I never start the day reading what I’m supposed to be reading, though I always end the day that way. To wit, the last things I read last night was §29 of Being and Time on attunement, mood, and affect, and finished reading Franz Neumann’s essay “Anxiety and Politics”. This morning, I pulled a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis of the bookshelf (and IR scholar must go the Ls to retrieve Lebow, after all), and (re)discovered this passage on reading old books. Some quotes:
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will corrected the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who see, most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it….None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.
Never forget that Lewis’s book on Nature and Natural Right, on the Order of the Cosmos – The Abolition of Man – begins with a critique of a children’s grammar book. I’ve unconsciously followed Lewis’s advice (in previous posts here) for reading older books by pitting his understanding of Heart and Thumos against Fukuyama’s End of History, where Fukuyama reads Lewis in a purely material way to shape his argument on progress, science, capitalism, and democracy.
Pedagogically, one his hard pressed to disagree with Lewis’s point that it is far, far, easier for students to read Plato than Platonic scholarship. Students proved this to me earlier this year, in a wholly unexpected way. While designing a course on Cosmopolitanism, I left out a week of readings on the Enlightenment, specifically Lessing and Mendelssohn. But when we read a section from Kant’s Theory and Practice on International Right (“against Moses Mendelssohn”), my students preferred Mendelssohn. In fact, they were much more enamoured with Mendelssohn than they were Kant, or with Habermas and Rawls on deliberation and public reason. It behooves teachers to listen to their students.