Making Different Mistakes

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.

—C. S. Lewis, from his introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation *

I like this idea that old books can be an antidote to the unexamined pieties of contemporary thought, and have been putting Lewis' suggestion into practice; at the moment my daily reading is split almost equally between a just-released and currently-best-selling work of pop psychology and Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (although I suspect Lewis would not have counted this as “old”, preferring to read the actual Romans themselves, Gibbon is revered enough and indeed, old enough to have entered the canon himself, even if through the side door).

It occurred to me that Lewis' argument in favor of works from other times is an intersection between progressivism and conservatism, in that the same argument could be made in favor of works from other cultures. For both sides at their best, this argument comes from a noble and endearing intellectual humility. But I'm not sure which side would be made more uncomfortable by admitting to this kinship.

Progressives have spent too much time dismissing the canon as the work of "dead white males" to be entirely accepting of Lewis' recommendation to read one old book for every new one (although they would probably make an exception for Confucius or the Bhagavad Gita). Conservatives regard multiculturalism with anxiety, believing it embraces any culture but their own (and would probably include multiculturalism itself as one of the characteristic errors of our time, to be defeated by close reading of the Bible or Aristotle or even of C. S. Lewis himself).

There is some extra comfort here for the conservative, though: If we accept as true that the world is getting smaller, or in other words, that the various cultures of the earth are becoming more alike, than the past will be more and more the only well to draw from.

* I came to Lewis' introduction by way of John D. Cook's excellent blog, The Endeavour.

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