In his wonderful introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis says something that we often forget in our discussions about diversity: read old books, because old these writers are much more diverse in thinking than any of our contemporary opponents. I’m copying a quote here. If you read nothing this blog, read at least this. It is more important than anything I could ever say:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–even those, like myself, who seem 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 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, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt, or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against if, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them”
Whenever I read this passage, I feel as someone remind me to be humble, especially if I think I am right about something. This happens often–as I think to many of us–especially because humanity tends to think in binary terms: a life before death, and a life after, good and bad people, or us and them.
In fact, we no longer know how to think except in binary terms. If you are a capitalist, you must be against socialism. If you are not a capitalist, then you must be a socialist. If you’re not a democrat, you must be a republican, and if you’re not a republican, then you must be a democrat.
How can you keep yourself from falling into categories in this life? Of course, you can read the ancients and challenge your views (and, implicitly, your age’s view) with their own, but then you return here, in this reality, and anytime you open your mouth people will place you into a category or another. Regardless of how you may be and what you may think, people will always use it and place it into the categories that they understand: the categories that form their reality. Since you utter something, you are already part of their world, and so they must make sense of your account and place it in whatever category is appropriate, in their mind, for your thought.
One possible way to react to categorization is to respond by making all sorts of distinctions: “this is not what I said,” and “it is rather this than this.” But anytime such attempts are done, others still will reshape you into something that you’re not, burying you into the dark forest of the sophist (see Plato’s Sophist as reference). This is just because we, people, cannot handle that which we do not understand and we transform what we don’t understand into something that is perceivable to us.
One such example recently happened to me. I showed a summary of a documentary in class, Lady in No. 6 (see it below–it’s worth it). Alice Herz Sommer, Holocaust survivor, says, “Every day in life is beautiful… Even the bad is beautiful… It has to be.” I showed this movie so that students could see an example of what I think Kierkegaard means by a knight of faith. But what Mrs. Sommer says is incomprehensible: saying that every day in life is beautiful even after you spent numberless days in a concentration camp does not make sense. And so one of my students explained it in a most sensible way (and I often get similar comments when I show the movie in class): “It was her coping mechanism; she needed to think this way.”
“Every day in life is beautiful” makes no sense, so we “explain” it; we reduce the ineffability of life to our own limited capacity of understanding. It is our way to explain that which we don’t understand by a psychological claim that is irrefutable: “it’s a coping mechanism.”
Of course, I am not claiming that this takes away your responsibility and that it’s only the others who do this and that you are absolved of your contribution to the world. After all, you already participate in it–“in sins my mother conceived me,” as Psalm 50 says–and so your own body manifests its problems. But I think this also requires of you to continue to testify to what you take truth to be, as absurd as it may sound, regardless of how this “witnessing” to truth is used and interpreted. C.S. Lewis’s call is one to radical diversity: read the ancients. Read also the medievalists, and even the moderns. And especially read C.S. Lewis.
The video with Lady in Number 6:
For those who read Romanian, some verses from Lucian Blaga:
Eu nu strivesc corola de minuni a lumii
şi nu ucid
cu mintea tainele, ce le-ntâlnesc
în calea mea
în flori, în ochi, pe buze ori morminte.