C.S. Lewis on the Importance of Reading Old Books

Posted by Kendall Harmon

‘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. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. 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 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. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours 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.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. 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 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. 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. 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 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 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 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. 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.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks …’.

--C.S. Lewis, from the ‘Introduction’ to On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), pp. 3–7.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchBooksHistory

Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. CBH wrote:

For those who might be interested, Real Presences by George Steiner is about, indeed, restoring to ourselves the real presence
that is the transcendent reality found in original works.  No one says it better than Lewis, of course.

October 27, 8:26 am | [comment link]
2. DonGander wrote:

AMEN! I have a thousand old books that challenge all kinds of modern interpretations of the ideas they supposedly contain. Among my books I have a early 1800s unwashed Jackson autobiograghy and a 1944 version of “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” that includes several letters from missionaries that were scrubbed from all later versions.

Students, read the old texts. They are often easier to understand than the later analysis.


October 27, 11:40 am | [comment link]
3. Northwest Bob wrote:

Care to guess which seminaries specialize in reading all kinds of books about what the Bible says but make reading the Bible cover to cover optional?  I have heard this from more than one clergy.
Yours in sorrow once again,
NW Bob

October 27, 11:48 am | [comment link]
4. DonGander wrote:

A related observation that I have yet to make sense of:

Many of the evangelical Churches in my area spend a great deal of time studying the writings of St. Paul. A good thing but why study what St. Paul says about what Jesus said and did when we can actually study Jesus’ own sayings?

I have my suspicions.


October 27, 12:13 pm | [comment link]
5. Sherri2 wrote:

I find myself going back to older and older books, with great rewards. I’m a bit weary of the notion that because we’re alive now we must be smarter than everyone who preceded us.

October 27, 12:17 pm | [comment link]
6. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Yes, Sherri2 (#5),

That arrogant assumption that whatever is the latest and newest thing is always the best is what C. S. Lewis eloquently derided as “chronological snobbery.

However, it’s not just old books that Lewis was urging people to read, but rather his call was for rereading great books over and over again.  The best books, that we call “classics,” have the kind of depth that repays repeated rereading.

And of course, that applies to Lewis’ own works.  My personal favorites, that I’ve read too many times to count, include The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and Perelandra.  Not to mention the Narnia books, naturally.

David Handy+

October 27, 3:45 pm | [comment link]
7. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

But in the spirit of this thread, perhaps I should list some much older favorites from bygone eras.

Among Christian theologians of the last 500 years, my personal favorites (outside modern times) are Martin Luther, John Wesley, and above all, John Henry Newman, three of the greatest church reformers of all time.

And going farther back, among the early Church Fathers, my personal favorites include Irenaeus, Augustine, Chrysostom, and not least Pope Leo the Great, whose extant sermons are truly great.

David Handy+

October 27, 3:50 pm | [comment link]
8. Jon wrote:

Hey David.  My favorite work by Lewis is his last novel, Till We Have Faces.  Have you ever read it?  It was also (in CSL’s own opinion) the best thing he ever wrote. 

I share a lot of your favorites from earlier eras, including Luther.  I’d add John Donne who was both a deep Christian thinker and an amazing poet and prose stylist.

October 27, 4:30 pm | [comment link]
9. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Hello, Jon.  Thanks.

Yes, I’ve read Til We Have Faces, but I must admit that I’m not that fond of it, not sure why.  I do enjoy Donne’s poetry too, especially something like “Batter My Heart.”

I hope other readers may chime in and tell us some of their favorite authors from earlier eras.

David Handy+

October 27, 7:37 pm | [comment link]
10. MichaelA wrote:

Don Gander wrote:

Many of the evangelical Churches in my area spend a great deal of time studying the writings of St. Paul. A good thing but why study what St. Paul says about what Jesus said and did when we can actually study Jesus’ own sayings?

I doubt that those churches study the letters of Paul to the exclusion of the Gospels. Most likely, they study both. As they should: both are scripture, i.e. written with the authority of God,  and there is no conflict between them.

Paul, like Jesus, spoke with God’s direct authority. Why would we want to distinguish between them?

October 27, 7:44 pm | [comment link]
11. Sidney wrote:

Here are a couple of oldies I recommend.

“The Roosevelt Myth,” by John T. Flynn (1948)

“Conquest of Mexico,” by William H. Prescott (1842)

October 27, 7:51 pm | [comment link]
12. NoVA Scout wrote:

No. 10:  Of course Paul and the Gospels are part of an entire scriptural fabric.  But Paul and the Gospels are different in some ways.  The Gospels recount what Jesus said and did.  Paul, who acted before the Gospels were written, gave us the beginnings of a theological structure on which to place those accounts.

October 27, 11:26 pm | [comment link]
13. graydon wrote:

While discussing my reading list with my grad school mentor, he counseled me this way, “Read the old books first.  If people are still citing it after 40 years, you better know what’s going on with it.  Most things printed to today will not pass muster in a generation.”  He was right.  Now 40 years down the road, most of the ‘contemporary’ works from that time have been donated to book fairs.  They are not worth wasting shelf space.

October 28, 1:35 pm | [comment link]
14. MichaelA wrote:

NoVA Scout,

I’m sorry but I do not see the relevance of your response. 

My point was that Paul and Christ both spoke from God. Its the same God speaking through both. My question to DonGander was why he was making a distinction between Paul’s letters and the Gospels.

October 28, 7:00 pm | [comment link]
15. DonGander wrote:

10. MichaelA
re:why study what St. Paul

That is a good question - one that I don’t know how to answer. All I know is that a person who attended a church found out from his record that over half the sermon content was referenced to St Paul’s writing. I don’t know why but I think it is up to no good. Perhpas the answer from St Peter would suffice:

2Pe 3:15 And account [that] the longsuffering of our Lord [is] salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
2Pe 3:16 As also in all [his] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as [they do] also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
2Pe 3:17 Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know [these things] before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness.

I have no other answer. I wish that I did.


October 28, 10:16 pm | [comment link]
16. MichaelA wrote:


Thanks for that explanation, I see your point now.

I just wonder though, whether it might be just relative to how much of the NT Paul wrote - I am just thinking off-hand that a lot of the NT consists of his epistles?

Anyway, that’s just speculation on my part. Obviously your friend has direct knowledge of the situation and no doubt had good reason for his concern. I hope everything works out for him.

October 28, 10:50 pm | [comment link]
17. NoVA Scout wrote:

MichaelA:  I thought I was directly on the relevance beam with reference to comments 4 and 10.  I was agreeing with both of you that the works of Paul and the Gospels are indeed all scripture of equal footing in our canon (your point) but there are distinctions between the Epistles and the Gospels in terms of content (Don’s implicit point, I think).  One wouldn’t go to the Epistles to find accounts of the life of Christ.  One wouldn’t go to the Gospels to learn about the life of the early Church and its spread throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and, eventually, to Rome.  That seems to me to be a valid and obvious distinction.  Without Paul (and, at least for this context, I’m assuming his authorship of all the Epistles, including the Timothys, Titus, Hebrews, Colossians, and Ephesians), the organization and doctrine of Christian churches would probably be much different.  You’re quite right that Paul’s input, or those whose writings are very much influenced by Paul, constitutes roughly half the New Testament.

Don - when you use the term “St. Peter” I think of Simon Peter, Cephas, the fisherman, the disciple.  The passage from II Peter is apt for the discussion, but the author of II Peter is not, as I understand it, St. Peter, the rock upon which the Church is built.

October 28, 11:39 pm | [comment link]
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