Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Value of the Ancients

I enjoy reading old books.  Most people seem to assume that the best books are the most recent ones.  But I say the older the more worthwhile.  Old books have proved their mettle.  It's good to read new books too, of course, but it's always more of a gamble.

It's very difficult for a book to survive more than a few decades.  For example, when Emily and I browse the clearance boxes at the used bookstore on Craig Street, most of the books we find there are less than twenty years old.  In fact, it's always surprising, and a bit sad, to find a book more than 50 years old in the clearance boxes, because you know that if it isn't sold, they'll have no choice but to throw it away, and chances are you're looking at one of the last copies.  There are probably around a million new books published every year.  It would be impossible for a library or used book store to save a copy of each one.  Most books are doomed to oblivion.

But there's a bright side to these sad thoughts.  Any book that has survived centuries -- or millenia -- must be something exceptional.  And we've got many such books: the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Ovid, Cicero and all those other brilliant Greeks and Romans living a couple of millenia back.  Of course, fewer books were written back then, but the test they've had to withstand has been just as grueling.  For 1500 years they had to be copied by hand from one crumbling manuscript to another.  Life was not easy during the Dark Ages, and it should flatter Aristotle that monk after monk found the time to copy all his many books.  Most Greek philosophers were not so lucky.

A similar story can be told about the holy books of the world's religions, including the Bible, the Tao-te-Ching, the Koran, the Confucian Analects, and the hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures out there.  Some have estimated that there have been at least 100,000 religions or religious sects created over the course of history.  Those that have survived must be something extraordinary.  In fact, I know they are, because nothing else I've read has done nearly as much to clarify my thinking.

It is absurd when scientists talk about "overcoming" religion or philosophy, simply because they have proven mistaken now and then.  Perfect knowledge is not obtainable by us tiny mortals.  But we've certainly accumulated some gems worth passing down. 

"I for my part am not one of those who have innate knowledge. I am simply one who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it." -Confucius

"He who by reanimating the old can gain knowledge of the new is fit to be a teacher." -Confucius

Confucius lived around 500 B.C. and is considered one of the founding figures in Chinese philosophy. Yet he claimed that most of his knowledge was more ancient still, from books which are now lost.

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