The Chief Purpose of Reading a Classic

“It must be laid down once and for all, that the chief purpose of reading a classic like Rabelais is to prop and stay the spirit, especially in its moments of weakness and enervation, against the stress of life, to elevate it above the reach of commonplace annoyances and degradations, and to purge it of despondency and cynicism. He is to be read as Homer, Sophocles, the English Bible, are to be read. Felix ille, as Erasmus said of the Bible, felix ille quem in hisce litteris meditantem mors occupat. The current aspect of our planet, and the performances upon it, are not always encouraging, and one therefore turns with unspeakable gratitude to those who themselves have been able to contemplate them with equanimity, and are able to help others do so. In their writings one sees how the main preoccupations, ambitions, and interests of mankind appear when regarded ‘in the view of eternity’, and one is insensibly led to make that view one’s own. Thus Rabelais is one of the half-dozen writers whose spirit in a conspicuous way pervades and refreshes one’s being, tempers, steadies, and sweetens it, so that one lays the book aside conscious of a new will to live up to the best of one’s capacity, and a clearer apprehension of what that best may be. An unexampled power to render just this service is what has made the English Bible the book of books to all sorts and conditions of men, even when most ignorantly and unintelligently used. It is what, too, will unfailingly bring men back to the Bible after however long and justifiable exasperation with its misuse has kept them away from it; and so, will it bring men back, after long misapprehension, misuse, or neglect, to other literature which in its degree has the same power.” (Albert Jay Nock, 1929, Rabelais: The Man and His Work)