“We speak of the past and the future as if they are separate realities, but…
From the Chapel — June 26: A lack of flattery
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
“It is a good rule,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” If surveys are to be believed, a sizable portion of Americans have dealt with this rule by reducing it to irrelevance, reading one book or less per year.
That’s not to say that Americans don’t read. We consume massive quantities of words, but we receive most of them electronically, on the World Wide Web or the crawls and chyrons of our chosen cable news network. And the vast majority of those words have something in common: They were produced not only within the lifetime of the reader but within the past few days — weeks or months, at most.
Lewis died before the internet existed, let alone the World Wide Web; but he had glimpsed enough of the “Brave New World” prophesied by his fellow Englishman Aldous Huxley, who died on the same day as Lewis, to be wary of the homogeneity of modern life, and especially of contemporary thought. His own study of the “old books” had allowed Lewis to see that “all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
When I was in college, Lewis’ writings were all the rage among young Christians. Twenty years later, those interested in Lewis were more likely to pick up a book about Lewis’ writings. Today, they’re more likely to read an article such as this, written one day and posted on the web the next. And seeing Lewis’ rule about reading old books, they may think of “Mere Christianity” or “The Weight of Glory” or “The Abolition of Man.” But those, of course, were what Lewis meant — and would still mean today — by new books.
Lewis set forth his rule in his Introduction to an edition of St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione (“On the Incarnation”). He had authors such as Athanasius in mind — and Plato and Augustine and Aquinas, and “Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan.” The closest he comes to allowing a contemporary into the fold of “old books” is George Macdonald, who died seven years after Lewis was born, and wrote all of his works in the second half of the 19th century.
Lewis did not read “old books,” much less recommend them, because he was an antiquarian. Rather, he recognized that we have blind spots in our understanding of the world because it’s hard to rise above our own circumstances, and so, both personally and collectively, our thought falls prey to unspoken assumptions. “We may be sure,” Lewis writes, “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.”
Unless we’ve read and wrestled with the writings of the Catholic historian John Lukacs on World War II, we’re likely to be shocked at Lewis’ suggestion that there could be anything on which Hitler and FDR shared “untroubled agreement.” But that’s the very heart of Lewis’ point. Not only don’t we know what we don’t know; we also aren’t aware of most of the things that we collectively take as given as human beings living in the first quarter of the 21st century.
“Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages,” Lewis writes, “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.” The same is true of us: “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — so self-evident that they eventually fade from our vision, migrate to the edge of our consciousness, become part of the background noise that we only notice when it’s gone.
The point, as Lewis makes clear, is not that the “old books” are always right, while our new books — or even talking-head punditry, or social media posts — are always wrong. “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.”
Of course, one of the unspoken assumptions of our own era may be that we cannot abide a lack of flattery.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.