CS Lewis’ View of Old Books

If you’ve never checked out the work by Athanasius, On The Incarnation, you should.  It’s a helpful reminder of some of the basic reasons why this whole Christmas thing was necessary; many parts will be more reminder than revelation, but we tend to forget rather easily.  Especially notice Athanasius’ emphasis on the restoration of the “Image of God” through Christ, a much ignored perspective in the recent past.

But attached to the most common English translation of that work is a small introduction by CS Lewis.  One can find an online version of it here.  A more common title given to it is “On Old Books” or something of that nature.

Lewis writes, “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.”

The reason, he explains, is that as we often note of men of the past but ignore about ourselves, is that we are all in some sense “products of our age.”  The blind-spots that we have because of the times in which we live, the culture into which we were born, the educational program we received, etc. affect how we think and act.  And blind-spots are so named because we can’t ourselves see them.  Therefore, we must read old books from other places and times to gain perspective on things we ourselves often miss.

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. 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…Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

Lewis reminds of one great reason to read the “old books” in the opening paragraphs:

“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. (emphasis mine) 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 firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”


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