Surprised By The Classics

The Information Age is unlike any other time in history. The sharing of ideas can be achieved instantaneously across the globe in a rapidly ever-changing marketplace of opinion. Is there still a reason we should look at those who came before us to examine their wisdom and knowledge? After all, does not modern technological achievements prove the present is the pinnacle of progress in all areas? Yes, there is still reason to look to the past. We must guard against our ‘chronological snobbery’, a term coined by C.S. Lewis for giving priority to newer ideas simply on the merit they are new all the while dismissing older ideas simply because they are old. Chronological snobbery carries an assumption that mankind is always progressing, always moving ‘forward’ in all areas of life; therefore those who came before have nothing new to say that we have not already used and processed for today’s benefit, they are ‘out of date’. Referring to older ideas in his autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy’, Lewis states:

“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (Lewis, pg 207,208).

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Along with choronological snobbery, intellectual elitism is another danger to raise awareness on. In her essay ‘The Necessity of the Classics’, Louise Cowan touches on the need to bring the classics back from an elite group of ‘experts’ into the hands and understanding of everyone. In addressing this ivory tower approach to classics she states:

“In this way, all the genuine classics, all poetry, is being “killed.” By detaching themselves from the texts and yet mastering their every detail, by avoiding assertions, generalizations, and affirmations, by scorning anyone who dares to speak of one of these works without himself being an expert—and, more recently, by purporting to find in these works exclusions, stereotypes, and subterranean messages of dominance— scholars have turned the classics into philological and semiotic quarry. The classics are thus hunted down by specialists who can kill from a great distance by a single shot—kill, that is, by negating their intrinsic meaning, quibbling about esoteric details, rendering it impossible for anyone but fellow specialists to read the texts in question. These masterpieces are thus off-limits for the general reader. And certainly the ordinary college student cannot even obtain the license to hunt”. (Cowan, pg 10)

Cowan and Lewis recognize the importance of weighing and evaluating ideas themselves; removing the prejudices of the age of the ideas and the perception that critiquing and enjoying is only reserved for a select few.

As we journey into the restoration of our love for literature by making the classics accessible, let us not fall into being reverse-chronological snobs, and let us be confident that this is accessible for all.

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