Why should we bother to read foreign books?
The answer to this one is very simple: we should take the trouble to
read old books just as we should take the trouble to see different
places, or at least talk to people with different backgrounds from our
Quite often it’s worth while insisting that there are common things in
human life, in human experience, things which make us quite different
from any other of the animals: but there are also things in human life
which are different in different places, or at least things which
people face up to differently in different places. And just in the same
way as it’s worth while getting to know how people who live in
different places face up to human life, in the same way it’s worth who
lived in different times faced up to it.
There was a great king in Europe in the sixteenth century, as a matter
of fact just at the time when Europeans started getting really
interested in America: Charles fifth emperor of Germany of that name,
and also first king of Spain of that name. His lands extended over a
lot of Europe, and included a lot of different peoples with different
languages, and he used to say that “to possess another language is to
possess another soul”.
Mind you, he also used to say that he talked in French to men, Italian
to women, Spanish to God, and German to his horse, so it’s not all that
clear how much or how good a use he made of all the extra souls he had.
But surely in principle he was right: to have another language is to
have access, at least, to another way of thinking.
Maybe most of us don’t speak four languages, like Charles V —- it’s
difficult enough sometime’s to speak or read one’s own language
adequately. But one of the great things about speaking and reading
English is that because it’s a language that has become so important in
the world, very many important books from very many languages have been
translated into it. And we can buy them quite cheaply, or even borrow
them for nothing at the library —- in any case it’s much cheaper than
even the cheapest trip into Mexico or Canada.
And in those books we can find the thoughts of people who were perhaps
much cleverer than we are -— after all, perhaps there’s not many of us
who could write even one book, let alone several, which would be worth
translating into other languages -— and in any case whose backgrounds
are quite different from our own.
So if it’s worth visiting other cities or countries, or watching TV
shows about other places and the people who live there -— and it is -—
it’s also worth finding out about people who live in different places
or who lived in different times. And we can’t go there, because they
aren’t there any more. There are quite often good TV shows about
history -— some of them are really exceptional -— but the TV shows only
tell us what the TV experts and producers think about those old people.
If we read their books we can find out directly what they thought.
Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.