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The Case for Old Ideas

by Joe Sobran

Most people who clamor for "new ideas" have never given old ideas a chance. They assume that the old ideas have already been tried and found wanting-by whom, they aren't exactly sure-so they dismiss them as "ancient," "outmoded," or "medieval." Such labels are supposed to settle, or preclude, argument.

Thus we are told, on all sides, that the Taliban are "medieval." Only a fool could take this for a reason to oppose the Taliban. It assumes that all medieval things were the same thing; that medieval Islam and medieval Christianity were more or less identical. This would have come as a surprise to the Muslims and Christians of the Middle Ages, who thought they had serious disagreements.

For that matter, medieval Christianity boiled with controversy. Any first-year student of medieval philosophy learns that very quickly. The difference between medieval and modern men is that medieval men debated over which doctrines were true. They never assumed that the new was necessarily superior to the old, or vice versa.

During the Renaissance, there were lively literary debates over whether the ancients were superior to the moderns. Was Shakespeare as great as Ovid? Was Ben Jonson as great as Aristophanes? The debaters on both sides argued from merit, not age. They believed there were permanent criteria for deciding such questions. They would have thought it absurd to take for granted the superiority of any period, including their own.

Our own age is so silly, so uncritical, that it ignores the most elementary distinctions of truth and logic. It exalts the recent and fashionable and assumes that everything old has been superseded like the Model T. A modern university is less the custodian of a heritage than a cauldron of fads-liberalism, feminism, multiculturalism, and so forth. Whatever isn't "progressive" must be "reactionary" and therefore ineligible for tolerance. Its pet fads, as every campus conservative soon discovers, are not open to debate.

Yet the New Ideas of the twentieth century are showing their age. Until recently, at least, and maybe even now, many college professors have insisted on treating Marxism as a New Idea, though every state that has adopted it as a governing philosophy has produced only terror and misery. Other New Ideas, such as those of John Maynard Keynes, have lost their luster and survive only as bad habits survive.

One of the distinctive traits of the modern mind is its insuperable prejudice against the past. The very word "modern" has become a term of praise. The Old is Bad, the New is Good. We mustn't listen to the Old; it has nothing to teach us. So the modern man, living in fear of being "behind the times," prefers any new intellectual fad to actually reading the ancient Aristotle or the medieval Aquinas.

C.S. Lewis used to urge his students at Oxford and Cambridge to read all the old books they could-not because the old authors were always right, but because they at least made different errors from those of modern thinkers. By studying ancient and medieval writers, Lewis knew, the student could achieve a certain detachment from the pressures of the present; he could see his own environment, the modern world, with fresh eyes.

That mental detachment is one of the greatest blessings an education can bestow. Without it, we are doomed to be manipulated by all the worst forces of the modern world. We live in an age of politics and its handmaiden, state propaganda. We can't isolate ourselves from these things, which relentlessly seek to control the masses of people and to reduce all of us to passive mass-men. In defense of our own humanity, we desperately need to breed the internal resource of the independent mind. This is the task of a lifetime, not just a four-year curriculum.

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the great parable of the modern society in which the individual becomes a mere product of the state. That individual is so thoroughly conditioned by state propaganda that he accepts even its self-contradictions without question and feels only the emotions it demands at a given moment.

The book's lesson is that when your mind is a vacuum, the state will fill it. With what? With New Ideas, of course.

Pamphlet No. 1089, April, 2002 Copyright (c) 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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