Can Old Books Teach Us Anything?

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when it comes to ‘Great Books’ and ‘Classic Works’ is whether or not we can actually learn anything from these old books. Has the digital age changed everything to such an extent that we are better off learning Python and Java rather than Latin and Ancient Greek? Does the existence of the Internet and Smart Phones putting all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips mean that we are fundamentally different?

We can store our memories outside of our brains. We can navigate anywhere we can get a satellite signal. We can track and quantify nearly every aspect of our lives. We can connect with people in ways never imagined by our ancestors. Does that fundamentally change the way humans interact? Does it change the way we fundamentally are? If it does, then does that make all the ancient philosophy and literature historical artifacts rather than something that can help us live our lives today?

When it comes to philosophical matters, the only method for evaluating it is living our lives and experimenting. Human relations are a complex topic, but I have recently stumbled across an interesting comparison that I think proves we have something to learn from the writings of the past.

I stumbled across a blog written by a former police officer and self-defense writer named Loren W. Christensen that discussed how an average person should behave in places where there are a lot of street people and the potential for crime. It reminded me of an old book by a Lt. Col. Baron De Berenger in Britain who wrote a book of advice called Helps and Hints on how to Protect Life and Property. After reading it and thinking about the two writings, it seems the two pieces show both how things change and how they stay the same.

When it comes to self-defense, people like to talk about the old masters and secrets handed down through generations. In addition, there has been a revival in people studying European sword fighting and other combat arts. Of course, the growth of Mixed Martial Arts competition has led to people questioning the value of traditional martial arts. This is a microcosm of how, as new things, or old things repackaged as new, come on the scene, people begin to question the value of what has come before.

But there is a lot more to self-defense than just technique. What I want to compare is advice given to people about self-defense from 1835 and 2013.

In advising people about how to conduct themselves on the street where there might be bad people hanging around, there are some similarities between the two time periods. First, let’s look at a bit of technical advice on where to walk.

From 2013:

“Where to Walk
The old advice was to walk along the curb to avoid being grabbed by someone next to a building. The new advice, based on crime studies, suggest it’s a better to walk down the middle of the sidewalk to avoid anyone hiding between parked cars or reaching out from a building doorway. If you see street people loitering at the curb, walk next to the building but be cognizant of doorway insets and corners. If you can see street people on the sidewalk a ways in front of you, cross the street.”

From 1835:

“Avoid at all times, (but in such a case especially,) to pass too closely to gateways, mews, or lanes, or recesses in either; keep plenty of space between you and such places, and between gaps in hedge-rows, lonely barns, outbuildings, or other places from whence assailants, be it singly or in connection with others in the roads, may rush at you. Take the carriage-road, if circumstances will permit, in all hazardous or suspicious situations, and, if compelled to use the causeway, walk as close as possible to the edge nearest the road or gutter; even then it is useful to occasionally cross to the other side of the road to ascertain whether the suspect person will do the same….”

The interesting thing about these two passages is that they show how the technical advice changes to some degree because in 1835, there were not cars parked on the edge of the street. What is interesting, though is the discussion of how to deal with people. Both writers are talking about street people who might be interested in mugging someone.

From 2013:

“Eye Contact
“It was once sage advice not to look an unsavory type in the eye. But we now know that predators look for people who appear lost in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. It’s simply amazing how some soon-to-be-victims can’t see five, filthy, freaky-looking street people gathered on a corner. But it happens all the time.
“Don’t deliberately avoid eye contact because they just might think you aren’t aware of them. If you notice one or more looking at you, make brief eye contact with one or all of them. Some street people tend to avoid someone who looks like they might make a scene or respond assertively. They prefer someone who has the victim look: eyes downcast, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gate. Don’t stare back and don’t assume a defiant attitude. Just give them a quick look, one that communicates that you know they are there and you won’t be taken by surprise.”

From 1835:

“Make it a rule to look firmly, searchingly, and even sternly at the faces of all suspicious characters, especially if you have reason to suspect that their approaching or passing you is under the contemplation of robbery. After this test, the pickpocket, and most of the swell mob, will quit you speedily; but if a fellow on the highway hangs down his head, as if to baulk your scrutiny still to continue about you, prepare yourself instantly to make the most desperate resistance possible, for he not only has determined on attacking you, but he will conclude his robbery with ill-treatment, to continue it perhaps as long as symptoms of life appear…”

There is an earlier part of the same chapter that coincides with Christsen’s advice.

“To keep your antagonist at arm’s length is good, but to keep him at your stick’s length is infinitely better: the middle of the road facilitates both; always taking care to draw a suspected person away from the causweway, in order to prevent his securing what usually is the higher, and therefore the ‘vantage ground.’”

The technical advice is similar, but again for different technical reasons, since most people do not carry walking sticks anymore. But the examples show that even though technical adjustments may need to be made as technology advances, there are things about human nature that remain the same, which means that there is some value in the old philosophy and literature to understanding two of life’s biggest questions: why are we here, and how do we live here.

The blog mentioned can be found here: http://paladin-pressblog.com/2013/08/29/street-people-how-dangerous-are-they/

The book is available on google books and can be found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=jSiQEVNLMMoC&pg=PR3&dq=Helps+and+Hints+Berenger&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Eq2fU6q1Lre-sQSKz4CYAw&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Helps%20and%20Hints%20Berenger&f=false

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