Alright, well Cassandra is taking a break for a while, but I have a great sub for her! This is the first of several posts that you’ll be seeing from Canaan Suitt:
“The Divine Comedy,” said my professor, visibly irritated, “a work which everyone likes to talk about but which no one has read.” He could have substituted the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The City of God, Beowulf, The Prince, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Moby Dick and many other renowned pieces of literature and the same censure would hold true. Just today I had a discussion with a friend who expressed disapproval of Machiavelli’s “wretchedness,” but when I asked him if he had actually read The Prince, he responded that, of course, he had not. Or there was the pompous interlocutor who attempted to discredit Alexander Hamilton’s “big government” stance but had not even glanced at The Federalist Papers to discover what Hamilton actually said (besides, Jay and Madison wrote most of the section on the Senate which my friend was bashing). Anyone who actually reads books can only express dismay at such foolishness.
Perhaps we can forgive my friends’ vanity when we realize that the impression that we must read certain books (the “classics”) to be considered intelligent is inculcated in students throughout their education. For instance, I’ll never forget my high school English teacher who used to harp on the books that were “vitally important” to read before going into college or the condescension I sometimes received and at times gave to others when a certain book hadn’t been read. I was frowned upon for not having read 1984 in my senior year of high school; I frowned upon someone else because they hadn’t read The Screwtape Letters. First of all, this impression in and of itself is skewed. The purpose of reading “classics” is not so one can brag about one’s intelligence. It seems to me that the only valid reason for reading classics or anything else is to gain knowledge and understanding, not to obtain a membership card into the Intelligent Reader Club. But secondly, this impression isn’t even enforced by reading the books, which, it is insisted, must be read. My English teacher failed to enlighten me a great deal. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Milton, and Shakespeare, are met far more frequently, and perhaps exclusively, through textbooks and other secondary sources than through what the actual authors bequeathed to the world. Like my friends in the foregoing examples, some people will feign knowledge of the primary works based on such superficial acquaintance in order to seem knowledgeable. Some people don’t read them (don’t even read the textbooks!) and don’t care, either. In both cases, the ignorance is disturbing.
More generally, many people have the impression that they ought to have an opinion, and so they express it when, in fact, they don’t have one. In America, this is especially true in politics, a fact that has been proven to a superfluous degree this election year. What most people call their political opinions are the parrot-like recapitulations of their preferred pundit. Not only have people not actually read the books that would have greatly assisted them in forming their opinions, they haven’t even thought for themselves. In consequence of this uncritical mindset, peoples’ tempers flare and they become ludicrously defensive when their political opinions are assailed. For instance, I often wondered why voters become as emotionally involved as the actual candidates during an election when their preferred candidate is criticized–and not even with a good criticism! Someone gives an insipid criticism of a Romney gaffe and the Romney supporter goes nuclear with ominous prophecies of the future if Obama is reelected. It seems to me that unthoughtfulness accounts for this phenomenon. People would rather become polemical about sound bites and birth certificates and falsely pride themselves on having an opinion rather than confront real issues as well as the candidates’ stances on those issues and thereby possess an opinion worth verbalizing. I wonder if we are the most insecure people in the history of the world!
One thing my English instructor did teach me is that I ought to conclude my writings with a rousing plea, a challenge for readers to take up. Unfortunately, I will not meet that guideline here. All I can do is express my wish that more people would read and read deeply. All I can do is express my wish that more people would think and think carefully. In his essay On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to a narrow, uncritical mindset is to read broadly and deeply. He said reading old books help dispel the misconceptions of the current age like a fresh sea breeze. On the other hand, reading current books help dispel the misconceptions of the past and expose the tacitly accepted mindset of the present time. Reading a three-paragraph textbook summary of Plato’s Theory of Ideals, for example, will not reveal what Plato really meant in all his nuance and complexity–only Plato can do that, and he does a far better job of it than Editor et al. That goes for any of the works I listed before and many, many more. We must read carefully and then think deeply and then repeat. That is, we must do this if we really want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged in the world. The opinions which we love to have and express will follow naturally if we do this–and they will be worth hearing!