For starters, read about the great men and women
Merely by thinking about certain sorts of people at all . . . we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think and feel. Iain McGilchrist
Ask a college professor this question:
“Did Moses write the Torah or did the Torah write Moses?” She’ll reply, “The Torah wrote Moses.”
She’d objectively reject the idea that Moses wrote the Torah on grounds that modern scholarship universally rejects that traditional belief. It’s a respectable position.
She’d gleefully embrace your phrasing, “The Torah wrote Moses.” That’s not respectable.
The principle embodied in that ironic phase is this: There are no great men and women. There are only men and women who are projected by the structures of their culture into greatness.
The implication of that principle is this: The great men and women didn’t tap into something beyond themselves, into transcendence or the permanent things, to attain greatness. They were merely projections of their time and place. . . . and, therefore, are irrelevant to us today
The upshot of this is the slur, “dead white man,” as in, “I don’t care what a bunch of dead white men said about X, Y, or Z. This is the 2020s.”
It’s a shame.
For starters, it’s simply wrong. The great men and women were in touch with truths that transcended their time and place.
Consider the Athenian lawgiver, Solon. This philosopher, poet, and statesman gave Athens laws based on the principle that humans incline toward illusion, that the greedy pursuit of wealth is the greatest illusion, and that human excellence can be found only in obedience to a universal order that transcends time and space.
His was a beautiful vision that resonates today. It was not anchored to his time and place, which is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that his legal reforms failed in the short term (his time and place) but succeeded in the long run.
The idea that there have not been great men and women also stunts us. It might be the biggest reason that postmoderns are destined to be intellectual and moral midgets like the Antifa minions: they refuse, in the words of Isaac Newton, to sit atop the shoulders of the giants who came before them.
Such an idea also kills biography: if great men and women are merely projections of the structures of their time and place, there’s not much reason to read about them.
That’s really sad. Biographical reading is important, maybe crucial.
“No habit is so important to acquire,” Aristotle wrote, as the ability “to delight in fine characters and noble actions.” The 20th-century mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead agreed, saying, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.”
I would hope such consistent testimony by two men who are very disparate in time and place would be enough to convince everyone that we need to read biography.
But of course, they are both dead white men and ignorant of science in the 21st century, so maybe their concurring testimony won’t convince everyone.
Maybe we can add the testimony of a 21st-century philosopher, doctor, and scientist: Iain McGilchrist. Neuropsychology, says McGilchrist, shows that merely “by thinking about certain sorts of people at all . . . we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think and feel.” The Master and His Emissary, p. 28 (emphasis original).
We never needed cutting-edge science to explain this to us. “For 2,500 years,” David Brooks recently wrote, “educators knew that the core of their mission was to bring students into contact with heroes like Pericles, Socrates and Leonidas.”
It’s why “Plutarch” is still a household name today. Many people probably wouldn’t know who he was or that he wrote the definitive biographical collection of classical Greece and Rome (Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans), but his name still echoes.
It’s another example of how the Roman Catholic Church has always been on the cutting edge. That’s paradoxical to many people, but it’s true. The Church is steeped in tradition and is also on the cutting edge. It always has been and always will be. It can’t be otherwise, since it is the earthly embodiment of the eternal, which transcends time. Therefore, it encompasses past and future.
And the Church has always emphasized the importance of reading about the saints. Its earliest forms of literature celebrated the first Christians, especially the martyrs. Its greatest writers have taken stabs at writing about the saints: Augustine, Chesterton, Waugh, Bernanos. One of the best-known pop writers of the 20th century, Clare Boothe Luce, converted to Catholicism and almost immediately solicited a group of modern thinkers to write about their favorite saints (Saints for Now (1952)).
From current science to Aristotle, from the teachings of the Catholic Church to Alfred North Whitehead, the message is pretty clear: read biography.
If you’re not sure where to start, I’d recommend you start with something obvious: choose great subjects. Do you really want to become like Hitler and Stalin, or even like LBJ or Richard Nixon? Do you care to become a pop star like Whitney Houston? I hope not, so don’t read about them.
I’d also recommend you stay away from any subject that hasn’t been dead for at least 75 years. Here’s the thing: the postmodernists have a point. Some people are great because they’re in the right time and place. Those are the “pop greats,” those big names of today that are forgotten tomorrow. Don’t waste your time reading about them, and the best way to avoid that risk is to make sure the subject has been dead for at least 75 years.
Now, granted, such subjects — from the evil to the pop — can be interesting. I admit: I’ve read and enjoyed “shallow” biographies, like those of Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Johnny Carson, and Jack Dempsey. They were interesting. But that’s it. Just “interesting.” None of their lives elevated my mind or soul.
You need subjects that elevate. Subjects that transcend their milieu. There are thousands, and they crisscross time and cultures. Pick a few that interest you and dive in.
But focus on the saints who, by definition, transcend.
You won’t be disappointed.
A few of my favorite saint’s lives:
- Robert Payne, The Holy Fire
- Henri Gheon, St. Martin
- E.I. Watkin, Neglected Saints
- Clare Boothe Luce, ed., Saints for Now
- Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts