Lewis on the Old Books

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Image: Dublin Library. The WSRL is a humble and intimate gathering ...Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

c-s-lewis-2All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.

Sage Advice from C. S. Lewis

God in the DockC. S. Lewis was a professor of literature, not a historian. That doesn’t mean, though, that he didn’t have some sage advice for those in my line of study. For instance, here’s a bit of solid guidance for historians in an essay called “Horrid Red Things,” found in a volume called God in the Dock:

A historian who has based his work on the misreading of a document may afterwards (when his mistake has been exposed) exercise great ingenuity in showing that his account of a certain battle can still be reconciled with what the document records.

But the point is that none of these ingenious explanations would ever have come into existence if he had read his documents correctly at the outset. They are therefore really a waste of labour; it would be manlier of him to admit his mistake and begin all over again.

Although he’s applying that directly to people like me who deal with historical documents, it’s really a principle that applies to everyone in any walk of life. Honesty . . . integrity . . . a willingness to acknowledge when we have been wrong . . . should be the hallmarks of one’s character. Christians, in particular, have an obligation to model these traits.

That’s a deep enough thought for today. If we take it seriously, we transform our relationships.