I’ve never been one to speak much in person, and much less via the internet. That being said, the current state of affairs in our wonderful country has prompted me to speak some of my innermost thoughts. If you’re not surprised at the fact that I have started writing something of my own volition and actually finished it, you certainly should be. If I ever start writing something that I don’t necessarily have to write, chances are I will never finish it. And even if I do manage to write something of my own free will and choice, it is much more improbable that I would leave such a piece exposed before the world on the internet. When I leave a piece of my writing exposed on the internet, I feel as though I am leaving a carefully guarded part of myself exposed to the world, as if all my cards are showing. The fact that you are reading this on the internet should indicate to you that I have, much to my own alarm, overridden all my own internet use protocols. I, more than any other person I know, do not like to leave myself exposed, because I can’t stand the thought of being vulnerable.

But here I am, leaving a bit of myself exposed before you in dreaded vulnerability. I have decided to cease my usual character hedging to express something I find to be very important. The fact that I am leaving myself exposed should at least indicate to you that whatever I am writing is something I consider to be very important. This of course, directly leads me to my next question: Why am I writing this? I am writing this out of concern for my own generation. I, of course, am not here to propose a world-saving idea, or to tell you who to vote for. Rather, I am writing this out of concern for the political and social turmoil of our day, which seems to me to be the symptom of widespread infirmity of the soul.

Infirmity of the Soul

I am not here referring to mental illness (although that, too, is a widespread problem); rather, I am referring to the infirmities of soul that a psychologist or a neurologist would not identify. To reiterate what the much-maligned Allan Bloom has said, our souls have become “impoverished”, in a sense. Of course, the impoverishment of the soul is not the infirmity to which I refer; rather, it is a symptom. The infirmity of soul which I wish to expose to you is what I call chronocentrism. I, of course, cannot credit myself for coining this term, nor can I give an appropriate etymology of the word. All I can say is that it is one of the most pervasive, and perhaps destructive, infirmities of our society.

You might ask, “What is chronocentrism?” It is the belief that our contemporary society is better than all societies that have preceded ours. It is the belief that we have out-done all societies that have gone before us in just about every aspect. For example, our athletes perform better; our knowledge of the sciences has increased dramatically; we have done much to overcome the prejudices and stereotypes of past generations; we live longer, more comfortable lives than those of our forebears; we no longer live in the Dark Ages. In virtually every aspect of life we are better than those that have gone before us. I do not wish to refute such claims – at least not yet. On the contrary, I affirm all the above claims to be true. The problem, however, is that in all that we have learned, we are leaving ourselves blind to the most substantive knowledge available to man. We leave ourselves blind to our knowledge of the soul, thus impoverishing the soul.

The advent of electricity and modern lighting, at least to me, seems to offer a good metaphor of what has become of our society. Nighttime images sent to us from satellites reveal that the earth’s surface has now been blanketed with civilization and technological progress. We see intricate webs of street lights all converging into urban centers, revealing just how far mankind has come. From above, the view of the earth is quite marvelous. When we look from the earth’s surface up to the sky, however, the view suddenly becomes rather bleak. In filling our cities with the artificial light from our technological advances, we have left ourselves blind to the wondrous vistas of the night sky – a view that prior generations had no trouble in seeing. Isn’t it interesting to think of how well the medieval cultures were able to predict the movements of the stars and planets, despite the fact that their model of the universe was faulty? We often think that Galileo’s theories on planetary movements were rejected out of opposition from the Catholic Church. While that is true, the first reason for which Galileo’s theory was initially rejected was because he did not have sufficiently advanced celestial observation technology to be able to prove his theory right, and as a result could not accurately predict the movement of the stars and planets in the night sky. The geocentric view at that time was based on the scientific merits of the day; Galileo could not manage to prove it wrong.

What this shows is that the cosmological model of that era, despite its mistakenness, was still really good for predicting the motion of the planets and stars in the sky. The people of that day, according to their limited knowledge, had good reason for holding geocentric beliefs. I can only suppose that the people back then were able to develop this skill so well because the great vistas of the stars were more available to them. In their darkened world, they did not have to concern themselves so much with seeing through light pollution, nor did they have so many distractions that would keep them from studying the sky. In our day, however, it is not so easy to see what the people of old saw.

I see this as being metaphorical of our day: we have filled our world with a sort of technological and scientific light, which leaves many of the mysteries of the past exposed to us. At the same time, however, knowledge of the things that are most significant to human beings has since become hidden from our view. We, as a society, no longer consult with the collective knowledge of civilization to gain greater insight into the nature of our own souls, or of our society. If we want to understand our emotional problems, we go to a psychiatrist. If we are depressed, a doctor will give us a prescription of Cymbalta. If we want an account of the soul, a neurologist will proceed to explain the soul away. If we want to learn about what Plato said, we go to Wikipedia. If we want to learn about “relevant issues”, we look to the news media. If we want to express ourselves, we head to the mall to buy outfits that supposedly reflect our personalities. If we want to socialize, we go to Facebook or Snapchat. If we want to understand politics, we read opinion columns. If we want to consider ourselves as successful human beings, we go to college to get a degree that will eventually earn us a six-digit salary. If we want to understand societal problems, we talk to sociologists.

Whatever happened to asking our forebears about what they knew of these subjects? Worse still, whatever happened to looking inward and examining the innermost parts of our own souls? Is the significance of the human experience really to be found in the number of likes our meaningless meme gets on Facebook? Do we express to the world the substance of our souls through our character or through our wardrobe? Are we satisfied with the neurologist’s overly complicated explanation that we all are just sophisticated lumps of meat?

We’re Supposed to Be Better Off, Aren’t We?

I’m frequently reminded to believe that our generation lives better than any other generation before us. “Our quality of life is better than it ever has been before,” one might say. “We have clean drinking water, and better health care than ever before. Death rates are at an all-time low. We have made great progress in overcoming disease. Whereas our ancestors would travel for months across a continent, we can travel across the world in a matter of hours. Even without our advanced forms of transportation, we can still instantly communicate with people on the other side of the world. We don’t have to worry about our family members dying on a regular basis. We don’t have to work under the merciless conditions of the earliest industrial facilities anymore. We have paid vacation leave. We have automobiles. Poverty rates are lower than they ever have been in the whole of human history. Thus, we can conclude that we really are better off than the preceding generations.” I, of course, will not deny that we live more convenient lives than those of our forebears; however, I’m a little leery of the notion that we live better than they did.

Isn’t it strange that mental illness and suicide pervade in our society? If we are so much better off than preceding generations, why would one in ten Americans aged 12 and over be taking anti-depressants? If we understood so much more than preceding generations about social problems, why are there still so many social problems? If psychologists are so good at helping us to understand our own feelings, then why don’t we understand our own feelings? Why is it that people are still depressed if anyone can walk into a bookstore—or barely lift a finger with the convenience of Amazon—and choose from countless self-help books? If social media has done so much to bring people together, why is our society, both at large and at an individual level, becoming so divided and alienated? If we enjoy so many luxuries in our daily lives, why is it that we feel the need to obtain more luxuries?

As it seems to me, we really do have everything—at least in a material sense. When it comes to the things of the soul, however, I’d dare say that our society is more impoverished than any other society that has ever existed. Those of the preceding generations faced many hardships, to be sure. But they were also better equipped to face such challenges. They didn’t shy away from the perennial questions, nor did they ignore the lessons of those who lived before them. In looking at the history of philosophy, we see that the preceding generations conversed with each other over centuries. We see Aquinas addressing Aristotle 1600 years after Aristotle’s death. We see Hume responding to Descartes. We see Heidegger consulting with the Ancient Greeks. And these people all knew something about what it means to be human. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics do more to teach me about how to live a good life than any trite TED Talk I could possibly watch, or much less any DiversityEdu course I could take in college. I can learn more about the human experience by reading Shakespeare than I can learn by speaking with a psychologist.

We’re Not So Different After All

I can imagine someone saying, “The problems of our day are unique; we don’t face the same challenges that preceding generations faced.” Really? Our generation doesn’t have to deal with death or disease? We don’t have to concern ourselves with oppressive regimes? We don’t have war going on in the world? We don’t face personal character flaws that bring us misery and woe? Are we so wealthy and comfortable that misery is unknown to us? I cannot deny that the challenges we face today are not the same challenges that people faced before, but our challenges are also not so different from theirs, either. And although the collective knowledge of the preceding generations might not offer us the answers to our challenges, their insights into the challenges of their days can help us to develop greater insights into how we can deal with the challenges of our day. C.S. Lewis succinctly reminds us that “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”[2] When we step into the perspective of preceding generations, we free ourselves from the prejudices and fads of our own generation, thus making ourselves less prone to error. We step out of our own generation when we read great books, whereby we begin to see from the perspective of older generations.

The True Value of Learning

Of course, it is not enough that we should just read great books; we must also note that learning from the preceding generations is not, as Robert George explains it, “…just about reading Aristotle, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or Tocqueville and knowing what these great writers said. It is about engaging with them and with the questions they wrestled with.”[3] Of course, Robert George is standing in defense of liberal arts education in colleges. What he says, however, is not only applicable to college students; it is applicable to everyone. You don’t need a college degree to reach for Aristotle on your bookshelf. Although you may have to struggle to understand him, you will yet learn many valuable things from him. Mr. George reminds us that liberal learning of this type is called liberal learning because it liberates us. But what are we to be liberated from? As he explains it:

“According to the classic liberal-arts ideal, our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths—truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse or base. These are soul-shaping, humanizing truths—truths whose appreciation and secure possession elevate reason above passion or appetite, enabling us to direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, truly beautiful, truly worthy of human beings as possessors of a profound and inherent dignity.”[4]

This is the reason for which we should strive to read the great books of the past, so that we can become liberated from the passions and troubles of our current generation. If we cannot step outside of our own generation, then we ultimately become slaves to our own generation; wherefore, we become slaves only to ourselves. The unfortunate truth of our day, however, is that we do not much care for what the preceding generations have to say to us, because we consider ourselves to have figured everything out better than our forebears. We look upon the prejudices and mistakes of our ancestors and think to ourselves that they were utterly foolish. We identify the racism and sexism of the past and think to ourselves that the past generations were utterly contemptible. As a result, the word medieval has become a pejorative term in our day. Yes, it is true that our forebears made great mistakes, and were guilty of great sins. But should we not learn from them? Can we not learn to see our own prejudices by seeing the prejudices of the past? Can we not so much as accept the warnings that our ancestors passed on to us, or learn not to make the same mistakes they made?

To be sure, our ancestors had a rough existence, and many of the things they did are truly contemptible. They are guilty of too many wars and historical wrongs to be able to list them all, but I also wonder what our ancestors would say of our day. We often look upon our ancestors with contempt for waging abominable wars and creating terrible torture devices, but would they not look upon us with contempt for creating such abominable things as nuclear bombs? I find it interesting that the most contemptible generations faced fewer threats to the collective existence of the human race than we do today. There’s a popular infographic/video that reveals how war has been on the decline ever since the end of World War II, and that we are living in the most peaceful time period since the height of the Roman empire. This may be true, but we should realize that in a matter of less than an hour that whole statement could be turned on its head and we could blast ourselves back to well before the stone age. Unlike our day, the preceding generations never saw themselves as masters of nature; they saw themselves only as a part of it. The medieval people revered nature; they never thought that they should bend it to their will as we do. It makes me wonder what they would say of us: “They, with their advanced technology, have created the power to destroy the whole planet along with themselves, and they view us with contempt?”

The Road Ahead

It is true; our technology has endowed us with privileges that the preceding generations could have only dreamed of, but this new technology has also placed upon our shoulders great burdens that we cannot just shrug off. Thanks to the scientific revolution, we have an industrialized society that has enabled us to enjoy greater prosperity than any other generation, but we must not ignore the negative consequences of our gains. More people are alive now more than ever before, and we must rise to the challenge of accommodating them. Our industrialized society has granted us immense prosperity, but we must also find ways to enjoy such prosperity without permanently destroying the environment that has been so good to us. We have science to thank for vaccines, iPhones, Airplanes, fMRI machines, and automobiles, but we also have science to thank for such abominable things as military drones, neutron bombs, Zyklon B, and weaponized disease, to name a few. We would be slow to consider primitive the ways of our forebears upon realizing that we have created an ultra-sophisticated façade of technology to cover our own primitivity.

We must also realize that the sins of our forebears are not so far behind us. We look upon things like, slavery, segregation, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and World War II, as if those things belong to generations other than our own. But if we look at the history of our own generation within the context of the broader scale of human history, we will see that we are still uncomfortably living in the haunting shadows of such events. We must also realize that our scientific and technological paradigm is loosely seated upon a fragile techno-economic infrastructure. Inasmuch as the infrastructure remains intact, the progress of our scientific paradigm will continue. But the slightest events can easily upend all of that.

