees are synonymous with wisdom. They can be, but now are more likely not much more than tickets that allow an Eric Holder or Timothy Geithner into the first-class seating. I am not calling for us to be academics or scholastics with our noses in books or our heads up our posteriors; but to match physicality and pragmatism with occasional abstraction and reflection from the voices of the past — just a little, now and then, to remind us that Twitter or Facebook speed up communication, but can slow down thought.

While Books and Vines often focuses on beautiful (and expensive) fine press editions of classics beyond the reach of many, the great thing about classics is they can be found everywhere in many formats, many for a few dollars, or even free. We all have the means to self-educate by reading classics, it is the will that is missing, driven by not understanding how doing so benefits us as individuals and as a society.

In summary, reading of classic works is more important that even we, the few who still enjoying doing so, fully appreciate. Classics are the means by which the collective knowledge and experience of the generations that came before us are passed to the current age. Once that knowledge and experience is lost, we are doomed to regress, to enter a new Dark Age. Our challenge?

Somehow we must convince this new wired generation that speaking and writing well are… the keys to self-mastery, a sort of code that one takes on — in addition to others, moral and legal — to uphold standards of culture itself, to keep the work and ideas alive of our long gone betters for one more generation.

Get to work! Evangelize. Make it a point to do your best to pass on your love of books to friends, family and anyone who will tolerate listening to you expound on the enjoyment and knowledge to be gained by doing so.

10 thoughts on “Why Read Classics?

  1. Great post, Chris. I see things in a similar fashion and I am very concerned about our future as a society.

    I am lucky enough to have four beautiful children and through some encouragement they have discovered the joys of reading. They are still fairly young and reading mostly popular fiction, but they have become voracious readers.

    I am also lucky enough to teach a Sunday School class and every opportunity I get I encourage reading, especially the classics (and scripture of course). Through these opportunities I have found it extremely rewarding to talk about and encourage reading. I find instances were youth and adults test the waters, but it is almost more rewarding for me to share my passion with the rising generation. I find many are eager to be inspired!

    There is good reason to be concerned about our society, (my children’s peers sometimes scare me with their lack of regard for learning) but the fire I feel when I find an opportunity to share the passion for books has convinced me that it is well worth making any attempt to encourage reading, to take an opportunity to help society along, no matter how small that opportunity may seem. I have seen that kids (and adults for that matter) can be inspired to delve into the classics. I didn’t find my passion for the classics until my mid 30’s. Our genes do not confine us to loving books or to disregard for books. I feel strongly that everyone can and should have the opportunity to be blessed by an inspirational introduction to the classics. Aside from my family, it has been the most rewarding obsession of my life.

    With that in mind, I find your blog both inspiring and enlightening. I look forward to each of your posts! Thanks again, and keep up the great work.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!
      I went to HS and college in the 1980’s and even then schools had largely started taking a study of the classic out of their curriculum. It was possible for me to go through college, including graduate school, without more than one class covering this…and my belief it has gotten worse since then. All due respect to Don who commented earlier, western civ used to be standard fare in high school, and in fact one could not graduate from college without a core curriculum of such under one’s belt. Today, it takes a self starter like yourself to decide to pick this up, and develop a passion on your own.

      Like Hansen in the article I referred to, my concern is this ‘core’ knowledge drove commonality and progress….I do not think the withering away of classics and an expectation of at least an appreciation of it from those who call themselves educated (what good is a college degree if all you get out of it is trade training?) is a good thing for our future.

      1. Now that I think on it, I don’t recall any classical study in college. I cleped out of History and Art with AP credit from high school (it seemed like the wise thing to do at the time but I now consider it a major mistake!) I graduated from an accredited university in engineering and I feel like I received a solid engineering education but I feel extremely short changed because of the lack of substance education (core.) For the last ten years I have been playing catch up.

        Thanks again for the insight!

  2. While you have pointed out some facts about the reading habits of the general populace, it seems to me that you are like the minister who is preaching to the choir. I have been reading classics from the age of seven, aproximtely 69 years, I have been collecting fine editions for over 50 years. As I look back over my school years, I don’t see a lot of difference in the reading habits of my contemporary companions than in the youth of today.

