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Don't Fire The Canon! A Response to Hanania
If we join a conversation at 10 o’clock that has been going since 8, many seemingly innocuous remarks will annoy people or get a laugh—and the only way to learn why is to learn the backstory.
Written by Jeremy Wayne Tate.
Reading books, especially old books, might be a waste of time. At least, that’s what Richard Hanania, a political commentator and author, recently wrote on his Substack:
Ideally, one would like to think that if someone has written a 300-page book, it means that they have 300 pages worth of things to say. My experience is that is rarely the case. People generally have an idea that can be expressed in terms much shorter than that, but extending your idea into a book looks impressive on a CV and gets you invited on TV shows and podcasts.
This is not completely wrong. Most books are bad or mediocre, for the same reason that most of almost anything is bad or mediocre: it’s easier to do something at all than it is to do it well. There are a handful of pursuits where the difference between good and mediocre is so crucial that mediocrities are quickly weeded out: free solo climbing, for instance. But aside from these anomalies, there will always be more bad and mediocre examples of everything than excellent ones.
This is part of the reason the Classical Learning Test’s (CLT) Author Bank is designed the way it is. We prefer older texts (with some exceptions, especially in the sciences) because the many bad books that are published every year are by culled by time. The good and the great survive. The bad and the mediocre are forgotten. If people are still reading and repeating what you wrote five hundred years later, odds are you’ve discovered or said something worth thinking.
This is not a sentiment Hanania seems to share. He concedes that “you may want to read Kant, Plato, and the Bible,” as a glimpse into other people’s perspectives, but is quick to clarify he does not think these books have any worth in themselves. In a section with the provocative title “Against Great Books,” he writes:
[T]he idea that someone writing more than say four hundred years ago could have deep insights into modern issues strikes me as farcical. If old thinkers do have insights, the same points have likely been made more recently and better by others who have had the advantage of coming after them. … Bertrand Russell once quipped that Aristotle believed that men had more teeth than women, but it never occurred to him to open his wife’s mouth and start counting. … I feel the need to emphasize that none of this is to say I or my favorite contemporary writers are smarter than Aristotle. Would it have occurred to me to start counting women’s teeth to test a hypothesis? I’d like to think of course I would. But what if I had never been exposed to scientific reasoning before and everyone I had ever known had argued by simply making things up? Things that seem obvious today were beyond the grasp of most humans throughout history.
Some of this is true, but it is vastly overstated. And we should practice what Hanania is preaching: The scientific method. Observation. We should read the classics to determine if past thinkers were in fact nescient. Avicenna. Boyle. Ptolemy. And Aristotle. If, for example, we actually opened Aristotle’s works, we would find that he did claim that men have more teeth than women but that he followed that claim with this: “…in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made…” In other words, Aristotle did count teeth (or knew people who counted teeth); he did scrutinize the world. Russell made a clever joke; but it exaggerates the prescientific silliness of the ancients.
Of course, we know much more than those who wrote 500 years ago. But that is inevitable because knowledge in many fields is cumulative. Our distant descendants in 3023 will presumably believe us ignorant as well. Reading the confident errors of past writers can encourage humility. But good manners suggest we should be thankful for the struggles and errors of thinkers from Thales to Aristotle to Ptolemy to Copernicus, not dismissive. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
But more importantly, we read books not just for knowledge, but for the transcendent. For the good and the beautiful. There is so much more about books than just facts and theories. Entering a conversation about everything from life, to sex, to death that is thousands of years old is exhilarating. Most people would prefer to have the “Epic of Gilgamesh” or Donne’s “Death’s Duel” than a modern magazine when facing the greatest of existential decisions or dilemmas. Old books matter because wisdom is not limited by facts or data.
Hanania does claim to have applied the scientific method to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This is a recognized classic of Stoic philosophy; we read a new book together every quarter at CLT, and a couple of years ago, we had the pleasure of reading this one. Hanania was less impressed:
It’s all basic stuff like “don’t worry about what others think of you,” and “control your emotions.” Maybe it was mind-blowing the first time someone said these things ... But I’m 100% certain that if you gathered some passages from Marcus Aurelius and hired a halfway intelligent blogger to produce content made to sound like Marcus Aurelius, nobody would be able to tell the difference. You might want to read the Stoics out of historical curiosity. I’ll claim them as part of my intellectual tribe to signal that I reject the moral underpinnings of both Christianity and wokeness, the two most powerful faiths in our society. But anything intelligent or insightful they said you’ve probably absorbed already through run-of-the-mill blogs and self-help books, shorn of all the stupid things that inevitably made their way into their writings.
The argument here is confusing. Hanania contends that Marcus Aurelius is disposable because somebody who had Marcus Aurelius’s work in front of them would be able to write something similar? This is like arguing that a Van Gogh painting is not worth contemplating because thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of people can paint imitations that most people cannot distinguish from authentic Van Gogh paintings. The point of reading Aurelius is different and deeper than just the appreciation of the style of his prose or the logic of his philosophical positions.
There are many reasons to read the Western canon. I’ll address three: Fun, perspective, and context. First, people should read old books because they are entertaining! People often forget this because they were forced to read texts in school that seem obscure or alien. But it’s fun to watch King Lear descend into madness; it’s hilarious to listen to Pangloss’s refrain that everything is for the best; it’s exhilarating to follow Plato’s imaginative metaphysics. Second, people should read old books because it helps us have some perspective. Whatever issues or ideas are currently the “hot button” ones, those are going to feel the most important, regardless of what real importance they possess. An occasional glimpse into the Carolingian Renaissance, the Victorian period, or late republican Rome can restore us to a sense of the human, of what we share with one another over against what sets us apart from one another. Especially in a period like our own, which is highly politically polarized in so many ways, it’s vital to maintain a sense of what connects us with others, in mind and spirit as well as in body. As different as our lives are from those of, say, an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon, we can still appreciate the desires for security and accomplishment—or, to give them their more ancient names, peace, and glory—that moved Beowulf to confront Grendel. There are certain perennial ideas and values that, though they may change in superficial appearance, never disappear, and which authors of every time and place have the power to help us approach simply by virtue of being human.
Last, people should read books because the past is the only way to understand the present. As Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Would Frederick Douglass understand contemporary debates about critical race theory? Maybe; maybe not; regardless, I am sure we won’t if we refuse to read Frederick Douglass. To use an example from C. S. Lewis, if we join a conversation at 10 o’clock that has been going since 8, many seemingly innocuous remarks will annoy people or get a laugh—and the only way to learn why is to learn the backstory.
For us in the United States, and indeed throughout the Americas and Europe, “the backstory” is the Western canon. To reject it is to condemn ourselves to the inability to understand the world we live in. It is to disinherit ourselves of a treasury that is there for the taking, and which, unlike most legacies, grows greater the more people take possession of it.