Reading Burke, Part 1: Why Read The Science Classics?
Let's start with a big stupid question.
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter described by one of my friends as “surprisingly readable in places, considering who writes it.”
(Pro tip: never ask for a testimonial from a friend.)
The upshot: it’s a newsletter about curiosity, and all the wonderfully beneficial things that making yourself more curious and chasing interesting questions can do for your brain, your mood and your wallet.
(Okay, maybe not your wallet. It isn’t one of those newsletters.)
Here’s a lovely ongoing example of someone using their curiosity properly, and proving that an adventure can be triggered by leaning over a map with a furrowed brow, muttering “well that can’t be right…”:
It’s also currently a newsletter about the 71% of our planet’s surface we tend to ignore - and following on from the story of the terrifying flood that shaped the modern Mediterranean, we’re diving back under the waves in the next edition.
Today, though, we’re blundering into the past in another way, by starting to tackle something written over 250 years ago: philosopher Edmund Burke’s attempt to describe what we feel when we’re up a mountain, simultaneously awestruck and unnerved to the brink of terror.
The text is called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful - and so far, around 70 of you (thank you!) have joined me on an app called Threadable to add your own comments and help me decipher it all as we go along.
(You can still join them, by the way! It’s free to do so. Only stumbling-point: Threadable is currently iOS only, and you’ll need at least iOS 13 to run it. If that’s not an issue, once you’ve downloaded the Threadable app for free via the button below…
…& once you’ve logged in via your Google or Apple account, use this 5-digit code to join my reading circle: - 9 7 4 5 1 )
(Any issues, hit Reply to give me a yell.)
With those other readers, I’ve been hacking my way into what’s sometimes seemed an impenetrable thicket of language and meaning over the last few weeks. Threadable makes it easy to have comment discussions - and they’ve been much needed. Putting aside Burke’s…shall we say antiquated views on many things, he also writes like a certain kind of politician, with painfully dragged-out sentences that cross international date-lines, and with a declarative style that often seems designed to shut down questions instead of inviting further discussion.
In short: for a modern reader, or at least for myself, it requires a certain amount of effort.
And since I’m extremely lazy, I couldn’t help asking myself: Why am I doing this again, and encouraging other people to struggle through it? What’s the actual point?
And then, before I could stop myself from thinking it:
Okay. So, putting this formally: what’s the point in reading anything scientific that was written hundreds of years ago? Isn’t science about a progression from ignorance to understanding? And if that’s true, why bother with the old, mostly-wrong stuff when we have all this new, fairly-sure-it’s-correct stuff to read instead?
This stopped me in my tracks.
This is of course a Stupid Question. It’s the kind of thing that children ask their parents (the more upper-class ones, anyway) and it’s the kind of thing that will make a grown adult laugh out loud in that borderline-mocking sort of way. Ohhhh darling. You are so funny sometimes.
It’s also the kind of Stupid Question you see on Twitter. For example:
Or how about asking: hey, why don’t woodpeckers shake their brains to bits? The answer is delightful, strange and a bit creepy. (Thanks to Melanie for making me aware of that one.)
These are, if I may be so bold, exactly the kind of questions we (alleged) grown-ups need more of, for the following reasons:
- they have a certain quality of daftness that immediately grabs your attention
- they’re very easily understood
- they’re surprisingly hard to answer properly
- they’re a superhighway to a lot of other questions about some really basic aspects of reality that we rarely pay attention to.
So, I stopped writing that previous newsletter, the one starting to unpick Burke’s writing - and I decided to start with this unsophisticated, boorish and deeply stupid question instead:
Why should we give a toss about all this old stuff?
What’s The Point Of Reading Old Stories?
The year is 19-*coughcough*. I’m sat in English Literature class at high school, my dog-eared secondhand copy of Henry James’ Washington Square open on the table in front of me - and it’s being awful to me.
What? But….this is so rubbish.
It’s not that I’m unimpressed by the story. It’s the other way - I’m overimpressed. Although ‘upset’ is closer. ‘Completely livid’ closer still.
The reason is that Washington Square has just delivered one of its famous quiet but devastating emotional twists that mark it as a great piece of storytelling.
I’m not ready to feel like this, because Washington Square was published in 1880, which to my English, male, teenage blunt-instrument of a mind automatically means it’s incredibly boring - unlike, say, Back To The Future, or Airwolf. It’s also a genre of fiction I have no interest in: all those buttoned-up manners, all that ludicrously polite flouncing about. (All that sewing. So much sewing! Why can’t you just buy a new one?!)
The restraint frustrates me. So much hiding behind words, nobody just speaking their minds to other people’s faces like normal folk do. (It’s worth adding here that I’m from the north of England.)
I hate it all. Super-boring.
But right now I’m trapped at school: an outrageously unfair place that keeps forcing you to learn new things, thereby wasting your time on stuff you already know in advance you’ll have no interest in. And today it’s time wasted at the tragic expense of playing a really good videogame, or new riding my bike recklessly fast down the disused railway lines until I crash it.
Because of school and its injustices, we’re all spending 3 weeks wading through Washington Square - which I haven’t been reading as homework, because of the aformentioned videogame.
For this reason, the plot-twist hits me like a ton of bricks. When a fellow classmate reads out loud the part when [I won’t spoil it, but uuuuurrrgh], I feel like Kit ‘Jon Snow’ Harington discovering the ending of Game Of Thrones. It’s so cruel and unfair. Why…why would Henry James do this? He’s the author, he has complete control over what happens to these characters, so - why would he do this?
What a bastard.
I’m getting angry. I’m hate-reading the book now. I might have been on the fence about this storyline before, but now I’m all-in. Now I’m reading to the end to ensure that justice is done by these people (even though in the back of my mind I’m aware they’re not real - which isn’t the point, Mike, so shut it.)
Washington Square is an awful book. And by that I mean it’s beautifully written, expertly constructed, and pretends to be a gentle comedy-drama of manners about some quite dull, very rich people, right up to the point it emotionally wrings you out like a dishcloth.
What I’d failed to realise, due to an unthinking prejudice against non-modern storytellers, is that Henry James was really smart. He might not have had access to the same technology I have, but in storytelling terms his brain could still run rings around mine - which he demonstrated by writing something in 1880 that’s got me all wound up in a rage over a century later.
In 1986, Italian writer Italo Calvino - author of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, one of the most surprising modern reading experiences it’s possible to have - wrote an essay for the New York Review Of Books called “Why Read The Classics?” In it, he lists 14 points, which you can read in abridged form at Open Culture here.
They form a logical argument, so they’re best read all of a piece - but I’ll take a risk and lift one particular point, as follows:
12) A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.
This gets some of the way towards explaining my teenage attitude on reading classic fiction. I thought it was probably good for me in the long run, even though it initially felt really bad - a bit like knocking back a spoonful of cod-liver oil, or having a job interview. I figured it would be useful to experience the misty origins of all the stories I was enjoying in my free time (yes, including Airwolf)…
But I didn’t think they would be genuinely enjoyable.
I thought they would read as some kind of clumsy, primitive first-draft attempt, which later storytellers borrowed and refined for modern audiences by trimming off the self-indulgent woffle (and the sewing!) and tightening up the pace. I thought I’d be able to see what the earliest versions were trying to do - but I’d have to grit my teeth, because they’d be missing the mark by a long way. Isn’t that what first-drafts are always like?
But - I’m discovering Washington Square is, in fact, really good - not in its own right, but compared to all the modern stories I’ve read as well. Which is…a little disturbing to me.
What if all the Classics are like this? What if the more recent versions of these stories I’m already familiar with are the inferior ones? What have I been missing?
(They’re not all like this, of course. Or at least, they may be viewed as such by a lot of people, but we all have different tastes. Just because it’s a Classic, that doesn’t mean you’re going to actually like it.)
I used a problematic word up there, and it’s worth stopping and giving it a good shake.
Before I studied Archaeology at the University of York, I had a lazy, prejudiced view of the past. We have that troublesome word “primitive” when referring to ancient peoples, which mainly means “less technologically sophisticated” - but it’s like a bucket we also toss a bunch of snooty assumptions into, like “the culture they had back then was unrefined, shall we say, haw haw!” or even “I guess people were just stupider back then.”
But when you realise that no matter what age of history you’re talking about, everyone was, on average, just as smart as they are today, your whole perspective changes. You’re not looking down at history through your boots, from a hypercultured viewpoint - you’re acknowledging you’re dealing with past worlds just as richly complicated and intelligently lived-in as yours, if imperfectly seen at this great distance in time.
And the same is true for classic works of fiction. By reading them, you’re putting yourself into the hands of true experts, by any standard. Maybe they were working in another time entirely (in which case, this is like a form of time-travel, a reverse science-fiction depicting a fictional world that almost but not quite was) - but they still knew what they were doing.
