Why Read The Classics?
Seven Reasons to Study the Classics
“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
National Books Please take out a blank sheet of paper. Now answer each of the following questions:
1. What books are your companions through life?
2. If you were evacuated to another planet and could only take one book, upon which to base the whole teaching of your family and establishing right and wrong for your community, what would it be?
3. What is good? What is evil?
Thank you. I’ll refer to these later, so please stop reading and answer these three questions in writing before continuing.
In 1987, the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, three very important bestsellers swept America: Robert Bork’s The Tempting of America, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. They presented essentially the same message, about law, society, and education respectively: that we have strayed from our founding-and not in a good direction. In fact, together they are a sort of update to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
Consider Allan Bloom’s profound analysis of American education. As I read this modern classic, three major points stood out. First, societies are successful when people choose to be good. If people choose mediocrity, they end up with a mediocre society. If they choose excellence, they build an excellent society; if they choose decadence, society decays. This is not only common sense, it is historically accurate.
Second, people choose to be good when they are taught and believe in good. People’s choices are a direct result of their beliefs. And their beliefs are profoundly influenced by what they are taught by parents, friends, teachers, clergy, etc. If they are taught a
falsehood or even evil, and if they believe it, they will choose poorly. Teaching influences belief, which guides action.
Third, the thing which determines how well they are taught is their national books. A national book is something that almost everyone in the nation accepts as a central truth. The national book of the Jews is the Torah; Muslims, the Koran; Christians, the Bible; etc. It could be argued that Shakespeare is a national author for England, Goethe and Luther for Germany, Dante and Machiavelli for Italy, Tolstoy in Russia, and so on. Whatever the nation, its national books, the books almost everyone in the nation revere and believe in, will determine the culture. Good national books, like the Bible or Shakespeare’s works, will lead to a good nation. Bad national books like The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf will lead to bad nations until they reject such books.
Now, what of a nation with no national book, with no central text which almost everyone agrees upon as the measuring rod of right and wrong? Such a nation is simply without culture, or at best it is in the process of losing it. . . . . .
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. . . . . .
I have only included a portion of the essay because I want to make sure that you actually read it! READ IT!