The Wisdom of Old Books & Original Sources

old books“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.” That’s C. S. Lewis, from his Introduction to a classic text, St. Athanasius on the Incarnation. Lewis wrote that Introduction seventy years ago, and it’s well worth hearing the rest of his admonition today.

He continues: “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 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 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 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 endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to understand.

ancient library (Duke edu.)“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology…. Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or 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 from 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 the hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light…. It is a good rule, therefore, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one until 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 characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

I have been thinking about Lewis’s admonition in the context of presidential speeches – the original sources where we hear the actual words of a President and make up our own minds – one-to-one, in an unmediated way – about what a President has actually said, rather than relying on a second- or third- or fourth-hand interpretation. As Lewis might have said, we have a mistaken preference for listening to how our political analysts interpret a President rather than listening ourselves the President.

It is a good rule, therefore, never to allow yourself to listen to an analyst, or a political challenger, or a pundit on talk radio until you have first heard the President describe a problem and explain a solution to end the problem. I began doing this myself much more often since the 1990s, beginning with President Bill Clinton, and it has been very surprising to me to see how distorted a view analysts, challengers, and others, with their rigid ideological agendas, can have of a President’s actual words and meanings.

Let us remember Lewis’s admonition as we here in the States now head into a year-and-a-half of political campaigning for the November 2016 elections. Heeding Lewis will make us not only wiser citizens and voters but greater respecters of truth.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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