By Dr. Paul M. Gould

As an academic, I constantly worry that I’m falling behind. New essays within my area of specialty are published quarterly in all the leading philosophy journals. There’s no way I can keep up. Even if I were current, that status would evaporate with the beginning of a new semester and the subsequent demands of teaching. The desire to be current—an unachievable yet every-present desire—biases me against old books. I know I’m supposed to be conversant with the history of my own discipline, let alone the history of thought in general, but if I spend time reading old books, I’ll fall farther behind. And so goes my internal dialogue. Maybe I’m alone in this struggle, but I suspect I’m not. The “publish or perish” mentality endemic to the university exerts constant pressure on us to be novel or progressive or avant-garde. It pushes against the desire to linger and explore and discover free from the care of producing publishable results.

This temptation to value the new and ignore the old leaves us impoverished. In his preface to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis notes that this mistaken preference for modern books over the old “is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”[1]  He goes on:

Whenever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying no St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. [2]

Lewis thinks this is “topsy-turvy.” [3]  He is not saying we shouldn’t read modern books. Rather, he is saying we should read both old and new, and if we have to make a choice, we’d be better off reading the old! I partially agree. I think it is better to begin somewhere, so if we only read the new, we are at least reading and studying something, especially when it comes to our faith. But it is better, as Lewis notes, if we read both the old and the new. “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. That means old books.” [4]

So, in addition to the new—books, articles, research—we should enter into the conversation of old. We should read old books, especially when it comes to theology (and the history of ideas in general). There is delight to be found in the reading of old books (more on this below) and wisdom too. In this post and in the next, I want to share with you some of the “old” books that I’ve found delightful and insightful. In this post, I’ll start with the ancient pagan (Greek) world.

Homer’s Odyssey. Written around the 8th century BC, this work by Homer is the second oldest extant work of Western literature (the Illiad, also by Homer, is the oldest). In it, we read of Odysseus’s ten-year journey from Troy to his home in Ithaca. Odysseus’s story is our story. It is a story of temptation, folly, and trials. It is a story of love and longing, courage and betrayal, quest and conquest. Ultimately, it is a fitting metaphor of the true story of the world: wander (from God) and return (to God). I’ve read and taught this story dozens of times. Students are amazed at how relevant and entertaining the book is. Somewhat surprisingly to those who think old books are boring and out of touch, we find in Homer’s Odyssey the full panoply of human longings: for truth, goodness, beauty, meaning, purpose, love, and the divine. 

Plato’s Republic. The central question Plato explores in this classic is this: Why be moral? What if, Plato asks, you had a magic ring that made you invisible? (Sound familiar to any Tolkien fans?) If you could do whatever you want and get away with it, would you still be good? After a fair bit of discussion, Plato’s conclusion is that the good life is inherently valuable. We ought to be moral because it is a great good. As a bonus, we are treated to a fascinating thought experiment about the ideal city (with philosophers as kings!), a surprisingly modern discussion of political theory (democracy doesn’t fare so well), a thorough discussion of the classic virtues (courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice), and his famous doctrine of the Forms (individual beds participate in the Idea or Form of Bedness). Reading Plato (along with Aristotle) is essential reading for a deep understanding of just about all the theology and philosophy that comes after. I am constantly amazed, in reading Plato, how much he got correct and how close he came, through the dint of human reason alone, to some of the great gospel truths.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Modern moral philosophy is a wreck. Part of the reason, detailed by thinkers such as G.E.M. Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and C.S. Lewis, is that we’ve rejected teleology and the concept of character from our moral theorizing. Classically, human flourishing and happiness was understood in terms of virtue. We flourish when we are a certain kind of person. This classic vision finds its chief expression in the works of Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics famously begins, “Every craft and every line of inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good.” We are teleological creatures. We seek happiness. We act for some end. Aristotle concludes, again by the dint of human reason alone, that man’s highest good is the contemplation of the divine. Not a bad first pass.

My encouragement to you: pick up one—or all—of these books and give it a read. You will be surprised how relevant they are to the questions that press in on us in the 21st century.

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[1] C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimer’s Seminary Press, 2011), 9. Lewis wrote this introduction in 1944.   

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid.