What Do We Read These Old Books For, Anyway?

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. 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 them: 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 – and we are so 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.

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. It would be tedious to drag out direct quotes from classical movement authors showing this phenomenon, so instead, I’ll be devoting this space to combating it positively – by trying to show ways in which even we Christians can profit from the classical texts by trying to discern in them the wisdom God often granted even to those who denied Him.

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