“Keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” by C.S. Lewis

“Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.

And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.

A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.

Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.

Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.

In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed ‘at’ some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance.

The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.

Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.

If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. 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. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages 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.

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, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

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.

To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

–C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock: Essays on God and Ethics, Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harper, 1970), 201-202.

“A pointer to something other and outer” by C.S. Lewis

“But what, in conclusion, of Joy?

For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian.

I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away.

I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever.

But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it.

It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.

While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts.

When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter.

He who first sees it cries, “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stares.

But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare.

They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up.

But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.

‘We would be at Jerusalem.'”

–C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1955), 238.

“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one” by C.S. Lewis

“My Dear Wormwood,

A few weeks ago you had to tempt your patient to unreality and inattention in his prayers: but now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart.

He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy. His aim will be to let sleeping worms lie.

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations.

As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention.

You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.

You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him.

You can make him do nothing at all for long periods.

You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.

All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’

The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong’.

And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness.

But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy.

It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one— the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,

Your affectionate uncle,

SCREWTAPE”

–C.S. Lewis, “Letter XII,” The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillian, 1950), 63-65.

“A circle of Christian friends by a good fire” by C.S. Lewis

“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”

–C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, eds. W.H. Lewis and Walter Hooper (New York: Harper, 1966), 467. C.S. Lewis was born on November 29, 1898.

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve” by C.S. Lewis

“Do you mark all this well, King Caspian?”

“I do indeed, Sir,” said Caspian. “I was wishing that I came of a more honorable lineage.”

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

Caspian bowed.”

–C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia) (New York: Harper Collins, 1951), 218.

“Sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job” by C.S. Lewis

“To Sheldon Vanauken

Magdalen College,
Oxford
January 5, 1951

Dear Mr. Van Auken,

We must ask three questions about the probable effect of changing your research subject to something more theological.

(1.) Would it be better for your immediate enjoyment? Answer, probably but not certainly, Yes.

(2.) Would it be better for your academic career? Answer, probably No. You would have to make up in haste a lot of knowledge which could not be very easily digested in the time.

(3.) Would it be better for your soul? I don’t know.

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man.

St Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I should have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation: and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap.

Contrariwise, there is the danger that what is boring or repellent in the job may alienate one from the spiritual life. And finally someone has said ‘None are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things: sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.

You now want truth for her own sake: how will it be when the same truth is also needed for an effective footnote in your thesis?

In fact, the change might do good or harm. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by.

On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making. The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology would do.

Mind, I’m not certain: but that is the view I incline to.

Yours,

C. S. Lewis”

–C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963, Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 3: 82-83. Vanauken had asked Lewis his opinion as to whether he should continue with his postgraduate work in history or study theology.

  1. Francis Bacon, Essays (1625), ‘Of Atheism’: ‘The great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end.’

“Reading well is listening well” by C.S. Lewis

“If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature both of knowledge and of power, the question, ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’

Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.

And if it is worthwhile listening or reading at all, it is often worth doing so attentively.

Indeed we must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention.”

–C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 131-132.

“Those who read great works” by C.S. Lewis

“In the first place, the majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.

We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.

But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it.

Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

Secondly, the majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource.

They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’

They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio.

But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for few days they feel impoverished.

Thirdly, the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison.

Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.

Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many.

The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience.

They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse of of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all.

We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal.”

–C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 2-3.

“My own eyes are not enough for me” by C.S. Lewis

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend.

He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented.

I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we wink back into sub-individuality.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

–C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 140-141.

“Our best havings are wantings” by C.S. Lewis

“All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status: always reminds, beckons, awakes desire.

Our best havings are wantings.”

–C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, eds. W.H. Lewis and Walter Hooper (New York: Harper, 1966), 565.