C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters* (1942), describes how history has been devalued in the modern age. The notorious Screwtape, a master demon writing to his younger protégé Wormwood, says this about the intellectual climate in Western Europe:

Only the learned read old books, and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.”[1]

Lewis here shows some awareness of the historical discipline. Indeed, these are the very types of questions that modern historians like to ask. And on the one hand, they aren’t completely misguided. They help us understand influence, development, historiography, context, and so on.

On the other hand, such questions can turn the past into something to analyze simply for the sake of analyzing or to analyze as a way of avoiding its message altogether. If I get so caught up in understanding how a person’s ideas in one of his writings differs from those in another of his writings, I can ignore the question whether the ideas are true. In fact, historians are often trained not to even answer the truth question but rather to merely describe the past or to write it off as outdated and irrelevant.

Thus, these ways of probing history leave it questionable whether we can learn from the past. And that is the very attitude that Screwtape wants to engender. The master demon continues:

To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But, thanks be to Our Father [by which Screwtape means the devil] and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”[2]

The snapshot portrayed here is a tragedy: a learned individual holds treasures in her hand without any awareness of their value and carelessly casts them aside. I think it is common in our day to not want to be hoodwinked. But the unmerited degree of suspicion we show to potential sources of truth from history can lead us to deceive ourselves. We certainly don’t want to fall for the lies of hagiography, but is it even possible anymore to explore the past with a mind open to finding truth?

There is something else in this quote that bears consideration. Lewis warns us that our age is marked by characteristic errors. Every age has them, and it is the nature of living in an age that one cannot readily see such errors. Yet every age has characteristic truths as well. One of the realities of studying the past is that we can see the characteristic errors of other ages more easily than they themselves could see them, precisely because we do not live in those eras.

But one of the great benefits of studying the past is that those eras have characteristic truths that we may no longer be able to easily see. And it takes humility to be willing and able to see such truths. It is the enemy’s work that seeks to blind us to them.

Lewis’s clever way of describing how historical inquiry and modern hubris can get in the way of wisdom in The Screwtape Letters* serves as a valuable reminder of beneficial and detrimental ways of approaching history. Treasures await those willing to humble themselves to hear characteristic truths from another age to correct the characteristic errors in our own.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942; repr., New York: Touchstone, 1996), 99.

[2] Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 99.

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