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Archive for October, 2007

I’ve embarked on a new learning adventure – listening to courses on CD.  The first one I am trying is called “Books that have Made History; Books that Can Change your Life,” taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears. So far, I really like it.  The first lecture was about a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by Hitler near the end of the war. His book, Letters and Papers from Prison, demonstrates the way his classical education had given him the tools to contemplate his fate, to achieve wisdom, to maintain his humanity in the face of inhumanity.  Professor Fears makes the point that “Bonhoeffer had read the same books as those who tormented him.”  The judge who carried out his sentence had also received a classical German education, had read the Bible, Plato and Plutarch, yet they came to different conclusions about the current situation.  This reminds me of a poignant passage in the 5/22/06 New Yorker.  Anthony Lane was profiling an Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor (“An Englishman Abroad”) and relayed the following anecdote:

Fermor recounts a time in 1944, when he and his men are in flight from German patrols towing a German general. As they are climbing Mt. Ida (in Crete?) the General watches the dawn break and murmers from Horace, “Vides ut alte stet nive candidum.” Leigh Fermor also knew Horace and continued the quotation, “nec jam sustineant onus, Silvae laborantes, gulque, Flumina constiterint acuto”, and so on to the end. Fermor adds, “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Anthony Lane adds that “it feels like the end of something: the last, companionable gasp of a civilization– grounded in the knowledge of earlier civilizations, Roman and Greek– that had not just held sway in Europe for over a thousand years but had done more than any political truce or chicanery to bind Europe together. Both Leigh Fermor and the general had been raised to recognize Horace odes 1.9, to get it by heart, and to realize that the poem itself is a crystallization of our common feelings.” (p. 64).

Fears makes the same point as Lane, but takes it further. He condemns the German judge for not using his education to make a moral stand as Bonhoeffer did.  The judge “believed that his duty was to carry out trials that he knew were wrong.”  This helped clarify something that has troubled me for some time.  I read a lot, and have read great books in my life, yet I have often been guilty of poor judgment, of weakness, cowardice, of not acting honorably.  In fact, there was a scene in a recent Jane Austen movie (The Jane Austen Book Club), where a character is faced with a choice, a moral dilemma, and as she is about to cross the street, the light blinking “walk” starts to read “what would Jane do?” and then it switches to “don’t walk.”  And she makes the right choice and turns back.    I have read all of Austen’s books mulitple times, yet have I gained wisdom from them, the wisdom that is there for the taking?  And Fears answers that the Great Books are not enough.  He points out all the information that is available to us on the internet, and he says that knowledge and information in themselves do not equal wisdom.  Wisdom takes contemplation and reflection on what we read and experience.  Otherwise, all the reading, book after book, without thought, is nothing more than appetite. 

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