Escaping the Echo Chamber of Modernity

Whilst Reading: A Portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the Painter’s Wife (Ivan Kramskoi, 1866)
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 Earlier this year I asked if the ‘great books’ have a place in the 21st century. Jospeh Sobran says that they do:

Dogged readers of my columns will observe that I habitually quote a handful of classic writings, chiefly the Shakespeare works, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and The Federalist Papers. If those readers suspect that these few masterpieces pretty much exhaust my learning, they are correct…. In Mark Twain’s famous definition, a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. Gulp! But those daunting all-time must-reading lists are a little misleading. It can take years to master a single great author. Much of what we “know” about the classics is what we’ve heard about them in advance, and we may not get beyond their reputations until we’ve read them several times.

Yet the few classics I know thoroughly have been invaluable, even in my work as a journalist. To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing.

There are no particular classics, not even Shakespeare, that you “must” read. But you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time.

When you internalize an author whose vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof….

When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.”

But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable.” (emphasis added) [1]

 I agree entirely with Mr. Sobran’s conclusions. There are plenty of reasons to read “the classics,” but one of the most powerful is the sense of perspective it brings. Few things are worse than an echo chamber. From this curse modern technological wonders offer no relief. The internet may have killed geographic parochialism, but it has made an insular intellectual life all the easier. In a world where confirmation bias is just a click away a concerted effort must be made to find and listen to those unafraid to stand against the tide.

Studying ‘old books’ is a perfect way to do this. The classics are sometimes maligned because they do not  reflect the central values or address the concerns of the present moment. This critique misses the mark. The ‘backwardness’ of the classics is exactly why they should be read. In the echo chamber of modernity it is easy to forget just how new and unusual most of modern society’s cherished ideals truly are. It is worth your time to spend a few hours engaging with minds that passionately proclaimed what are now antique ideals. Much can be learned from alien minds that believed honor compelled one to act or that the first role of a leader was to rectify names. So invite Seneca and Caesar into your bedroom; bring Xunzi and Sima Qian to your den. Theirs is a doorway into a world apart — and with it, a window to view your own.


[1] Joseph Sobran. “Reading Old Books.” The Imaginative Conservative.  8 July 2013.  H/t to Isegoria.

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Second Thought, how should other media be used for this purpose? How much of the same lessons could you draw from, say, the paintings of Rembrandt, the Choral Music of the Gregorians, or even modern Television and Film?

I find it hard to believe that the Classical canon of the 21st century as seen from 2300 will not include both film and television. In fact, given the increased prominence of the visual in our culture, might this actually invert at some point, with books being seen as anachronistic inclusions in the visual arts canon, much like Morse Code is seen today?

Just a thought, and not an appealing one, but it seems possible.