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C.S. Lewis on the Reading of Old Books (reasonabletheology.org)
335 points by Tomte on Dec 3, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 175 comments

In the realm of Christian theology (and perhaps other areas too), I think there's a related pitfall which is to assume that by reading the Bible exclusively, you can understand what the writers meant when they wrote it without confusing the issues with all the various modern debates about interpretation.

The problem with that is that many passages could have several interpretations, and by default the average Bible reader will tend interpret things the same way his/her parents or pastors or friend or favorite musician or the writers of The Simpsons interpreted them.

By trying to avoid modern bias, one ends up with whatever assumptions are so ingrained in popular culture that one wouldn't even think to question them.

One use of reading modern books (and not-so-modern books) about the Bible is that it's a way of being exposed to those other alternatives, so a Bible reader can make a conscious decision about what they think some passage means, rather than reading something between the lines that might or might not be there and not being aware that they're doing it.

I think CS Lewis's recommendation to alternate between new and old books is a good one.

My favorite Bible interpreters are all 19th century English, Scottish, and Irish writers. They all knew Greek and Hebrew, and some of them studied the ancient manuscripts themselves. Their writing is clear and cogent and their interpretations are still very much relevant. Sadly, I've little use for most contemporary writers on the same subjects. They just aren't up to the same standard.

I don't know a lot of authors of that era, but I am a fan of George MacDonald (as was C.S. Lewis). He wrote a collection of essays called "Unspoken Sermons" that is quite good, but mostly he communicated his theology through writing novels. A lot of the things he had to say about nineteenth century Scotland apply just as well to a twenty-first century American audience.

If God wants to communicate with humanity through the Bible, why make it so difficult to understand the real message?

Instead of requiring years of study of ancient manuscripts in Hebrew and Greek, why not just deliver the message in clear, modern, unambiguous language that the reader understands?

Maybe the context is a bit different (that's always the way with the Bible, I guess, which is why getting a "clear message" is always hard) ... but Matthew 13:12-13 ...

>> (Jesus' words -->) (12) Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (13) This is why I speak to them in parables: (Jesus quoting older scripture -->) “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

Many evangelicals would say the passage might represent the complexity of interpreting scripture in general, and the the divine purposeful obfuscation of truth. And here's a slew of commentaries about these two verses, giving various scholars' / theologians' perspectives on these two verses:

For commentaries on verse (12): https://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/13-12.htm

For commentaries on verse (13): https://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/13-13.htm

I haven't yet fully read the commentaries referenced above, but I think the verses and the commentaries will give much Christian perspective on why "the truth" is so obfuscated and hard to find.

When you take a new job and there is a large, existing code base - you will not understand the whole of it immediately - even if you are already an expert in the technology/language. Some parts of it you will not understand until you cover the breadth of it, or understand more about the problem domain.

The Bible is the same way.

The Bible is a collection of many books written over a long period of time on many subjects: law, poetry, history, prophesy, etc. It was originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and has flavorings from many cultures.

It can take a while to cover the breadth of it, but is not actually difficult to understand. However, you may have to go over the breadth of it a few times to understand some of the nuances.

If you're interested in studying it, there are many "read the Bible" plans out there. Pick one and give it a go. There are also many Bible study groups out there such as Bible Study Fellowship that are dedicated to helping people in this task.

That’s the point actually of what Lewis is talking about - and it is a miracle that we have the translations that we do. It’s really not so difficult to understand the Bible — especially with modern translations like ESV, it’s today even easier to understand the ideas of the “common man’s Greek” and Hebrew/Arimaic that the Bible was written in. There is always room however for a scholar of ancient language to help others to understand nuance, figure of speech, or subtle cultural reference that may be difficult to translate directly... but the plain truth is that 99.9% of what you want to know is accessible today by the common reader. There is no excuse for not understanding the Bible - far from it... there is only the excuse that someone wants to ignore it.

If I were a supreme being trying to communicate with humanity, I would definitely and purposefully try to force them to engage their brains to understand what I was trying to say.

Most of the worst aspects of religion come when people don't think at all about nuance or that there might be a variety of reasonable views about how to understand a sacred text, or the need to apply it thoughtfully to their own situation. I'd want to make any sacred text I was inspiring as far from clear, modern and unambiguous as possible.

Not to mention, if your aim is to inspire a work that can be usefully read in nomadic farming communities thousands of years ago and also in the AI, VR infused future, you're going to need a certain amount of ambiguity.

Yep. I wrote in a comment above that the bible evolves over time, depending on interpretation and context. That would seem necessary to me for teachings that are intended to survive into humanity's future.

The "real message" of the Bible is clear and plain to anyone who reads it (no matter the language). The biggest arguments in Christianity are often on issues that the biblical writers considered side topics, and thus only touched briefly - such as the form of worship services.

Agreed... Man's sinful nature, wages of sin is death, deity of Christ and sacrificial atonement with man's sinful nature as root. It's the root premise which I find to be the biggest stumbling block for most.

Symbols reveal what is hidden to those in the know.

The bible is full of symbolism, real events in context, doctrine, wisdom, etc. It's not a matter of one language vs another, it's a matter of universal symbolism that can be applied to any age. The monkey as trickster, the poison as subversion. It is incredibly difficult to communicate complex thoughts in plain language, and even then it is liable to a misunderstanding. The bible is not without its misunderstandings, but the point of it is that it's made to be universal in a way that complex meaning is communicated to every age. Every age has its interpretation, and every age is structured by how it puts that interpretation into action.

It evolves with time.

One of my favourite professors was a Jesuit priest. During a class on Christianity, he was asked roughly the same question. His reply was so good that it is still stuck with me, over twenty years later.

Paul said, "Well yeah, that might make sense. But, what if the real purpose of scripture is so that god can teach us to get along with people whose scriptures appear to say something different?"

In flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.


Scripture like this probably don't help teach people of different faiths to get along.

Good point.

I don't practice Catholicism anymore and must confess that I've reached the limits of my Catholic school education, so I'm not even remotely qualified to speak to that. I know that Thessalonians would be one of Paul's (the apostle, not that Paul from my first reply) letters and Paul has always struck me as the world's first growth hacker, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to do more than express a simple opinion.

I'd give anything to have access to some reasonable Catholics who I could ask questions like this. Alas...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lennox continues the tradition in the 21st century.

Time is a fantastic filter. When I was cleaning out my grandparents attic I found a few dozen old books from the 30s and 40s. Wanting to see if they had any value I searched Amazon Ebay and even Google.

I could find no record of them having ever even existed. I opened a few of them and found out why. They sucked.

This is exactly how I look at it. To quote Orwell: "Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival".

There's a lot of survivor bias there, however.

A lot of works that were under-appreciated during their time had their extemporaneous advocates and promoters that had their own motivations that often had little to do with appreciation for the work.

If Kafka's editor had listened to Kafka and burned his works instead of making sure they got on as many bookshelves as possible, or if Van Gogh didn't have the close relationship he had with his art-dealer brother, we almost certainly wouldn't remember their works today.

I don't doubt their are many unknown masters ahead of their time that will forever remain in obscurity.

You are so right. I am reading West with the Night, an excellent book that didn't sell well when first published in 1942 for various reasons, from bad timing during WWII to being under advertised. Almost forgotten until 1982 when someone read Hemingway's letters praising it, found a copy of the book and persuaded the publisher to re-issue it. It became a best seller.

>Ernest Hemingway was deeply impressed with Markham's writing, saying "she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."


It would be survivorship bias if we assumed, based on the old books we have, that all old books on average were better than modern books. I don't think that's the argument being made here.

Let's assume for a moment that all famous old books are good books. We might then say that time is a great filter because all of the old books we know of are good books.

However, it might be that time actually has a false negative rate of 99.9%. Almost all of the great old books are filtered out by time. In that case, time probably sucks as a filter. But then again, if your only goal is "read only great books," time is still a useful filter even if it has a terrible false negative rate, since it's irrelevant to you that there are lots of other books being excluded, so long as you get a sufficient supply of good books.

Of course. Although this begs the inverse question: are there any long-gone heralded geniuses of literature who actually just wrote crap? I doubt it.

Well, there's enough room for disagreement about who a genius is and what a crap book is. I say, "yes", as long as someone else is heralding the genius and I get to decide what "crap" is.

Sometimes books speak to people having certain lifstyle and experiences and culture. We are not part of that anymore so they suck to us. But, being for someone else is not necessary lack of merit. Whether it was pure enjoyment or something more people took from it.

There are bad books nobody liked at time and never again. But when seemingly bad book was popular, then it likely filled some need or said somethig they wanted or needed to hear.

I'm pretty sure that Dianetics will survive a vast pile of higher quality books.

The overall point remains valid, however.

And yet, due to a myriad confluence of historical accidents, there are innumerable texts which become "de-canonized" with the centuries. And are eagerly awaiting a new audience to once again gain reverence.

Consider Caxton's Polycronicon printed at the dawn of movable type, circa 1490. An encyclopedia of universal history, it deserves no less a place on the bookshelf than Gawain, Beowulf or the Mabinogian. But few will make reference to it today. Nor the thousands of other lost texts of the period known as the incunabula, the first half-century of transmission via printing press. A time in history that saw an explosion in literacy and design experimentation.


> I opened a few of them and found out why. They sucked.

It could be worse - they could be fascinating, but entirely irrelevant to the modern world view.

My dad had a cache of books from a friend of his - that was collected from the pre-independence era for India from 1920s to 1945.

The world in those books were strange - the era looks like nothing like the world from my text books.

The "Great war" had just passed ("between cousins"), there was wistful memories of the Russian empire, of china being conquered by the japanese.

Oil empires in Burma (Burmah-Shell), political deals with the Kings of Siam, health of Austro-Hungarian royal inbreeding.

The shades of gray in which Belgian kings and Cecil Rhodes got painted as conquerors ,liberators and genocidal maniacs in one go.

All the important intellectuals are German (Kant, Hegel ...) or French. The world "lingua franca" was used to describe what English stands for today.

America was busted and fallen down, the economy under Hoover (who was called an "engineer, digging deeper into pockets"). They had poor quality cotton (remember, Indian British books - the Deccan plateau had Cotton too & the empire had Daka muslin) and a "department of war".

Is from such an amazing period of time, after fax machines, aero planes and Einstein, but before anti-biotics and nukes.

But other than as a curiosity, the whole collection has been obsoleted by the 2nd half of the century.

I don't see how they could be obsoleted. What we know of Rome is very often through late-Roman scholars. We'll need these texts to disprove modern anti-historians, who make claims about our origins to drive reactionary politics.

A Roman example--as described in Mary Beard's "SPQR"--is how imperialists claimed Rome was always ruled by kings, attempting to erase its Republican history. Contemporary populations accepted that viewpoint because they didn't have access to history.

They're still relevant.

Frankly, I am grateful for even your cursory summaries.

What's wrong with the books being about a vanished place? Most classic literature falls into exactly that category - think about Tom Sawyer, or The Great Gatsby. People don't get rid of them.

Do you happen to remember some of the titles?

Many (probably most) books today suck too. Not to say there aren't a lot of modern, quality books out there, but I think there's a boundless amount of new, bad books.

I discussed this problem with a professor-friend (philosophy of science) of mine. He made two solid points:

(1) The pressure and rapidity of publishing - for many authors - means less time spent on individual projects.

(2) Your expectations as a reader partially determine your judgement as to how much value a book has. As your expectations increase...

> (2) Your expectations as a reader partially determine your judgement as to how much value a book has. As your expectations increase...

I understand this to mean that my ever-improving taste might make it seem like, as time goes by, a greater and greater proportion of books seem to be of low quality. However, it works the other way around, too: As people through new generations become ever more easily satisfied with mediocre writing, the need to produce high-quality works decreases. At least, this is what I think is happening with TV.

Good point. I think both can be happening simultaneously.

And unlike those old publications, there are digital copies now so they won't die the death they deserve. I say it with sarcism, but there's some amount of seriousness in there...

At least we have different filters now. Nobody is going to buy an obscure digital book that only has 0.8 stars, and Amazon probably won't recommend it to anybody.

That final bit, got a pretty good chuckle out of me, thank you

Time does filter out the bad books, and most books that are written fall into that category, but the books that endure the test of time are really good.

I rather enjoyed this essay, not because I am into theology, but because I also see the value of old books. I think that I am a bit of a heretic (if I can use that word in a theology thread) because I strongly believe that there is advantage to be gained by reading old books of... science!

It is often presumed that because we learn new things as time goes on, and old theories are discarded as new information comes to light, that there is not much value in reading older science books. After all, isn't half of that stuff wrong? But similar to how Jack says how one can learn about different flavors of Christianity by stepping out of his own century, and thereby how much they have in common, I feel that by reading the original works of Millikan, Carnot, Gibbs, or Einstein, that you get a much better idea of the perspective that developed the theories we see as so cut-and-dried today.

One of my favorite examples of this "genre" is Claude Shannon's "Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems," from 1949.


Speaking as someone who is not a formally trained cryptographer, most introductory material on the topic is pretty terrible. Finally stumbling across Shannon's early work, many years after starting in security, was like a breath of fresh air.

I like doing this too, but man, it can be really hard to follow old math and physics literature. Newton’s explanation of the laws of motion, which doesn’t use anything resembling modern notation or terminology, was extremely difficult for me to follow. You won’t find any “F=ma” in there.

Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism are even harder. Today, “Maxwell’s Laws” refers to four equations, each quite brief. In his original paper, though, they are a system of 20 simultaneous equations with 20 variables with a dizzying amount of bookkeeping to keep track of x- y- and z- dimensions, because the curl and divergence operators hadn’t really been invented yet.

Some old articles in physics are surprisingly concise. There is no point in reading a modern 300 page book on special relativity when you can just read "on the electrodynamics of moving bodies" which is 23 pages and self-contained.

I can't speak for the specific book you're talking about, but there are definitely a lot to say about relativity that has been discovered since the time of Eisenstein.

While it is true that more has been discovered about relativity since Einstein's time, that doesn't mean there isn't value in reading Einstein. When you approach an idea which is new to you, it's good to read something written for newcomers. When Einstein wrote, everyone was a newcomer. As such, his work is remarkably approachable considering how difficult the subject is.

While now I tend to think about special relativity using Minkowski space (which I find to be the easiest mental construct for me), my 12-year-old self found all that stuff in Einstein's Relativity about trains and clocks very helpful in building intuition about relativity.

As a counterpoint, I thought (and still think to this day) that the trains and clock stuff is hard to follow, but I understood it easily as soon as I saw it in terms of coordinates.

Not a lot, actually. Einstein (and a few other people before him) did pretty much all there was to it.

Also, "old" doesn't per force imply "outdated". Especially in ecology (or, as it was known, natural history), there's a lot of good work that was done in the 19th century that would deserve much wider attention today.

Just yesterday I was identifying a species of African ant. As I researched it, I found myself using taxonomic keys and descriptions published between 50 and 150 years ago - in English, French, German and Latin! Fortunately they had been digitized, and at least partially translated...

I have read several of the original books of Charles Darwin, and found it both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Still definitely worth reading, even though (because?) a lot has been learned since then.

I started reading the "Origin of species", but found it very long-winded. Going to give "The Voyage of the Beagle" a try soon, hope that is better...

Absolutely. I found reading A. v. Humboldt absolutely fascinating. (He has the added merit of not only having been a brilliant scientist, but also a gifted prose writer.) And James Watson's "The Double Helix" was an intriguing insight into a period in biology when much of what we take for granted was just being discovered. One gains a deeper understanding for any system of thought when one learns how it came to be.


re Alexander von Humboldt: Andrea Wulf’s, The Invention of Nature[0], is an excellent overview of his work and impact.

It's quite shocking how little he is known; somewhat similar to James Clerk Maxwell.

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23995249-the-invention-o...

Wulfs book was what got me to read the original Humboldt ;-)

I've admired Humboldt ever since I was a child - her book reawakened that interest and gave me the impetus to read some of his own writings.

I fully agree! But, as somebody else said, it can be difficult to read old literature, as mathematical notation and terms are things that have evolved significantly in the last centuries.

There are two "new" references about "old" physics literature I particularly enjoyed: - "The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus," by O. Gingerich, about Copernicus' book "De revolutionibus."

- "A Student’s Guide Through the Great Physics Texts," by K. Kuehn (4 volumes). It presents many original papers by Newton, Galileo, Maxwell, etc., together with study questions and exercises.

Old mathematics books are also interesting. Really cool to see how notation has evolved over centuries of mathematical inquiry. Right now I'm reading "The World of Mathematics, Volume One" and it is quite a relaxing read when starting the day with a good coffee.

I enjoy reading old books to see how little people have really changed over time fwiw.

This is practiced at St. John’s school or whatever where I believed students are made to read that comic sections book, newton principia, that book about blood

I can entirely relate to what Lewis writes about reading Plato. I was interested in philosophy but found myself gravitating to reading and listening to podcasts about philosophy rather than reading it directly.

Once I actually picked up a volume of Plato's works I was surprised how approachable it was to me, a complete layman of philosophy.

Same for me with Stoicism: I read everything modern book on it and while it was useful nothing comes close to when I actually decided to pick up the classics, starting with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

There is a very important reason for this: any philosophy is born as a result of important questions of the times in which it was created. When a philosopher writes an original work he/she has all these problems in mind. A modern writer will have to filter that same philosophy to the lights of the modern days, which usually doesn't work as well. To truly understand what a philosophy is all about you need to read the originals.

Read Epictetus if you liked MAs Mediations.

Read Seneca if you liked Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. He's better than both, imo.

I was skeptical but you are correct. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is fantastic.

Just ordered the book. Er...a book. Letters from a stoic

My favorite is On the Shortness of Life.

You can read it free here:


I recently read, The Swerve about On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. It was very well written has made reading On the Nature of things that much more enjoyable. Getting that context and backstory was -ironically- a godsend. While I agree with his point about coming into conversation late and missing some of the meaning, with some books you just have to accept that that ship has sailed and look for the help of somebody who studied the work. To me this is why historical writers are so important, we put a lot of trust in them.

Plato is certainly very approachable, and perhaps Athanasius is as well; of course there are examples on the other side as well - Aristotle leaps to mind. Better, probably, to read an account of his logic than to try to read the Prior Analytics, for instance.

Got any recommendations for philosophy podcasts?

Partially Examined Life

It's hosted by former philosophy students who cover many dozens of philosphers relatively in depth. Their style is very approachable and conversational. They're not stuffy or boring, and often they're pretty funny. I've listened to a lot of philosophy podcasts and this is by far the best.


Literally creating an account because I have to recommend "Great Ideas of Philosophy" by Professor Robinson. It was the first survey course to philosophy I took, and being somewhat unschooled in that area, it opened my eyes to a new world

Philosophize This. It's on Spotify. I'm not experienced with philosophy but this guy I found interesting.

Very Bad Wizards and The Black Goat. Both are oriented around the intersection of science, philosophy, and psychology, if you're into that sort of thing. (VBW also will occasionally do a "just for fun" episode where they philosophize about popular films and such.)

This is the one I have listened to on and off: https://historyofphilosophy.net/

Not a podcast but the first thing audio book of story of philosophy by will durant is fantastic.

The Partially Examined Life and Philosophize This! are both entertaining.

Philosphize This! is excellent.

I wish US high schools could spend more time on primary sources like this. I only bought myself a copy of "The Federalist Papers" (and another collections with anti-federalist writings too) a few years ago, but I keep going back to it to compare how issues they faced at the founding of our nation still can relate to issues we're having today. Some of the issues they discuss are comically not applicable today, but even reading those essays gives me insight into how even very intelligent people can be utterly blind to the future.

It's amazing how much more I learned from those essays than from years of formal classes on the topic of government though. Just getting the author's perspective from them directly, and realizing that they absolutely were thinking deeply about the impact, source, and validity of their arguments brings me so much closer to understanding the way things were designed than textbooks which reduce complex philosophical arguments down to their trivial outcomes like "So-and-So opposed a centralized bank".

This was life-changing for me. I wanted to learn about spirituality through a different lens than the Catholic upbringing that constrained my mind and the rampant "spirituality is synonymous with Christianity" that I find in the U.S. I went out and read a handful of ancient religious texts from all of the world. This led me to see that throughout the course of human history, tribes from all over the world have espoused the same truths about the nature of reality (non-duality). I don't believe I could have reached this knowledge by reading derivative works alone.

In the same way, every Catholic around me reads "Catholic" books written in the past 20 years that are 90% watered down and 10% quotes from older books. So imagine my surprise when I found all those old books they were quoting were easily available on archive.org and easily installable on my phone (the PDF copies only) and in easy to understand English translations, despite being written 200, 500, 1000, 1700 years ago. And compared to these older books, even the 150 year old books, these 20 year old books are nothing more than overpriced flowery pamphlets.

I find the same for books for the relationship between contemporary and classic works in other major traditions

I'm not Catholic, but my most revelatory reading this year has been Rene Girard's (a Catholic philosopher/theologian) 20-40 year old books. I guarantee they're not flowery pamphlets, they're mind-blowing.

And serendipitously enough, an article on him made HN today!


That's very cool. I'm just now attempting to study religion from a historical standpoint myself, and have been finding myself drawn to older sources as well. Though I must ask, can you explain what you mean by "non-duality"? Is duality something you experienced from the Catholic perspective? I ask because I actually find myself very drawn to some ancient texts from Gnostic perspectives (Book of Thomas, some Mandean texts) and "duality" as a part of nature seems to be a core belief to them (light vs darkness, good vs evil, knowledge vs ignorance). Is that the same type of duality you're referring to, or is the term broader than I'm understanding it to be?

Duality, for me, in the Catholic sense meant that there is "God" and then there is little old me. Non-duality is the realization that is available to all humans that we are not actually separate from the Tao, God, the Universe, or whatever label you care to place on the invisible power that governs the realm that we inhabit. You are an interconnected piece of life that through consciousness can impact future frames of life that are generated by the infinite universal computer that plays the movie in our mind. (Yes, you can come to have direct experience and knowledge that this power exists but it is a super-rational process that most of our left-brained peers, in our masculine, logic dominated society dismiss out of hand. This realization has been called Enlightenment, Awakening, Waking Up, etc)

Back to duality. We must remember that light and darkness are not opposites, they are the ends of a spectrum measuring the same thing: amount of light. Our western mindset has these placed as opposites, but they are not, they are the same thing. This is the principle of polarity in Hermeticism. The main insight is that these things are not different, they are the same thing in varying degrees (number of photons, in this case). Here is a decent overview (Look for Principle of Polarity, although the #1 point that the universe is a giant mind is the most important to me) https://medium.com/the-mission/the-hermetic-revival-7-ancien...

I'd highly recommend reading The Hermetica. It's not exactly an ancient source text, but it attempts to distill the wisdom of the body of knowledge called Hermeticism.