I do not wish to be a doomsayer here, but I do wish to point out that we have probably placed a bit too much confidence in our current scientific paradigm. As I said before, we enjoy many more privileges than did the preceding generations, but we also face more existential threats than they did. Inasmuch as our techno-economic infrastructure remains intact, our hopes of being able to perpetuate our species on other planets will also remain intact. But even such hopes remain faint when we consider that any other potentially habitable world within our immediate vicinity will not be as friendly to us as has been our sweet mother earth. We must also consider the fact that being able to get our species off this planet and onto another is a task that likewise hinges upon our fragile techno-economic infrastructure. Should we have to one day abandon earth, we would not be hopeful to find another nearby planet that will enable us to progress as we have been able to do here on earth.

We must also be aware that any hopes we might have for transhumanistic immortality also rest upon our fragile techno-economic infrastructure (although I find transhumanism to be highly contemptible anyway). Our quest to reach the proverbial “end of history” can, and probably will, be upended long before we ever come close to achieving such a goal. This will be especially true if we refuse to learn from the past. As I’ve always said to myself, the Sumerian who wrote The Epic of Gilgamesh unwittingly told the story of mankind thousands of years before anyone could have even predicted how mankind’s story would unfold—and that is, by the way, one of the many reasons why we should read books like The Epic of Gilgamesh.

It should be obvious that I do not share the same long-term optimism for the human race that others do, particularly when it comes to the sciences. What I have learned in my study of the great books of the past is that our collective knowledge of the sciences, while it may be immense, is not as meaningful as we might think it is. I am not, by any means, against science, but I am not entirely enthusiastic about it, either. My main purpose is to reveal that science is not as great as we might think it is, and that it has a limited capacity to reveal any meaningful truths about our own nature. I also wish to reveal that if we were to strip away our techno-scientific paradigm, we would perhaps not view ourselves as being so superior to our predecessors. If the techno-scientific layer were to be removed from our society, we would probably find that we really don’t know much more than our predecessors. We would only be left to face the perennial questions that our predecessors faced, and we would realize that when it comes to these questions, our answers aren’t much better than our ancestors’ answers; wherefore, we should at least try to learn from what they learned.

Why We Ought to Read Great Books

You might ask, “Why is he on about this right now?” To be honest, I don’t think there could be a more appropriate time to talk about what it is that I wish to talk about. I have been inspired to write this whole thing because of the impending presidential election. The political and social context of this election has given me good reason not to be optimistic about the outcome. I’m not quite sure anyone has fully come to terms with the fact that Trump is the front-runner of one of the most influential political parties in the United States. Worse still, he actually has a shot at winning. One would think that Hillary Clinton could offer us a ray of hope, but she’s no saint by any means. Of course, I am not here to comment on the election itself; I am here to offer escape, if only for a moment, from our own generation. I wish to help others to escape from the troubles of our day, and that escape comes through the reading of great books. When I read about the struggles and triumphs of past generations, it helps me to realize that my generation is not so different. I come to realize that the struggles of the past are much like the struggles of our times, just with new names and new faces. I am reminded that the optimism of some of our forebears in the face of great challenges did not prove to be unyielding. I become aware that there really is a world beyond the distorted image of the world that the media presents to me. I escape from the toxic prejudices of my own day and step into the world of someone else. I come to know myself and my own prejudices. It is as Robert George said: I free myself from myself.

Of course, one might call this mere escapism or delusion. It is not; rather, it is an attempt at finding truth in a society that seems to have alienated itself from the truth. We live in a society that profits from grabbing and holding your attention, not from telling the truth. As a result, the news cycle is volatile, inconstant, deeply politicized, and unintelligible. Media companies and advertisers alike are constantly inventing new ways to invade the most intimate spaces of our minds in order to profit from us, and thus we see people glued to their phones waiting for the next meaningless byte of information to pop up in their notifications. Our minds are so occupied with the constant flux of information of this digital age, that we have become estranged to the perennial questions and the perennial truths. It is as I have said before: our massive wealth of largely meaningless information has left us blind to the priceless truths of life. In filling our world with artificial light, the light of the stars becomes hidden from us. Of course, I shouldn’t present this idea as being something new. The old Plato warned us of such things over two millennia ago: “Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing.”[5] Of course, Plato was speaking of books when he said that, but time has shown that it is not books that pose such a threat. Rather, we see such dangers in the incessant flux of today’s media.

