Wisdom in Your Pocket

Tracy Lee Simmons in City Journal:

Back in the 1940s, C. S. Lewis remarked on a trend that he saw gaining steam even among some of his better pupils at Oxford: a belief that books penned by the greatest minds of the previous two or three millennia could be grasped only by credentialed professionals. This instinct steered them away from the satisfactions of primary literature and into the swamps of secondary works expounding upon the original sources. “I have found as a tutor in English Literature,” Lewis wrote, “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.” Lewis was not denigrating commentaries; he wrote some formidable ones himself. He was merely making the point that most great writers of the distant past wrote to be read and apprehended by curious minds, not merely to provide fodder for exams and dissertations.

Princeton University Press has recently made the task of heeding Lewis’s admonition to return ad fontes a good deal easier with its Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series of compact, handsomely bound, pocket-sized translations of a handful of the major works of Greek and Roman authors—works that, as each brief introduction testifies, remain applicable to the lives of thoughtful readers. And they all come with a refreshingly sparse amount of explanatory material interposing itself between authors and readers. These are not school editions; they’re to be read on airplanes and by the fireside with a stiff drink. And they can change lives. Like a truly liberal education of the kind they enrich, these books are eminently useful.

More here.