The more I read of ancient philosophy, the more impressed I become at the general tendency that societies have to make extended literary use of story, verse, and references to well-known aspects of their own culture’s literary canon.
- Confucius, Mozi, and Xunzi never stop talking about the three sovereigns and five emperors of ancient Chinese mythology, and quoting poetry from the Odes and anecdotes from the Book of Documents.
- Greek-speaking philosophers from Socrates to Marcus Aurelius constantly quote the verses Homer, Euripides, etc, and reference the famous heroes of Greek mythology.
- Roman authors, not to be out-done, add reverent lines from Virgil and numerous anecdotes to semi-mythic heroes from their own city’s history.
- Paul’s letters and Jesus’ sermons are peppered with quotes from the Psalms and prophets of the Hebrew canon, and references to Abraham and other characters.
- To these Catholic tradition adds a stream of references to the likes of Augustine and Boethius, and then Thomas Kempis and Ignatius of Loyola.
- Greek orthodox tradition doubtless treats the Greek fathers similarly, and north and south Indian literature each have their own canons, and so on.
The culture of reference has its obvious pros and cons, and every one of these cultures has simultaneously produced lovers and haters of their own canons. But there is something beautiful and powerful about these social behemoths, which I can’t quite put my finger on, but which never ceases to challenge my prejudices and show me that I have more to learn about the wonders of our human Cosmopolis!
The Risks of Tradition
Being the privilege of the literate elite, referencing revered literature easily lends itself to snobbery, or worse, to a poor attempt at imitation. “Alien and exotic to English soil,” writes Charles Squire in his book on Celtic myth (1979), the Greek tradition “degenerated slowly into a convention. In the shallow hands of the poetasters of the eighteenth century, its figures became mere puppets… The affectation killed—and fortunately killed—a mode of expression which had long become obsolete.” He concludes that “smothered by just ridicule, and abandoned to the commonplace vocabulary of the inferior hack-writer, classic myth became a subject which only the greatest poets could afford to handle” (p. 2–3).
One of literature’s most fascinating ironies is the way that satirists like Rabelais and Cervantes have become enshrined in the canon specifically for writing books that ridicule the canon! “There is no need for you to go a-begging for aphorisms from philosophers, precepts from Holy Scripture, fables from poets, speeches from orators, or miracles from saints,” says Cervantes in his preface to Don Quixote, “but merely to take care that your style and diction run musically, pleasantly, and plainly.” The ensuing misventures of Spain’s favorite hidalgo, obsessed as he is with his medieval chivalry manuals, only serve to prove the point.
Literary tradition does indeed sometimes lead to strange and artificial results. As philosophers continuously bend and reinterpret ancient stories and authorities to use as vehicles for their own novel ideas, the resulting appeal to authority is sometimes laughably implausible. Take for instance the way that Confucius, Mozi, and Zhuangzi each confidently draw wildly different lessons from the example of the legendary sage kings Yao and Shun. “Each claimed to be following the real Yao and Shun,” wrote the 3rd century B.C.E. critic Han Fei, “but since we cannot call Yao and Shun back to life, who is to decide whether it is the Confucians or the Mohists who are telling the truth?” (The Han Feizi, ch. 50). Seneca likewise complains at length about how ancient education in Greek literature led people to waste time arguing about all sorts of trivial details, analyzing minute turns of phrase and searching for hidden meanings in the Iliad and the Odyssey (Letters to Lucilius, 88). Like all the Roman Stoics, he worried about how our love for quoting famous authors might distract us from reforming our own characters:
Everything they say, all their fine speeches before crowds of listeners, are taken over from someone else. The words are those of Plato, or of Zeno, or of Chrysippus or Posidonius or one of the many other great names in philosophy.
—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 108.38.
“How can they prove that those ideas are their own?” Seneca concludes. “I’ll tell you: they must practice what they preach.”
The Beauty of Tradition
These complaints just scratch the surface of the possible ways that literary traditions can malfunction, doing aesthetic or moral harm. But there is also something amazing and powerful about the way that the world’s literary cultures each cohere together. Yes, the Bible is an incredibly diverse collection of literature written of the course of a millennium by dozens of authors—but, with few exceptions, the many books that make it up share so much in common when it comes to story, values, and themes that it’s no wonder we tend to think of it as a single book. Even Esther and Ecclesiastes, often cited as thematic outliers, cohere elegantly with the rest of the Hebrew milieu that generated them. The classical Chinese canon is arguably even more well-integrated: their constant references to the shared mythology of the former kings and to the Zhou and Shang dynasties is confusing to newcomers, but serves to bring together such diverse and antagonistic thinkers as Mozi and Mencius into a shared, collaborative meta-story, with its own identifiable arc of consistent values and concerns. The classical Western canon operates similarly, even if it doesn’t stick as closely to identifiable lynchpins like Yao and Shun: Cicero and Augustine differ wildly in their world view, but each still uses a profoundly similar cycle of stories, Latin verses, and philosophical structures to express their ideas.