Your research is going to take you into works described as "occult". This bothered me at first, but then I realized it was my Catholic brainwashing about how occult is somehow related to satan or something. Occult simply means "hidden". These occult teachings, which every spiritual tradition possesses, are the pearls that were not to be cast before swine. This knowledge was typically reserved for initiates into a particular tradition. Basically, this means you had to be really committed and show your worth before you were taught this stuff. This is what many of the historical secret societies were protecting and teaching. This is what you learn when you reach the highest degrees of Freemasonry. Thankfully, the internet is blowing the lid off of this occulted information and people are waking up to the nature of reality at a great rate!

You are on a nondual Christian track reading the Gospel of Thomas. This Quora post sums it up nicely: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-teachings-of-nondual-Gnos...

Here are some ideas of what life looks like post realization of your nondual nature. #6 describes it well: https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/spiritual-awakening-si...

Best to you on your Path!

I truly appreciate your insightful and detailed reply! I've got some reading and thinking to do for sure, your links about hermeticism are particularly new to me.

I've always found the "hidden" aspect of gnosis to be strange, and perhaps even antithetical. There's a piece in Thomas that's equivalent to Luke 8:16-17 which to me seems to scream "share what you learn", but with the historical norm of persecuting gnostics, it's not surprising that they valued some degree of secrecy for protection. Though you're right that it does seem to go further than that, ie, witholding info as a means of controlling membership in the group in many cases. But thankfully yes, the internet has blown the lid off many "secret" sources indeed!

Again, I appreciate you sharing all of this with me and look forward to learning more through continued study.

As Lewis said, it's valuable to read old books. I would recommend Augustine's Confessions - he, having considered these various other ways of thinking, finally found his spiritual rest in Trinitarian Christianity.

I think you are referring to pantheism?


I really like his comment that "two minds are better than one not because either is infallible, but because two minds are unlikely to go wrong in the same way." This is sort of the same thing I like about pair programming, except taken to the extreme of not just two different minds but minds from entirely different times and cultures.

Great article! CS Lewis always surprises me with his... "wise common sense". I'm constantly let down my modern books, some of them highly acclaimed. But the great filter explains it all perfectly. I'm going to take this into consideration when selecting my books from now on.

One of the most beautiful "old" books to read (especially if English is your native tongue) is John Locke - Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It's a beautiful piece of text, more so if you can get an old Oxford Claredon Press edition edited by Peter Nidditch.

I've read that Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are also delightful to read in the original. Schopenhauer's writing style is so good, even when translated to English by Saunders.

I believe that Tolkien is one of the folks he read Old Books with.

They were part of the literature discussion group The Inklings, which met mostly on Tuesdays at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford.

Tolkien is the one that convinced Lewis to leave atheism behind and become a Christian. Tolkien's poem "Mythopoeia" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeia_(poem) - was instrumental in that process.

It's worthwhile to read it, but as a warning, it was written from one (highly educated) friend to another (highly educated friend), and it is not easy to understand what Tolkien is trying to say about the nature of reality without reading through it a few times: http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm

Thank you for that link. What an amazing poem!

> All wishes are not idle

That line alone could tip me over to Christianity. I'll have to think more about this.

I highly recommend delving more into both Tolkien and Lewis, if you haven't. Basically this single poetry line is reflected in so much of both their works: Silmarillion has several threads of this sentiment woven into it.

Yep. The Inklings was the group and it included Tolkien, Lewis' brother, Christopher Tolkien, etc.


Probably, Tolkien and Lewis are often noted as being friends. Tolkien regularly gave friendly criticism of Lewis's frequent use of obvious allegory. The main character in the Out of the Silent Planet series is noted as being based on Tolkien.

As an aside, a fun fact: Out of the Silent Planet was the result of a challenge between Tolkien and Lewis, in which Tolkien would write a book about time travel, and Lewis a book about space travel. Tolkien's attempt was The Lost Road -- a work which he never completed, but which appears in fragmentary form in the collection The Lost Road and Other Writings.

  For out of olde feldys, as men sey,
  Comyth al this newe corn from ȝer to ȝere,
  And out of olde bokis, in good fey,
  Comyth al this newe science that men lere.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parlement of Foules (c. 1380)

If we were to apply this idea to computer science or software engineering, where would we draw the line between old and new books?

I prefer to interpret this as "Classic" vs "New"/"Green" content; it depends a lot on the depth of stack for a given subject and how much is in the "old generation" of garbage collection.

Some fields would entirely lack classic books and thus must be viewed with a wider net that includes the precursors. In that case it's obvious that the classic work of the precursors to the new language/field/idea contrast to all of the current works.

In other fields there may have been sufficient refinement to include well regarded works among the classics.

As a brief note: this article is the first time that I've come across the idea and I find it a refreshing proposal for expanding perspective of thought and having a rigorous world view. I do worry that in the rushed modern era there is not enough time afforded to do things the correct way.

I can think of a few different eras that will likely have different insights:

* Foundations, before any computer was feasible to build: Newton, Boole, Babbage

* Early computing, when everything was custom-built: Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Claude Shannon

* Mainframes, where computer access is rare and precious

* Personal computers and early networking

* Mobile computing and ubiquitous internet

You may find this interesting:


(emphasis on Ada Lovelace)

> Sketch of The Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage

> By L. F. MENABREA of Turin, Officer of the Military Engineers

> from the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, October, 1842, No. 82 With notes upon the Memoir by the Translator


It really doesn't have anything to do with old books as such. It's more about reading the actual thing rather than later commentaries and summaries on the thing, if you want to know what the thing said. In the case of, say, CS, it would mean reading On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The Entscheidungsproblem rather than someone else's book/article about what Turing said in his seminal paper.

There are no old books in computer science, because it is a new field, but already the effect that Lewis talks about can be seen...

I think we know what the classics are. If someone's name is in all the textbooks, it's probably worth looking up their original works. Turing and Shannon come immediately to mind as people who are more often read about than read, despite being quite approachable.

Well, I don't know about that. For example, back when I was at university, my graphics professor mentioned that there were hundreds of algorithms for mapping a texture to a sphere going back hundreds of years because map makers had been coming up with them so that they could place maps on globes.

There are old books, but you have to be a bit more creative to find them.

Agreed. If you look at computer science as a branch of mathematics, there are very old books that are as worthwhile as ever (as mentioned elsewhere in this thread), but the kind of computer science that can only be done when you have a computer is still necessarily young because programmable computers are new.

I think we could apply the principle to programming languages - which old languages are still used? C comes to mind, as does Lisp.

COBOL is still used, too. I'm not sure what inference one should draw from that, though...

Fortran and Lisp are the oldest still in use.

Modern Fortran is probably not recognizeable to someone who knew it in 1960, though.

There haven't been as many technical books passed down through the ages, has there? Do they just end up obsolete, or do people just not talk about them and I've been missing out?

Knuth goes in the "old books" category (meant positively).

would old be something like: implementation is no longer relevant (the software itself is obsoleted), but the idea is seminal -- a basic conceptual building block upon which current systems are implemented? Example: Lambda Papers (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lambda_Papers)

Technological books do not age as well, because technical knowledge is predominantly cumulative.

It's for fields where thoughts are evergreen (basically, anything to do with being human, literature, poetry, philosophy, etc) where this advice matters.

A good modern book on math, or chemistry, or compiler construction has more knowledge than any old one.

A good modern poet is not better than Shakespeare or Homer (and in many eras the poets are way worse than previous eras).

More is not always better, though. E.g a modern book on compere construction will certainly teach more advanced techniques than the Dragon book or Wirth's Compiler Construction books, but I've yet to see any recent book on compiler construction that I'd prefer for the basics.

I'd argue that exactly because so much of it is cumulative, a lot of old technology texts stand up just fine when describing things like algorithms or a sub-field up to a certain level. The original paper on quicksort for example is just fine as an introduction to quicksort.

The books and papers that date are the ones that seek to tell you the best way doing something broad. An old text on the best way to sort in general will be date where descriptions of specific algorithms haven't.

> Technological books do not age as well, because technical knowledge is predominantly cumulative.

Tell that to Claude Shannon, Fred Brooks, and Ken Thompson. "A symbolic analysis of relay and switching circuits", "The Mythical Man-month" and "On Trusting Trust" have aged fine, I promise.

The Mythical Man-month has:

- aged extremely well in some ways (it still takes 9 months to make a baby no matter how many women are assigned to the project)

- aged poorly in others (disk space is no longer an issue when deciding whether to comment on code)

- remained ahead of its time in others (its a good idea to have an architect to ensure the conceptual integrity of a complex system, rather than to have developers hack it out a bit at a time in a series of scrums)

There are exceptions of course (and those are more about the fundamentals and abstractions than the technology -- e.g. Mythical Man Month is more about people and processes and development approaches than technology).

Thought note that even those are barely ancient, they are at best a century old -- Lewis was talking of Plato as an example and in general centuries old classics, not whether someone should read Zola or Hesse.

Today very few would suggest reading Newton to learn physics in university (e.g. use it as a textbook). At best they'd tell to to read Newton to see how the thinking went behind early discoveries. But people use Plato or Shakespeare or tons of other centuries old writers as their core textbook all the time in philosophy and literature departments.

Well-written technology books age quite well. For example, Hackers[0] has aged so well that the author has gone back over the last 30 years and added multiple appendices to cover what's happened since! The first couple chapters are available[1] on Project Gutenberg as well.

0: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackers:_Heroes_of_the_Compute...

1: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=7...

>Well-written technology books age quite well. For example, Hackers[0] has aged so well that the author has gone back over the last 30 years and added multiple appendices to cover what's happened since

That's history.

Hackers is a history book.

The best geometry textbook hasn't changed for more than 2000 years.

Mathematics textbooks are just as likely as anything else to suffer from modern pedagogical theories that have not been tested by time and will come to be regarded as mistakes.

Professors in universities don't consider Euclid's textbook the "best" currently available text in geometry or use it on 101 geometry (except as a historical appreciation/reference).

It's the one with the most historical importance, but it hardly covers modern geometry.

Of course I'm aware of that, but it would be a shame if most people's first exposure to geometry was in university!

I would argue that the fact that it does not cover modern geometry is exactly what makes it valuable. Learning is best as a process of rediscovery.

The textbook has not changed, geometry did. The modern notion of geometry encompasses so much more that it is hard to describe in a few words.

Do you have a recommendation for best geometry textbook?

I suspect 'inimino is referring to Euclid's "Elements"



Not only do you learn geometry, but you participate in the same understanding of geometry that all later mathematicians started from.

I've always encouraged reading Euclid, Newton, Einstein. In my humble opinion, mathematics is much easier to understand historically, as it developed, and the best historical perspective comes from primary sources.

I must acknowledge, however, that for whatever reason very few people share my perspective on this.

It is indeed a widely held opinion that most (but not all, of course) original works are not the best sources to learn from. Over time ideas become clearer, better explanations arise, etc. Professional educators and instructors are important, too.

This is great, thank you so much!

Many thanks!

Old books are intellectual broccoli, necessary when you're in the diabetic coma that is modernity.

He also wrote a great book called Studies in Words about how the meaning of words change over time, apparently in similar ways in different languages. It was based on a series of lectures he gave students reading old texts, that they should not apply modern meaning to an old word: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Studies-Words-Canto-Classics-Lewis/...

I think the phrase "Old Books" here is a bit dated, ironically. A phrase that would be more immediately understood to us might be "original sources."

My friend who is an English Professor will not read books from an author who is not dead. Books need to stand the test of time, if they are still in circulation after the author dies, then there is something of worth there.

It was sometime in the middle ages where it became impossible to read every book in existence, consider now you get to read a fraction of a percent of all books in your lifetime.

"When I was thirteen years of age we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon; the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, "Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash."

"If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, and I continued to read with the greatest avidity."

"When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself..."

