What Is The Value of Reading Old Literature?

In a beautifully written article entitled, “On The Reading Of Old Books” [Lewis, C.S., GOD in the Dock, Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1970.] C.S. Lewis puts forth the argument that modern men and women too often forsake the classics of the past.

Why is this so?

Mr. Lewis offers some compelling insights.

First, and foremost, Lewis observed that many of the students that he taught were often intimidated by the classics of the past.

Secondly, many of Lewis’ students would much read books and articles that dealt with contemporary issues, policy matters, and discussions.

Mr. Lewis ‘counsel to his students and to the initiated in the classics of the past is simply this: “Dive in!”

Lewis told his students that in all reality that there is nothing for them to be intimidated by for if they would take the time to pick up one of the translations of Plato’s work, they would be surprised by how much of what Plato wrote would be easily understood.

C.S. Lewis felt that many of the so called modern works of explaining Plato were actually much harder to read than the original works.

Lewis put forth the thesis that one of the main reasons that the classics MUST BE READ is that they act as a positive antidote against contemporary error and hubris (Greek for overweening pride).

Let us attempt to decipher Lewis’ exhortation.

Mr. Lewis put forth the warning that every generation and the people who live in their particular time period are subject to “blindness to the erroneous thinking and ideas of their time.” 

Perhaps an illustration would help.

In the year 1860, many Americans were indifferent to two things: (1.) The denial of Women with the right to vote, and (2.) the plight of more than 4 Million descendants of Africa who were enslaved in the “land of freedom and liberty.”

Now looking back more than 156 years later, we recoil in horror on how the ancestors of Washington, Adams (John and Abigail and Quincy), Jefferson, and Jackson could have been so indifferent to the plight of both Women and Negroes.

Yet, if one were to transport oneself back into the late 18th century or into the first half of the 19th century, one would observe that the common disposition of that time period was that the submission by women to their husbands – and to men – virtually extended into all areas of economic, political, and social endeavor.

It would not have occurred to most of the men in power (who were mostly White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – WASP) that they were in some way living in a way that was inherently immoral or cruel.

Lewis would suggest that if more Men and Women of Faith would take more time reading the Spiritual Classics such as:  The Holy Bible; the works of Saint Augustine (Confessions and The City of GOD); Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy); the Council of Nicaea (which produced the “The Nicene Creed” which is often affirmed, prayed and recited during Christian Worship services); Saint Francis of Assisi (The Prayer of Saint Francis); Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica); Mother Julian (Revelations of Divine Love) – that they would be given the proper tools and means of detecting many of the errors, falsehoods, and deceptions of their time.

C.S. Lewis was not suggesting that men and women of earlier time periods never made mistakes; they made mistakes, but they did not make our mistakes!

Lewis believed that future books if they were available would work as a positive antidote, but because the future books were yet to have been written we must in the meantime utilize old books that we have available in order to “discern the errors of the spirit of our age.”

Why should we engage in the enterprise of reading old books?

Let me give an essential reason…

A Matter of Worship

Years ago, I was taught a quote by the great writer Matthew Arnold that stated that, “No man who knows nothing else knows even his Bible.”

On the surface, this sounds like a scandalously and blasphemous statement.

However, upon closer inspection, it seems that Arnold recognized that one could not faithfully embrace the first and great commandment of faith found in The Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4-5) unless one was given to a life of contemplation and study.

The Shema instructs us that we are to give heed and to listen to GOD’S Words:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

How Are We To Apply This?

We start where we are.

There is an old Chinese adage that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. We need to put aside a little bit of time each week to turn off T.V., Smart phones, I-Phones, and electronic devices so that we can take time to reflect, meditate, study, and pray.

GOD walked with Adam and Even “in the cool of the day.”

The cool of the day would be a time of refreshing, renewal, and reflection.

Secondly, Lewis suggests in his essay that for every current book that we read that we should read at least two old books – dare we say classics – for every new book that we indulge. If we cannot read 2:1 then we should read at least one old book for every new book that we read.


Life is too short to only rely upon the wisdom and moral capital of our age.

  • Let us live our lives Coram DEO (in the Presence of GOD)
  • Let us make a concerted effort to seek His Face in His Holy Word
  • …and in the Spiritual Classics.

There will be plenty of time to indulge in the worldly wisdom of CNN and FOX after we apply ourselves to true Eternal Wisdom and Light.

GOD Bless You!

Happy Memorial Day Weekend!