C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books & Theology

Unknown C.S. Lewis’¬†Introduction to “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, at that the amateurs 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 Plato the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read “Symposium”…The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers fact to face…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. 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… This mistaken preference for modern books and shyness of the old ones is nowhere more prevalent than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are not studying St. Luke, or St. Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas… Now this seems to me topsy-turvy…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… 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 characteristics mistakes of our own period…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… Not, of, course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer 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.”

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