This morning I rediscovered an old column called "Reading Old Books," by the late political commentator Joseph Sobran. In it, Sobran describes the best reason to read old books by long-dead authors; not because they will teach us any particular lesson—far from it—but because our contact with them and their distant mentorship will help us resist the currents of our own age.
These are perhaps my favorite paragraphs of the piece:
There are no particular classics, not even Shakespeare, that you “must” read. But you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind—a sort of internal council you can consult at any time.
When you internalize an author whose vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof.
As Sobran cites CS Lewis as one of these voices, these internal councils of his own later in the piece, I have to assume he had Lewis's great essay "On Reading Old Books" in mind when he chose his theme and title. Lewis's essay was a preface to a new edition of St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation, itself an old book, one of the oldest in the Christian literary tradition. Compare Lewis's more detailed observations about fad-proofing:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially 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 the 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 as 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. . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, 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.
This is one reason people used to quote Shakespeare, Milton, or the Bible so much. They had read them often enough that the authors' perspectives became internalized, as familiar as household words, independent perspectives that could be consulted at will. The fact that the phrase "household words" has become a cliche is a measure of at least Shakespeare's influence. It's part of what separates living within a tradition from political tribalism or mere pop culture.
Lewis is certainly one of the "internal councils" I have absorbed and that continue to speak to me, a council I've kept alive by reading and rereading his books. Add to him his friend Tolkien, GK Chesterton, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Homer, and Aristotle and you've got a handful more.
What internal councils have you cultivated in order to fad-proof yourself against "the thought-factory we call public opinion"?