-- Mary Shelly, Frankenstein


"The UNIX programming environment" by Kernighan and Pike will be cherished by computer scientists in 200 years, just like mathematicians today cherish Gauss' disquisitions on curves and surfaces. PHP, javascript, python will be long forgotten.

I'm more with Dave Cutler and think Unix's win was a sad historical accident. It worked great in a world with teletypes but is a horrible model for our world of multimedia.

Ioctls are a sad blemish on the face of computing and fork() while again beautiful in the simple world of single threaded programs forces far too many constraints on modern OS services. Modern OSs get around it by barely supporting it except for exec() calls immediately after.

Simply put... not everything is a byte.

OTOH, I go completely in the other direction and think that the failure of Plan 9 to take over the world is the real historical accident, because everything on a computer is, ultimately, a byte.

I disagree with the premise that everything is bytes - Harvard architecture computers more cleanly separate nouns (the data) from verbs (the instructions). There is no fundamental requirement the two be mixed although it is done for convenience. With fixed function hardware there is no binary code to execute at all.

Objects - which make verbs first class citizens more cleanly represent the true state of affairs and cover a much broader variety of cases more cleanly.

> Objects - which make verbs first class citizens (...)

There's much to be said for and against "objects" from philosophical, scientific, technological and engineering standpoints. Personally, I agree with the great men that think that object orientation is bullshit (torvalds, stepanov, pike, ...). Still, whatever you think about the appropriateness of objects, they do not make verbs first class citizens, but nouns!

Its been a while since I've gotten into the theory here. But ultimately an object is a set of data and mutators upon that data.

The Unix model does not link the two together - where for most hardware the two are inseparable. A sound card can only work on certain formats of data - it is more than mere bytes. It may have only limited processing ability (e.g. an EQ functionality or FM synthesizer). Ioctls are a hack around this - and of course they do "work" but they are not clean. They are also clearly not congruent with the Unix philosophy, you can't cleanly chain and pipe them or compose them into a larger whole.

NT did much better on this front, but much of the beauty is hidden by the horrid win32 layered on top. Cocoa is much nicer and probably the best real world example of how nice it can be when done right. You can use the UNIX APIs on a mac, but why would you want to?

> A sound card can only work on certain formats of data - it is more than mere bytes.

But you can keep this "data" that is only understandable by your sound card, and send it over the net, or compress it with gzip, or do whatever you want with it because, yes, it is merely bytes!

> You can use the UNIX APIs on a mac, but why would you want to?

because they are much more beautiful, and not a layered pile of unneeded abstractions.

Object orientation is to computer science what category theory is to mathematics. Yes, it is a very interesting intellectual exercise. Yes, it can be used to provide a foundation for everything. Yes, if you are using it daily in your work then you are either batshit crazy or severely misguided.

That's one of the more broad-sweeping statements I've come across. Object orientation is perfectly well-suited to every-day productive work of certain kinds. Just like most other programming methodologies.

A few years ago, my dad gave me my grandfather's history textbook from when he was in high school in the 1930s in California. That was an interesting read.

In addition to it having a slight racist bent when discussing non-European civilizations, it contained facts that are now considered to be nonsense. The further in the past it went, the more it contradicted what are now considered to be well-known facts about the past.

It really demonstrated the many decades of changes in attitudes toward non-European people and all the incredible things that have been discovered since then through archeology, carbon-dating, and genetics.

I thought it worth reading to give me an insight on how people thought back then and their view of the world.

> it contained facts that are now considered to be nonsense. The further in the past it went, the more it contradicted what are now considered to be well-known facts about the past.

Can you give examples?

This is less about old vs new than it is about original vs derived sources. There is just a lot of wisdom, in most fields, in going back to original sources if the opportunity is present.

How about old tech and science books? Anyone has experience in going back to the classics? My first thought is just they are outdated and not really relevant to the latest development and better explanations in the newer books, but I can be wrong.

I've managed to find on netflix some TV shows I fondly remembered from the 1970s.

They stunk. All of them.

TV shows have gotten a lot better. I think it's because the production of them has soared, and the competition is fierce.

I would expect a TV show from the 70s to work as well now as a current show would back then.

I am the only one who read it as C.K Lewis?

Did anyone actually read the referenced C.S. Lewis essay?

Or did you just read the linked article?

I'm going to take a contrarian view on this.

About 1/15 humans who have ever existed are still alive. And that includes the period before writing.

I think it's not unreasonable to think that most books have been written in the past 125 years.

I do not see any reason to deify the past. I say this as someone who has read the Bible in the original Hebrew and the Talmud in original Aramaic. They're of interest as a window to a different time, but fundamentally they're probably no smarter than many people today, and they have less mental tools and worse nutrition (which is linked to intelligence).

This doesn't address Lewis's point that all those books written in the last 125 years share more of our perspective and our biases than something written a thousand years ago.

Furthermore it's not just that they are old, but that they are old and have survived that recommends old books to us.

I thought I addressed perspective in my post. In addition often all you have to do to change your perspective is go to another continent.

There's also an element of survivorship bias. The Antikythera Mechanism, while not a book, is amazing, yet it and devices like it and its instruction manual didn't survive through the ages. Many books on the minutiae of the regiments and classification of angels did.

Don't know why anyone pays any attention to C.S. Lewis. The books he's most famous for, (e.g. "Mere Christianity") are laughably bad.

I'm fairly sure the books he's most famous for are fantasies that have something to do with a lion.

What's so bad about Mere Christianity? It ranks among my top 5.

I agree with another commenter who said that C.S. Lewis is likely more well-known for the Chronicles of Narnia, at least in the broader secular sense. He was a talented writer. That being said, Mere Christianity is pretty clearly preaching to the choir. It is a Christian apologetics book, and the arguments put forward are all problematic. Some of the more notable arguments are so bad that they don't typically get brought up by Christians who regularly debate atheists, like the trilemma he popularized.

The book is well-written in the sense that in the hands of a believing Christian who is not likely to approach it critically, it can become an influential source that helps the Christian justify their beliefs to themselves.

