Quotations and Allusions in
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
compiled by Arend Smilde (Utrecht, The Netherlands)
Like most of C. S. Lewis’s books, The Screwtape Letters (1942) contains many allusions to or quotations from unspecified sources. Locating and checking these sources is perhaps never vitally important, but often proves to be a rewarding enterprise.
What follows is a listing by chapter of many such words and phrases with brief references to what I have found to be their sources and, occasionally, notes suggesting their relevance to the context in which Lewis uses them. I have also included a few other items where a short explanation may be of use to some readers. The list is based on notes I made for my Dutch translation of this book, published in 2002 as Brieven uit de hel (fourth edition 2009) to replace a 1947 translation under the same title.
Double question marks in bold type – ?? – follow items where I have not found the required information. Corrections and additions including proposed new entries are welcome.
To J. R. R. Tolkien
» John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), one of C. S. Lewis’s intimate friends during the period 1930-1950. They were the key figures in the “Inklings”, a small informal literary club with weekly meetings where writing work in progress was read aloud and criticized. Much of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was first presented there, and Tolkien later wrote that he thought Lewis’s encouragement had been vitally important for the completion of that huge work. From 1936 onward Lewis dedicated many of his books to fellow Inklings. See Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their friends (George Allen & Unwin, London 1978; paperback edition HarperCollins, London 1997).
Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Thomas More (1478-1535) were enemies: Luther was the instigator of the Reformation in 1517 while More developed into a prominent defender of the Catholic church and died for the cause. Their continued status as heroes of Protestantism and Catholicism respectively was confirmed in More’s case by his canonization as a Saint in 1935. The joint presentation here of very similar statements from these two men is a statement on the part of C. S. Lewis. As a Christian writer Lewis took the general line that he did best to disregard any church divisions and stick to what he considered the very important stretches of “merely Christian” common ground (cf. the beginning of Screwtape’s letter 25). Nevertheless Lewis regarded the divisions of Christendom as a tragedy. He never wrote much on Luther, but in a 1947 letter he compared Thomas More with another Protestant adversary, William Tyndale:
All the writings of the one and all the writings of the other I have lately read right through. Both of them seem to me most saintly men and to have loved God with their whole heart: I am not worthy to undo the shoes of either of them. Nevertheless they disagree and (what racks and astounds me) their disagreement seems to me to spring not from their vices nor from their ignorance but rather from their virtues and the depths of their faith, so that the more they were at their best the more they were at variance.
Lewis was reading all of More and Tyndale since he had been commissioned to write a volume on the 16th century for the Oxford History of English Literature. That book was published in 1954 as English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. It has long passages on Thomas More (pp. 165-181), with some references to Luther; and on William Tyndale (pp. 181-192), where Lewis points out “how tragically narrow is the boundary between Tyndale and his opponents” and “what Tyndale is attacking is a mere travesty of what his best opponents held; as what they attack is also a travesty of his own view.”
Five years after The Screwtape Letters appeared, it was read in translation by an Italian monk called Don Giovanni Calabria, who sensed a peculiar talent for promoting Church reunion. He wrote a Latin letter of appreciation and a correspondence followed – all in Latin – which lasted for years. (On a 1947 photograph of Lewis the Italian Screwtape, or Lettere di Berlicche, can be seen to lie on his desk in the foreground; this photo was used as a cover illustration for Walter Hoooper’s C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, 1994.) Lewis’s letters to Calabria were first published in 1989 with parallel English translation by Martin Moynihan and are now contained in Lewis’s Collected Letters, vols. II and III. In both cases Calabria’s surviving letters to Lewis were included. A much fuller Italian edition was published in 1995 as Una gioia insolita: Lettere tra un prete cattolico e un laico anglicano. The passage quoted above is from the letter of 25 November 1947.
A book called C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (2003) by Joseph Pearce opens with an observation about the two epigraphs of The Screwtape Letters:
Not only is Luther a Protestant and More a Catholic, but these two men are also accounted champions of their respective parties, each having fought fearlessly for his own position. What is more, many of their fiercest confrontations were fought against one another, often in scathing letters and treatises. ... The fact that both voices recommend laughter at the absurdity of evil is a testament to a conviction, seen elsewhere in Lewis’s works, that the Christian perspective of comedy, in both the light-hearted and in the cosmic sense, will in the end win out over the tragic divisions that have historically beset the Body of Christ on earth.
“The best way to drive out the devil ... is to jeer and flout him ...” – Luther
» From Martin Luther’s Tischreden (Table Talk). The oldest source for this quote is Joannes Aurifaber’s edition, first published in 1566 (facsimile reprint 1968), Chapter 25, “Vom Teufel und seinen Werken” (“Of the Devil and his Works”, Fol. 278-307). Lewis used the first and the last sentence of a page-long section under the sub-heading “Den Teufel kan man mit Verachtung vnd lecherlichen Possen vertreiben” (“The Devil can be chased away by scorn and crazy jokes”), Fol. 290. The last sentence is in Latin. The following excerpt from this source – followed by a fairly literal translation – includes two sentences immediately following the first. The words in italics are roughly those quoted by Lewis.
Doctor Luther sagte / wenn er des Teufels mit der heiligen Schrifft vnd mit ernstlichen worten / nicht hette können los werden / so hette er in offt mit spitzigen worten vnd lecherlichen bossen vertrieben / Vnd wenn er im sein Gewissen hette beschweren wollen / so hette er offt zu im gesaget / Teufel ich hab auch in die Hosen geschissen / hastu es auch gerochen / vnd zu den andern meinen Sünden in dein Register geschrieben. Item / Er hette zu im gesagt / Lieber Teufel / ists nich gnug / an dem Blut Christi / so fur meine Sünde vergossen ist / so bitte ich dich / du wollest Gott fur mich bitten. ... Quia est superbus Spiritus, & non potest ferre contemptum.
Doctor Luther said that when he couldn’t get rid of the devil with Holy Scripture and serious language, he had often expelled him by tart remarks and crazy jokes. And when he [the devil] tried to burden his [Luther’s] conscience, he would often tell him, “Devil, I’ve been doing it in my pants, have you smelled it and added this to your list of all my sins?” Again, he told him, “My dear Devil, should the Blood of Christ shed for my sins not have been enough, please do pray to God for me.” ... For he is a proud spirit, and cannot bear scorn.
Not only does this longer excerpt give a fuller idea of Luther’s jokes; in calling the Devil a “proud spirit” Luther is also showing all the more resemblance to Thomas More. In the Weimarer Ausgabe, the standard critical edition of Luther’s works, the passage is printed in volume 6 of the Tischreden (=TR 6, 1921), pp. 210-211, Nr. 6817.
Lewis was perhaps quoting freely from a biography of Luther by Jules Michelet (Mémoires de Luther, écrits par lui-même, 1835) in the form of a compilation of original sayings, as translated from the French by G. H. Smith (The Life of Luther, gathered from his own writings, 1846), p. 78 (Book V, ch. 6):
The best way to expel the devil, if he will not depart for texts from Holy Scripture, is to jeer and flout him.
While the phrase “to jeer and flout him” exactly matches the Screwtape epigraph, the final words “He cannot bear scorn” are lacking both in Smith’s translation and in Michelet’s French text (Vol. 3, p. 188 in the 1835 edition). They do appear, however, in the translation by William Hazlitt of the same book, also published in 1846 (The Life of Luther, written by himself), p. 332:
The best way of getting rid of the devil, if you cannot do it with the words of the Holy Scripture, is to rail at and mock him. He cannot bear scorn.
As Hazlitt points out in his preface, he used a slightly later French work on Luther, Audin’s Histoire de la vie, des ouvrages et de la doctrine de Luther (1841, 5th edition 1845), to make additions to Michelet’s work. Hazlitt “paid especial attention to the many extracts from the Tischreden”, comparing various translations, including the earliest (1650) by Captain Bell. Lewis’s presentation as a single saying of what is really the first and the last sentence of a page-long passage may thus go back to Hazlitt or one of Hazlitt’s sources.
“The devill ... the prowde spirite ...” – Thomas More
» Thomas More (see note above) was an English scholar and statesman. The quotation is from his last work, A Dialoge of Comfort against Tribulacion (Book II, ch. 16), written in prison while he awaited execution for treason after refusing to swear an oath declaring King Henry VIII supreme head, under God, of the Church of England. The dialogue is between a young Hungarian, Vincent, and his aged uncle Antony, and set between the battle of Mohács (1526) and the siege of Vienna (1529), with divided Christendom badly failing to make a united front against the Turkish onslaught. Antony counsels his nephew about ways to endure the coming “tribulations” of conquest and domination by the Turks. As they are talking about the temptation of “horrible thoughts” (including thoughts of suicide), Antony explains that
the manner of the fight against temptation must stand in three things: that is, in resisting, and in contemning, and in the invocation of help.
His second point – contempt – is developed as follows:
Some folk have been clearly rid of such pestilent fancies with very full contempt of them, making a cross upon their hearts and bidding the devil avaunt. And sometimes they laugh him to scorn too, and then turn their mind unto some other matter. And when the devil hath seen that they have set so little by him, after certain essays, made in such times as he thought most fitting, he hath given that temptation quite over. And this he doth not only because the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked, but also lest, with much tempting the man to the sin to which he could not in conclusion bring him, he should much increase his merit.
C. S. Lewis, in his book on 16th-century English literature, has called More’s Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulations “the noblest of all his vernacular writings”. Noting that “it was written in the Tower while More waited for death (for all he knew, death by torture, hanging, cutting down, alive, and disembowelling)” he saw “a fairly close parallel” to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Lewis concludes his reflections on the Dialogue with the remark that “I would not quote much from this book; it is (or was) accessible in a cheap reprint and should be on everyone’s shelves” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Book II, I.1, pp. 177-181).
Written in 1534, first published anonymously in 1553 and reprinted with More’s Utopia in Everyman’s Library in 1910, the Dialogue was edited “with modifications to obsolete language” by Monica Stevens in 1951. The above quotation is from the Stevens edition, available online from Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17075; a PDF is available at www.lewisiana.nl/screwtapequotes/More1534.pdf. A good later edition is the one by Frank Manley (Yale University Press 1977), with Lewis’s quote on page 158.
The history of the European War
» The Second World War formally started on 1 September 1939. In Great Britain, the war was initially a matter mainly of mobilization, without much obvious enemy action directly affecting the daily life of citizens. In the early summer of 1940, when large parts of the European continent had been conquered and occupied by Germany, the “Battle of Britain” began as German bombers began to raid cities in England, notably London. The Screwtape Letters were probably written during the second half of 1940. They were originally published as a serial in a Church of England weekly magazine called The Guardian, from May till November 1941.
as if you supposed that argument was the way
» The opening theme of The Screwtape Letters is that of a column (“Notes on the Way”) which Lewis wrote for the literary magazine Time and Tide, published on 29 March 1941; the first Screwtape letter followed on 2 May 1941 in The Guardian. Two years later Lewis was to develop the Time and Tide piece into a paper for the Oxford University Socratic Club: “Bulverism, or The Foundation of Twentieth-Century Thought” (for publication details about this paper see www.lewisiana.nl/cslessays).
“the body of Christ”
» 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12.
the elder brother in the Enemy’s story
» Luke 15:25ff, the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Coleridge, “with moving lips and bended knees”
» Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), English poet and philosopher. The words quoted are from “The Pains of Sleep” (1803, published 1816), a 52-line poem which begins as follows:
Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation,
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal Strength and Wisdom are.
“Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be”
» ?? [the original may be in Latin, perhaps in Augustine or Anselm]
when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will ... asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys
» cf. Matthew 27:47, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
See also George Macdonald, “The Eloi”, in Unspoken Sermons Vol. I (1867), quoted by Lewis in his Macdonald Anthology (1946), Nr. 38:
The highest condition of the Human Will, as distinct, not as separated from God, is when, not seeing God, not seeming to itself to grasp Him at all, it yet holds Him fast.
“No passion is as serious as lust”
“without whom Nothing is strong”
» Slightly adapted (with a capital N for Nothing) from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer (Fourth Sunday After Trinity, The Collect):
O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us they mercy ...
» Principal character in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (1812), a poem in four cantos by George Byron (1788-1824). The hero is a young man who disillusioned with his empty pleasure-seeking existence and looks for distraction in far-away places.
» Principal character in Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther), the first novel published by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened
» Joseph Butler (1692-1752), The Analogy of Religion (1736), Part I, “Natural Religion”, chapter 5, “Of a State of Probation, as Intended for Moral Discipline and Improvement”, section II.
... in like manner as habits belonging to the body are produced by external acts: so habits of the mind are produced by the exertion of inward practical principles; i.e. by carrying them into act, or acting upon them; the principles of obedience, of veracity, justice, and charity. (...) But going over the theory of virtue in one’s thoughts, talking well, and drawing fine pictures, of it; this is so far from necessarily or certainly conducing to form a habit of it, in him who thus employs himself, that it may harden the mind in a contrary course, and render it gradually more insensible; i. e. form a habit of insensibility to all moral considerations. For, from our very faculty of habits, passive impressions, by being repeated, grow weaker. Thoughts, by often passing through the mind, are felt less sensibly: being accustomed to danger, begets intrepidity, i. e. lessens fear; to distress, lessens the passion of pity; to instances of others’ mortality, lessens the sensible apprehension of our own. And from these two observations together; that practical habits are formed and strengthened by repeated acts, and that passive impressions grow weaker by being repeated upon us; it must follow, that active habits may be gradually forming and strengthening, by a course of acting upon such and such motives and excitements, whilst these motives and excitements themselves are, by proportionable degrees, growing less sensible; i. e. are continually less and less sensibly felt, even as the active habits strengthen.
» A concept developed by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1858-1941); his book Évolution créatrice was published in 1907 (English: Creative Evolution, 1911) and won him the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature.
» The term does not designate any recognized school of thought, but has been used since the 19th century by some thinkers to specify and recommend their own variety of modern, secular humanism. This variety more or less originated with the English biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895). His grandson Julian Huxley advocated “a scientific Humanism, global in extent and evolutionary in background” as guiding philosophy for the newly formed United Nations shortly after the Second World War. In 2005, the American biologist E. O. Wilson called scientific humanism “the only worldview compatible with science’s growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature” and the one most likely to lead to a better world.
» Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), French Roman-Catholic philosopher and essayist.
» A fish dish; sole is a species of flatfish (Solea solea).
“pleasures for evermore”
» Psalm 16:11 (KJV).
Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy: at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
“the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence”
» From George Macdonald (1824-1905), Unspoken Sermons I (1867), “The Hands of the Father”.
Nor shall we ever know that repose in the Father’s hands, that rest of the Holy Sepulchre, which the Lord knew when the agony of death was over, when the storm of the world died away behind his retiring spirit, and he entered the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence, (for all noise comes of the conflict of Life and Death) – we shall never be able, I say, to rest in the bosom of the Father, till the fatherhood is fully revealed to us in the love of the brothers.
Part of this passage is included as Nr. 41 in Lewis’s Macdonald Anthology (1946).
» John Milton (1608-1674), English poet. His chief work is the epic poem in twelve “Books”, Paradise Lost (1667), with Satan as one of the principal characters.
that such changes of shape are a “punishment” imposed on us
» See Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book X, lines 494-585, especially 516 and 575.
» An allusion to the Anglo-Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950; 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature). His ideas about a Life Force, related to Henri Bergson’s élan vital, were expressed in his plays Man and Superman (1903) and most notably in the sequence of five plays published as Back to Methuselah (1921).
the World and the Flesh ... a third Power remains
» Cf. the phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, The Collect:
Lord, we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee the only God ...
