Search This Blog

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Read a Book, Read an Old Book

C.S. Lewis had a pet peeve as regarded the academic world of his day (WWI-1968 for those of you who need to read more Lewis). He called it a number of things, among them; "chronological snobbery", "the myth of progress", and the "historical point of view". This last term is explained by Screwtape as the idea that the more modern an idea is, the more likely it is to be true. Thus the demon gloats that he has cut modern man off from the wisdom of his ancestors. He explains that when someone reads an old book (a practice Screwtape firmly discourages), that person does not ask whether the ideas in the book are true, but rather what period in human thought they represent, how those ideas have been misinterpreted by other scholars and how the ideas fit into a grand historical framework. Lewis points out elsewhere that this is mere snobbery. The idea that a proposition is wrong only because most of my peers don't hold it is a classic logical fallacy. There may be very good reasons for the idea's being rejected but if so it still ought to be rejected for those reasons and not merely because it was in the past and "people just don't think that anymore".
I am worried about this. If Lewis noticed it as a bad tendency over 60 years ago, I don't think that things have become that much better over time. People very rarely read old books. Even on college campuses it is incredibly rare to find someone outside of a literary class who spends much time at all with old books (and I am afraid that even lit programs are swapping out old lit for an unbalanced proportion of "modern" lit). The only schools I am aware of which have not forgotten old books are the few "great books" colleges (St. John's College and Thomas Aquinas College are the two best examples I know of). Outside of these we seem to be focused on "new" ideas. One ironic consequence here is that I am forever running into ideas which are presented as "new" but which are actually hundreds or thousands of years old. Sometimes they have been genuinely"rediscovered" and sometimes the new author is simply using old ideas and repackaging them. This, while ironic, is at least a good thing. What we are interested in is the promulgation of wisdom and truth; no need to worry too much about where it came from.

But academia is not really the sphere that I am worried about in this context. I am more interested in our current post-modern movement and what I have come to think of as the shiftiness of western culture. Taking those in reverse order; I have observed that we have begun to value newness and change for their own sakes. We complement things as being "original" or "different" even the word "weird" has taken on positive connotations in modern language. Now I am not a Luddite and I like to think that I am more than willing to embrace any and all changes which offer an actual improvement but this focus on change for it's own sake means that nothing is actually based on anything; indeed things are valued for not being based on older things. Newton claimed that if he had seen further than other men, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Our culture kills giants and then has nowhere to stand. The likely consequence is that we will end up repeating some of the particularly stupid and tragically horrific events and ideas of the past. The warning are in old books.

Post-modernism (the generally better forms which do not deny the existence of Truth) at least risks suffering from a similar mistake. I have mentioned in a previous post that one of the things which confuses me about the post-modern church is that all of the advantages it points to in post-modernism seem to have existed in pre-modernism as well. Here I do think that the post-modern church is generally moving in a good direction, but it does seem to be worth pointing out that we are re mapping a landscape which has already been mapped. Is there really a need for all the "new" books and ideas when the same great truths, observations and reflections are available in "old" books? Again I think that this path is a better one than the "modern" path but I think we could move along it at a much greater pace if only someone would notice that, this part of it at least, has already been paved.

1 comment:

  1. i appreciate this because rather than promulgating wisdom, graduate students are propelled in their dissertation and thesis studies and projects to promulgate novelty, which makes for such striving and "capturing" novel ideas that wisdom remains dormant and unengaged...this is why I really appreciated the works of the late Robert Webber and his Ancient/Future series in which he engaged deeply with post-modernism, and encouraged their budding pre-modern tendencies. Ancient-Future Faith and The Divine Embrace are two of his best works/encouragments for followers of Jesus moving into the near future...