The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Why We Need the Ancient Books

Many years ago, a giant in the field of literature by the name of Clive Staples Lewis – commonly known as C.S. Lewis – wrote a marvelous essay (I believed published posthumously) entitled,  “On The Reading Of Old Books” [Lewis, C.S., GOD in the Dock, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1970.].

In this beautifully written article, C.S. Lewis puts forth the argument that modern men and women too often forsake the wisdom and sage counsel of the “classic writings” of the past.

Why is this so?

Mr. Lewis offers some fascinating insights.

First, and foremost, Lewis observed that many of the students that he taught were often intimidated by the great works of the past.  His students felt that these works would be difficult to read and understand.

Secondly, many of Lewis’ students prefered to read books and articles that dealt with contemporary issues, policy matters, and new jargons /discussions.

Mr. Lewis ‘counsel to his students and to those who would be intimidated by the classics of the past was 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 accessible.

C.S. Lewis felt that many of the  modern commentaries that attempted to explain Plato’s thought were actually much harder to read than the original works authored by Plato.

Mr. 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.

Lewis put forth the warning that every generation and the people who live in their peculiar time period are subject to the “blind spots” and to “the erroneous thinking of their time.”

Unfortunately, they are (or, we are) so caught up in “the moment that they /we live in” that they /we do not take the time to engage in exercises that would stretch our “self-awareness” by forcing us to take “personal and /or corporate inventory.”

Perhaps an illustration or series of illustrations would help.

In the year 1860, many Americans were indifferent to two things:

(1.) The denial of Women of 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.

Looking back more than 157 years later, we as a people recoil in horror on how the ancestors of Washington, Adams (John and Abigail and Quincy), Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson could have been so indifferent to the terrible plight of both Women and Negroes (Blacks or African-Americans in today’s parlance).

Yet, if one were to transport oneself back into the 18th and 19th centuries, one would observe that the common disposition of the time period is that 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 (men who were White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – WASP) that they were in some way living in a way that was inherently immoral, unethical, or cruel.

Lewis suggested that if Men and Women,  Adolescents and Children would take more time to read the GREAT CLASSICS OF THE PAST – BOOKS SUCH AS:  The Holy Bible, Saint Augustine’s Confessions and The City of GOD, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, The Credo of the Council of Nicaea (which produced the The Nicaean Creed” which is often affirmed, prayed and recited during Christian Worship services), Saint Francis of Assisi’s The Prayer of Saint Francis, Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Mother Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love et cetera then they /we would possess the tools and means of detecting many of the errors, falsehoods, and deceptions of our own time period.

We would do better at discerning the errors and falsehoods of our own time that continually war against our souls.

Lewis believed that if we had access to future books that they too would work as a positive antidote to our modern afflictions.

But,  because the future has yet to occur then we cannot rely upon future books that have yet to be written to help us “discover the faulty and erroneous thinking of the spirit of our age.

Why should we engage in the reading of old books?

Let me give a couple of essential reasons:

A Matter of Pursuing the Highest Ideals

Christians and Jews are men and women of “Faith.”

Jews look to the Law (The Torah or Old Testament) as their authoritative guide for life and living.

Christians agree with their Jewish friends on the authenticity of the Old Testament, but Christians hold that the 27 books of the New Testament are equally binding (our Jewish friends respectfully disagree).

Nevertheless, both Christians and Jews believe that GOD took the initiative to reveal Himself by The Law – and in the case of the Christian community by providing us with the ultimate Self-disclosure of Himself in the Incarnation of JESUS CHRIST.

What we know about GOD is primarily learned by His Self-Disclosure; we receive His lifeflow by Prayer, The Holy Sacraments and by the Study of His Holy Word.

We must use our minds; we must read, study, and interpret the propositional statements that GOD has given us in order to properly appropriate the Wisdom of the Past in order to live successfully today and in the Future.

A Matter of Growth and Maturity

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

On the surface, this sounds like a scandalously 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 Old Testament Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4-5) unless one was given to a life of serious mental contemplation and study.

The Shema in Deuteronomy 6.4-5 instructs us that:

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” (this was a quiet time of intimacy and contemplation).

Our 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 (two old books for every new book) then we should read at least one old book for every new book that we imbibe.


Life is too short to only rely upon the current wisdom and moral capital of our age; this leaves us in a great deficiency.

Let us live our lives Coram DEO (in the Presence of GOD) and 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 FOX and MSNBC after we apply ourselves to the true “goldmine” of Eternal Wisdom and Light.