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

Readability

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 6.45) unless one was given to a life of seri­ous men­tal con­tem­pla­tion and study.

The Shema in Deuteron­omy 6.45 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.

Finally

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.

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.

Finally

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.