C.S. Lewis on Plato and Primary Sources

51dvxL2chTL._SL500_AA300_As a student of theology and literature, using primary texts is a must. My personal journey with primary sources is reflected in the following quote by C.S. Lewis. I found myself reading more summaries and secondhand material rather than reading original authors. He encourages students to use primary texts and personally engage with authors, rather than reading secondary material.

The use of secondary material and summaries are helpful to point you to primary literature. May we heed Lewis’ concern not to settle only with summaries of central figures and their ideals but to encounter and wrestle with original authors and their literature.

“There is a strange idea that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”[1]

[1]C.S. Lewis, “Preface from the First Edition,” in Saint Athanasius On the Incarnation, Popular Patristics Series 44A (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 11.


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