Walking is a revolutionary act

It seems that not even a poster campaign featuring rappers, basketball players, and cartoon characters can provide the encouragement needed to incite young people to read today. In spite of L.L. Cool J’s best efforts, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress test scores revealed that a shocking 60% of 4th graders scored below their grade level in reading. One recent poll found that almost half of American teenagers read other than assigned school reading less than twice a year. Perhaps the problem is larger and runs deeper than a celebrity can solve by having his picture taken with an open book. Perhaps, indeed, those celebrities are part of the problem. Reading is not declining because schools are worsening, though they are, nor because children cannot relate to the books available to them, as those who have made a bad situation worse sometimes assert. Instead, the problem is, ultimately, at the root of modern society.

Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” envisions a dystopian future in which taking an evening stroll is a crime. Instead, people are expected to rush to work in the morning, rush back home after the end of the work day, and spend their evenings in the glow of their television sets. While it is, as of 15 November 2014, still legal, to a limited extent, to take an evening stroll, the dystopian future Bradbury envisions is not too far distant from reality. According to a recent report by Nielsen, the average American spends a stunning five hours a day watching television. Americans, it seems, are just too busy to read a good book. They are busy watching the celebrities who pretended to read for a photograph encouraging children to read.

One recent study concluded that living in a household with a 500-book library accelerated the reading levels of children by an average of 3.2 years. Given that a book can be purchased for less than a dollar at most thrift stores, a 500-book library is surely as affordable as a new television. Yet almost every American home has a television, but not a 500-book library. In fact, almost none of the families Americans watch on television have 500-book libraries either.

The problem is quite clear. We live in a society that has developed a disdain for reading. We live increasingly busy and technologized lives. When we return home from the ratrace, we park ourselves in front of the television. Rather than taking a walk, we sit on the couch. Rather than having a lively family dinner discussion, almost half of American children eat dinner in front of the television. A society without home libraries, evening strolls, family discussions, and the sacredness of a communal meal is not a society conducive to the life of the mind. It is a society which has, through more if not through legal fiat, become the dystopia Bradbury imagined.

The helplessness and hopelessness invoked by Bradbury’s story is sure to bite into anyone who laments the loss of the very essence of humanity in the acts of reading, discussing, walking, and eating. This is especially true as there is no easy solution. There is no new curriculum proposed by any particular politician nor any photograph of a celebrity that will solve this problem. There is only the radical countercultural act of taking an evening stroll.

The Myth of a Golden Age

Those with a love for old books and the immutability of truth exhibited by their continued relevance even after many years often long for a restoration of the “good old days” they find in these immortal volumes. It is a great irony that nostalgia for a murkily remembered “golden age,” however, is as perennial as the actual existence of said golden age is lacking. Some of the best of these old books are themselves examples of this desire for a restoration of the glories of a mythological past, themselves written as arguments against the perennially present opponents of the perennial. Among these is John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon, a 12th century explanation and defense of liberal education.

John addresses his arguments to one “Cornificius,” a man who all too closely resembles contemporary peddlers of postmodern utopias. Like those today who scoff at the wisdom of the past, Cornificius, says John, “boasts that he has a shortcut whereby he will make his disciples eloquent without the benefit of any art, and philosophers without the need of any work” (14). In this, John’s enemy Cornificius sounds very much like the neo-pedagogues who set children to the task of “creative writing” without first requiring of them any of the immersion in the classics and any of the painstaking acquisition of the rules of grammar which once made great writers great. “Behold, all things were ‘renovated,” John says of Cornificius’ school, in a passage which might be recited today about our neo-pedagogues without any alteration or amendation, “grammar was [completely] made over; logic was remodeled; rhetoric was despised. Discarding the rules of their predecessors, they brought forth new methods for the whole Quadrivium from the innermost sanctuaries of philosophy” (16).

In the face of this, John feels the yearning for better days long ago which all of his ilk, the lovers of eternal truths, feel. “‘To revive golden yesterdays and return to happier years,’” says John, “would, as Seneca muses, be ‘most pleasant’” (203). The sensitive and intelligent reader, along with John and Seneca, feels this longing too, and rightly so. If such “golden yesterdays” filled with philosophers, lovers of wisdom in the truest sense, actually existed sometime somewhere, would it not have been the most wonderful place and period in all of the annals of mankind? Alas, it is not so. Continuing, John writes that he is “oppressed by a bitter sadness, owing partly to the realization that the good old days have gone” (ibid.). They have not gone, however; it is, rather, that they never existed. John seems here to overlook the irony of quoting Seneca, a philosopher who lived more than a thousand years before John’s time, in a reminiscence about “the good old days.” It might equally be wondered just what “golden yesterdays” Seneca himself was referring to when he wrote. Surely he could not have had in mind any era in which the mass of people lived virtuous lives and sought truth through reason, as both John and Seneca, as well as any sensible reader of either author, would have them do. Such a time, wonderful though it might have been had it actually occurred, is not be found in any period of the history of the world. A society of philosophers is not a real place, but the glorious product of Plato’s vivid imagination.

Of course, John and Seneca are not the first nor are they the last to fantasize about a golden age. It is, in fact, the widespread indulgence in this very fantasy which has produced those periods in history that most closely resemble a golden age. The monks who preserved the great heritage of Greco-Roman civilization through the Dark Age which followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD were indulging this very fantasy when they copiously compiled and copied the many manuscripts of Greek and Roman philosophy, poetry, and literature preserved in their monasteries. The architects of the Carolingian Renaissance and the other medieval renaissances which followed it were engaging in the same sort of indulgence in the fantasy of a golden age. The very name “Holy Roman Empire,” which attached itself to the empire at the center of these renaissances is itself an indulgence in this fantasy. Perhaps most famous of all is the indulgence in this fantasy by the great figures of the Italian Renaissance, who one and all looked back with admiration and longing to a bygone era which existed only in their own minds.

The modern man, the Cornificius, in whatever era he might live, however, recognizes these fantasies as false and forsakes them altogether. Instead, he proposes that man reorient himself from the past to the future to shape his activities in the present. In Cornificius, we encounter our modern Darwinians and Nietzscheans. They have rejected the myth that men are the descendants of the gods in favor of the myth that men are the ancestors of the gods.

The greatest irony of all, however, is that these visionaries of a “brave new world” and prophets of a coming utopia are the architects of the greatest periods of decline and destruction the world has yet seen. The whole history of the 20th century is a monotonous horror story of failed utopias forged in the blood of the masses they were supposed to liberate. The countless bodies of the 20th century’s utopian regimes in Hitler’s Europe, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, and Kim Il-Sung’s Korea, to mention only but a very few of the many great utopian hopes, are sacrifices at the altar of the myth of the future. If the golden age of the past is a dream, the golden age of the future is a nightmare.

The great and unforgivable blunder in all utopian visions, including the ostensibly slightly less genocidal visions to be found amidst the ruins of what once were America’s best universities, is in fact in their rejection of the myth of the golden age. It is in this “noble lie” that the real hope for man’s future is found, albeit through his past. As John of Salisbury so eloquently informs us, “our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our own natural ability, but because we are supported by the [mental] strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers” (167). Our ancestors are frequently dismissed for their lack of the knowledge and technology we possess today, yet our possession of this knowledge and technology is due to the work of our ancestors. To reject them for their ignorance is easy, but foolish. John directs us to the work of the wise; “scholars of our own day,” he says, “drawing inspiration and strength from Aristotle, are adding to the latter’s findings many new reasons, and rules equally as certain as those he himself enunciated” (177). If we would indeed forge a better future, it is our task to build upon the work of our ancestors, not to overturn it. And if we are to build upon it, we must first immerse ourselves in it and acquaint ourselves with it thoroughly. We must long for a return to the “golden age” they enjoyed. We must, in short, read old books. And what better old book to read than John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon, an old book which is a celebration of old books?

Reading History (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.3)

Although reading history and reading works of fiction like novels are similar in that both involve reading stories, there is one very important difference: reading history involves reading stories that true. Because of this difference, history should be read differently from other sorts of books you might read. Reading history involves reading carefully. We are trying to get to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In order to do that we have to read historical texts and texts about history in a way that lets us notice all of the details and allows us to tell when a source might be wrong or might be leaving out something important. It will be helpful here to recall the three kinds of sources discussed in your previous reading and take a look at an example of each.

A primary source is a historical text written by an eyewitness or someone very close to an eyewitness. These are the texts that get us closest to the actual historical event we want to learn about. Primary sources might be books, letters, or nearly anything else; historians even use pictures students have written on their desks as primary sources! Here is an eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, from a letter written by a doctor to his friend:

That night was the only time that I have been to the Theatre since I came here and then partly to see Mr. Lincoln and Gen Grant.  I took a seat in the dress circle near the Presidents Box.  Saw Booth enter the box   heard the report of the pistol   then saw him jump from the box with his draw[n] dagger and rush across the stage  I immediately ran to the box and there saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back   on one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris.  The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a Surgeon while the others there were standing crying for Stimulant water etc not one going for anything.  While going towards him I sent one for Brandy and another for Water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon.[1]

As you can see, Dr. Leale, the author of the letter in which this paragraph is found, was not only present on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated but was also the first doctor to try to help Lincoln after the President had been shot. You can probably tell that Dr. Leale is very emotional as he writes about what happened that evening. The emotions he is feeling have an effect on how he remembers the events.

Now, let us take a look at a secondary source. This is part of the description of Lincoln’s assassination in a book written in 1995 by David Herbert Donald, a historian:

Though the draperies concealed the President so that he could only be seen when he leaned forward, the Lincolns appeared to enjoy the play. When the actors scored hits, Mary applauded, but her husband simply laughed heartily. A man seated in the orchestra observed that Mrs. Lincoln often called the President’s attention to actions on the stage and “seemed to take great pleasure in witnessing his enjoyment.” Seated so close to her husband that she was nestled against him, she whispered: “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” With a smile he replied: “She wont think anything about it.”

One of the most predictable crowd-pleasers of the play came during the second scene of the third act, when Mrs. Mountchessington, learning that Asa Trenchard has given away his inheritance, denounces him for not knowing how to behave and makes a haughty exit. Asa’s lines read: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap.” The laughter and burst of applause almost covered the sound of a shot in the presidential box.[2]

In these paragraphs, Donald has taken a few different primary sources and brought them together to tell a story that is all his own. He repeats the description of “a man seated in the orchestra,” who saw Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln whispering to each other during the play. He also is able to tell us what sorts of things they were saying to each other. He could not have gotten this information from the man in the orchestra, who would have been down near the stage and not up on the balcony with the Lincolns. Perhaps he read about it in something Mrs. Lincoln herself wrote about that night. He also quotes a line from the play that the Lincolns were watching that evening, a comedy called Our American Cousin. He probably got this information by reading a copy of the script. That is at least three different primary sources that Donald put together in those two short paragraphs. He used these primary sources to make his own story out of them and to write what he believes happened that night. Like a detective, he put together all of the clues and, like a storyteller, he wrote about his conclusions in a way that is interesting and informative.

Finally, we will take a look at a tertiary source. A tertiary source is usually a dictionary or an encyclopedia. In fact, what you are reading right is a tertiary source. These types of sources take the stories that historians write and bring them together to present a very simple version of things that gives just a few facts without much detail. Here is what the Chambers Dictionary of World History has to say about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

He was re-elected in 1864; after the final Northern victory he proposed to reunite the nation on the most generous terms, but on 14 Apr 1865 he was shot at Ford’s Theater, in Washington DC, by an actor, John Wilkes Booth, and died next morning. He immediately became a national hero, and is regarded as one of the finest symbols of American democracy.[3]

You may have noticed that the entry in the dictionary is very short and to-the-point. The purpose of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and similar sources of information is not to give you a lot of detail or to provide an entertaining story, but to give you just a few facts to get you started. This is why dictionaries and encyclopedias are okay to begin with but primary sources, the real historical documents, and secondary sources, the things historians have written about those historical documents, are what a person who reads about history should be spending most of their time with.

You will be reading a number of primary and secondary sources in this course, as well as a few tertiary sources. As you read each of these texts, try to figure out what category of sources it fits into: is it primary, secondary, or tertiary? This will help you figure out how to read it. With all of these sources, read carefully. Remember to keep an eye out for detail. Think about all of the things that might have an effect on how the person is telling the story: their emotions and beliefs about it, what they were able to see from where they were, and so on. Keep in mind that everyone, whether an eyewitness or a historian, has beliefs. These beliefs lead them to understand things in different ways. We have to consider the beliefs of the people whose writings we are reading in order to understand them better.

You should also keep in mind that when reading history some of the beliefs you will encounter will seem strange to you. When you read about people who lived a very long time ago in places very far away the way they lived their lives can see like something from another world. In order to understand them, however, we should be careful about judging them too harshly. While we can disagree with them, we should also try to understand why they believed what they did and appreciate those beliefs as one way of living a human life, no matter how different from the way we live ours now.

What is especially important is that you try to bring all of the information from your sources together to be able to tell the story in your own way. This is where being both a detective and a storyteller comes in. Figure out how different facts fit to together and create your own story that you believe is the closest to the truth. Then, tell that story.

 

Review Questions

1.  In your own words, explain how reading history is different from reading other stories.

 

Notes

[1] Charles Augustus Leale to Dwight Dudley, May 28, 1865, Shapell Manuscript Foundation, http://www.shapell.org/manuscript.aspx?earliest-first-responder-report-doctor-leale-abraham-lincoln-fords-theatre-assassination.

[2] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 595-596.

[3] Chambers Dictionary of World History, s.v. “Lincoln, Abraham.”