Recently, when asked about what books I am reading, I shared a few titles — all written by people long dead. I joked that I was not on the cutting-edge. The fact is that reading dead people is a vital discipline. It is not that it is wrong to read contemporary works or today’s bestsellers, but in a culture biased toward all things new and shiny, there is great value to making a regular habit of reading dead people.
Nothing New Under the Sun
I like to joke that I have not encountered an idea for which there is not a 3000-year-old example. The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9–10, ESV). While this comes from a 3000-year-old text, my conviction about its truthfulness has only grown the more I read ancient texts.
Our technologies may differ from the past. However, let me pause and note these are only enhancements of old technologies. And when you think about it, they are only extensions or imitations of engineering already found in the natural world. For example, our advances in artificial intelligence, as the name implies, is only the imitation or extension of our natural intelligence. Microscopes and telescopes only extend and enhance the technology already present in our eyes. My claim, however, is not about technology. It is about ideas, beliefs and values.
It was in reading Josephus, a first-century historian, that I saw that the ideas many of our freshman students debate about the sovereignty of God and human freewill are not substantively different from the ideas posed by their sixteenth-century namesakes (i.e., Calvin, Molina, Arminius), and are some of the very ideas that distinguished the sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus: the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes (see Josephus, "Antiquities" 13:171–172). Nothing is new!
Moreover, has the most common argument against Christianity been significantly improved upon from its ancient formulation by Epicurus in the third century BC (which comes to us by way of another dead philosopher, David Hume)? “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”1 Seems the same as what I hear today.
Reading dead people and getting a historical perspective on ideas helps us to see today’s ideas in the context of a long conversation. Ideas that seem new are actually old. Reading dead people and getting this historical perspective has alleviated much personal anxiety about certain ideas. It has also given some deeper resources to respond because our responses are not new either.
Avoiding the Fallacies of Time
There are two fallacies of time. One is the belief that ideas are true or good because they are new. One encounters this fallacy every time someone says, “It is 2022! How can people still believe that?” The assumption underlying this statement is that progress is inevitable with the mere passage of time. We are smarter than those living in the past. We are more enlightened than people in the past. We are more moral than people in the past. It has been my experience, however, that reading the people of the past generates the opposite sense.
The second fallacy is the belief that things are true or good because they are old. This is the fallacy of traditionalism, which looks backward to the “good old days” and laments the trends of the present. This is the “these kids today” perspective.
If reading dead people cures one of thinking that we are so much better and smarter than the generations of the past, reading dead people also cures one of looking upon the past with rose-colored glasses. Again, the 3000-year-old wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this,” (Ecclesiastes 7:10, ESV).
Vaccinating Against Disinformation
This summer, in the spirit of the age, I decided to read two classic dystopian novels from two dead authors of the mid-20th century: George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” I read another dead prophet from the late 20th century, Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”), and serendipitously discovered a connection previously unknown to me. Postman summarizes and analyzes the differences between these two authors’ visions of the future. Both Orwell and Huxley wrote about oppression coming by ruling forces disconnecting people from the past but in radically different ways. Orwell pictured state control through re-writing history, while Huxley wrote of technocrats controlling by keeping the people distracted with ever-ready pleasures. Postman summarizes:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”2
Whoever we decide described our world more accurately, important to both was having a clear-eyed connection with the past. Understanding the past was an essential antidote to the lies of tyranny. Perhaps, we would do well to set down the phone and turn off the news from time-to-time and enjoy reading some dead people.
Many have their hopes pinned to the new, the novel, and the cutting-edge. That is, there is inevitable progress such that the answers to our questions and the solutions to our problems lie in the abandonment of the old and the adoption of the new. For others, their fears lie in a kind of lamentation over the past we have lost.
Neither is entirely wrong, but both can suffer from a loss of perspective. I have found that regularly keeping some dead people in my reading mix has helped to alleviate my fears and to see the present with a little perspective. My hope is that this practice could help you as well.
1 Justin P. McBrayer, Daniel Howard-Snyder, The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013).
2 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th anniversary ed (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.