C. S. Lewis on Chronological Snobbery

I personally like reading old books; it comes easy to me. Frankly, I enjoy reading old books. I know that I am a little strange, but that is the way I am wired. Now, that’s not much of an argument to encourage others to read old books. I am aware of that. C.S. Lewis, however, makes a literary/philosophical case for reading old book, and he says it with unmatched penmanship!

In the mid-twentieth century, Lewis wrote the preface to a new translation of  Athanasius’ classic work, On the Incarnation. In it he compels readers to pick up this timeless classic, for it is a treasure for the church. But before he makes the case for this particular book, he demonstrates why it is dangerous for folks to read only new or modern books.

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 old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to 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 already knew. 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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