In his new book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, Anthony Esolen contrasts what Western culture was and what it is now by asking us to imagine a library in an old manor house.
The lower half of this library would be stocked with books from modern Europe—”novels, collections of poetry, histories, biographies, travelogues, and so forth”—many of these in European languages other than English.
Here, too, we would find the classic books for young people—Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, along with maybe Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, and Winnie the Pooh.
But the upper half of the room—perhaps built higher than the rest and accessible by several stairs—would be home to more intellectual literature—works in ancient languages, Latin and Greek, and books dealing with philosophy, divinity, political constitutions, law, and natural science.
“It was the library,” says Esolen, “of a learned man interested in everything human and divine.” In fact, such libraries were not at all uncommon in cultured homes a hundred years ago. Most of the books Esolen mentions were familiar to anyone who was culturally aware, which was most people.
Esolen asks us to imagine what this library would be like today. The wheels in the channels of the ladder are coated with grime and mold. Rain has found its way through the neglected roof, and water is dripping from the ceiling. The books are mouse-eaten and mildewed.
There are a few signs of more recent life, but they consist of trunks of outworn clothing, tacky souvenirs from a trip to Disneyland, and several “glossy hardcover biographies of celebrities, like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison.”
The great library is no more. It has fallen into disuse and disrepair. It is the victim of neglect by modern people who have not only forgotten the names of the authors of the Great Books, but who are in many cases no longer even capable of understanding them or appreciating their beauty of expression.
Meditate on this library, and ask yourself whether you do not see there the condition of our own culture, rich with neglected treasures—forgotten, junked up, misused.
Meditate also on what kind of person would have had such a library, and ask yourself why such people are so hard to find anymore. We have specialists today who could read and understand this or that book in such a library. But who is left who could read and appreciate all of them?
The only way to save such a library is to throw open the windows, repair the roof and ceiling, replace the damaged books, and perhaps add a few new things of demonstrable worth, while reassessing a few old things to see if they still hold up.
Our culture is like a library: It is either well-stocked with the classics or cluttered with trivialities. We could say the same thing about our own souls.
This is perhaps the central purpose of classical education: to reacquaint ourselves with our history and culture, and to throw open the windows of our souls to the best things that have been thought and said, and, while we’re at it, to get rid of some of the tacky cultural trivialities which now clutter our minds.
Both our real and mental libraries should be stocked with the timeless, not the trivial.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher