Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Foundational documents

When I was in high school one of the assignments we got was to write an essay on the following (I'm paraphrasing, of course): Imagine there's a disaster or a war coming that will wipe out society. You've been asked to select five books to be put in a special repository that will be used by future generations as the foundation of a new civilization. What five books do you choose, and why?

These were my choices (and reasons) at the time:

  • The Bible — as a foundation for morality and cooperation
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare — to inspire them to the possibilities of the English language, beyond the mundane
  • COSMOS, by Carl Sagan — as a jump-start on science and understanding our place in the universe
  • 1984, by George Orwell — as a cautionary tale to those building a society
  • The Federalist Papers — as a basis for framing a government and maintaining liberty

I think this is still a pretty good list that holds up well. That said, I'm considerably older than I was then and I've seen and done a lot I hadn't at the time. While I'd still go with this list, I think there are some changes I'd make.

One is with the Bible. I wouldn't remove it; it's far, far too valuable a resource to Western civilization to imagine anything closely resembling it spontaneously forming without it. In a word, indispensable. But to be honest, I hadn't actually read the Bible at the time, other than picking through it here and there, or hearing it quoted. My concerns now are some of the things it could lend itself to in the hands of unsophisticated people crawling back from Armageddon. In particular, on the basis of things in the Old Testament. There are some very troubling aspects to the culture and beliefs of the Hebrew tribes of three or four thousands years ago that I definitely feel we're all better off having seen the back of, and I'm loathe to risk re-instituting them. The New Testament, while it still has some issues, is a lot closer to the central ideas of modern Western civilization (not surprisingly, since it's one of the foundational documents). So part of me is inclined to replace "the Bible" on my list with "the New Testament", like those little red books we used to get handed in elementary school back when you could still do that kind of thing. I still have the one I was given in grade four.

But on reflection, there's another part of me that recognizes there's more about the Bible that's important to our civilization than just the actual carved-in-stone rules. There are the cultural touchstones that we all know just from living in the West, regardless of whether or not we're devout, or even actually Christian. To live in the Western world is to be, to some extent, a cultural Christian at least. The number of common phrases in English that come from the Bible run neck-and-neck with Shakespeare. It's abundantly clear that the modern English language, in terms of vocabulary, grammar, usage, and even spelling was largely fixed by the King James Version that went everywhere English-speakers went. So I'm inclined to keep not only the whole Bible, but this very specific version of it. In fact, with the Apocrypha, which is is typically omitted from contemporary Protestant Bibles in English. There are some wonderful stories and poetry in the Apocrypha that are our heritage but are largely missing from our discourse, like the stories of Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon, both omitted from the Book of Daniel; and wonderful words from the Book of Wisdom, reputedly penned by Solomon. So ultimately, I'm inclined to err on the side of beauty and completeness and append my first choice to: the King James Bible (in modern spelling) with the Apocrypha... and risk the bad examples of the Old Testament.

The other change would be The Federalist Papers. I was actually given a copy of that book by one of my favourite high school teachers when he was packing up to change assignments. He knew I was into politics and he gave me the copy he'd had since he was in high school (at the same school, actually) 15 years earlier. I wish I still had that copy. I was always amazed that the very people who'd written the US Constitution actually recorded some of their thoughts and debates about it. Why they made the choices they did. What they hoped for. What they feared.

I'm inclined now to think that it's a little bit too polemic for my purposes, and something neutral and instructional is called for. I've read a number of books over the years that outline various constitutions and what they highlight and emphasize, and I think something like that would be a better legacy to hand down in this very limited library proposed. I don't have a solid, single candidate, but I know what it ought to be like. If I had a to make a call right now, I would go with An Introduction to Government and Politics — A Conceptual Approach, a book I bought at the University of Toronto Book Store in the mid-1990s. It's the closest I've seen to what I have in mind. It doesn't have the fame or the cache of my other four choices, but the name of the game here is to pick something practical. Besides, if I'm scoring on what I've read, rather than just heard of, I think I'd be due a better mark on the basis of the research. :)


Jim Grey said...

I've been reading the Bible again. I do it every couple three years, cover to cover. I've got this really useful chronological Bible that arranges the verses in time order.

I'm not sure why, but this time I'm appalled by many of the Old Testament stories for their tribal barbarism.

I think many Christians approach the Bible as somehow the ultimate arbiter of all things for all time because that's how the book was framed for us as children. I think it's a matter of my own growing maturity as a believer that I can finally approach the Old Testament with a more skeptical eye.

I think anyone who just found a Bible without all that baggage would probably read the OT and be at turns amused (because the stories can be so abruptly told), bored (because of the pages and pages of laws and geneologies), and shocked (because of the sheer brutality throughout) -- but not say, "OMG, this is SO how we must live our lives!!!!!1!"

barefoot hiker said...

HI, Jim, thanks for stopping by. :) Yes, it's mainly the awful things people were doing back then that I'm concerned about. There's a real dividing line philosophically between the two Testaments. The Old is mostly written for and about Jews. It's very rah-rah-hurray-for-us. The New Testament, though, seems consciously written to be inclusive. For some reason, Peter, and especially Paul, decided the religion was for everyone, not just fellow Jews, and I think that's made the difference. Jesus said he hadn't come to change the law but in effect, Paul let the vast majority of mankind off the hook. I think a lot of the finer traditions that have made Western civilization attractive to outsiders can be traced to a careful selection of examples from the New Testament in particular. The emphasis on sacrifice and considering the welfare of others and our modern institutions can't be coincidental.

I think the contrast can summed up in two quotes: "An eye for an eye" vs. "turn the other cheek".