J.R.R. Tolkien and Eucatastrophe

I am rambling about great books because I want to help others to search for some semblance of truth and constancy in a world that is interested in neither. There are certain timeless truths that can only be revealed through great books, particularly through myth. This is what brings me to J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien brilliantly describes a kind of truth that is only available through myth, which he calls Eucatastrophe. Eucatastrophe, which might be mistaken as the proverbial “happily ever after” in myth, is the emotional point at which all chaotic events and misfortunes in a story completely turn. It is the point at which the reader experiences not only a glimpse of relief but of redemption. It is the resolution in which all the preceding turmoil and adventure is revealed to have been worth it. But Tolkien goes further by saying, “In the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” In other words, the sense of redemption and joy that one feels upon experiencing eucatastrophe through myth is a glimpse of the redemption one might feel through learning of the Great Euctastrophe: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[6]

Tolkien believes that eucatastrophe is at the heart of all great works of literature, and I agree with him, but I must go further: all great stories are embedded with elements of eucatastrophe, for it is in man’s nature to desire redemption, and that nature is reflected in myth through eucatastrophe. I should clarify at this point that I do not believe eucatastrophe to refer exclusively to the Christian sense of redemption. I can only speculate that eucatastrophe in myth happens as the result of a sort of “kindly inclyning [sic]”[7] toward the Divine. The Mahabharata, for example, has many elements of eucatastrophe in it, despite the fact that the Hindu religions which espouse it are not Christian in nature. Virtually all religions and generations I know of present their own brands of redemption, and that redemption is reflected in the books they write. We humans put eucatastrophe into our books not because we enjoy it, but because we are—either consciously or subconsciously—seeking redemption. It is in our nature to do so. How could it not be, seeing as to how dreadful our existence can be?

There might be made an objection here: Why should anyone need eucatastrophe in order to understand redemption? The answer, to me, is quite simple: my vision of redemption can have no less degree of reality in my imagination than that of a fictional world. The image I have in my mind of Frodo destroying the One Ring is no less real to me than the image I have in my mind of Christ’s redemption. Neither one of these images is presently manifest, but I should have to use no less degree of imagination to envision Christ’s redemption than I would have to use to envision Middle-earth. In that sense, both images are equally real to me. But there is more to be said of this: I would not know to seek redemption in the primary world if I do not experience the feeling of redemption in a secondary world.

The world of Scripture is a secondary world to me, for it does not hold any greater degree of reality in my imagination than Middle-earth. The sense of eucatastrophe I experience while reading The Lord of the Rings enriches the sense of eucatastrophe I experience while reading Scripture, and vice versa. It is this sense of eucatastrophe that drives me to seek redemption, for that is the true “consummation devoutly to be wished.”[8] This is only one of the many kinds of truth that are revealed only through reading the books of the past. It is not factual truth, and certainly cannot be described with words. It is not a commentary on state of the world told through literary devices, it is an exercise of the imagination that helps one to know that there is redemption from this fallen world. Redemption, even if I can only get a glimpse of it for the time being, is something I need. It is this brief glimpse that sets me free from the chaos of our present age, and also from the chaos of every age in human history.

To tie this all back into this woeful election, I would just like to note that I cannot control the outcome. But I also don’t have to care. Reaching for the great books on my shelf helps me to remember that there is a world beyond the one which I live in, a world which I can peacefully escape to. Come election night, I surely will cast my ballot, but then I will promptly return home, turn off all my electronic devices, and sit down with Plato, Homer, and Tolkien to have a nice conversation with them that reaches across the ages.

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.pdf

[2] C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”, God in the Dock p. 220

[3] Robert P. George, “Liberalism, Liberation, and the Liberal Arts”, Conscience and its Enemies pp. 40-41

[4] Robert P. George, “Liberalism, Liberation, and the Liberal Arts”, Conscience and its Enemies, p. 37

[5] Quote taken from Plato’s Phaedrus

[6] P. 88 in the essay On Fairy-Stories from The Tolkien Reader

[7] See p.102 in C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image

[8] See Hamlet III.I.71-72

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: