Something important is missing from contemporary fiction and non-fiction. Specifically, I think the majority of books today lack a sense of universality—ideas and perspectives that extend beyond the bounds of the society and culture in which they were written.
Certainly, it is essential to read works that reflect our own society and culture, but isn’t it equally important to consume material that transcends our own time?
Lately, I’ve been focusing on reading ancient texts that offer intellectual and spiritual springboards for reflection and meditation. These texts include the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, The Basic Writings by Zhuangzi, and the writings of Greek Stoics and Epicureans.
These works offer philosophical perspectives that are not really discussed or considered anymore, given that so much of what we think about the world comes from television or social media. We are hard-pressed to find someone accurately discussing the distinction between the Stoics and Epicureans outside of a college or university classroom. We are wading through societal waters that seem to put more value on social media posts and online engagement than the truly important questions about our place in the universe.
But there is a point at which we realize that what these sophisticated modes of technology feed us cannot possibly sustain us—philosophically or spiritually. We need more than the next political hot take. What we need—both personally and culturally—is a reflection upon the ancient writers. The writers and thinkers of the ancient past had less distraction than we do today, and perhaps because of this, they were able to think more clearly and critically about the nature of human experience.
One ancient line immediately comes to mind when I think about the society in which we live: “The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.”
In other words, while there is something to be said for staying informed about the world, we don’t need to have opinions about every issue. Despite this, freedom from personal ideas can scarcely be found in any form of contemporary writing. We in the United States have, in some ways, become a society of hyper-opinionated individuals who are tickled by the sensation of our own thoughts.
It’s not necessary to go all the way to ancient China to find the universal truth of Lao Tzu’s words. We can appeal to the writings of Marcus Aurelius, who, in Meditations, wrote, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Another line from the same work reads, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
But how many of us believe these words? When we really stop and think about Aurelius’ proposition that much of what we hear is mere opinion and interpretation, we are suddenly jolted awake by the realization that reality may not be what we have been told it is. Yet, so many of us are persuaded more by political talking heads than we are by our own convictions and thoughts. Why is that? What is it that has made us this way?
Here’s an idea: These ancient writers, from all different parts of the world, seemed to operate under the fundamental assumption that the key to a good life is not found in looking toward the material word. Aurelius was emperor of Rome, but he was never fooled into believing that his rulership would lead to joy or happiness. Similarly, the writings of Lao Tzu don’t suggest that we must vote for the right presidential candidate, make a certain amount of money, or have the latest and greatest consumer product in order to be satisfied. But we have been duped into believing that these modern-day desires are the key to a good life. This is a tragic error.
Whether you are a student of the Bible, Greek epics, or Eastern philosophies, there is so much to be gained from taking time to read ancient texts. All of human history could be summed up in our effort to achieve our interpretation of happiness. And while it may make us feel good to have the latest technology, newest car, or our dream job, those things cannot ultimately lead us to contentment. Lao Tzu, Aurelius, Jesus, Seneca, and Lucretius all understood this. Contentment can only be discovered when we seek a piece of eternity that does not come with the latest smartphone update or the next Supreme Court decision.
King Solomon is credited with writing that “all is vanity” in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is perhaps more truth in those three words than in much of contemporary writing.
Of course, this is not to say that there are no worthwhile books written today, but there is something universal and lasting that ancient texts offer that can guide us through these turbulent times. I invite you, dear reader, to join me in a continued exploration of the oldest and wisest books.
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