One thing that has come to concern me in my years as a classical educator is what I see as a widespread type of intellectual emasculation of the classical texts in our circles.
What I mean is the phenomenon of reading the classical books as materials for practicing polemical defenses of what we already believe on other grounds, and have no intention of letting old books question. For instance, running a week or two on some dialogues of Plato with the premise stated up-front to the students that Plato’s just one more old, dumb pagan who didn’t love the Trinity and didn’t have the Bible, so it’s our task in this class to take him apart using “the biblical worldview.” Or approaching Plutarch’s Lives having already decided that “books of virtue” are inherently anti-Gospel, so the only thing Christians have to learn from reading them is how to be glad that we have the Ten Commandments to make us better than poor old Plutarch.
(If you think I’m attacking strawmen, it might be that you haven’t read enough promotional and curricular material put forward by numerous classical education providers.)
It’s a curious sort of attitude, since our movement loves to cite Lewis’ remark in his preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. There, Lewis expounds the problem with reading only recent books as the fact that they sound right to us because we inhabit the same cultural space as they. They ask only the questions we ourselves already ask, and so they come to the sorts of answers we ourselves are already predisposed to come to, which tends to make us easily amazed at how wise others who think just like us prove we are.
Conversely, says Lewis, the value of reading really old books is that they don’t share our prejudices, don’t ask the same questions we are asking, and so are not likely to have gone astray in the exact ways we ourselves are most likely going astray – but find it difficult to see when reading only books inside our echo chamber. The value of reading Aristotle does not consist in the fact that he’s highly revered as a Great Book (though we know better, since we have The Greatest Book of All), but in the fact that he approaches politics and economics and science and poetry in ways quite foreign to what we’re used to, and so it’s entirely likely that if we take him seriously we might learn something we didn’t already think we knew.
To put it another way, many in our movement love to cite this Lewis quote, but the real impact of it seems yet to have hit a lot us squarely in the face, to wit: as mostly unskilled (though we’re working on that) readers of the classical texts, we don’t already know, and that’s the main reason why we’re reading the classical texts in the first place. We’re already thoroughly familiar with our own time’s way of thinking about politics, economics, war, education, art, music, and so on. What we’re reading the classics for is to find out what we might be missing by ONLY being super-familiar with the insides of our own heads.
Or at least, that’s what we should be reading the classics for. It is my distinct impression that far too many of us are reading the classics for very different reasons than the one they themselves were written for, the acquisition of wisdom. Perhaps we should look into altering this practice, lest we fool ourselves into thinking we already have what we haven’t even begun to look for?