The wisdom of the ages: why reading old books is essential in a modern world
We live in extraordinary times.
Breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and even how we make, save, and spend money, happen daily.
While it's never been a more exciting or illuminating time to be alive, some of the best new ideas can, in fact, come from looking to the past.
I just listened to a great podcast.
Kyle Carpenter, a medically retired US marine and youngest living Medal of Honor recipient, interviews General Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps General and the 26th United States Secretary of Defense.
Mattis is an avid reader.
Within the first few minutes of the episode he states:
"Some of my best new ideas come from very old books"
It's a powerful statement.
Not least because these days, our ability to beam information around the world, instantaneously, means that we can get breaking news from all corners of the planet.
Add Big Data to the mix, and we know things that we never thought we’d be able to know.
And yet, old books continue to teach us new lessons.
Something that fascinates me is the idea that, when reading old books for new ideas, it doesn't matter how many people have read them before you...
You'll have a unique take on the words due to your unique blend of past experiences and knowledge.
This can lead to unique, new ideas.
The 1,800+ hundred year-old diary of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, written as a source of guidance and self-improvement by the Roman emperor...
Can teach a leader today about how to control their temper, how to work with difficult people, and how to not be corrupted by power.
His thoughts on the plague could have even taught some people how to maintain their sanity and character during the pandemic.
How incredible is that?
Another example could be that of Epictetus.
Like Aurelius, Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher.
The Stoics claim that their philosophy has practical applications, and the story of James Stockdale attests to that power.
A United States Navy vice-admiral and one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy, Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years after his plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965.
During his captivity, he spent over four years in solitary confinement and was constantly tortured.
He survived and years later, wrote multiple books about how the philosophy of Epictetus, particularly his teachings around control, was the key to his survival.
Epictetus once said,
"The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have."
Simply put, we can either accept what we can’t change, or be miserable.
Epictetus, like Stockdale, tells us to do the former.
The idea of control is covered in many great works.
One of my favourite books of all time, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, looks at this very idea.
The Serenity Prayer may be another which comes to mind.
And it's not only highly-decorated military leaders who find value in historic teachings.
Many professional sports franchises have quotes tattooed on the walls of their facilities.
The LA Lakers had a quote from Rudyard Kipling in their weight room:
“The strength of the pack is the wolf. And the wolf is the strength of the pack.”
This is a mantra for teamwork.
The strength of the best wolf, or the best individual, relies on the team, and the strength of the team relies on the best individual.
Everyone’s contribution is important, regardless of role.
Work like this has gone on for generations.
The wisest minds in history have documented their most profound discoveries.
Reading empowers us.
Not reading weakens us and makes us easier to manipulate, stopping us from achieving our full potential.
So, to stay well-informed and equipped to tackle an unpredictable future, avoid becoming fixated on headlines, social media, or talking heads on TV.
Instead, explore the oldest books in the world.
Gain a deeper understanding of our history, culture, and the fundamental values that underpin society.