There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only 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 take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium...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...It has always 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.
...Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old...A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light...It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never 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.
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..Where [modern books] are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. 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. 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. 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.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Letting the Clean Breeze of the Centuries Blow Through Our Minds
I recently started reading On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius. It was written about 1700 years ago (in 319). Appropriately, C.S. Lewis writes the brilliant introduction and gives fantastic advice about reading older books. Many of you have probably heard bits of this quote before, but I wanted to share it again its fuller context. I have joyfully lived by this philosophy ever since I first heard it (I've actually started having the opposite problem -- not reading many new books). I hope it will encourage you in the same way: