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In mid-2020 I inherited an extensive collection of classic literature from my grandfather. The collection, “Great Books of the Western World,” was a repository of the most important works produced by Western culture through the 20th century, as selected, ultimately, by its editor Mortimer J. Adler.
The collection contained everything from sonnets and science to literature and economics, government and history. As far as I was concerned, there was no other perfect time for those books to come into my life. With the pandemic and lockdowns limiting my opportunities to socialize, I had plenty of time to explore this new world that had been given to me. I like to think that I made the most of the opportunity and absorbed as much of the West’s epochal wisdom as I could.
Among the many things that I saw at first, the most striking thing was that this new world, full of old ideas, was surprisingly modern. And the world I was familiar with, here in the 21st century, is still full of challenges and ancient conversations, dating back to ancient times.
To think that ancient literature was written because of age is foolish. Of course, some of the original ideas as they appeared in infancy are of little use today, but even they provide important lessons. Take for example, the descriptions of nature made by Lucretius of Rome (who died around 50 BC).
We now know that the sky does not rotate around the Earth due to wind currents, as Lucretius thought, but the creative thinking and logical reasoning to support that observation was brilliant. Rather than agree with the common convention of his day, that the gods presided over all the forces of nature, he reasoned through observation (ahem, the scientific process). And while he was not correct in his idea about the sky, he reasoned about a group of other natural things, such as the idea of things and atoms, which are supported by modern science.
A method of reasoning is usually worth as much as the idea it produces, and a wrong idea in infancy is forgivable for not having a strong foundation of knowledge to build upon. Advance is the key word.
It has taken many human lifetimes to advance our ideas of government, science and technology to their present form. The ideals we believe in today were not always the same – equal rights, free government and the injustice of slavery, to name a few. They were slowly developed over hundreds, thousands of years, as they passed through an intellectual sieve and were left to be further refined in later years.
But intelligence and originality are rare, and despite our desire to believe we’re brilliant, we haven’t gotten as far from our basic humanity as we might think.
All of this means that it is important to know where our culture came from and why it is the way it is today. There are reasons for its existence and shape, and those reasons have been widely discussed. The conclusions reached in those discussions should not be final, but most of the opinions generated should not be easily dismissed.
So it bothers me to see political parties, on the right and the left, attack the liberal ideas of Western culture without reason, or sometimes, against their colleagues. Intimate polarization is generally the opposite of these ideas, and ideas about individual freedom, bans and the freedom to marry whomever we want are among the clearest rules.
Rigid adherence to traditional ways of thinking is an effective way to stifle innovation. Changing for the sake of having something other than what we have is an equally effective method.
Progress is never without steps and mistakes. But it’s as if we, the American people, don’t know why we’re in our current situation – or which way to go. Combine this with a general lack of curiosity, and we have a great formula for guaranteed backlash.
Perhaps, as we emerge from another election season filled with promises of change, we should spend more time reflecting on the past before trying to move forward.
Matthew Fritz lives in Minneapolis.