Poincaré is often described as “the last universalist” of mathematical tradition. After him, mathematics became too gigantic and fragmented for any single person to stay abreast of comprehensively. Montaigne, by analogy, was perhaps the last great master of weaving the Western literary and philosophical tapestry into a holistic vehicle for expression and analysis. The tradition of synthesizing philosophy with canonical verse seems to have largely died out after that, no doubt for a variety of reasons—the enlightenment’s eschewal of anything that might be mistaken for a scholastic obsession with tradition, the rapid growth in scientific knowledge, the growth and diversification of vernacular literature. Such questions of cause and effect are far above my pay grade, if you will. But whatever the reason, despite their merits and popularity, Moliére, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Descartes, Locke—none of these esteemed landmarks of modern tradition form the sort of binding glue that Homer and Euripides, Plato and Chrysippus did for the ancient Greek ‘culture of reference.’
One of the exciting things about my recent conversion to Stoicism as a way of life is that, for the first time since I de-engaged from my Christian upbringing, I am again initiated into a holistic literary canon. This makes writing more fun and easy in many ways, both when it comes to processing and organizing complex ideas, and to finding interesting and useful turns of phrase—”our mind is helped while being taught to follow a model,” says Seneca (Letters, 94.51). So it helps me—but it is also a beautiful land to visit: if you place Homer, Euripides, the Socratic dialogues, Aristotle’s ethics, Cicero’s philosophical essays, and the Roman Stoics side-by-side, they form a rich and cohesive tradition rife with internal references and a shared culture that easily rivals the Bible in beauty, thematic consistency, and in its power to provide a rich and holistic understanding of human life.
The Confused Identity of English
I’m well aware, however, that I can only ever be a visitor in the ancient world. I can “make friends with the ancients,” as Mencius has it (book 10.8), but I can never be one. And that’s okay—because, whatever my historical debts, I am not a Greek, nor a Roman, but an American. My cultural vichyssoise is worlds apart from Homer and Virgil, and it is as diverse and intermixed as the peoples of the Empire. It is also worlds apart from Beowulf, or from the intellectual world of the Native Americans who used to occupy the states I call home. This is because the sort of tight and cohesive literary universes that I have encountered through ancient books are constantly clashing into one another, transforming themselves, spawning hybrids, becoming concentrated or stretched thin, dying off, and being revived.
No better example of such a clash can be found than in the way that the denizens of the British Isles have talked for centuries about their own identity in confused and conflicting tones. Roman, Pictish, Gaelic, Brythonic, Norse, Saxon, and French—a Brit who wants to look back to a mythical tradition and literary identity has many distinct universes to choose from. The influence of Romance culture and language was of course immense and undeniable, but the huge influx of foreign loan words into the Saxon ‘wordstock’ has always sit uneasily with certain authors—to this day English is often jokingly referred to as a “mongrel” language. The long arms of Roman Catholic tradition were always spread weak and thin out in the northern hinterlands, moreover, and the vast cultural gap that persists today between Latin America and the anglophone countries of North America is largely a testament to just how distant Romance- and English-speaking culture have always been.
For these reasons, a minority of enthusiasts argue even today that the eagerness with which English adopted Greco-Roman vocabulary was a mistake, and that our language has lost something of its Germanic potential for beauty and clarity. “The default thing for a language to do is to build big words from its own native roots,” says an anonymous blogger for The Economist. “Borrowing is normal, but it seems almost a shame that English admixed so much.” Poul Anderson’s delightful attempt to reconstruct scientific vocabulary in a Germanic English—using many calques to describe atoms as “unclefts” and oxygen as “sourstuff“—only goes to show how much our language gave up when it handed the reigns over to Latin tradition.
In the purist view, we English-speakers—and I do mean all speakers, because in this day and age it makes far more sense to emphasize language than race or ancestry as the definition of one’s cultural home—purists say that we English-speakers do more justice to our cultural heritage by focusing on our Germanic roots than on classical Greco-Roman culture. Perhaps no one has turned this idea of Germanic purism—which, like any kind of purism or national identity, is of course dangerous if used inappropriately—into something as beautiful and powerful as J.R.R. Tolkein, who is famous for not just limiting his use of Latin-derived words in his novels, but for drawing extensively on the ancient tradition of Norse legend to inspire his mythical universe. The Norman invasion, after all, removed the British Isles out of what would otherwise have been a strongly Nordic sphere of influence and brought them politically and culturally closer to Romance Europe. If an Englishmen has any claim to the tatters of Saxon culture as inspiration to draw from, then importing tales from Iceland and Scandinavia is as reasonable a place to start rebuilding them as any.
