If you’re reading this, chances are you live in a Western country, probably somewhere in the English speaking world. Have you ever noticed that almost all of the people around you – and probably you as well – hold a set of extremely weird beliefs? The idea that the best form of government is one where rulers are determined by popularity contests and rulers who lose such a contest will actually step down from power without putting up a fight. The idea that when someone kills one of your family members, you are not allowed to avenge yourself, nor do you have the right to demand any sort of compensation, and to add insult to injury, you are forced to contribute to feed, clothe and house the murderer. The idea that you must stand idly by as your neighbour spreads dangerous heresy and puts people’s immortal souls in danger. That men and women are equal. That human beings can’t be bought or sold. That all human beings have something called “human rights,” and many other equally strange notions.
Most people never question such doctrines. Many don’t even see these as doctrines, but merely as obvious facts about the world. I do not make the claim here that these ideas are wrong (although I think some of them are), but that they are strong claims which deserve some level of scrutiny, rather than blind, dogmatic acceptance.
Probably the best way to escape this narrow provincialism is to read old books, both fiction and non-fiction. When you read, say, the Iliad, Egil’s Saga, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you will find that the respective authors make very different assumptions about the world and the nature of morality. And because you did not grow up in a culture that was permeated with these assumptions, you will notice them as peculiar and worthy of justification.
But do not make the mistake of immediately jumping to the conclusion that they are wrong because they disagree with the modern Western outlook. Doing so would defeat the whole point of the exercise. Instead, search for reasons why these attitudes might make sense.
For example, if you read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you might be taken aback by Gibbon’s praise of manly virtues and his assumption that women are weak. Do not just dismiss him as a misogynist who didn’t know better because he grew up in a bigoted patriarchal society. Instead ask yourself whether his specific claims and attitudes make sense. Try to set aside 21st century political correctness and consider the men and women you know and ask yourself how well they line up with these supposed masculine virtues and feminine weaknesses.
You probably still won’t find yourself in agreement with Gibbon, and that’s fine. But chances are you find that most of his attitudes are at least not obviously wrong. And in the process, you will have gained a deeper understanding of 18th century attitudes about the sexes. At the same time you might realise that many of the currently prevailing attitudes are equally questionable.
At the very least, reading an old book provides you with a temporary escape from today’s biases and prejudices and lets you explore a different set of biases and prejudices for a little while.