Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why Read the Classics?

...Reasons to Study the Classics
~Oliver DeMille

"It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds . . . . In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours." -William Ellery Channing

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."
-Henry David Thoreau

"When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before."
-Clifton Fadiman

Study the Classics

There are at least six... reasons to study the classics:

1. The Classics Teach us Human Nature

There are four basic instincts which all humans have:
A. Survival and security.
B. Social mobility, power, relationships.
C. Adventure, excitement.
D. To gain meaning, to know self, truth and God.

The classics give us a glimpse into each of these basic human instincts. In fact, the thing which makes a classic great is glaring insight into basic human nature. Ultimately, as you study the classics, you learn about your own personal nature. Learning through experience is good, but it is often better to learn from someone else's experiences and build on them- we hope a baby will learn from his parents not to touch a hot stove, even though the actual experience would certainly have impact. If we will let them, the classics can teach us lessons without the pain of repeating certain mistakes ourselves. They can show us correct choices which will get us where we want to go.

We will certainly get our own share of challenging experiences, but learning from others can help us immeasurably on our journey. Classics allow us to experience, in an intimate way, the greatest mistakes and successful choices of human history. If we learn from these mistakes and successes, we will make fewer mistakes and have more successes.

And at a deeper level, knowing how others think, feel and act allows us to predict behavior and lead accordingly. We can develop empathy, compassion, wisdom and self-discipline without subjecting our relationships to the learning curve. This is invaluable to the spouse, parent, entrepreneur, community leader or statesman. People with experience have been through certain patterns many times and know what to anticipate. The classics can provide us with many such experiences.

2. The Classics Bring us Face-to-Face with Greatness

The purpose of studying literature is to become better. First, as we read we experience despair, heartache, tragedy-and we learn to recognize what causes them and avoid it in our own lives. As we study the characters, real or fictional, in the classics, we are inspired by greatness, which is the first step to becoming great ourselves. In the classics we come face-to-face with Moses on Sinai, Buddha leaving the castle, Christ at Gethsemane, Mohammed's cave (and Plato's), Paul on Mars Hill, Adam's finger outstretched on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Washington at Valley Forge, Hamlet, Lear, Shylock, Othello, Macbeth, MacDuff, Hector, Penelope and Jane Eyre. Who we are changes as we set higher and higher standards of what life is about and what we are here to accomplish.

3. The Classics Take us to the Frontier to be Conquered

All generations before this one have had geographical frontiers to conquer. We don't. And without a frontier we cannot become what the founders, the explorers and the pioneers became in their extremities. Our challenges define us, our reactions to them mold and shape us. As Thucydides said over three thousand years ago, and as I like to tell my students at George Wythe College: "There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much one from another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school."

Human beings need a frontier in order to progress. Fortunately, we do have one frontier left, and it is in fact the hardest one. It is the frontier within. In all of history, this frontier has not been fully conquered. The most challenging struggles of life are internal-and the classics can help.
The classics deal with the real questions of life, our deepest concerns: joy, pain, fear, love, hate, courage, anger, death, faith. These issues are reality; they are eternal and more lasting than jobs, careers, school, material things.

In the classics we can often experience other people's characters more powerfully than in real life because the author lets us see their thoughts, feelings and reasons for and consequences of their choices (which we hardly ever see in others, and often not even in ourselves). Our goal in life is to become truly good, really happy. The classics help us see that quest in others and how their choices fail or succeed. A by-product of this rapport is the erasure of prejudices and ill-founded biases that divide and factionalize us from others. Classics help us connect with individuals whatever their race, creed, age, culture and even place in history.

I fear that modernity has come to mean ignoring what is important because we are too busy with what is immediate.4 Nietzsche said that the difference between modern and ancient times is that modern man substitutes the morning newspaper for morning prayer. Bloom adds that now we have replaced the newspaper with the television. Too often we focus on the mortal rather than the eternal: this is a disease of modern times.

The classics are a remedy and can be a cure. They force us to turn off the TV and computer, to quietly study for hours and hours and hours-reading, pondering, thinking, asking, crying, laughing, struggling, and above all, feeling, changing, becoming. And then, because we are better, we must go out and serve.

4. The Classics Force us to Think

First we are caused to think about the characters in the story, then about ourselves, then about people we know and finally about humanity in general. At first reading the classics can be a chore, an assignment. If we persist, it eventually becomes entertainment. Then one day (after a few weeks for some, perhaps years for another) something clicks; all the exposure to greatness reaches critical mass. And you, the reader, awaken. Your exposure to greatness changes you: Your ideas are bigger, your dreams wilder, your plans more challenging, your faith more powerful.

The classics can be hard work, and that is exactly what is needed to learn to think. Thinking is hard; deep thinking is not entertaining or easy. Thinking is like exercise, it requires consistency and rigor. Like barbells in a weightlifting room, the classics force us to either put them down or exert our minds. They require us to think. And not just in a rote memory way, either. The classics make us struggle, search, ponder, seek, analyze, discover, decide, and reconsider. And, as with physical exercise, the exertion leads to pleasing results as we metamorphose and experience the pleasure of doing something wholesome and difficult that changes us for the better.

5. The Classics Connect Us to Those Who Share the Stories

Each culture is different because it has different shared stories. Different stories define each family, each religion, each nation. And members of each connect themselves with the stories-they make the stories part of their personal story.

Can you imagine the Jews without the stories of Moses, the Maccabees, or the Holocaust? Or Americans without stories of Paul Revere, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln? Learn the stories of a culture, and you will come to understand that culture. That is why I think it is such a tragedy that the current generation of American youth are mostly growing up without the stories of the Declaration of Independence, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Patrick Henry or Sitting Bull or Daniel Webster. The classics are the ark, the preserver, of stories which unite the cultures and the generations.

In addition to cultural, national and family stories, we each have individual stories. We all have a personal canon, a set of stories which we hang on to and believe in and base our lives around; and great classics are the best canon. A canon is the set of books we consider to be the standard of truth. Since the purpose of reading, of gaining education, is to become good, our most important task is to choose the right books. Our personal set of stories, our canon, shapes our lives. I believe it is a law of the universe that we will not rise above our canon. Our canon is part of us, deeply, subconsciously. And the characters and teachings in our canon shape our characters-good, evil, mediocre, or great.

6. Our Canon Becomes our Plot

There are four types of stories: bent, broken, whole, and healing.

A. Bent stories portray evil as good, and good as evil. Such stories are meant to enhance the evil tendencies of the reader, such as pornography and many horror books and movies. The best decision regarding Bent stories is to avoid them like the plague.

B. Broken stories portray evil as evil and good as good, but evil wins. Something is broken, not right, in need of fixing. Such books are not uplifting, but can be very inspiring. Broken stories can be very good for the reader if they motivate him or her to heal them, to fix them. The Communist Manifesto is a broken classic; so are The Lord of the Flies and 1984. In each of these, evil wins; but they have been very motivating to me because I have felt a real need to help reverse their messages in the real world.

C. Whole stories are where good is good and good wins. Most of the classics are in this category, and readers should spend most of their time in such works.

D. Healing stories can be either Whole or Broken stories where the reader is profoundly moved, changed, significantly improved by his reading experience.

I recommend three rules in coming face-to-face with greatness through the classics:
1. Avoid Bent stories.
2. Develop a personal canon of Healing stories.
3. Spend the majority of your studies in Whole works, but don't neglect Broken stories that you ought to be fixing.

(I have excerpted the above from a link at the George Wythe website. For the entire essay, you can go here.)