On Reading Old Books (Part II)
Each individual is a fully living world to herself, characterized by particular taste and preferences, and lured by antithetical whims. To state it differently, each human being is characteristically governed by unique sentiments, animated by particular opinions, and led by uncommon perceptions. Hence, I can (and will) only consider my leaning towards old books as a personal inclination, a prejudice befitting no one but myself, and a personal bias in favor of the “dead”, yet eternally ubiquitous amongst the livings.
While reading a good old book, there is a uniquely prominent sentiment that animates one: that of constant wonder. It is not that the contemporary books fail less in engendering a similar effect, but that the good old books always induce it more. The latter incessantly captivates its reader’s mind for mainly two reasons. One, the historical circumstances (economic, social, political, and cultural) that certainly have affected the old writer’s thoughts, his subject matter as well as his conclusions, which the reader vainly wish to customize. Second, the (un)frequent similarities between the so described events and the ones experienced by the reader dearly agitate the mind even further. A few examples would clarify my meaning.
One wonders about the kind of air Plato breathed, the kind of water he drank, and the love he loved that made him think that, to realize his ideal mathematical man, everything should be common. Dear Plato, if women are to be for all, should a child not know her father? Oh, wise old dead man! If your maxim that either philosophers must become kings or that kings must philosophize were to hold true in a society where women are common, you would have undoubtedly traded the love of knowledge with untamable vice, order with chaos, virtue with debasement, and morality with evildoing.
Who is that sane reader who crinkles not that Aristotle, having seemingly written Politics to cast doubts on Plato’s (his mighty teacher's) political and philosophical soundness, nevertheless failed to understand that slavery was a social construction no less than the divine right of mediaeval kings. That he failed to distinguish between cause and effect is even more astonishing. That a slave son was a slave simply because the society enslaved him and his father before him, Aristotle understood not. There is more astounding about him. He scorned lending money at interest because a “lifeless” metal begets not; yet he saw no human value in slaves, and disdained not the human wastes of his society!
Finally, consider, if you may, Machiavelli, Machiavelli the favorite of political demagogues and the deceitful politicians for whom “A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and from their women.” Yet, though we undoubtedly cannot but agree with him that the foundations of any state, if it is to survive and prosper, lie in the goodness and justness of its laws; or in his own words “The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old, are good laws”; we also agree that a ruler, as much as any human being, should keep away from others’ properties and their women, we wonder how and why a prince ruling with just laws would need to inspire fear in the first place. Even more intriguing, however, is Machiavelli’s shaky conclusion that good laws are induced and maintained by armed force: “As there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws”.
As one ponders over these lines, one cannot help thinking about today’s overwhelmingly growing prominence of police states. As Montesquieu rightly observed, Machiavelli should have known that "There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice." Yet, throughout history and even more so today, despots have used his erroneous logic on the matter to excuse themselves and justify their wrongdoings.
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