C. S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books

C. S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books

You are probably familiar with this quote from C. S. Lewis on the reading of 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." This comes from an essay entitled, "On the Reading of Old Books."1

In this essay Lewis defends the value of the classics. I found out the hard way that philosophy is very different from books on philosophy. It turns out, reading Plato is easier than reading about Plato:

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 endeavors 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.

Lewis doesn't decry modern books, but values them in their proper place: below old ones.

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.

Lewis advises for every modern book you read, read one old one; or at least for every three modern, read one old. The reason Lewis gives for the power of reading old books is the best I've ever seen.

Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. 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.

We need context for ideas, otherwise those ideas can be widely misconstrued. It's incredible how many modern theological problems stem from this simple idea.

No matter how good your favorite author is, he or she is still plagued by the modern perspective. You can't get totally--that's part of our finitude.

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.

But the answer to that closed perspective is the good, clean sea breeze:

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... 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.

As if the essay weren't already strong enough, Lewis closes with these thoughts on the hotly debated topic of doctrine vs. devotion, an easily misunderstood false dichotomy between head and heart.

In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that "nothing happens" when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

  1. Get the full essay here. ↩︎
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