The great recession, Herodotus and hidden treasures?

The great recession we are experiencing reinforces a timeless observation made by the pioneering Greek historian Herodotus: “Human prosperity never abides long in the same place.”

The New York Times concluded a recent article about the recession with this quote from an unemployed construction worker in Phoenix: “You’d think that someone would have seen this coming and been more prepared.”

With all respect to the construction worker, why would he think that someone would have been prepared?

I was reading Herodotus for the first time during the boom and Herodotus’ observations were instructive. We humans have – for good  evolutionary reasons – a strong bias towards short-term thinking and a tendency to forget the past. A few years after the dotcom boom and bust, we got the real estate boom and bust. And somehow we had difficulty remembering what had happened just a few years earlier. Herodotus shows us that humans not only had this tendency two years ago but we had it 2,500 years ago.

Reading Herodotus and discussing it with others in a community might not change these boom and bust patterns but it does have multiple other benefits, including teaching us the following:

1) We are not alone in our mistakes 
We learn that we are not particularly or uniquely screwed up in the early years of the 21st century. Humans have been screwing up like this for thousands of years – and I find that somehow soothing. It certainly contradicts the widely held notion that everything that is happening today is either the best or worst. No. We are ordinary humans.

2) Joy is possible even in hard times 
We can learn and be joyful even in the midst of our mistakes. Reading these great books and discussing them in a community of readers is joyful. It just is. The stories, ideas, methods all better prepare us to live, learn and create through the ups and downs of life.

3) Reading “hard” books is possible and inspiring 
When members of the Reading Odyssey read a great book like that written by Herodotus or Darwin, they discover several things. First, they discover that they *can* read an author like Herodotus. That is where part of the joy referenced above comes from. It’s delightful for readers to discover the possibility of reading books like these. Then, readers also discover the history of ideas. It doesn’t matter, for example, that Aristotle’s biology is wrong on many points. What matters is to discover the grandeur of the attempt he made – with the limited tools he had – to understand everything around him. It’s inspiring.

4) The importance of connections and conversation 
Reading these challenging but wonderful books together – this collective habit of wisdom, as Aristotle might call it – can help people become more connected to the past, to the present and to people both dead and alive. I often claim Herodotus, Darwin, Lincoln and others as my mentors. I am connected to them even though they have no idea who I am and probably never will. These social and historical connections really mean something. A community of learners connected to each other and to 2,500 years of human conversation makes each reader stronger.

5) Great treasures are available to all 
This may be a great recession but humanity has survived much worse – as you learn when you read Herodotus or the other great Greek historian, Thucydides. We in the 21st century are lucky to have 2,500 years of great thinking and great writing to delight, inspire and to teach us. I for one am grateful to have this great treasure of writing and thinking. This is one way we are very different from the humans of 2,500 years ago – they did not have 2,500 years of written scientific inquiry, of literature, of great histories, of epic poetry. We do.

That’s some of what I have to say for now on the benefits of reading these great books.

What do *you* think?

29. July 2009 by Arrian
Categories: Commentary, Herodotus | Tags: | 1 comment

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