Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Uncle Screwtape (in Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis):
But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn’t bother about that. Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.
The Historical Point of View doesn’t care whether a great book teaches us something true. But at least sometimes it does make an honest effort to explain the meaning of a great book. Sometimes scholars don’t even seem to care much about doing that.
I once wrote a paper on Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology that was rejected by a philosophy journal on the grounds that it didn’t explain anything to scholars that no scholars had ever known before.
Did it matter that probably five or fewer scholars, out of hundreds who had written on the topic, actually understood more than a fraction of it? Did it matter that none of them had ever written it down before? Did it matter that thousands of scholars care about this topic but don’t understand the heart of it? Did it matter that hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of people care about this topic but don’t have anywhere to go to read a comprehensible introduction to the heart of it? Did it matter that I’m apparently the only one on the planet who bothered to write that introduction?
No, apparently that didn’t matter.
Anyway, back to The Historical Point of View. This is a terrific take-down of academics by Uncle Screwtape. He continues:
And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.
What could be more timely than this? The left wants to “contextualize” Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. I don’t know what that means. If it means we should understand their context, I’m all for it. (Conservatives have been saying that for years.) And I’m all for understanding ourselves in context too. It’s not like we aren’t dirty rotten sinners as well.
What’s our best chance of knowing when someone like George Washington was a pitiful sinner while also knowing when we are?
I think our best chance is to read old books.
Try to figure out what they actually mean, using the official scholarly debate on what they mean as a sometimes-useful (but usually expendable) means to that end. And look for truth in what they mean; there is often rather a lot of it.Published in