This is part of my ongoing series on reading the Western Canon. See here for an introduction to the series.
Although Bloom’s ‘ core 26’ authors start with Shakespeare (and chronologically starts with Dante), his full list of books in the Canon starts with ‘The Theocratic Age,’ with works spanning from The Bible to The Iliad to Beowulf ( the full list can be found here). Although none of these authors are among the ‘core 26’, they seemed important to read to understand later works of the Canon. So, I set out to read a handful of these books, mostly ones where I recognized the author or title. Alas, I read these before I endeavored to seriously blog about them, so my notes are not as fleshed out as I would like. Still, I will write my memories and thoughts on all of the books that I have read. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy my reviews and interpretations of some of the oldest literature in The Canon.
Today: The Bible, The Qur’an, Metamorphoses, and The Bhagavad-Gita.
I suppose The Bible needs no introduction. It’s reportedly the best selling book of all time, and is the foundation of the world’s largest religion.
I read the King James version, written in 1611. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the edition, as I figured the King James was the most ubiquitous.
The first thing I’ll note is that this pretty difficult to read cover-to-cover. In fact, I’d go so far as to explicitly recommend against reading it cover-to-cover. In part, I blame this difficulty on the edition. Besides the awkward phrasing in many places, I had particular difficulty with the lack of quotation marks. Often, one person is quoting someone quoting God quoting someone else, and it gets very difficult to keep track of. Were I to recommend reading the Bible to someone else (which I definitely would), I would urge them to find a more modern translation. I’d probably go one step further and suggest the intriguing Bibliotheca, a version with a modern translation explicitly designed to be read like a book, with all chapter and verse numbers removed.
Besides the textual difficulty in the Bible, there is the sheer length and number of characters to consider. There are many lineages to keep track of over the Bible’s 1200+ pages, and it can be pretty overwhelming. I wholly confess to skipping large chunks of the Old Testament devoted to describing family trees. Again, this makes me think I tackled this project maladroitly, and perhaps wish I had instead read several insightful verses per day for a year.
With the difficulty issue addressed, on to the content itself. What can we learn from the Bible? What has made it stick for thousands of years? This is probably a good place to mention that I’m an atheist, so I’m more interested in the secular and aesthetic content in the work than its metaphysics. For me, I think the Bible was good to read for a few reasons.
First, I think there is something valuable to reading what our fellow members of mankind read. The Bible has been read for thousands of years by billions of people, and I have a strong sense that one is missing out from the human experience by neglecting to read something so omnipresent. I’m not even arguing that it will help you understand Christians or Jews better at a practical or actionable level. Rather, I mean it in a more abstract way. In a sense, I think you should read the Bible for the same reasons as why you should read the rest of the books in The Canon: to better come to terms with the human condition and to appreciate great art.
Second, despite my difficulty in actually getting through it, there are indeed wonderful moments and stories throughout the Old Testament. Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors and Job are the two stories that I wrote down as being my favorites. Joseph’s is a story of family treachery and forgiveness that feels extremely modern - give it a read if you haven’t. Job, on the otherhand, is a masterwork of religious dialogue. The conversations throughout are meaningful, deep, and extremely well-written. It’s one of the clearest and most intense sections of the Old Testament, and again I would highly recommend you spend some time and read it.
The final reason that I enjoyed The Bible is the brilliant moral figure of Jesus in the New Testament. I don’t have any specific passages written down to quote, but it is difficult to read the Gospels without being simply awestruck by his presence in the stories. He and his disciples leap off the page in a way that is rare to find in any literature, and makes the New Testament worth reading in its entirety.
Of course, these are just my inchoate thoughts with weak notes. People have spent entire lifetimes studying the Bible’s pages and filled commensurate libraries with their interpretations and views. I suppose my addition to the mountains of ink on the topic is simply that large portions of the Bible are indeed worth reading, even if you’re an atheist living in the twenty-first century.
I’m sad to say that I found this extremely difficult to get through, and in fact gave up about 50 pages in. (I’ve allowed myself to quit these earlier works, but will commit to reading every page of the 26 authors in the ‘core Canon’.) I don’t think it was my translation (I used Ahmed Ali’s Contemporary Translation), although a friend of mine made the very good point that Arabic is a very difficult (potentially impossible) language to translate. Rather, I think it was the repetition and praise-filled pages that made it difficult. While the Bible has its share of praises and songs (for example, all of Psalms), it’s primarily filled of stories of various people and families. I found this format much easier and more enjoyable to read than the Qur’an.
That said, having just written above that one of my main motivations for reading these works is to better understand human nature, and to read that which has been read billions of times, I think I gave up to early. I’ll return to this and give it another shot.
This is another one that I completely bounced off of, stopping only 5 or 10 percent of the way through. I feel some slight comfort in that Tommy Collison (working on a similar Great Books project) also seemed to not enjoy it.
As a whole, I found it too referential and too…amorphous? Which I suppose is the point, but it made for extraordinarily difficult reading.
The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the key religious texts of Hinduism. It is one small part of the enormous Mahabharata, which sits at a cool 1.8 million words long. The entire Gita is one converation between a prince, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Krishna (who is actually an incarnation of the god Vishnu.) Arjuna is uncertain about a war that he’s about to fight, and asks Arjuna about his duty towards his family verses his duty towards mankind. The Gita is short, and filled with questions on the nature of humanity and morality. The translation I used (Barbara Stoler Miller’s) was fantastic, and the poetry really shined through.
It’s possible to quote pretty much any segment, but here’s one section I happened to flip open (from The Sixth Teaching - The Man of Discipline):
A man of discipline should always
discipline himself, remain in seclusion,
isolated, his thought and self well controlled,
without posessions or hope.
He should fix for himself
a firm seat in a pure place,
neither too high nor too low,
covered in cloth, deerskin, or grass.
He should focus his mind and restrain
the activity of his thought and senses;
sitting on that seat, he should practice
discipline for the purification of the self.
The nature of the discpline that Krishna extolls in these verses is very similar to that of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’. Both emphasize the importance of staying in the middle between two extremes. The Gita calls these extremes ‘dark inertia’ and ‘passion’, with the middle ground being ‘lucidity’ (wonderful translations all). I think Aristotle would approve of this framing, and it’s interesting to see a similar ideology thousands of miles away.
The Gita serves as a great (and very short!) introduction to the religion and philosophy of Hinduism, including the concepts of duty, reincarnation, impermanence, and OM. I thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into Hindu theology.