On the Reading of Old Books

Friday, August 5th, 2016

I’ve cited Joseph Sobran on reading old books before. Here’s C.S. Lewis on the reading of old books:

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

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 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.


  1. Ross says:

    Particularly timely, given the revelation that Feynman (PBUH) among many others, simply got the Faraday cage explanation wrong. There is plenty of room for exploration out there.

  2. Kgaard says:

    Fabulous quote. Thank you.

  3. Botchwork says:

    Ross, rubbish. That paper is gibberish. Ask a real physicist.

  4. Bill says:

    The quote is from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to “On the Incarnation: Athanasius of Alexandria”; here is a link to the complete essay.

  5. Alrenous says:

    That ‘real’ physicist is obviously a socialite, not an academic. It’s about respect for authority, not the math, exactly as I expect as the lady doth protest too much.

    There’s not enough information in either post to work out the real physics without doing it yourself. The ‘real’ physicist spends a lot of time lying/failing at reading comprehension and reputation management, while the obviously curious academic seems to be doing calculations in 2D, where the third dimension may be very important.

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