I wouldn't say that the trilemma is Lewis' strongest apologetic argument either. And I wholeheartedly agree about the book preaching to the choir. I think if Lewis were alive today and had to give the book another title, it might be something like "This is what Christianity is" and not something like "This is why you should believe". The focus is not apologetics; it's clarification.

I read it in my early twenties and found it unconvincing. To my young and admittedly probably overly stubborn mind, both the "trilemma" and the argument from morality appeared to be based on either: a lack of imagination; discomfort in the idea of a world without Christianity; or both.

Re. the trilemma: I wouldn't go so far as others here in saying that Jesus was "obviously a lunatic". I would say that there isn't enough in the bible or following writings to dismiss the idea as readily as Lewis seems to.

Re. the moral argument: maybe I'm unfairly advantaged by reading about evolutionary psychology but it's fairly natural/straightforward for me to conceive of a world in which humans share something like an innate core of moral values without any need for a supernatural explanation. In fact Lewis' apparent conviction about this reminds me of someone like Samuel Harris at the other extreme, who thinks we can do away with the is-ought problem by stipulating that there's a "worst possible world" which obviously all moral people would jointly want to move away from.

It's completely idiotic. Lord, Liar, or Lunatic? Um, lunatic, obviously. He dismisses atheism with a single sentence, and exhibits an astonishing level of ignorance. If you read it as a Christian, you might not notice the idiocy, but if you aren't a Christian, it's really really bad, so many assumptions, so many times something is glossed over as if "obviously so", when it's so not. Fucking terrible, and obviously so. So overrated. If it's in your top 5, then... wow. That's not good. I mean, it's not quite as bad as the likes of "The Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel, but that's not saying much at all.

The irony of your "Um, lunatic, obviously," followed by loud complaints about things being "...glossed over as if 'obviously so', when it's so not" is hard to ignore.

Regardless, I don't recall him dismissing atheism in a single sentence, but it has been years and it's quite possible I've just forgotten.

What's the sentence?

I can't seem to find my copy of the book right now, having recently moved, it's somewhere among the books in my shelves, but... can't find it. The sentence in question is near the end of one of the chapters in the first half of the book. The second half of the book seems to assume the first half of the book is a given and is consequently a complete waste of time, being built upon a false premise.

The only people who think this is a reasonable book are people who are already Christians.

I have the book and the argument is on pg. 33-34 in my edition:

1. There exists a moral law within ourselves that instructs us on what we "ought" to do.

2. There must be a "mind" behind this force, as "you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions".

I think Lewis would revise or abandon his argument if he lived in our age.

Okay, thanks for the info.

> Um, lunatic, obviously

He would accept that answer (at least if we take the trilemma argument in isolation). The point is not that he is "Lord", but that good teacher is not one of the viable options[1]. You clearly haven't read him very carefully.

[1] Although good teacher whose teachings have been manipulated/corrupted would seem to offer a fourth option. But then what, if any, of his teachings could be reliably attributed to the man himself? So "corrupted good teacher" is practically equivalent to myth. We thus have Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Legend. Any of those four would seem a rational position.

How can you say "Lunatic, obviously"? What makes him an obvious lunatic?

What makes David Koresh an obvious lunatic? Are you serious?

David Koresh's followers were burned to death after he incited them to violence against the authorities.

Jesus, if the Bible is to be believed, healed people, told his countrymen to pay taxes to the empire that had conquered and subjugated them, and died quietly after stopping one of his followers from starting a fight with the mob that took him to be murdered.

They seem like pretty different people to me.

Edit: factual error. I thought Koresh started the fire, but Wikipedia says it's unclear how it began.

Have you read the Bible? Jesus as the Bible presents him is quite different than the popular conception. I thought the popular conception was a kind of "dumbed down" version, but then, I read the Bible, and found that no, the Bible is even dumber, the popular conception is a "smartened up" version to make it seem more palatable.

Why should we suppose Jesus was not a lunatic and was instead a god? For that matter, Why shoukd we suppose Jesus was not a liar and instead was a god? (After all, Jesus proposed to teach others to be "fishers of men", what do you suppose he meant by that, other than to teach them to be con-men?). C.S. Lewis's arguments on these points are to me, not convincing, to say the least.

I have read the Bible several times. Not more than fifteen, I think.

I don't see much overlap between the popular conception of Jesus and who the Bible depicts him as, but that may be due to growing up in hyperconservative culture, which is oddly unfamiliar with the text it claims to be based on.

The more I've read the Bible, the more impressed I've become with Jesus as depicted. Your perception of him as necessarily a lunatic or liar puzzles me.

If he was insane, he shouldn't be able to make coherent arguments, let alone handily stump the most talented scholars in his culture. More to the point, I feel like he wouldn't have so consistently focused on taking care of others nor preached such a consistent message.

If he was a systematic liar, he must have had a motivation for being one. Perhaps I'm indoctrinated, but I can't see what that could have been based on my knowledge of the text.

I assume you're reading the Bible as a pseudohistorical document, with the a priori assumption that all the supernatural events must be false?

The arguments for him being God do largely hinge on the Bible being true (perhaps not in every single tiny detail, but certainly on the major claims). If his miracles are lies, then your position makes more sense to me (though they'd be lies from his followers, not him, and I'd wonder why the early Christians went with it, as they were promised the opposite of wordly wealth and power).

Note that I wasn't trying to defend Lewis' argument - if you don't find it convincing, you don't, and there's little point trying to persuade you otherwise.

I'm mostly puzzled by your perception of Jesus. I myself do believe he is God Incarnate, but I'm used to people seeing him as fictional, a moralist, or a guru, not a madman.

> what do you suppose he meant by that

That his disciples would carry on Jesus' work and teaching, which would attract more followers. That does not make them con-men. If they believed Jesus' message then of course they'd want as many people to receive it as possible, indeed it would be irresponsible to withhold it.

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