C.S. Lewis on the “Historical Point of View” from The Screwtape Letters

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates,and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the "present state of the question". To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that "history is bunk..."
--Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape (Screwtape Letters, Chapter 27)[emphasis mine]

Filed under: * Culture-WatchBooksHistoryPhilosophyReligion & Culture

6 Comments
Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Ross Gill wrote:

This makes me think of another piece from Lewis about why we should read old books.

Every age has its own outlook.  It is especially 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.

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

October 31, 10:43 am | [comment link]
2. MichaelA wrote:

Biting stuff, great to read!

October 31, 7:22 pm | [comment link]
3. clarin wrote:

Of course, one must remember that Lewis was writing 60-70 years ago, and we need to consider the present state of the Lewis question, and how Lewis, had he lived, would have gone on to embrace modern thought etc etc ...

November 1, 3:50 am | [comment link]
4. Ross Gill wrote:

I don’t know, #3.  I don’t think Lewis would have eagerly ‘embraced’ much of modern (contemporary??) thinking because he was a reader of old books although like everyone else he couldn’t help being ‘influenced’ by it so he would have had his blind spots just like the rest of us.  But he was in many ways a pre-modernist.  He was certainly very much at home with the medieval world view.  Take a look at his ‘The Discarded Image’.

What you said about his writing 60-70 years ago triggered some thoughts, though. His books are well on their way to becoming the kind of ‘old books’ he was talking about.

November 1, 1:49 pm | [comment link]
5. MichaelA wrote:

Clarin, surely how Lewis would have embraced modern thought (or not) is fairly obvious from his writings?  Its not as though the modern thought of today differs to any real extent from the modern thought of Lewis’ day.

November 1, 6:04 pm | [comment link]
6. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

GOD IN THE DOCK pretty well settles the modern, post-modern and we-are-so-post-post-...-modernity.

November 1, 7:35 pm | [comment link]
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