“In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recedimus.”
(How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing)
At the dawn of history, the West began a great dialogue. This dialogue spanned generations as each sought truth, “The Great Conversation” as it is known. This dialogue of ideas spans countless generations as the Democracy of the Dead gets a vote in the events of today.
What is good, beautiful, just and human was discussed in great detail by brilliant people over millenniums. However, today it seems many forsake the wisdom great minds have already offered.
Lots of people today have ideas, but have no knowledge of the ancients and their comments on the very subjects they attempt to discern. The great books able to assist our generational dialogue are not read.
“To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations,” said American educational philosopher Robert M Hutchins. “These books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository of our tradition.”
Hutchins wanted us to expand our liberal education and never cease to add to it. From politics, art, ethics, science and beyond, those in the past articulated ideas with precision. Cicero, Boethius, Seneca, Aquinas, Augustine, Clement, Voltaire, Rousseau have formed our thought and actions today yet most are unaware of the root of ideas.
Cicero in 81 BC read Homer and the ancients before him. Dante, who gave us the Divine Comedy in the twelfth century looked to Boethius, Virgil and Plato. As John Adams helped develop a new America he looked to Cicero from nearly 2000 years earlier. Thomas Jefferson Looked to Plutarch, Plato and John Locke. Frederick Douglas was encouraged by Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius, and Homer. Theodore Roosevelt read Polybius, Aristotle, Tolstoy and Abraham Lincoln.
They were all learning from those who came before them to better understand the world and time in which they lived.
I am surrounded by people pushing the latest self-help book and mega church pastor material all of which adds no content to the big ideas. Don’t waste your time on fluff material.
Many are afraid of the old books as if they are too difficult to understand or shy away from topics of philosophy or theology because they appear complex.
“Philosophy (for the ancients) was not seen as a difficult academic discipline as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human – the art of living and dying,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in “Saved in Hope”.
Every generation has a responsibility to engage in the great conversation without forsaking the detailed input from the past, and to set the following generation on the tracks of solid discernment.
Pope Benedict paints this perfectly,
“Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good.
What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future.”
Each of us has the hard work of thinking through ideas, reading with intent, and putting forward our new discoveries from ancient people. And, we must invite others to come along on the journey and encourage them to participate in the great conversation. Hutchins again spurs us on:
“The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.”
Buy old books, read old books, give them to everyone you know and continue the conversation.