C.S. Lewis on why we must “Read old books”

In his wonderful essay “On the Reading of Old Books” C.S. Lewis argues that reading so-called Old Books, like the works of Plato is not just for specialists but for the common reader as well.

To rely only on modern books which rely on those old books, we will miss errors in interpretation or understanding by the modern author. He also correctly points out that often times the Old Book is actually easier to understand than the newer book.

Further, he reminds us that even new books are part of a continuing discussion and too neglect reading old book is as “if you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.”

He suggests that: “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 think this is sage advice, particularly for Christians.

Another key points Lewis makes is:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

So, read Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, the Church Father’s, Luther, Calvin and if you are able the Bible in its original language. Weave these readings in with readings of modern texts and join the conversation more informed and therefore better able to engage the discussion.

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