Chris Hallquist is asking whether there’s any reason to read the works of the dead charitably. When it comes to the living, he can see the following advantages:
- Charity helps avoid flame wars
- It’s good to be careful not to unjustifiably damage someone’s reputation
- From a Machiavellian point of view, it’s nice to close off responses of the form, “what I meant was…”
But he doesn’t think any of them carry over when the author is dead.
I’ve got a couple objections, so let me list them along a spectrum from most pragmatic to most highfalutin’ philosophical.
First of all, you can get into flame wars with disciples of the dead thinker you’re disparaging, and you’d like to be able to make sure you’re not attacking a straw man version of their idol for the same practical reasons that Hallquist lays out.
Second, it’s pretty hard to set up two modes in your head, one for reading dead people, one for the living. I don’t pay that much attention to bylines or publication dates. Before I peek at Wikipedia, I have no idea whether Alistair MacIntyre is still alive. (It turns out that he is alive and also that his first name is actually Alasdair).
Since this data is something I need to consciously recall or even look-up, I don’t really want to use it as a switch for my charity toward others ideas. Hallquist has posited some good consequences of reading living authors charitably, and no major ill effects of reading dead ones charitable, so why would I pick a sorting criteria that gives me false positives for “Is it ok to read this person uncharitably?”
Third, my default reading approach sucks for learning. Reading antagonistically tends to limit your ability to be surprised and interested in new data. If I’m trying to learn from these authors, even if only to be able to beat up on their disciples more effectively, I need to be able to understand how they think. If you think like your opponent, you might be able to build a path from her actual starting point toward the belief you’re trying to pitch. If you just keep thinking like you, all you’ve got is a reason to not move off your peak in the space of all possible philosophies.
Third-and-a-half: it really sucks with regard to the dead. Look, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. So,when you read the works of dead people (especially the very dead) you need to remember you’re reading them in a language that you’re not fluent in. If I have a conversation with a native speaker in my not quite passable French (I have a tendency to default all my verbs to third person singular present), I’m relying on them to bridge the gap by listening charitably. If you don’t do that when reading authors from a different age, whose English words (substance, cause, etc) may not mean what your used to in a modern context, you’ll end up leading yourself astray and fighting with a counterfactual.
Fourth, I am what I do. When I read or argue with anyone uncharitably, I am training uncharity in myself. It doesn’t matter if the thinker is dead (or even fictional!). It doesn’t matter if the ideas really are too dumb to engage (why am I reading them anyway in this case?). What matters is that I’ve just worn the rut that leads me to be unkind, prideful, etc a little deeper. I’m going to have to wrench that much harder next time I sit down to read in order to pull myself out and be good.
Look, I’m really really lazy. I don’t trust my future self to make a good choice under that level of strain. I want my present actions to build up virtuous habits, so I can get to the right answer with less strain next time around.
Thanks to the classical scholars of facebook, who offered the title as a way to tweak “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” so I could say “Towards the dead, nothing if not charity”
UPDATE: the hivemind has revised its translation advice. The original title was Erga Mortuis, Nihil Nisi Caritas, but I’ve been advised to switch it to either Erga Mortuos, Nihil Nisi Caritas or just plain Mortuis nihil nisi caritas (because the person translating it the unspoken verb was donatum est.