Talking to the Dead

I am listening to a great “Teaching Company” series on Western Literature.   (BTW – you never have to pay full price for these things.  They always go on sale.)  Western literature traditions are a little out of style these days, which is a shame because the great literature really does speak to us across the centuries.   A good education has to include some knowledge of the classics and nothing can become a classic until it has been well-known enough for a long enough time to influence thought and literature in a broad sense.   In other words, no matter how great something written a couple of years ago may be, it cannot have the power of older literature.   Maybe it is a future classic, but it is not a classic yet.

Literature extends influence beyond the grave

The guy giving the lectures explained that literature is a way of talking to the dead and getting an intergenerational perspective.  I was thinking about that as I drove down to the farm last weekend.   I was listening to “Infotopia,” by Cass Sunstein.   He was talking about markets, in the broad sense to include markets for attitudes and ideas and how they aggregate the opinions and attitudes of many minds.  Literature is like that.    He mentioned that the great economist Fredrick Hayek had contended that traditions are a type of market too and you have to be careful changing established relationships, since they are essentially long-term distilled experience, a record of how people adjusted and adapted to problems over the years.   Edmund Burke made a similar observation about morality.   I did too.  When I wrote my note Found in Translation I didn’t directly recall my literature professors or Hayek or Burke, but don’t doubt that is where the ideas originated.   One of the benefits of a liberal education is that you learn all these things and if they sink in early enough and deep enough you come to think of them as your own.   There not any really new ideas; just restatements of and new compilations. 


The funny thing is that those w/o the “useless” liberal education often believe they thought them up for the first time.   And they often get away with it.  Many best-selling authors and highly paid speakers recycle old stuff.  I suppose they sometimes do it consciously, other times not.    You tend to get the classics in the watered down version.  I remember reading the science fiction “Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov.  I recognized it back then as a allegory of the fall of the Roman Empire.  What I didn’t get at the time was how closely the second foundation tracked with Boethius on the consolation of philosophy. Asimov was an educated man, so I think he did it on purpose.   Generations of Sci-Fi fans have essentially read Boethius.    

BTW – I first came met Boethius way back in 1975. You can go through college w/o ever coming into contact with him at all, since he has largely “fallen out of the cannon.”  I got to know him when studying Chaucer.  Boethius was a much bigger deal in the Middle Ages than he has been more recently and if you study the philosophy surrounding Chaucer’s writings, you run into Boethius. I mostly forgot about him for the last … oh thirty years. I was reminded of the details of his death by the audio program.  It was dreadful, but I guess it helped secure his position as a martyr.  After he fell afoul of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric and was executed by having wet leather straps wrapped around his head. The straps contracted as they dried and crushed his brain. It must have been very unpleasant and it is an example of man’s inhumanity to man. What kind of guy even thinks of that?  I mean really, was there a bunch of guys sitting around thinking of novel uses for wet leather straps and ones gets the eureka moment?   Well, hey, we can use these leather straps to wrap this guy’s head.

Old literature and new persuasion

I am thinking of “new” media and the arts of public diplomacy persuasion in my last couple of posts, since I am doing the FSI course on that subject, but I think this fits right in.   Consider the persistence of influence of great literature and how it is so useful to have a compete repertoire of literary images, motifs and metaphors.   After all, not only are they time-tested but they also lurk in the subconscious of our culture waiting to be revealed.  It is a good lesson in this ostensibly fast-changing world that some things move slowly but have profound influence and create sustainable structure and technologies of the mind.

And the delivery mechanism is very much new media. I get these lectures over the Internet and download them onto my I-pod.  This I-pod is smaller than a matchbox, yet can probably hold a full college curriculum of courses and lectures, along with supplementary texts. Sweet.  But how does that delivery method change how the classics are received and how about who receives them?  An old guy like me is unlikely to get them from a college professor standing in front of him.  The whole relationship to knowledge is changing.  That is new media.