Screwtape hardly defines his “third Power” but obviously he reckons Religion to be a great stimulus to diabolical attitudes. He comes back to this at the end of the table speech which was published an appendix to The Screwtape Letters in 1961, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”. There he describes “different types of Pharisees” in hell thus:
Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and the almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up there where the sun shone! How much more they hate each other now that they are forever conjoined but not reconciled. Their astonishment, their resentment, at the combination, the festering of their eternally impenitent spite, passing into our spiritual digestion, will work like fire. Dark fire. All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by “religion” ever vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighbourhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.
the documents ... cannot be added to
» This idea was actually proved false when the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the later 1940s, not many years after Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. He briefly deals with this issue in his Reflections on the Psalms (1958), chapter 3.
a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, new Swifts
» Biography has long been a popular branch of
literature in Great Britain. Old subjects keep attracting new biographers, and
new biographies are usually published with a pretence that some really new
facts or insights are being offered.
Lewis made the same combined criticism of the modern “quest for the historical Jesus” and the biography industry in his 1940 paper “Why I am not a Pacifist” (first published in the US the 1980 edition of The Weight of Glory and other Addresses en in the UK in Timeless at Heart, 1987).
Sophists ... Socrates
» In the decades around 400 B.C., Sophists were itinerant teachers in ancient Greece, especially influential in Athens. Two famous early Sophists were Protagoras and Gorgias; an extreme case was Callicles (in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias). Their sceptical and relativist ideas were systematically refuted in the course of their debates with Socrates, as described in Plato’s dialogues.
It should be added that Socrates was really active on two fronts: he “found himself confronted both by moral conservatives using an incoherent moral vocabulary as if they were sure of its meaning and by sophists whose innovations he found equally suspect” – Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (2nd ed., 1998), chapter 3, “The Sophists and Socrates”, p. 18 (italics added). An excellent brief treatment of the antagonism, both in its historical and its timeless aspects, can be found in an essay by Juan F. Frank, “The Platonic Inspiration of Pieper’s Philosophy”, in: Bernard N. Schumacher (ed.), A Cosmopolitan Hermit. Modernity and Tradition in the Philosophy of Josef Pieper, CUA Press, Washington D.C. 2009, pp. 251-278.
a Christian writer ... recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”
» Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), chapter 1, “An Independent Christian Ethic”, p. 34 (chapter’s last paragraph):
A vital Christian faith and life is thus under the necessity of perennially preserving its health against the peril of diseases and corruptions arising out of its own life; and of protecting itself against errors to which non-mythical religions tempt it. Most of its own weaknesses arise when the mythical paradoxes of its faith are resolved; most of the perils from the outside come from the pessimism and dualism of mystical and rational religion. Only a vital Christian faith, renewing its youth in its prophetic origin, is capable of dealing adequately with the moral and social problems of our age; only such a faith can affirm the significance of temporal and mundane existence without capitulating unduly to the relativities of the temporal process. Such a faith alone can point to a source of meaning which transcends all the little universes of value and meaning which “have their day and cease to be” and yet not seek refuge in an eternal world where all history ceases to be significant. Only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations, and yet deal in terms of moral responsibility with the world in which cultures and civilizations engage in struggles of death and life.
merely Christian ... mere Christianity
» “Mere Christianity” is an expression borrowed from a passage in Church-history of the Government of Bishops and their Councils (1680) by the English Puritan theologian and church leader Richard Baxter (1615-1691). On the book’s title page Baxter calls himself “a hater of false history”. On the penultimate unnumbered page [xv] of an introductory passage, “What History is Credible, and what not”, he writes:
... but you know not what Party I am of, nor what to call me; I am sorrier for you in this than for my self; if you know not, I will tell you, I am a CHRISTIAN, a MEER CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible: But must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing parties: But if any will call Meer Christians by the name of a Party, because they take up with meer Christianity, Creed, and Scripture, and will not be of any dividing or contentious Sect, I am of that Party which is so against Parties: If the Name CHRISTIAN be not enough, call me a CATHOLICK CHRISTIAN; not as that word signifieth an hereticating majority of Bishops, but as it signifieth one that hath no Religion, but that which by Christ and the Apostles was left to the Catholick Church, or the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth.
