"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Monday, January 20, 2014

C.S. Lewis: 'Old Books', a Bulwark Against the Nonsense of the Present

"It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away."
- C.S. Lewis, on St. Athanasius

In my classroom, I always start the hour with an appropriate quote to get students thinking about the day's topic, or to review what we learned the previous class.  One of my favorites is from C.S. Lewis.  I've forgotten the source, but he writes,
"Most of all, perhaps, we need an intimate knowledge of the past.  The man who has traveled widely is less likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times, and so is to some extent immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age." 
If ever an age could be justly accused of spewing forth a "cataract of nonsense", I think it must be our own.  Lewis, of course, has a way of expressing things with irresistible wit, but this is really 'History 101'.  In the introductory chapter of his book, The Church in History, John E. Booty writes,
"If we ignore history, we deteriorate, becoming less than fully human.  If we refuse to study the past, we abdicate from the power and authority, which we rightly possess, over the historical forces that impinge upon us, and we are in grave danger of being led like dumb oxen into the future.  There are strong tendencies within us, as individuals and as groups, to conform to the dominant intellectual, moral, and cultural trends of the present age, without thought, without criticism, and without control."
It is disciplined historical study, a consciously developed "historical sense", as Booty goes on to say, that enables us to escape the controlling forces of the present.  We should not think, however, that true historical study is escapist; on the contrary, we engage in such study so that "traveling away from ourselves into that past we gain necessary perspective on the present."

And there is no better method for gaining that perspective than by reading old books.  C.S. Lewis wrote a preface to an English translation of St. Athanasius's fourth century treatise On the Incarnation, in which he develops this idea further.  It is one of my new year's resolutions to make a more conscious effort to be always reading at least one "old book".  Lewis's preface is not long, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in becoming immune to the pervasive microphone of the press that would treat us as unthinking cattle.  Of course, reading said preface will undoubtedly lead to the reading of St. Athanasius, which is really the whole point.
"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.  And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  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 through the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light... The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.  Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.  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.
"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.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook -- even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united -- united with each other and against earlier and later ages -- by a great mass of common assumptions.  We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century -- the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" -- lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they 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 any 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."  C.S. Lewis, Preface to On the Incarnation, by Saint Athanasius the Great of Alexandria

Happy reading, and Peace of Christ.


  1. Hi, I am from Australia.
    In Truth & Reality most (if not all) of the old so called "authorities" were just as deluded as we moderns are - even more so.
    This was also the case with C S Lewis who has to be THE most over-rated Christian propaganda hack.
    Please find an introduction to an Illuminated Being who thorougly examined at a profound depth level every proposition ever made about the nature of Reality in all times and places. Beginning by urgent cultural necessity those of the Western world - he was born in New York and began his explorations into the nature of Reality at Columbia University.
    On Christian-ISM
    On the limitations of the slick-and-clever mind that mis-informs Western philosophy and "theology"

    1. Well, I won't dispute that Lewis was a propagandist (or apologist), though there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself; you are quite the propagandist, too, it would seem! As to his being over-rated and a hack, I must respectfully and resoundingly disagree.