    Reading classics comes naturally to those who have the ability to read. If you are good at reading and demonstrably can retain what you read, you will read. Reading and retaining is a skill. Those that don’t have it, wont read. Those that do will.
    I come from a poor family that had little formal education No one taught me to read or told me what to read. I had a natural proclivity to read, so I did. My childhood contemporaries did not read. I can’t remember a single instance of any friend who liked to delve into the reading of any form of literature. While the youth of today have video games and computers, we had the novelty of tv. So I don’t think there is really much difference from one generation to another.

    The person you quote in your article is probably being more cynical and cutesy than he should be. He throws around Greek names as though everyone is familiar with them which means he has little understanding of the non-literate. Also, his disparaging remarks about President Obama does not sit well with me. Attacking Presisdent Obama has little to do with readingthe classics. Most high office holders simply do not have the time to read extensively while in office. But I would suspect President Obama is ten times more literate than George W. Bush.

    I would agree with your statement about not making Books and Vines more than a discussion group about finely produced books. Telling people they should read does nothing more than telling a 10th grader they should study matehmatics harder..

    1. Glad to get some conversation going…
      In any case I disagree with pretty much everything you say…but so be it as you probably would from me also! 🙂
      I would not be so sensitive about disparaging remarks about Obama — I said nothing about him reading while he is in office…..what Hansen said, and I agree with, stems from what he (or others) did before getting to office. Having some wider background than most boneheads that have led us for a number of years now would not be a bad thing. Left or right.

      In any case, I may occasionally have an article outside of books, but will avoid political stuff as I do not want this site or the comment section turning into some threads like we see on LT, where people get quite angry and personal!!! Books and Vines is open to all, left, right, Crazy Left, Crazy Right, MS-NBC’ers and FOX-ers alike. By avoiding the topics, we can focus on the commonality — i.e., the books, which is sort of what Hansen was getting at anyway!

  3. interesting article. I think this is a world wide problem, as in Egypt, the mass media have destroyed the peaceful life this country once had. No one loves reading and libraries are not as abundant as before. We have developed a culture of watching films is always better than reading the original books. the youth are interested trivial matters and rarely i find a true friend that shares my passion for reading classics. i love the Arabic and English classics, which are so expensive for me. but what could i do, this is my only passion, holding a classic in my hand and not leaving it until i have finished the last page. i feel alienated in this country. i wish i could live in US or UK where such beautiful books exist. i even thought of working for a library so that i can read whatever i like. Believe me, you are all blessed to have such wonderful heritage and culture, and those of you who do not appreciate these classics are not having a true life because they centered their life on materialism and failed mass media.

    1. Thanks Muhammad. You are so right — those in the U.S. and U.K. should appreciate, but often do not; while many in other countries have it so much more difficult…. just having the freedom or reasonable access. Thanks for visiting Books and Vines, hope to hear from you some more!

  4. Robert – My experience in the UK is the same. Maybe worse as I live in a house full of books and only one of my children (all grown up now) could be described as ‘interested’.

    I would add the cults of consumerism and celebrity to your mass-media observation.

    Interesting reading Chris – Thanks!

  5. One can find most classics digitally published, but there’s nothing like the ‘fragrance’ and experience of a book in the hand. Pleased your blog has come my way. As far as I know, as a former Brit. – an ‘englander’, the canon, if there now is one, has expanded to embrace writers of what might one day be called ‘classical’ literature whose origins are in the outposts of what was once the British Empire! It’s a floating world in these times.

  6. Thought-provoking, Chris. I am always amazed when I go to the houses of my son’s schoolmates and rarely see any books but coffee table books. And these people are economically advantaged and have, based on their commitment to their children’s education, an appreciation for education. Why don’t they have books? Perhaps readers of this who live in other countries, England, Australia, Denmark, Canada can comment on whether this situation is the same in their countries, or is it just the US that has been seduced by the tawdry attractions of mass media.

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