Thursday, June 3, 2010

C.S. Lewis on The Great Books

Few have equaled C.S. Lewis in their ability to distill complicated truths into understandable sentences. He wrote the introduction to a book I am reading now. And his thoughts alone are worth the price of the book. In the intro he writes that novice readers prefer reading modern, "simplified" versions of classic theology and philosophy books because they feel inadequate to understand the original documents. Here is Lewis' response:

This seems topsy-turvy to me... If the ordinary reader must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it...

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.... If the average student wants to find out about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read it. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for its springs from humility. 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 endeavors 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.

From intro to On the Incarnation by Athanasius

2 comments:

Hannah Stoneham said...

Wonderful, and true. I read history at university and was always amazed at how reluctant history students were to read original sources....
I think that there is a bit of a fear that sources of history and literature go past an age at which they are easy to understand - a sort of fear that the ancient will be incomprehensible. This is so not a problem - and CSL has it bang right here in my mind! Thanks for sharing

Hannah

Frances Tyrrell said...

Wonderful - exactly what one would expect from C.S.L., but a passage which I have not encountered before.

I have read and reread my copy of "Til We Have Faces" until it is falling apart.