Vol. 2, Issue 7
March 26, 2007
Spring is its infancy, summer plans are being made or refined. Many of you are rapidly approaching the end of a semester or academic year, the passing away of your high school or college career, the ending of graduate work or medical and legal studies. All the same people are looking forward to changes and something new, perhaps radically different. But some things never change: there is One Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All things may pass away but not Him. We are currently living in Anno Domini (not CE) 2007, and never till the end of time will there be a year that is not annus Domini. This Emperor's Throne is secure and therefore so are His people.
More on the Church year in the next issue. "Drawn to Water" below is another of my old Credenda essays. I hope you enjoy this bouquet of musings; please forward it to your friends.
IN THIS ISSUE:
1) COGITEM - Drawn to Water
2) DE ASTRIS - Saturn and Leo
3) SIC LOCUTUS: Lewis
COGITEM -- Drawn to Water
You've thought you should read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or maybe Plato's Republic, and you dreaded it. Here's twenty-two year old Winston Churchill's reaction: "all through the glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quitted stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of Polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it . . . and enjoyed it all." And then, "the eighth volume of Gibbon is still unread as I have been lured from its completion by [Read's] The Martyrdom of Man and a fine translation of the Republic of Plato: both of which are fascinating." Devoured? Rode triumphantly? Enjoyed? Lured? Fascinating? Hardly words that we are accustomed to hearing in reference to "classic" literature. But when I read that passage, I began looking around at my shelves to see if I had Gibbon.
We all know that we should read good books and we try to read well. But it is much more difficult to read because you know it is good for you than to read because you want to. Sometimes, of course, you simply must whether you want to or not, and the reading will do you good, and the act of forcing yourself to do something on principle will also do you good.
But isn't it more pleasant when you want to read something good? Of course it is, and you are also more likely to benefit from reading well out of desire rather than compulsion.
The difficulty of course is in making the desire coincide with the good books. Undisciplined desires will, if followed, lead you to books that have little value -- so how can you discipline your desires? One way is to just do it. Books on how and what to read abound. But most people shy away from books of criticism and reading instruction because those sorts of books make reading seem hopelessly esoteric or arduous. Another (albeit less common) danger of books about books is that if the criticism is really good, the reader will come away satisfied with that alone and never encounter the original at all.
There is a different kind of critical advice, the kind that is not meant to be advice at all. This is not prescriptive ("you must read this book because . . ."), but descriptive ("I rode triumphantly through it . . . I have been lured . . ."). It makes you want to read the book not because the author insists on its quality, but because his description of his own experience with it is so appealing that you "fling him impatiently aside," as Lewis says, and rush out to find the original about which he is speaking. One of the surest marks of a good book of criticism is the effect it has on the reader--if the critic drives the reader to put down the critic and seek the original, the critic has done the greatest service; he has drawn the reader's attention, not to himself, but to his subject.
We've heard Churchill; here are two more examples about books you might never expect.
C. S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy how he learned Homeric Greek: "Day after day and month after month we drove gloriously onward, tearing the whole Achilleid out of the Iliad and tossing the rest on one side, and then reading the Odyssey entire, till the music of the thing and the clear, bitter brightness that lives in almost every formula had become part of me." Gloriously, music, brightness -- he is only recounting his own experience, not asking us to learn to read Greek also, but his sheer delight in it makes us want to run out and find a Greek tutor!
Some ancient writers say of Thucydides, the great Greek historian from the Golden Age of Athens, that as a boy he wept when he heard the older historian Herodotus recite from his History at the Olympic Games. Those people who, upon hearing this anecdote, snicker incredulously at the idea of weeping under the spell of great writing, will continue to thirst and perhaps never understand why. But those who gaze off into the middle distance and wonder where they can lay their hands on a copy Herodotus are being drawn to water.
The intellect and imagination are tied together, and the imagination, which longs for and responds to beauty, must be appealed to and trained also, to "discern good from evil." Before a spring can satisfy a man's thirst, he must believe that it will, or he will not drink. The testimony of those whose intellectual passions have been stirred is invaluable, for by it we are drawn to the water.
DE ASTRIS -- Saturn and Leo
By ten o'clock each evening now, the bright "star" you see approaching the meridian very high in the south is actually the planet Saturn. (The meridian is the imaginary line drawn from the north point on your horizon through the point directly over your head to the south point on your horizon.) The moon is approaching Saturn from the right over the next night or two, then will obscure it, then leave it behind, as each night the moon appears further and further to the left (east). Saturn is the most distant of the classical planets (the planets known to mankind before the invention of the telescope) and has always been known to be the farthest away. Just behind Saturn (to the east) is the constellation Leo, the Lion, with the bright star Regulus, one of the Royal Stars. I'll tell the story of Regulus, the great old Roman general, in the next issue.
First-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
--C. S. Lewis, "On the Reading of Old Books," God In The Dock