Lewis made the same reference to Baxter in the title for his collected and revised radio talks of the years 1941-1944: Mere Christianity. He explained this choice in his Preface to that book, published in 1952. Earlier that same year he used Baxter’s term in a letter to the editor of the Church Times (8 Feb. 1952; Collected Letters vol. III, p. 164).
» i.e. in the manner of Lord Byron, the Romantic poet whose Childe Harold was referred to in chapter XIII, above.
whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants
» Lewis probably intended this as a brief diagnosis of modern society’s most virulent disease at the time of writing, i.e. the 1940s. This same diagnosis found famous expression in F. A. Hayek’s the Road to Serfdom (1944) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
the negative unselfishness
» The manners described here may be typically British rather than generally human.
“If people knew how much ill-feeling Unselfishness occasions, it would not be so often recommended from the pulpit”
“She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expression”
» ?? – Lewis may well be quoting himself here.
“praise and communion with God is the true prayer”
» Anicius Manlius Severinus Boetius, Roman statesman and philosopher (480-524). As a prisoner of the Gothic king Theoderic he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy (De consolatione philosophiae). Screwtape is referring to this book’s last, fifth part. Boethius as a thinker about the problem of freedom is discussed in C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image (1964), chapter IV/D (“I cannot help thinking that Boethius has here expounded a Platonic conception more luminously than Plato ever did himself”).
Only the learned read old books
» In a piece written in 1944 Lewis explained the importance of not confining one’s reading to contemporary authors:
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 ... 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.
Originally the preface to a translation of St. Athanasius (The Incarnation of the Word of God), this piece was later published as “On the Reading of Old Books”; for bibliographical details see www.lewisiana.nl/cslessays.
» A reference to the assertion “History is more or less bunk”, made by Henry Ford (1863-1947), pioneer and captain of car industry, during an interview published in the Chicago Tribune of 25 May 1916. The saying got wings in the briefer form “History is bunk”. During a lawsuit brought by Ford against the Chicago Tribune in 1919, his own astounding lack of historical knowledge was revealed when he guessed 1812 as the year of the American Revolution. When reminded of his notorious maxim, he backed out by explaining that he “did not say it was bunk. It was bunk to me [...] but I did not need it very bad.”
“Experience is the mother of illusion”
» Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781; transl. Meiklejohn 1855) I: Transcendental Doctrine of Elements, 2.2.1, “Of the Conceptions of Pure Reason”, Section 1, “Of ideas in general”, par. 7.
For as regards nature, experience presents us with rules and is the source of truth, but in relation to ethical laws experience is the parent of illusion, and it is in the highest degree reprehensible to limit or to deduce the laws which dictate what I ought to do, from what is done.
In the original German (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, I. Transzendentale Elementarlehre, 2.2.1, ʻVon den Begriffen der reinen Vernunftʼ, erster Abschnitt, ʻVon den Ideen überhauptʼ):
Denn in Betracht der Natur gibt uns Erfahrung die Regel an die Hand und ist der Quell der Wahrheit; in Ansehung der sittlichen Gesetze aber ist Erfahrung (leider!) die Mutter des Scheins, und es ist höchst verwerflich, die Gesetze über das, was ich tun soll, von demjenigen herzunehmen, oder dadurch einschränken zu wollen, was getan wird.
» King of the Huns in the first half of the 5th century C.E.
» One of the protagonists in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.
This web page was published on 29 October 2010
31 December 2010
– added note to letter I, as if you supposed...
13 May 2011
– added note to letter VIII, when a human...
20-25 July 2011
– added notes on the epigraphs (quotes from Luther and Thomas More); with thanks to Emanuel Contac, Bucharest, Romania, for research on the Luther quote
12 December 2011
– added info on Josef Pieper in note on Sophists, letter XXIV
23 March 2012
– improved and expanded note on merely Christian, letter XXV
4 May 2012
– added note on active habits are strengthened..., letter XIII
27 May 2013
– expanded note on a crop of new Napoleons..., letter XXIII
– expanded note on the second epigraph (quote from Thomas More)
20 May 2015
– added note on a Christian writer ... recommends..., letter XXIII