“My book should be something like what past ages used to call an enchiridion—a little dagger that might help him to cut his way among the enemies and perplexities of his life. I mean no formidable treatise, for which I felt no competence. What I had in mind was a little book to which he could turn in doubt or trouble, when he could no longer come to me . . .”
The reader is excused for mistaking “enchiridion” for an edged weapon, a switchblade or trench knife, rather than a mere book. The author of the passage above, Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961), had reason to worry about his safety and the safety of his family. The former Soviet agent defected from the true faith of Communism, testified against another Soviet spy and former State Department official, Alger Hiss, and lived the final decade of his life in fear and ill health. The passage is quoted in the introduction to Chambers’ posthumously published Cold Friday (Random House, 1964), a collection of previously unpublished work edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor. Chambers, writing in 1955, is referring to a book he would never finish. Three years earlier, he brought out Witness, one of the last century’s essential books.
Norton-Taylor tells us Chambers wrote the note on the day his son, John, left their farm in Maryland to register for the draft. Stalin is dead, the war in Korea is over and the one in Vietnam just smoldering. Communism remains in its ascendancy. Perilous times for an American father with a draft-age son. Chambers’ fears are justified, given his experience of Communism and knowledge of history. He continues in the 1955 fragment:
“. . . and catch again his father’s voice saying: `This is how it happened to me, these are the conclusions I drew from past experience. This is how experience seemed to teach me that a man should act, this is what a man is and should be against the scale of reality.’ My reward, never known by men, could be that he might one day say, `In the main, you spoke to me wisely.’”
As to enchiridion: it dates from two decades before Shakespeare’s birth and is rooted in the Greek for “that which is held in the hand.” In other words, a “handbook,” a small, portable volume. One thinks of a missal or compact New Testament. As to the contents Chambers describes – “a little dagger that might help him to cut his way among the enemies and perplexities of his life” – Montaigne comes to mind. So too, Pascal, Spinoza or Johnson. Of late, for my sixteen-year-old, it’s Marcus Aurelius. Of course, as parents, we may be the only books, or the only significant books, our children ever read.