Why should we bother to read old books?

The other day I was talking about foreign books, and why it’s
important not to let ourselves be limited to our own immediate
circumstances. When we find out about how people very different from us
think about the world, we can have a better chance of seeing what is
really important and what is just the fashion of our time and place.

People are often pretty annoyed with their teenage children when they
insist on doing or having something — getting their navels pierced, for
example, or having the right kind of sneakers — just because all the
other kids do it. Grown-ups can see it’s just a fashion, and that it
just isn’t really important when you see it in perspective. But if we
grown-ups don’t get a bit of distance and perspective on our own lives,
we can make the same mistakes as teenagers do.

Well, you may say, that’s all right for getting to know the ways other
people live and think today, but why should this mean that we need to
get to know the ways people lived and thought a long time ago? Surely
people as recently as a hundred years ago didn’t know a lot of things
we know now? Hasn’t there been a lot of progress? How can what people
thought two or three thousand years ago be important to us now?

Well, this talk about progress is pretty old too. If you saw Titanic you’ll know that nearly a hundred years ago people were pretty
confident that technological progress had made a huge difference to
people’s lives, and that thing were quite different then. But if you
stay to the end of the movie you find out that what is really important
in human life is not the technology of unsinkable ships or radio
messages, but things like love and courage and playing “Nearer my God
to thee” at the last minute — things which the first human being who
used a log to paddle across a bay, hundreds of thousands of years ago,
could have known as much about as we do.

Around the time of the Titanic there was an Irish writer, Bernard Shaw,
who said “I used to think that human life was entirely a process of
improvement and progress — and then I started reading Plato.” Plato,
who wrote nearly two and a half thousand years ago, had things to say
about human life which are still of importance today.

This isn’t just a coincidence, of course. If Plato (and other, older
writers) are still translated and published and read today, it’s
because people have been constantly going back to them and constantly
finding them worth reading. When you find a movie recommended by a
dozen different critics over a whole month or so, in all kinds of
different media, and recommended to you by different friends of
different tastes at different times, you can be pretty sure it’s worth
seeing. And that’s the way it is with the old books: they’ve survived
the examination of clever people in generation after generation since
they were first written. That means that they are almost certainly more
worth looking at than things written just the other day.

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.


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  • Christopher Martin