Monday, December 9, 2013

Cicero, Horace, and reading great books

Today, in the United States, literacy rates are the highest they have ever been and most people are reading more than they have ever read before. While these are positive developments, a closer inspection reveals that the current situation is far from ideal. While the abilities to read and write are at an all-time high, the uses to which these abilities are put are failing to create a truly educated populace. A look at the best seller lists published by organizations like The New York Times and Amazon.com reveals that Americans are, for the most part, not reading anything that might typically be classified as “great” or even “good” books. On the contrary, these best seller lists are filled with lowbrow fare about teenage vampires, sexual fantasies, and conspiracy theories. As readers and writers like Cicero and Horace said long ago, the types of things people read are the types of things people will become.

Cicero saw literature primarily as the means by which readers gain insights which allow “them to understand what a better life could be, and how to bring that ideal into effect for themselves.” In other words, literature provides the reader with a model “not for mere inspection only, but for imitation as well,” which allows the reader to grow wiser through sharing in the knowledge and experience of others. For Cicero, then, as for Plato before him, the reader can, through studying the stories written about “valiant men of the past,” observe and study an example of a virtuous person. From this example, they can themselves learn how to be virtuous.

Similarly, Horace, in his “Ars Poetica,” claims that the primary purposes of poetry are “to instruct or else to delight.” In that work, he spends a great deal of time explaining how to “delight,” or entertain, audiences. In what sounds like a direct attack on the current domination of the best seller lists by those unskilled and uneducated in how to write proper poetry and stories, Horace, at one point, inquires rhetorically, “If I didn't know how these ways of writing differ / In what they are suited for, and if I didn't / Act on what I knew, tell me, would I / Have any right to be credited as a poet?”

Like Cicero, Horace also presents the great men of the past as the proper subject matter for authors. He, too, believed that viewers and readers should be presented with models to imitate and ideals to adopt. According to Horace, “the chorus” in a play “should praise the life of moderation, / Praise justice, and order, and peace that opens the gates.” In other words, good things should be extolled so that the audience desires those things for themselves.

The most important questions that should be asked by any reader, listener, or viewer of a book, a song, a movie, or any other medium, are “what is this telling me about myself, who I am, and who I should become?” Everything written, ultimately, has some anthropological assumption, some belief, hidden to a greater or lesser degree, about what people are and what they should be. Books like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and others in their ilk have a vision of man which most of their readers fail to consider fully but imbibe nonetheless. Cicero, Horace, Plato, and others like them also have a vision of man, and one that reaches much higher.

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