Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Old Books

After my recent post on The Maul and the Pear Tree I came across this article which relates to my thoughts on history and its meaning for the reader.

Neil Postman writes,
There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

In my post yesterday I noticed what Postman did - The constancy of human nature. Lewis had a different view and I do like Lewis. Perhaps what a reader sees in history depends on his/her "mood" or "situation" at the time. I do think history valuable, or perhaps I should say invaluable perhaps because while human failings through the ages are similar it is easier to see them exposed as they are in a different era, where we have less attachment.

The article goes on to say that Lewis stressed the importance of primary sources. I certainly have no argument with him there.

That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

It seems self evident but it is a lesson many journalists would do well to take to heart!

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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)