C. S. Lewis: On the Reading of Old Books, and Tradition

C. S. Lewis, who often mentioned in his correspondences the immense gratitude that he owed to Saint Athanasius’ treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, wrote an introduction to an English translation of that same work by his friend Sister Penelope, which has been re-circulated as an essay in its own right, entitled On the Reading of Old Books. In this introduction, Lewis advocates the great benefits that can be had in reading literary works from ages other than our own.

One benefit is that we are thereby cured of  any ‘chronological snobbery’ – the presupposition that  previous ages cannot teach us anything, and so any ideas that are not contemporary or ‘progressive’ are therefore instantly to be discounted. The reading of old books provides a corrective against the assumptions of our own age, by showing us that what was once seen as progressive has now fallen by the wayside:

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…

…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 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.

St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (1982), pp.4-5, Mowbray.

            The second benefit to be gained from reading old books is to cure us of, what Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, called ‘The Doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart’. This is the idea that:

…the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate…

…Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lance; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt like if he had never entertained them.

Preface to Paradise Lost (1971), pp.62-64, Oxford University Press.

            I.e.; to project one’s own beliefs, affections and presumptions onto the characters of the literature of old is either to prevent yourself from learning something about why they believed and felt what they did, or to reduce the character you are reading about to a ‘miserable abstraction’, or possibly both. Conversely, entering into their experiences can help us to see our own beliefs and ideologies in a new light, allowing them to be critiqued and readdressed – in this light, we are then in a better position to see both the faults and strengths of our own positions.

Neither of these effects is immediate – we must cultivate an openness to older literature that allows us to be educated by it, and some of us are so committed to certain modern ways of thinking that we will be bound to read our own presuppositions into the  texts we are reading. However, Lewis’ point seems to be that, if exposed regularly to literature from earlier periods, these presuppositions will gradually be worn down, and eventually be undermined. One can only keep reading one’s own views into archaic situations before this practice becomes untenable and slightly absurd.

I think the same can be said for the Christian life. Nowadays it is common to disregard or at least tactically select from Tradition, and when it comes to Scripture, reading what we want the text to say is a frequent practice. In doing so, we are also tying ourselves to the spirit of our age. The progressivist voices of today would claim that this frees us from the shackles of the past, but Lewis’ insight here is that quite the opposite is the case – a refusal to listen to any voice other than what is current commits one to simply going with the flow, wherever it may lead. True freedom of thought comes from the perspective gained by listening to the voices of all ages and all persuasions, in which we are able to see the errors of contemporary assumptions.

Similarly, by actually listening to the voices that speak to us through Scripture and Tradition, and allowing ourselves to be challenged by them, we can be freed from the assumptions that plague our religious thinking and bind us to contemporary ideologies, many of which are often temporary and without substance. By rooting ourselves in the wisdom of the past we can thus give ourselves a more objective perspective – one  that can separate truth from error and recognise what is truly ‘progressive’ as opposed to what is merely modern. As to what it is that we are progressing to – well, for Christians that is God, in all His fullness. For the multiplicity of voices in the modern, secular Western world, well, I have to admit that I don’t really know, and I don’t think many of them do either. Maybe reading some old books could help them to find out.


4 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis: On the Reading of Old Books, and Tradition

  1. Pingback: C. S. Lewis: On the Reading of Old Books, and Tradition | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. I think it was GK Chesterton that said something about the Tyranny of Tuesday – where people prefer Tuesday simply because it is not Monday, that is to say, because it is newer and thought better for its newness.

    I think he also said that dead things go with the flow, it takes a living thing to go against the flow. All this to say thanks for the post. Being rooted in the past, means, among other things, not being blown over the first time a strong wind comes along. And for those that may comment a reed bends where an oak breaks, I would simply remind that the reed is also rooted, otherwise it could not bend.

  3. Thank you for your comments 🙂

    I fully agree with the wisdom from Chesterton there – the more I read him the more impressed I am that he managed to anticipate so many of the things that plague our culture whilst they were not such ‘live’ issues. In fact, he managed to see things much clearer with foresight than many do now – which is, I guess, testimony to Lewis’ thesis that our minds are clouded by an overly strong commitment to what is current.

    The dead things going with the flow quote I have heard attributed to Fulton Sheen and Malcolm Muggeridge too – though in all likelihood, they were probably quoting Chesterton! It is certainly true anyway. We are in great danger of losing our roots completely at the moment, and are riding on the coattails of the few remnants of Christian morality that have been allowed to survive. I fear that, having wedded ourselves to the spirit of the age, we will, in not too short a time, become widowed. But the Church will still be there, thanks be to God.

  4. Pingback: C. S. Lewis: On Education as Opposed to Training | Journey Towards Easter

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