That’s why their work endured. Not because it’s old, but because it’s good.
Old fiction is pretty good. Who knew? Apart from everyone but me, I mean?
Whatever. But What About Old Non-Fiction? Isn’t That Just Outdated Rubbish?
Those of us reading A Philosophical Enquiry… on Threadable have all found things we find objectionable. Some of that is to be expected - different times, different values and all that - but some parts seem, arguably, just flat-out idiotic.
So why are we persevering with it?
After all, surely Calvino’s arguments don’t really apply here. Non-fiction isn’t really about mapping a pantheon of story, or stealing like an artist, as Austin Kleon puts it in his bestselling book, now in its tenth year of publication. It’s less about bewitching the part of our brain that enjoys well-told narratives, and more about nailing down facts. Hard, hard facts.
And if those facts aren’t true, what possible value can it retain?
(And hey, if you’re publishing a book filled with stuff that’s more or less been proven to be wrong - like many classic science books from previous centuries - isn’t that, you know, unethical?)
These are really hard questions to answer. So with that in mind, I’m off to watch The Great British Bake-Off. See you next week!
No, I wouldn’t do that to you. But this stuff is head-scratchingly hard to tackle - and I think it goes to the heart of what science actually is, as opposed to what some folk think it is.
So. Deep breath. This might get a bit wordy before I’m done here.
This is the front leaf of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published on the 5th July 1687, within which he formally laid out his laws of motion and gravitation, now popularly known as “classical mechanics.”
Newton’s a good example to pick here, because his scientific conclusions now seem to be, without any contradiction, absolutely correct and utterly dead wrong.
The problem is that there are now two main rulebooks that physicists use to explain reality. One is the classical model of things, of which Newton’s laws form a part (alongside Einstein’s relativity) - and the other is the newer, murkier, counterintuitive realm of quantum mechanics.
And they both work. This would be totally fine, if it wasn’t for the deeply inconvenient fact that each rulebook fundamentally contradicts the other - described here as “the battle for the universe”. They can’t be mutually reconciled. The math just explodes into a multitude of unwieldy infinities, and everyone staggers home with a migraine.
In this seemingly impossible situation, those physicists do what any of us would do: they just kinda fudge it. Quantum physics works brilliantly for the very, very small; Newtonian mechanics work more or less perfectly for larger stuff. Great! Just pick a rulebook that suits the scale you’re working at!
This is, of course, ludicrous. If you think science is about intellectual honesty, how can you justify these kinds of shenanigans?
The answer lies in what they’re trying to be honest about.
In saying both models of reality seem to fit (mutually distinct parts of) the evidence, and also saying that they’re mutually incompatible, what’s the suggestion here? Well, there must be something wrong. Someone’s made a mistake - or at least failed to imagine a way they could fit together, perhaps because that way of fitting them together is so staggeringly weird that we humans weren’t brought up to think that way…or perhaps because we’re biologically incapable of imagining it?
(I told you this stuff is hard to think about.)
So, Science says: Uhhh, right. Anyway. I need an Ibuprofen. Look: let’s just plough on with what clearly seems to work, because *points at astronauts and iPhones and other things* and just hope that if we do enough research and keep chewing over the absolute basics, all this stuff will make total sense at some point.
(Very commendable attitude, I reckon. Artists should steal that too.)
That “chewing over the absolute basics” is the key to all of this - and perhaps to all the sciences, generally. It’s the equivalent of asking Stupid Questions - except scientists call them first principles, the basic laws of nature directly inferred from evidence rather than deduced from other laws, and on top of which everyone else’s arguments are balanced.
But where do those first principles come from? In every case, they’re also the product of human minds. Just another argument, suggested by the evidence but constructed by the brains of smart people, and always open to being tested to see if they hold up.
This is essential what good science is: a conclusion, backed up with repeatable evidence, so with enough time and effort you could retrace that thinker’s argument from first principles. Therein lies the thrill for confident, ambitious young students with no sense of proportion: what if I found a way to overturn a first principle, or something near it? What if I discovered a new branch of science and changed the world FOREVER?
Well, the only way that’s possible is to know how all the existing models are constructed - and to do that, you have to be able to retrace everyone’s steps, from the very beginning of modern science. You have to understand whole arguments from scratch, in as close to the orginal author’s words as possible, including with those theories that are so universally accepted that hardly any non-scientist gives them a second thought these days…
And to do all that, you need all those original “wrong” science books.
