Arthur Middleton on C.S. Lewis and the importance of reading old books

Some years ago I was invited to view the library of a Regional Theological Course. It had no book older than twenty years. In the Introduction to St Athanasius on

the Incarnation, (whose feast day is May 2) translated and edited by A Religious of CSMV, C.S. Lewis makes a plea for the reading of ‘old books’. He says, ‘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.’

As a tutor in English Literature he claimed that if the average student wanted to find out something about Platonism, he would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, than read a translation of Plato’s Symposium. ‘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 commentators. 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.’ Lewis’s main concern as a teacher was 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.

The mistaken preference for modern books and shyness of original sources is ‘rampant in theology’ and its obsession with newfangledness. Christian study groups too often study, not St Luke, or St Paul, or St Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or Hooker, or Butler, but other people’s thoughts about them. ‘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.’ Lewis’s reason is that the amateur is 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 the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.’

‘The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Chris tianity’ 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.

Because every age has its own outlook that sees certain truths and is 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.’ Lewis points out that all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – ‘even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.’ What strikes him when he reads the controversies of past ages is ‘the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now 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.

‘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.’

He is not claiming anything magical for the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now and they made as many mistakes as we. But they were 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. Stepping out of our own century, and measured against the ages ‘mere Christianity’ turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. ND