Is Reading the Classics Worth It?

I love to read. I have enjoyed reading many a book considered by the world to be a “classic.” I have profited much by my forays into classical literature. However, I found myself in almost complete disagreement with a recent blog post by Dr. Leland Ryken entitled “Why Read the Classics?”

I have gone through his points below:

1)      Classics are superior entertainment: I think Dr. Ryken needs to come to the realization that this statement cannot be rationally or objectively verified. I would imagine that there are very few people today who would think of entertainment as “objective.” As such, there is no way to label something as more entertaining than something else. All Dr. Ryken has done is give us a subjective statement about his own feelings.

2)      Everyone can develop a taste for the classics: I would say this statement is an overgeneralization on two counts. First, I’m not sure that there is anything in this world for which everyone can develop a taste. There will always be some people who will dislike something. No matter how hard they try, no matter how good their English professor, there will be people who will never and can never like the classics. They will understand the classics, perhaps even see the value of the classics, but they will hate them. Second, not everyone will be able to understand the classics. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I will never run the 100 meter dash in under 10 seconds. I will not be the next Pavarotti. There are people in this world whose language talents are not up to the task of understanding the classics. Their strengths lie in other areas (to the great benefit of the world). Very few such people make it to college (there is no shame in that), and even less make it into Wheaton. It is understandable if Dr. Ryken has had little experience with such people.

3)      Liking the classics is not elitist: I am sorry, but calling classics “superior entertainment” is elitist. (“My entertainment is better than yours.”)

4)      Educational history shows that people throughout time were able to understand the classics better, were less lazy of mind, etc.: I am not sure what point in history was this golden age of education. I have an entirely different impression of education throughout history. My impression is that throughout history people have lived much as they do today. Some people work hard at academics. Some people think deeply about life and the world. Most people are more concerned about other things. I imagine that throughout most of history, many students have found the classics dull, uninteresting, unprofitable, and far from being “superior entertainment.”

5)      The subject matter of the classics is more entertaining: Again this is a purely subjective statement.

6)      The classics have “arresting strangeness”: The classics do have a certain strangeness. Whether or not this strangeness is arresting, is again a subjective evaluation. I think that Tolkien and others have hit upon the deep-seated need of human beings to experience something “other” or “strange.” I wonder if this is a need that should be fulfilled by fiction, or if this need is just a reflection of our need to experience the ultimate Strangeness. Part of God’s holiness is that he is Other. I thought it was interesting that Dr. Ryken should introduce this thought from Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” which is more of a defense and analysis of fantasy than classics. Tolkien arrives at his “arresting strangeness” by creating a detailed fantasy world. There are certainly other ways of experiencing “arresting strangeness” than to read the classics.

7)      The classics display “superior artistry and technique and beauty”: Again, some of this is purely subjective. But even by commonly accepted literary standards, a lot of the material in the classics is poor quality. For instance, there were certain eras of literature in which they wasted pages on flowery descriptions. Dr. Ryken would probably advise his students against such techniques in their own writing. Many classics are rife with stylistic no-no’s. We just cut the classics a little extra slack because the author was in a different culture, different time, or in a different stage of literary development.

8)      The classics “do greater justice to the richness and multiplicity of human experience than lesser forms of literature”: I am not sure I see the basis for this conclusion. I would say that quite a lot of the human experience is missing from the classics. In fact, quite a lot of the human experience is missing from literature in general. For instance, not many characters in literature seem to have to go to the bathroom.

9)      The classics “probe life at deeper levels,” and contemporary works are “surface-level portrayals of life only”: This may be true, but I have a few objections to make. First, I think Dr. Ryken misses out on a lot of deep meaning that is in a lot of contemporary art forms. Second, I think this is an unfair comparison to make. Classics survive because they are the cream of the crop. We are comparing average contemporary works to the absolute best literature of every era of human literature. That is hardly fair. In 100 years, our descendants will be able to decide what from our era is worth preserving. (Who knows? Dr. Ryken may be surprised by what lasts.) Third, one of the great lessons of our time is the importance and value of the little things. What Dr. Ryken would consider to be “surface-level” is what makes up the majority of our lives. Perhaps this is (understandably) outside of the experience of a Wheaton English professor, but ask a mom of preschool children. She will tell you that she has little time to contemplate the deep things of life. She needs someone to help her overcome the little hurdles of balancing diaper changes and meal preparation. She needs literature that meets her where she is and values the hundreds of “little” and “surface-level” things she deals with on a daily basis. Fourth, I have a tendency to think that a sitcom (as distorted as sitcoms can be) probably does a better job capturing the everyday human experience than Homer’s Odyssey. Fifth, perhaps Dr. Ryken should investigate what the critics said about our “classics” when they were first published. He may find critics were hard on the classics too. Sixth, every classic was contemporary before it became timeless, and at the time people would have related to it more strongly on the surface levels.