When we’re reading Burke’s words in Threadable, we’re not looking for opportunities to yell at him for being wrong. That’s always tempting with historical texts: the instant dopamine hit of publicly labelling someone an idiot that’s all the rage on social media these days. But that doesn’t help you understand why they’re wrong - and it might short-circuit your curiosity, which will help you think more deeply about how they’re wrong.
So this is why I think it’s always worth reading historical nonfiction like this. You may never experience from it the visceral emotional joys that come from being swept away by a great work of fiction for the first time…
(Or maybe you will! Only one way to find out.)
But you will go on a journey of discovery and enlightenment, guided by people whose scientific theories weren’t “primitive” in the blinkered sense it’s often understood today.
You’ll learn how that person saw the world, even if hardly anyone else agrees with it these days.
You’ll follow their thinking, seeing where they went awry, and maybe starting to understand why they became mistaken, sending you in pursuit of more evidence for a richer understanding of their apparent blunder…
In other words, you’ll be thinking like a scientist does.
Burke’s ideas of the Sublime also fed into the literary genre now known as Gothic Fiction - a fascination with the terrifying, awe-inspiring things beyond the edge of what’s current known about the world. It’s an art form that walks a fine line between science and mysticism: the former presuming that everything’s worth questioning, and the latter claiming some mysteries at the heart of existence are forever undecipherable…
(Science here yells back: “Yeah, but how do you know that?”)
And a lot of it comes from Burke. Once you know what he was arguing, you’ve got a new way to read the works of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Charlotte Brontë, Daphne Du Maurier, Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson…and on and on. A lifetime’s reading.
So this is why I think Burke’s worth studying, even if we all conclude he’s flat-out wrong on every count. And it’s why any historical non-fictional work of flat-out wrongness has lasting value.
We can learn to critically unpick wrong things instead of just yelling at them.
We can learn to empathise with & understand wrong conclusions without flinging judgement and shame at them - including our own, when we discover them.
And we can go on a scientific adventure, firsthand, by retracing the thinking of the folk who first thought about these things in useful detail, putting ourselves behind their eyes to learn why they saw the world that way, and to maybe better reflect on how we learned to see the world our way.
What do you think? Worth a try?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need an Ibuprofen.
Thanks for reading!
Images: Daniela Turcana; Pierre Bamin; Prateek Katyal; xkcd; Karl Abuid.
I already took ibuprofen today so I'm good.
Love this crux-of-argument line: "We can learn to empathise with & understand wrong conclusions without flinging judgement and shame at them - including our own, when we discover them."
Several months ago I ran into an acquaintance at the playground. Our kids had gone to preschool together so we left them to play while we caught up. Sadly, I found myself almost backing away as the acquaintance went from "switched schools because we're not down with the mask mandate" to "the moon landing was totally faked and it's really easy to prove" within under five minutes.
This wasn't an exchange I was equipped for that day (no ibuprofen on hand), but I got a little fascinated when he launched into "do you really believe that that sun [waving a hand at the sun, which was shining hard in a blue sky on a pleasant autumn day, which on its own is a miracle combination where we live] is ninety million miles away?" And it was so fun to say, "Uh, yes," and explain that I'd done my capstone project as a mathematics undergrad on Newton's Principia, and what a difference it makes to trace the steps of our modern understanding of forces of gravity and having to do the calculations/deductions of the inverse relationship between distance/mass and gravity.
I've been a big believer in embodied learning for a long time -- especially the idea that experiment and doing stuff with your hands can give kids and adults a much better and more accessible understanding of science than book learning. The pandemic years have dented that belief a bit (listening to people I think of as very intelligent but also very grounded in a physical understanding of the world go all "the virus doesn't exist" really early on), but fundamentally it remains. Somehow, that exchange made me relax a little because I thought, you know, he's on his own journey of learning and understanding and maybe we'll never end up at the same place but in a way he's still in the same realm of trying to comprehend the world around him.
(Also dented a bit by "as long as he doesn't hurt anyone," while knowing that in some ways that's quite possible, but in any case your Burke journey here reminded me of that day. Also, add Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey" to the Gothic list! The entire book is a piss-take of the kind of helpless-girl-in-remote-castle books that were popular at the time.)
Excellent read. Now, I need ibuprofen. Lol