As Time Goes By
“Why am I being required to take a class in literature? That’s boring!” “They’re making everyone take the Cultural Heritage classes—but I hate history! What could I possibly learn from these courses? Who cares what people wrote five centuries ago?”
Such questions and complaints are often voiced by students, and not just by those who attend Benedictine University. High-school and college students everywhere tend to echo these sentiments; many people simply cannot understand why anyone would find significance in studying history, especially when it comes to reading historical texts.
To countless folks, especially those belonging to the younger generations, the frivolity of history and its literature is a foregone conclusion. But what is it about earlier times that daunts so many? Why is it perceived as tenebrous, tangential, tedious? Some students subscribe to the “If it’s old, it’s going to bore me” school of thought. Other people feel that writings from bygone eras represent mindsets that are unsophisticated and no longer relevant. And still other individuals simply feel that they cannot hope to grasp the language of old.
But none of these are valid reasons to dismiss the past; they’re all poor excuses, born of ignorance, unwillingness or stereotyping. Today’s society often promotes a “newer is better” attitude. It tells people, “What we know, understand, believe and think is far superior to the cultures of years past. We’re smarter than people used to be.” This is known as argumentum ad novitatem (“appeal to novelty” or “appeal to the modern”), a fallacy of logic involving the belief that originality or modernity equals superiority.
Students also often write off philology—the study of language and historical texts—as a pointless field of study. Most are simply confused or daunted by the old-fashioned language and syntax and don’t feel the message is one to which they can relate. To appreciate old literature, one must first understand it, as well as be willing to invest the time to study it. Learning to do so takes time, but it is the same as speaking a foreign language—practice makes perfect, and the new way of speaking and thinking soon becomes second nature.
Oftentimes, the best way to read an archaic text is to read it aloud; the printed words look unfamiliar, but when read phonetically, they become intelligible sentences. The brain acclimates to change more quickly than most people realize. Verbal reading forces the mind to translate the words into a more clear format. This is why people are encouraged to vocalize their thoughts to stir creativity—they get lost in a sea of thoughts, within their own mind, with no outlet for expression. Another way to learn old texts is to read modern translations of them.
Countless quotations have been recorded over time, all of which providing insights into knowledge and the human condition. Three intelligible examples of the wisdom of the ages are:
Wise men profit more from
fools than fools from wise men; for the wise men shun the mistakes of fools, but
fools do not imitate the successes of the wise.
(Cato the Elder, circa 150 BC)
The human understanding is
like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors
the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.
(Sir Francis Bacon, circa 1620)
Thus is the powerful
genius, which might have extended the sphere of any science, or benefited the
world in any profession, dissipated in a boundless variety, without profit to
others or to himself. He makes sudden irruptions into the regions of knowledge,
and sees all obstacles give way before him; but he never stays long enough to
complete his conquest, to establish laws, or bring away the spoils.
(Samuel Johnson, circa 1750)
In the first quotation, Cato the Elder says that people who are wise profit both from experience and from witnessing the experience of others. People who are foolish, he adds, ignore the lessons to be learned from others’ errors, and because of their ignorance, sentence themselves to a similar fate.
The second quotation, from Sir Francis Bacon, says that both our imperfect understanding and our prejudices color the way we see and interpret the world around us.
The last quotation comes from Samuel Johnson’s “The Rambler,” a series of bi-weekly essays, in a tale of a man named Polyphilus. He is a fictional young man who exemplifies the saying “Jack of all trades; master of none.” It is about people of great intelligence who, because of their indecisiveness, constantly change careers or fields of study and never become proficient at any of them.
These quotations are but three simple examples of the thousands and thousands of insights into human nature that have been given to us like a gift by those who’ve gone before. Thoreau once said, “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.” Rather than foolishly snub the gift, we should gratefully accept it and integrate it into our lives. We have much to learn from the past if we will simply take the time to read it.