Why read old books? I don’t think the primary answer is knowledge of the past or knowledge of history. I believe that the primary answer is that old books form us morally. In order to explore this question, we begin by exploring the assumption here; that the purpose of reading old books is moral formation. We continue by addressing how that helps us answer the question, “Why read old books?” My goal here is not to merely encourage the reading of old books, but to provide a way through which to judge the effectiveness of old books. I am for reading old books, but I want to back up a little bit and look at the reading of old books within the purpose of education as a whole.
Before I go into some specifics, I should mention that this is not true of all old books. Many old books can be read for insight into how people thought in the past, but there is an old corpus that we read for the purpose of moral formation. That is to say, the books we should read are also the books that are valuable for developing wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to discern the path of excellence. There are many old books out there that do not contain any such wisdom.
If you ask your students to read certain books, my argument is that the first question to ask is, “Will these books instill virtue into my students?” Certainly, other aspects are important. Will these books give my students insight into history, into the story of civilizations? We might ask, “will these books place my students; give them a place in the conversation, in the history of civilization?” These are good questions to keep in mind, but moral formation should still be at the center of how we choose old books.
This moral formation, is of course, deeply connected to these other questions. It is only through understanding one’s place in history, that one is able to practice ethics in a responsible manner. Even though certain aspects of ethics are eternal, their particularity depends on practice. In Presbyterian language, there is a “general equity” (the central principles of justice and mercy), which is applied through reason to many different places and times. This helps to explain why literature other than scripture is also helpful for moral formation. The thoughts of theologians, philosophers, and artists give us wisdom in making choices.
My central case for an education centered around moral formation comes from the New Testament. There Jesus says these words: “A student will be like his teacher.” Jesus is the great teacher and he wants his disciples to become like him. It is the same with Christians today. Christians are called to look to Jesus as their ultimate teacher and learn virtue from him.
Jesus’ argument applies to all student-teacher relationships. A student learns from a teacher through imitation as much as through lectures. He sees the teacher’s love for his subject. He sees the academic integrity of the teacher. By analogy, we can see that a parent is a type of teacher; and no-one doubts that children imitate their parents. Parents use teachers in order to supplement their lack; so that their children can learn from many counselors.
An old book, on the other hand, represents a very old teacher. Teachers give young peoples books in order to supplement their own lack; a lack because the book represents a mind that is distinct from the teacher. The book supplements what the living, breathing teacher is providing. The goal is that the student would learn from the author of the book, not just facts, but a moral vision; a way to see the world that can be amalgamated into the thought of the young man or woman. If we want our children to have good teachers, we need to give them good books.
Why is it so important to see old books as moral formation? Not only does this inform the way teachers teach, but it informs the way we choose literature for young people to read. The modern textbook, with some exceptions, is not great for moral formation. One helpful category for selection is Charlotte Mason’s argument for “living books.” These are books that exemplify an excitement and a love by the author for what he is teaching.
Why are old books especially helpful for this? A selection of old books are helpful in that these book are the ones our fathers valued the most. They are the sources of our fathers’ moral formation and therefore in some sense the sources of our moral formation. This also ties into what we mentioned earlier: that moral formation also consists in connecting one to his place in history and his place in the conversation that carries on between thinkers in history. These reasons for reading old books should be subsidiary to the center of education; instilling virtue. Old books also carry us to a different place in history so we can learn to interact with those who think very differently from ourselves. These benefits help the student as he grows in wisdom and knowledge.
This doesn’t mean that the student may not critique. Rather he engages with the author so that through the engagement the author will form his mind. If a book fails in engaging the mind in a way that instills virtue that book is no longer valuable to the reader.
When we answer the question, “Why read old books?” with “for moral formation.” It changes the dynamic of the conversation. Though other reasons for reading old books are valuable, such as historical insight or engaging with a mind from a distant era, they do not get at the center of what education is about. I would argue that if we are to argue for reading old books, we must begin with a demonstration of how they encourage virtue in young people.