The Wisdom of the Ages

I had a rather modern education throughout my early years. Some of the “classics” broke through now and then, but not many. Of course, what one defines as a classic book may depend on where one stands. In this twenty-first century, I think it’s fine to look back to the last half of the twentieth and call some writings “classic.”

I’ve tried, in spurts, to fill in some of the gaps in my reading. The last few years have been an attempt to become more familiar with what ages past have to offer. From Plato to Dante to Thomas More to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Solzhenitsyn (among others), I’ve been able to accomplish much. But much remains.

For me, C. S. Lewis has achieved classic status, even though he is almost a contemporary. I began reading him less than a decade after his death; our lives did overlap for a few years. So it’s kind of fascinating to read someone I consider classic writing about what he considered classic.

In the collection of his essays called God in the Dock, there is one titled “On the Reading of Old Books.” It was originally written as an introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God. In it, Lewis not only praises Athanasius’ fidelity to the Trinity in a time of theological distress in the early church, but he praises what we all can learn from devoting ourselves to the writings of those who have come before us.

Why read books about Plato, he asks, if you can just read Plato for yourself? After all, Lewis counsels, Plato is often far more understandable than those who try to explain him: “First-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

New books, Lewis reminds us, are “still on trial.” All new books must “be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.” One of the most-quoted sentences in this essay soon follows: “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.”

I like that quote, but the historian in me (and he’s quite present after thirty-one years of teaching history) absolutely loves the paragraph that follows. Here are key excerpts:

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. . . .

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century [and I will insert here the twenty-first century]—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?—lies where we have never suspected it. . . .

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.

Lewis is not claiming that some kind of “magic” exists in old books. He realizes that people in ages past also made errors in judgment and were mistaken on some matters. Yet they were “not the same mistakes. . . . Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

What he discovered in his reading of the old books, with respect to the Christian faith, is that even though Christians have often been divided throughout history and one might be tempted to think that Christianity “is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all,” that would be one of those errors in judgment that can be corrected through acquainting oneself with the classic writings.

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 recognize, 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’s easy for us in the twenty-first century to once again be distressed by Christian divisions, not only theologically, but politically as well. We can be dispirited by them. I know I can be. Lewis could be also. Yet his reading of the old books gave him hope. “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.” Lewis continues,

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 sheeptracks.

What this means for Christians in our day, I think, is that we need to have that broader view, one that comes to us from centuries before ours. We need to come together and be that united fellowship that Jesus has commanded us to be.