Monday, June 11, 2012

The peaceful tenor of books


In his book on nationalism Caspar Hirschi quotes the following story from Johannes Aventinus’ Bavarian Chronicle, written around 1500: “After they [the German tribes] had conquered Athens … they amassed a large numbers of books on the market, piled them up and wanted to have them burned. At this point, a soldier stood up and dissuaded them from it, saying: ‘leave the books to those fools, the Greeks; while they are occupied with them, they all become unfit for war and womanish creatures who cannot defend themselves; it is better and more convenient for us if they are equipped with books and pens than with harness and weapons’ ” (Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism, 173).
This story has a clear morality, anyway seen from the side of the soldier: Reading is a foolish, naïve activity that is innocent by nature. I think that there is some sense in it: When people are reading, they cannot do something else. Moreover, reading leads to thoughts with an “effeminate” content that make that readers are not prepared to take up arms, also at those moments when their minds are not distracted by it. In other words, reading leads to peace.
If this were true, we would have discovered a new way of making an end to war: Establish libraries and bookshops all over the world, in every corner. Make that people love books and that they spend a big part of their time on them, as readers and as writers. Then we’ll get peace on earth, at last. But alas, reality is more complicated. According to Hirschi, Aventinus had probably taken his story from the East Roman historian Petrus Patricius (c. 500-565). Patricius gives a slightly different version and then he comments: “Had [the soldier] been aware of the virtues of the Athenians and Romans, how renowned they were both in word and in war, he would not have said so” (quoted from Hirschi, 172-3). I am afraid that this remark is nearer to the truth than the implicit morality of Aventinus’ version. Books can have an inherently peaceful tenor, indeed, in spite of what they actually are about, but how often doesn’t it happen that books just stimulate war and violence? Or that they make that people are more prepared to use violence or to go to war, even when this wasn’t the intention of the author? And isn’t it so that there are also many books about the way how to wage war? The thought is so wonderful: reading distracts from war and leads to peace and it would have been so nice, when the soldier who stopped his comrades burning the books on the market of Athens would have been the first to have formulated an effective theory of peace, despite himself. Unfortunately reality is different.

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