The Clean Sea Breeze of the Centuries

Published July 22, 2013

Commentary Magazine

One of C.S. Lewis’s main endeavors as a teacher was to persuade young people that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. And so, Lewis wrote, a student would do better to read Plato than to “read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

But in making the case for reading old books Lewis made another argument that had never before dawned on me.

Every age has its own outlook, Lewis said. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He went on to say that all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–”even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.” And when reading about the controversies of the past, Lewis said, nothing strikes him more than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny.

“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.”

Lewis went on to write this:

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.

I cite Lewis at length for a couple of reasons. One is because I’m interested in the concept of how we bring to every important human subject (theology, philosophy, politics, et cetera) certain biases and prejudices, assumptions and subconscious thoughts that shape our interpretation of reality. “There is, of course, no such thing as a presupposition-less observer,” the Irish historian Eamon Duffy once said. And so we all need help to examine our presuppositions and identify our blind spots.

Old books can also help counteract what Lewis, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, called “chronological snobbery”–the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” For an idea to be out of fashion doesn’t mean it is per se out of alignment with truth and reality. And this period, like all periods, has “its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

I understand that none of us can fully escape the shadows. But I also believe that we can, now and then, rise above ignorance and error; that we can take strides in the direction of the sun; and that great books, and old books, can aid us in that journey.

Peter Wehner is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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