Lately, I’ve become fascinated again with those histories that are old. By this, I mean reading some of the old, great texts and writings that have become classics. Great works like Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville and the like. I’ve also revisited things by people who have become “classics” and some of their works that may not have. People like Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther (Table Talk is quite interesting), even the wonderful Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo. I’ve even read The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy as well as The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I feel as though there is so much wisdom in those books but as they are old, out of date, or sometimes simply forgotten, we fail to even consider what they have to say. Some of this I blame on education today as we are inundated with textbooks, or steeped in the traditional books that have been assigned for what seems like centuries. With the study of history, we are seemingly locked into the textbook unless there is a source reading that is relevant, and then only one of them to supplement the material given. Why is this? Methinks that textbooks have become a sort of one stop shop for teachers and students alike. Entire courses are engineered around their existence. Simply put, they make things easy. The problem is that with very few exceptions, they lack one essential ingredient-soul.
If you bother to take the time and get past the “age” that a book is, the ancients have so much to tell us that is relevant to our time, that it behooves us to read them. What is the old saying, listen to your elders? In our case, our elders have preserved their thoughts for all time through their writings. It is a world to discover, and best left to be discovered by the individual. Marcus Aurelius tells us in his Meditations that we should go through every action as though it will be our last, “free from all vanity, all passionate and wilful aberration from reason, and from all hypocrisy…” Are these not words to consider? Socrates informs his friends that they are in control of the condition of life in which they desire to live, and if one is industrious, he can find himself quite happy in it. Certainly there is a message there for all of us. These are thoughts given by some of the greatest human beings to ever take stride on this ball of dust we call earth. While these people are no longer, their advice rings true should we chose to hear it.
I feel as though that is the problem, we chose not to hear it. When one considers that the average newspaper is printed at a sixth grade reading level, it is no doubt why the great words of the past are hidden in the mists of time. Simply, many don’t have the will or the ability to comprehend what they are being told. It is not easy to enter into the mind of a Thomas Paine, whose greatest work may be The Age of Reason, not Common Sense, which seems to have abandoned so many in our own age. That particular pamphlet is also not something that a Christian will want to read, but the reasoning behind it, whether one believes it or not (I, for one, don’t agree with his points), is a glimpse into a fascinating mind.
The point is that we have forgotten, unless assigned by some crazy teacher in some uncompromising history class, what some of the greatest minds in the history of our planet have to say. I would further suggest that maybe, just maybe we are unwilling to listen as we may not like what we hear. That’s right, I said hear. You see, when you pick up one of these books and begin reading in earnest, you may not understand some of what is being said. The language that is used may not be what we use today, but it is still there. If you are diligent, as one would be in building a model car or mastering that video game, the reader will pick up what is being said. He will find, after a time, that he will begin to understand more and more of what the author is suggesting, but it takes practice. These books, any of them, are to be found free through Google Books or any number of other projects, Project Gutenberg being another. These books are free, they are wonderful and they are full of insight. The authors of these books have written about the great periods and causes of their time, and preserved their thoughts for the rest of human history though the written word. They are the past, but they are also the present. We can still learn from their seemingly infinite wisdom, if only we would be willing to listen.