Reading old and great books

I’ve been reading some old and great books in preparation for a week-long Fides et Ratio seminar at Thomas More College next week.  It has been great.  Augustine, Albert the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, etc.  The seminar is great, and I wish more academic conferences were run this way.   15 people sit around a table.  No prepared presentations, just open discussion.  We spend a week together, and it is pretty intense (all day and into the early night each day).

Anyway, one of the readings is ‘On the Incarnation’ by St. Athanasius.  The short introduction by C.S. Lewis is worth the price of admission.  He presents a wonderful little argument for reading old and great books, and how reading them can help us avoid error.  I thought two passages were worth quoting at length, but you can read the whole introduction (and the book by Athanasius, if you want!) here.

“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 first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

“None of us can fully escape this blindness [of our own contemporary assumptions], 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. 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.”

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

2 thoughts on “Reading old and great books

  1. Hunt

    I agree, except that you will read contemporary reviews if you want a contemporary perspective, and you will read the original if you want an original perspective. Lewis is right that contemporary accounts are often unnecessarily clouded by modern bias. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve been utterly confused by some pedant reviewing the works of a bygone scholar. The great exception is, for instance, when historical text has been written as legitimization of one view or another, as almost all ancient history was. I suppose this is less of a problem in philosophy, but for history, the contemporary historian is considered the authority, since only he or she can do a comparative analysis.

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