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C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books

  In the theology class I’m currently slogging my way through, we’ve been assigned a fair bit of reading, most of it from primary sources. In our case that means, among others, Bonhoeffer and Anselm.

In the process of explaining why we are reading those books as opposed to, say, the latest systematic theology text, our professor shared the following quote from C.S. Lewis.

“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.

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 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.

It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”

C.S. Lewis, in the introduction to Athanasius’  

On the Incarnation

What are your thoughts on Lewis’ quote?

Do we tend to avoid primary sources?

If so, why, and what could be done to encourage reading the classics?



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Mason is a husband to Melinda, seminary student, youth pastor, blogger and freelance writer in, Grand Rapids, MI. He is passionate about theology, community and justice. What little time is left amidst his busy schedule is devoted to reading, coffee snobbery and a new adventure in home brewing.