Thursday, January 3, 2008

C.S. Lewis on Old Books

C.S. Lewis makes his case for reading old books in his introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (London: Mowbray, 1944), 3–10. The full text of the book is available here.

His arguments are:

  1. Old books are easier to understand than modern commentaries on those old books.
  2. The content of old books is assumed in much modern writing, so that if you read only the modern works, you are clueless as to the basis of the work you are reading.
  3. Since we are a product of modern times, recent books share our modern perspective, thus reinforcing our own beliefs, even wrong ones. Old books provide a corrective to this.
  4. Regarding Christian books in particular, reading the classics allows one to see that “mere Christianity” which runs through writers of all Christian divisions.

Lewis then sings the praises of St. Athanasius, and his De Incarnatione in particular. Here follows some of his more interesting and eloquent observations. The first three passages concern the value of old books. The fourth passage continues this topic, but is interesting primarily for Lewis’ views on Christian divisions. The last passage articulates a stuggle common to earnest Christians eager to “devote” their minds to God but unable to extract any insight or emotion from “devotional” literature.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire (p. 3)


It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones (p. 4).


Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us (p. 5).


We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. (p. 7).


For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand (p. 8).

1 comment:

Michael Jackson said...

I find Lewis' words especially true. I am always tempted to read a modern treatise on any subject (especially biblical ones) because I assume that they are more "complete" or more "comprehensive" because they should take into consideration all of the past information. I have found, however, that is rarely if ever the case (except in a few special instances- Anthony Thiselton's 1 Corinthians commentary comes to mind).

The thoughts regarding devotional books are right on target. Devotion is better built on primary sources imho.

Great post.