Learning From Dead People

Learning From Dead People

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Written by: 
July 30, 2020

Throughout my adult life I’ve been a readaholic. With no interest in a 12-step program.

Now, with opening sentences like this and a seeming cultural dearth of reading in modernity, you now might understandably be expecting some old-guy scold piece, back-patting myself in contrast to the sad state of societal literacy. Well, I do think any diminished attraction for reading is unfortunate and genuinely harmful. But, as I hope to explain, I think much of my reading desire has been driven by something else. It is to reduce my personal stupidity.[1]

As a teenager, like virtually all of my peers, I almost literally majored in stupid. It’s what happens when you have so little world-experience and are desperate to hide that fact in front of friends (adults hardly mattered). Actually, the word stupid is inaccurate, and more of a joking term. The better word is ignorant – i.e. not knowing. And no person growing up gets magically gifted with understanding, like some fairy-godmother touching you with her wand and then – viola – you have an actual clue. Instead, we acquire it (if we ever do) by painful trial and error. Emphasis on error.

Now I no doubt grew up with some social advantages regarding reading. Both of my parents were teachers, and education, with the expectation of good grades, was an unspoken norm. But sometimes you get kicked in the rear by a surprise, an almost random experience.[2] In my case, around age 14 I stumbled onto two books: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I’ve no idea, this far downstream from my youth, how they came to my attention or why I chose to read them. But they truly overhauled my underdeveloped adolescent mind.

With Of Mice and Men, it was the deep tragedy of failed justice. The innocent “good guy” Lenny, dies because his honorable friend is cornered into a horrendous choice – kill him or subject him to a worse fate. This is the Moral Problem of Evil, starkly exhibited, although unnamed. Dropped in front of a sheltered kid who lacked the maturity to adequately process it. But who then began to try. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye smacked me upside the head with the complexity of growing into a decent person in a world of adult hypocrisy and a labyrinth of complex choices. I was just starting to wrestle with these things in my life without having any perspective on what was going on inside my head. So I really related to the confusion and distress as Holden Caulfield tried to also navigate out of his adolescence, with about the same minimal resources I had.

This reading changed me in ways I cannot fully calculate. I subsequently read almost everything Steinbeck and Salinger wrote. And was doubly blown out of the water by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Such is the power of literature. But let me return to the issue of my personal stupidity.

More important than the specific issues raised by those, and equivalent books, I stumbled onto a beginning recognition of how limited my vision was. It wasn’t just that I had never thought about the sorts of situations portrayed in such books. I hadn’t thought about the categories of issues exemplified there. Worlds of issues that I was totally ignorant of. Not just how to approach them, but their existence. Seeing this level of “stupid” is both revelatory and life-changing. To have the curtain pulled back and see that you didn’t even know you didn’t know! Now, in case I might make this seem like some personal “Damascus Road” moment – it wasn’t. I remained immature in so many aspects of life, and only grew into more cluefulness about how to navigate adulthood fairly late into my college years. I did have an introspective bent, nurtured by reading, but socially lagged behind in a lot of important, pragmatic ways. Yet as I rounded the corner into adulthood I retained a lifelong value from those early experiences. I wanted to not be a fool. And yet I kept doing and saying dumb stuff. Now, by my college years I doubt I was any more foolish on average than anyone else going through the same maturation gauntlet, but it was certainly loaded with wince-worthy moments.

So how to do better? Could I accelerate the learning curve beyond my own experience? Was it necessary to keep falling on my face (metaphorically speaking) in order to learn to “watch where you’re going”? Well, I can’t live more than this one life. I can’t clone myself and diverge into different choice-paths and then “do stupid” on each of those paths and thus learn to do better from each context. Or can I? Obviously not personally. But – I can learn from dead people.

Although my titling of this essay may be viewed as odd, Christians have done this from their “mother’s knee” forward. Books, sermons, Sabbath School discussion, personal devotions – all provide contexts for reflecting on Bible stories and parables. Essentially stories and reflections of dead people.[3] Such considerations for our moral improvement broaden the horizon past the limitations of our own experience, with its inevitable personal failures. But godly truth is not confined to the pages of scripture. So, let me suggest that, beyond the boundary of inspiration, there are two general categories of material that provide valuable insights from these dead people: 1) philosophy; 2) biography/history.

1. Philosophy

There is an extensive and rich history of people reflecting on how to live. While this material has many dead-ends and inconsistent views, there is much profit in working through the ideas of some of these thinkers, for evaluation and incorporation into an ethically grounded world-view. For brevity’s sake, I’ll note three that are widely recognized and have been personally valuable.

1) Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi: This famous story, recounted in Plato’s The Apology (20c-24e)[4] has Socrates declaring: “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Wisdom therefore begins where hubris ends – by acknowledging intellectual humility. This is deeply biblical. One scriptural expression of this (although subject to multiple interpretations) is the famous verse “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10 KJV)

2) “The unexamined life is not worth living”: also attributed to Socrates, from The Apology (38a5–6). This strong challenge almost demands investigation. Could I live a life that is worthless? What does it mean to “examine”? Even the initial question of what it means to reflect on life-worthiness takes you into territory that can feed back into your ethical choices, and can reorder your thinking processes.

3) Aristotle on the good life:  For Aristotle, happiness consisted in living a “good life”, where the Greek word used is eudaimonia, which can be translated as “human flourishing”. But he also declared that the evaluation of this so-called good life can only occur from the perspective of the total sweep of one’s complete life. The sum of a life’s entirety. This idea can and should provide grounding for everyone to consider the getting-of-wisdom to be, necessarily, a lifetime occupation. You must never stop learning; never stop trying to correct personal ignorance and foolishness.

2. Biography/History

Philosophy is abstract and thus can sometimes be hard to both understand and translate into actions. But examples from other people’s lives are concrete. Thus my attraction to biography (and autobiography). I’ve always been fascinated by people. What makes us “tick”?

You can get a perspective (admittedly partial and with some distortion) about others – mostly dead people – by reading biography. A careful author not only details what happened to their subject, but how he or she thought. What situations did they face, what decisions did they make and what was the underlying mindset that informed their choices? But as soon as you try to substantively answer such questions (as opposed to mere curiosity) you ought to realize that meaningful answers demand your understanding the context in which the person lived and thought. People have world-views that have been shaped by what they know and, importantly, what they did not or could not know. Could not, because some things had not yet entered the world’s understanding. For example, could anyone living before, say, the last few hundred years, have truly realized the scope of planet earth, its geological past and the vastness of the universe? Or understood that disease involved transmission from invisible bacteria and viruses?

Having even a cursory understanding a person’s belief structure means, at minimum, learning something of the surrounding history, culture and philosophy that stimulated and substantively controlled their thought processes. You first read about some person and the life choices they made. Then you wonder why he or she did this and not that. But you need context to understand and, consequently, perhaps learn from these historical examples. So you look into their surrounding world. Cultural history. This can lead to learning of contemporaries who interacted with your biographical subject and perhaps had their own surprising opinions, judgments and actions. So what made them say and do what they did? It keeps expanding.

But there are some common takeaways. Most notable is recognizing how much the person’s experience is limited and how much such limitations governed their choices. And made it terribly difficult for them to “think outside the box”. Perhaps the best and most sobering lesson from observing shortsightedness in those lives is realizing how much we humans foundationally operate within these seriously limited and flawed frameworks. There is a tempting first reaction, when reading about some biographical subject’s mistake, in thinking: “Wow, I would never make such an obviously flawed decision.” But our presumed “better” choice is likely a consequence of our broader perspective – possibly unavailable to the one we’re reading about. If we had operated under their world-understanding limitations, we might actually have done worse.

And we must not stop there. What makes us think that our own world-view has arrived? Yes, learning has advanced as has human experience, which might give us a more comprehensive perspective from which to be informed. But we are still just like our forebears – boxed in more than we know or can admit. This is perhaps the key value of trying to learn from dead people. We can recognize and appreciate how little we know and how prone we are to making faulty choices.

Finally, there is a tendency among some Christians to think that all this can be bypassed because we have the Bible, which comes from God. Thus we can fully access and then operate from a heavenly perspective. Even if this was true (and the Bible would need to be inerrant for it to even be possible) humans must interpret what they read, and religious history and divergent theology ought to put to rest any expectation that a God’s Eye View is readily available from Bible study. Finding and validating truth is hard and error-prone. We still parse what we read from the potential confines of our life experience. So, whether within the Bible or beyond, to expand on that limitation we can still learn a lot from dead people.


[1] In making this apparently self-denigrating statement I recognize I could be engaging in an exercise of false modesty, which could con the unwary reader into thinking well of me while I could have the secret motive of casting a halo about my “virtue”. Likewise, in here calling attention to such a ploy – of calling attention to possible false modesty – I could really be engaging in a second-order effort to cover up this pride. Likewise … You see, the problem of deception has an infinite regress. It’s “turtles” all the way down. I find it a constant challenge in life to uncover self-deception – let alone the attempts we humans make to cast ourselves in a good light for others to gaze upon in admiration.

[2] Admittedly, if I hadn’t been somewhat acculturated to the virtues of reading, such serendipities might have whizzed right by, unrecognized and passed up.

[3] Please recognize that here I am speaking broadly. I am in no way denying the resurrection.

[4] I wrote about this at considerable length here.


Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Unsplash.com


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