10)   The classics are valuable because they are hard work: At least I agree that the classics can be hard work. Furthermore, I agree that the hard work can yield dividends. I just wonder if the dividends are worth the hard work. For someone like Dr. Ryken, clearly the benefits outweigh the cost. I am not sure this is true for everyone. Dr. Ryken may gain some benefit from a few minutes of reading a classic, but it may take other hours of work to reap the same benefit. Is it worth it for them? Are the classics the only place to reap the same benefits?

11)   The “classics are our gateway to the past”: I certainly hope this is not the case. Does Dr. Ryken forget that the classics are fictional works, usually by an individual author? Classics are not necessarily reliable sources of historical information. I find that people who love the classics generally have a distorted view of the past. For instance, readers of Jane Austen have a tendency to forget that most people in Victorian England lived in poverty. Dickens aficionados have no concept of what was happening in the English countryside.

Not only do I want to counteract some of Dr. Ryken’s reasoning, but I also want to remark upon some of the dangers of reading the classics.

1)      Classics are fiction, so they are prone to the same dangers as all works of fiction: Classics do not have a special immunity to the dangers of fiction. Being classics does not exempt them from the common ills of all fiction. Let me list off a few of the dangers of fiction to give you an idea. First, for some reason (perhaps it is a by-product of our own fallen natures), fiction has a tendency to glorify evil even when it condemns it. Look at Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is often remarked how the devil is the most interesting character. The same could be said of Shakespeare’s character Iago. Look at Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver is bland, but the Artful Dodger has become an iconic figure. Second, fiction inevitably distorts reality. The characters can be caricatures instead of people (many Dickens characters are caricatures). The plots can resolve too neatly (Jane Austen) or too tragically (Romeo and Juliet). The situations the characters find themselves in can be extreme. The characters can sometimes soliloquize eloquently in iambic pentameter (Shakespeare). Third, especially due to these distortions of reality, fiction can draw us away from reality. We find we wish we were living the story in the book rather than the life God has written for us.

2)      Most classics are written from a heavily flawed worldview: For this point I can jump right to Homer who writes from the perspective of an idolatrous mythology. I believe it is debated how much Homer believed the stories he recorded, but his writings were part of what shaped idolatry in the Hellenistic world. But even writers who would have claimed to be Christian are often heavily flawed. Dickens writes as though poverty is the ultimate evil, and its extinction is our ultimate goal. Even C. S. Lewis in his book The Last Battle seems to imply that people who earnestly believe in the Antichrist will be saved.

3)      He who reads the classics is doomed to repeat them: What do I mean by this? Obviously there is value in hearing voices from the past as they discuss the human experience. By familiarizing ourselves with the past we can avoid prior mistakes. By reading the classics, we can save ourselves from having to reinvent the intellectual wheel. However, as long as we keep reading the same classics, our culture will keep falling into certain thought patterns. It will be hard to break free from certain ways of thinking and looking at the world.

I am sure that Dr. Ryken would be quick to point out that classics need to be read with a strong dose of discernment, but again, I think he is being unrealistic if he thinks that everyone is capable of a sophisticated level of discernment. I believe myself to be an intelligent, academically-minded, objective, and discerning individual, but I still find that what I feed myself intellectually colors what I think. Bad company corrupts good morals, and bad reading corrupts good thinking. I have been trying to keep better intellectual company in what I read.

What Dr. Ryken describes is literature that is well-written, entertaining, arrestingly strange, and speaks deeply to the human experience. It sounds to me like he is describing the Bible. If Dr. Ryken wants to understand life, to think clearly about deep things, etc., there is no better book than the Bible. All others will fall short. To be honest, I would rather be pushing biblical literacy than familiarity with the classics. There is only one book that is essential to know, and the value of that one book far outweighs the total value of all the scribblings of the human race since the dawn of time.

I do not want to appear anti-intellectual. The Bible is not anti-intellectual, but neither is it pro-intellectual. The first few chapters of 1 Corinthians will temper anyone’s desire for intellectual pursuits. The real Truth is not academically acquired, but Spirit-given. The real Truth is a Person, not just a set of ideas. True knowledge does not begin with Shakespeare. In fact, true knowledge does not begin with reading at all. True knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord.

I am glad that there are people like Dr. Ryken in the world. He has done much for the church by drawing our attention to the literary aspects of Scripture, etc. However, Dr. Ryken is Dr. Ryken. Not every part of the body should be a hand. Not every member of the church need be an expert in the classics. Dr. Ryken can read the classics and bring some good stuff to the table. Others have their strengths to contribute. I am happy to let Dr. Ryken do his thing. I hope he’ll be happy to allow others to shamelessly live a classic-free life.

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