The Profundity of Oral Cultures
Here I have to confess something. My whole life, I think I have been blind to the significance of phrases like “Norse culture” or “Celtic mythology.” We all have a definite bias toward treating distant groups of people as if their culture is somehow pedestrian, generic, or uninteresting—just yet another group of people with yet another language and local set of stories. But this prejudice is even stronger when we encounter peoples who lack an extensive literary tradition that constantly references itself. The importance and interestingness of Confucius is hard to deny once you catch even a glimpse of the pivotal role he played in everything that came after him in China—but Beowulf is all-too-easy to dismiss as an isolated story, interesting as far as it goes, but not important to we moderns in the way that, say, Homer or Plato continue to be.
It is easy to dismiss a given myth as culturally insignificant—”just another story”—the same way that most of the movies we go to see in the theater today are just a way to pass a few hours, to then be forgotten.
And yet, the Polynesian story cycle stretches from New Zealand to Hawai’i and Easter Island, where people thousands of miles apart have been telling very similar stories about Tangaroa, Maui, and Hina for thousands of years (you can thank Disney’s Moana for raising my awareness here!). People invested tremendous effort in preserving these traditions, and there is no way that stories can hold such a central role among such a diffuse and widespread group of people without also deeply impacting their culture—every bit as much as Euripides, if only in a different way. The same can be said about Norse mythology: from Iceland to Denmark and the shores of Scotland in between, there was once a strain of oral literature that deserves all of the adjectives I’ve applied above to the world’s great literary canons: ‘cohesive,’ ‘holistic,’ a ‘binding glue,’ with ‘thematic consistency,’ and ‘shared values.’ The same again applies to the culture of story and clever proverbs that Chinua Achebe describes in Things Fall Apart among the Igbo in the last century. And so on, and so on.
The Chinese, the Greeks, the Sanskrit writers—the earliest history of philosophy everywhere begins with people who took a rich tradition of freshly-recorded oral literature, and then added thought, argument, and analysis on top of it. Philosophy of this kind had a powerful way of speaking to human life and human concerns, by blending careful thought with beautiful words and powerful stories. Myth was not just a set of entertaining stories and arbitrary characters in an imaginative, but ultimately fictional account of history that varied wildly from village to village: myth was the substrate, the pre-existing glue and body of thought that the technology of writing catalyzed into the vast structures that we find so admirable in the world’s canons. Myth was something palpable that unified people across vast distances and held complex proverbs and ideas about human life together in a form that could be remembered and studied.
That is why quotes, references, story, and verse have always played such an important role in literature, and even in philosophy specifically—and why both story and philosophy lose something profound when they are separated from that wider cultural milieu.
I have learned to respect Chinese literature, the Bible, and the Greco-Roman tradition by dipping my toe into the broader narratives and stories that bind each canon’s ‘culture of references‘ together into a thematic whole. I am starting to get a glimpse of the same kind of structure in the Arabic, Sanskrit, and Tamil traditions—though I still have a lot more to read there before I’ll appreciate the wider structure in those universes.
But I think it is worth considering, now, that similar beauty and insight also exists in the oral traditions of the world’s more marginal cultures, both historical and contemporary. Did a Viking who was interested in moral growth and philosophical perspective have a similar sort of relationship to his culture’s stories and traditions that Cicero did to Homer and Socrates? Was an Igbo man’s use of proverbs in the 19th century really that far from the way that a Chinese scholar sought to leverage the tales and moral wisdom of their own tradition? Is the spirituality of a woman who holds close to the traditions of the First Nations in North America really that far from the efforts of a Mahayana Buddhist follower to understand the arguments of Nagarjuna?
The written word is a profound tool, no doubt about it, and I wouldn’t expect an extended treatise on metaphysics or logic from a Norse storyteller—but is it not likely that there is far more in these cultures that deserves my respect and admiration than I have hitherto allowed myself to realize? It may be easy for us to dismiss oral cultures as “just stories” in our age of teaser-trailers and mass-marketed block-busters, but the line between story and scripture has been blurred for the majority of human history, and it is worth investigating the hypothesis that there is a good reason that the world’s people have traditionally taken their stories so very seriously.
Wow, did you really read all the way to the end? You must like ancient books as much as I do. Why not subscribe?