C.S. Lewis On Reading Old Books

From The God in the Dock

"...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..."

I was reminded of this quote today after making a reference on my facebook page on the necessity of reading primary sources. Lewis suggests that if one had the choice between reading old books and new books, one should in almost every case choose to read old books. 

I think Lewis is right, of course. And frankly it's something I've generally sucked at. Those of us who are lovers of books, especially in the disciplines of liberal arts, fail to really engage with the old timers. We've adopted this idea that if something is 'old' it has served its purpose and can be built upon and its time for that idea to go. "Progress" really is an illusion after all, so why do we treat our literature and learning that way? 

History reminds us routinely that the past is often forgotten or assumed either to have served its purpose or lack there of. How many of our current debates really could be better answered--or at least put into context--not by ignoring the past as if it fails to give us any wisdom but by listening to the voices, questions, perspectives, and answers it possesses? My thinking and my experience suggests A LOT!  If we credit the elderly with wisdom, think about how much wisdom a 300 year old dead guy has!

(Also...just an FYI because it is relevant. If you choose to make assertions about C.S. Lewis, do the world a favor and actually read C.S. Lewis. He's starting to show up on those "quotes he never said" websites and, frankly, I'm getting tired of everybody trying to put Lewis in their ring. Lewis wrote enough out there that he is both a challenge to put in a box and, at the same time, enough to give us a solid idea of where he stood on many issues.) 

 

 


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