Passages from the Iliad quoted below are from the Alexander Pope translation.
There are many reasons to read. One very good reason is that books allow us to deeply connect with other minds and explore various viewpoints in detail. Furthermore, these connections and explorations can be made with authors who are very different from us. Reading can bridge gaps between politics, culture, gender, philosophes, etc. I want to write a few words about how books can bridge the gap of time.
The Old Testament, The Ramayana, Plato, Homer and the Greek playwrights, to name a few of the ancient works, at times exhibit uncanny similarity to our modern thinking and views. At other times they exhibit thoughts that seem very alien.
A modern reader exploring these ancient texts may notice a dichotomy in his or her thoughts. First, it is striking as to what has not changed over time and across cultures. For instance, certain human emotions and traits, such as anger, jealousy, ambition, honor, a sense of fairness, friendship, etc., seem to have not changed all that much over time. Likewise, the pattern of certain human actions, particularly violence, seems very similar across the centuries.
There is no better example of how friendship and grief have remained constant than that which is illustrated in the Iliad when the warrior Achilles grieves and becomes hysterical when he is informed that his friend Patroclus has just fallen in battle,
“A sudden horror shot thro’ all the Chief,
And wrapt his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hand he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears:
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.”
Though the language is ancient, the above sentiment and reaction seem very familiar. It is not unlike the reaction many people living in the twenty-first century have toward death.
Yet, other ideas, ideals and mores seem so different when viewed over the expanse of time. In these ancient works, there seem to be no value in certain things that we so much esteem. The concepts of equality, self-determination and the appreciation of diversity are mostly missing from the early texts. These values are the cornerstone of much that is good in our modern society.
Love, though present in all eras, also seems to have changed. Once again, the sense of equality and communication, and mutual respect give and take between partners seems to be absent in the ancient books.
In the very same Iliad, love and marriage between men and women is portrayed as something very close to slavery. For instance, Briseis, captured by the Greeks during the course of the war, seems to show real love for Achilles, who also shows affection for her. Yet, throughout the narrative, Achilles and the other Greeks treat her like a spoil of war and a slave. These are just a few examples. Delving into classic works leads to many similar observations.
It is not just the works of antiquity that seem different. Every time period, even that of a few decades past, show variation in ideas and values. The culture that surrounded a particular writer reached through time and touches us when we read particular works today. For instance, books written in the 1960s, such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, exude cynicism and distrust of institutions and authority that seem unique to their time. Nineteenth century writers, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, valued certain virtues such as chastity and reputation in ways that authors in different eras did not.
Thus, a careful reading of older works can tell us a lot about the times that they were written in. It is enlightening to examine what is different, as well as what is the same, in comparison to our own time and culture. In addition, as one reads more and more, it illuminates how certain values and ideas have developed and changed over time.
Our traditions and folklore are obvious connections to the past. Archeologists examine the physical manifestations that our ancestors left behind. Historians also often look into writing, but the writing of record keeping, diaries and everyday interactions. It is in literature and philosophy that people of the past speak to us most directly.
Exploring ideas and values of the past is one of many benefits to reading. One can learn so much about history, culture, psychology, etc. by examining how ideas and beliefs changed, or did not change, over time. How humans developed and maintained ideas is one of the reasons that reading the great works can help us to better understand the world. This helps us to illuminate not just the past, but our own times as well.