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How the Classics Can Calm Our Nerves

The first step to growth—and happiness—is humility.
December 12, 2020
How the Classics Can Calm Our Nerves

America is cooped up and petulant. The combination of a pandemic and presidential election has turned our homes and even our minds into echo chambers of the soul. We can’t get out of our own heads, and it shows.

People are angry at each other. The result, of course, isn’t just more argument and raw nerves, but more sanctimony. More absolute, chin-out hubris that we are always right, always morally pure, and always more clever than our dim-witted neighbors.

This impulse for moral preening and boorish one-dimensional thinking will only diminish when we realize we don’t know as much as we think. Or as the great physicist Richard Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself. And you’re the easiest person to fool!”

Poll after poll confirms that Americans (and not just Americans) believe some outrageous things and don’t believe some very provable things. We lack curiosity: We stop listening to new music somewhere around age 33 and our reading drops off a lot after our formal education is over. Most of us lack basic math skills, we’re financially illiterate, we’re regularly bamboozled by scams, and our powers of reasoning are, to put it mildly, limited, especially when logic and facts come into conflict with our political beliefs.

But we can overcome this and fix our corrupted culture of overconfidence. As the great mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes put it: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

More recently, British atheist and intellectual provocateur Christopher Hitchens put it: “It is only when you have grazed on the lower slopes of your own ignorance, and begun to understand the great vistas of non-knowledge that you have, that you can claim to have been educated at all.”

How do we invest our time in a vast national project for the discovery of our own ignorance—and its gentle reduction?

Americans don’t like to be reminded that we are limited in any way. But that can be corrected by a communal movement of aspiration to self-improvement (which is at the heart of most great American social movements). In the middle of the last century, Americans—prodded by Mortimer Adler and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, joined a Great Books project. Millions bought the classics and great novels and may have read some of them. Even the mayor of Chicago declared a “Great Books Week” in the city.

Today’s intellectuals mock such communal efforts as middle-brow at best, or a form of white-male neo-colonialism at worst. But they’re wrong. Great ideas never go out of style, they don’t belong to any race, and classical works by their nature are universal and will bring us together as a people.

A widespread rediscovery of the classics could have proved valuable as we headed into the pandemic. The whole country, locked inside, could easily have warmed to online introductions of great classical thinkers—not lectures, but well-produced biographies, dramatic portrayals and renderings. Look at what “The Queen’s Gambit” is doing for chess and what “The Last Dance” did for Michael Jordan. Imagine what Netflix could do for Aristophanes, Cervantes, and Dante!

But what would really help things is if Americans dove into the original texts and gathered to talk about what they read. In tents outside churches and community centers, in the parking lots next to soccer fields as our kids play, at backyard barbecues, and when it’s safe again, indoors. All in fellowship. All without the preening show-offs and pretentious blowhards who have wrapped great knowledge in the impenetrable jargon of academic journals.

Let’s talk about great books in simple words that everyone can understand. Our efforts must begin with the classical education found in the great Western canon, rooted deeply in the great Hebrew, Christian, Roman, and Greek thinkers who were so central to the discovery of scientific and moral truths. But not only the West: We should draw as well on valuable contributions from China, Persia, India, and the Muslim world. And then, of course, the great Russian writers with their capacity for unpacking the hardest truths of life itself. These great thinkers, prophets, writers, and lyricists have seen it all: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The exercise would be bracing. The classics inveigh against confident ignorance. In work after work, page after page, they revel in mocking the natural human instinct for laziness and illogic. The Greek myths are replete with stories of human frailty and weakness.

But the classics tell a deeper story, too—of mankind overcoming these frailties. Sacred scriptures tell the story of mankind’s hope in the face of evil and empire. Socrates talks of the enduring bonds of love despite betrayal. In great works, in great novels, and in the great thinkers, there is no easy slogan, just the hard slog. Life is complex. Interesting, but complex.

Imagine an America where neighbors gather to read the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety with fresh eyes and an open heart—without fear of conversion or political interpretation? Or to discuss The Odyssey’s enduring truths about family and home? How would Aristotle define the responsibilities of leaders and citizens in an age of pandemic? What can Epictetus teach us about how to overcome barriers of race?

The great works of art often serve as a historical mirror for scientific discovery and cultural emphasis. From the symmetrical work of the ancient Egyptians to the Baroque delicacy that met the eye of Isaac Newton, the canon is filled with projects benefitting humankind in endless ways.

Where would it lead? Maybe everyone would go to the same place they are now. That’s fine. But if America embraced the classics, both ancient and modern, recognizing our own vast ignorance of what has come before us, perhaps the conversations that follow would be more civil, more nuanced, more interesting, and most of all, happier.

Thomas Chiapelas

Thomas Chiapelas serves on the board of a Jesuit high school in St. Louis.