This past Tuesday night was the first meeting of my small group. We discussed, “Why Read Old Stuff? Who Really Cares?” Our guides were Chesterton, Lewis, and Wesley (we’ll deal with Wesley separately).
CS Lewis definitely won vs. Chesterton. I like Chesterton’s essay mainly for his robust assurance that he is, in fact, right. And you, in fact, are wrong. He trusts himself. He does not beat around the bush. He says what he means; he means what says; and he does it with style. I also chose the essay for its opening paragraph:
The highest use of the great masters of literature is not literary; it is apart from their superb style and even from their emotional inspiration. The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone. The way in which it does this, however, is sufficiently curious to be worth our fully understanding it to begin with.
I agree, GK. I agree. However, while some of Chesterton’s contemporaries had sold out to the progress myth, the rest of this essay demonstrates that GK Chesterton had sold out to the “regress” myth. We should read old books because they are better than new books. All new ideas have been thought of (true), but in previous ages, they were thought of and found wanting (really?). We are worse today than we were before. I think (but could be wrong) he does a Christian version of the old Hesiodic Ages of Man. Golden (Christ and the Apostles), Silver (Patristic Era), Bronze (Middle Ages), Iron (Reformation and Renaissance). And Dante is probably the Age of Heroes.
CS Lewis, on the other hand, realises that the usefulness of old books is probably similar to that of books yet to be written. Every age has its own difficulties, assumptions, similarities, and so forth, such that we are all prone to certain errors as well as to certain virtues. To read old books is to have the errors of our own age corrected by those who were prone to different errors. Reading old books is a way to keep ourselves balanced and broad, a way to avoid being narrowly modern. We must, to paraphrase him, keep the breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.
Another usefulness he mentions but does not go into detail is a value that comes specifically from the classics. New books, he notes, are still on trial. Old books are not. By reading books that have been found beautiful or beneficial or true or useful or thought-provoking by multiple generations, we set ourselves free from new, flashy books that may prove ugly, useless, false, and thoughtless within the year. By aligning ourselves with Chesterton’s “Democracy of the Dead,” by seeing what most people have thought most of the time, we are keeping ourselves true to our tradition and finding a base, a foundation through which we can navigate the modern world and the new books.
Finally, I heartily encourage Lewis’ recommendation to read an old book every second or third book. I basically do it, and it’s a good time. Old need not mean classical or mediaeval; nor need it be non-fiction or “Christian” books. I, myself, think of books that are more than 40 or 50 years old as being “old” enough; Lewis did, if we consider his listing George MacDonald among the old writers.
So go out today and read something old! Now! (If want to know where to begin, check out my “Basic Bibliography” over to the right and scroll down to “Online Resources”.)
Some other guides to reading old stuff:
Foster, Richard A. and James Bryan Smith. Devotional Classics. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. An anthology of 52 weekly readings from through the ages and through the traditions, covering “Preparing for the Spiritual Life,” “The Prayer-filled Life,” “The Virtuous Life,” “The Spirit-Empowered Life,” “The Compassionate Life,” and “The Word-Centered Life.” There is a newer edition that also includes the sacramental life.
Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: IVP, 1998. This book discusses why we should read the Church Fathers and how the Church Fathers read Scripture. It discusses the Four Doctors of the East and the Four Doctors of the West, then the Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methods, concluding with thoughts on working with patristic exegesis. I’ve blogged a bit about it before.
Trueman, Carl. “Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics?“