C.S. Lewis on the Right Way to Read Classics

You probably know C.S. Lewis for his imaginative Narnia fiction or perhaps for his non-fiction works on Christianity, but many are unaware of the groundbreaking and brilliant work he did within his scholarly field. Lewis was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford and the premier professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, so his knowledge of greater literature itself was deep and profound. His students and colleagues were frequently amazed by his astonishing recall of minute detail in obscure works. He would play a game with you when you came to his office where he would have you pull down any book off his shelf and read a random passage out of it. He would tell you the work, author, and quote the surrounding context. Suffice it to say, the man knew his stuff.

CS-Lewis-on-the-Reading-of-Old-BooksBeing that Lewis had his ears to the ground with his students and was unusually fresh with his perspectives, his approaches to teaching literature would be a welcome and exciting change for many students weary of their dull college courses. Since many students just began their spring semesters, I think these thoughts of Lewis’s on understanding the classics would be pertinent at this time.

In his improperly titled A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis writes on multiple topics ranging from the genre of epic poetry to John Milton’s theology. In chapter IX, he tackles a method of reading classics that is still prevalent to this day (perhaps more so now I think) dubbed the method of “The Unchanging Human Heart.” Lewis describes it thus:

“According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.”

Lewis continues to say the he held to this method for many years, but that he has since abandoned it. I’m sure most people have naturally utilized this method in their readings, self-centered as we humans are. We look for ourselves in what we see. I’ve been guilty of it for years. We look for signs of familiarity in a foreign land. Shouldn’t we be appreciating what is new and foreign to us if we are to not be shallow tourists?

If we only look for this Unchanging Heart in everything we read, there is also the problem of imbalance in our understanding of the work. Lewis opines: “Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief.”

Worse still, Lewis also points out that under the Unchanging Heart method that what we cslewismay wish to think is a facet of the unchanging nature of humanity, is actually just something we fancy because we like it now in the “modern mood”! This is egregious beyond making the author into ourself, because we are then morphing them into our culture as well.

Lewis wraps up the thought in a passage worth quoting at length:

“Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace ; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C. S. Lewis in Lucretius.
[..]      To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work ‘in the same spirit that its author writ’ and to avoid chimerical criticism. It is better to study the changes in which the being of the Human Heart largely consists than to amuse ourselves with fictions about its immutability. For the truth is that when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being.”

With this far more balanced and informative view, we can better understand the actual meaning being presented in the work regardless of our modern approval of it. Lewis quotes scholar Denis Saurat as saying that one should “study what there is of lasting originality in Milton’s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest.” This is beyond misguided, it is an influence of the darkness of this present age that desires to purge man of God and refuse to bother with the real meaning of texts that do not adhere to contemporary skepticism. Lewis points out that this is like saying that one should study Hamlet without the rubbish of revenge or Gothic architecture without spires. Without its most essential elements, these things do not exist. This should be widely recognized as insane critical methodology, and yet it persists.

Lewis says that “our plan must be very different – to plunge right into the ‘rubbish’, to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.”

So the next time you pick up a book that wasn’t written in the last two hundred years (which Lewis recommended doing between every new book you read) approach it not with the desire to dig for nuggets of modernity or yourself. Listen to the author, and treat all his or her thoughts with the respect of attempting to truly understand them. You may find some things admirable, grotesque, beautiful, mistaken, complex, honorable, hopeful, and more.. but do please find them!

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass 






2 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on the Right Way to Read Classics

  1. Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
    This is a post I found this week that I think is worth looking at as this week’s Friday Feature. Lewis had a lot to say about reading old books and suggested that bring classics and other books from outside our particular place and time into our to-be-read pile. Garrett Cash covers some of that quite nicely in this short essay.

    Liked by 1 person

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