Leland Ryken writes, “Next to not reading the classics, the greatest abuse we can heap on them is to misread them.”

He outlines eight ways this can happen. (Remember that the bold numbered points are fallacies—not actual advice!)

1. Be sure to read the classics for their ideas. C.S. Lewis: “Many of the comments on life which people get out of Shakespeare could have been reached by very moderate talents without his assistance.” Reducing literature to ideas, Lewis says, “is an outrage to the thing the poet has made us for.” Flannery O’Connor: “The whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”

2. Assume without question that the classics tell the truth. C.S. Lewis: “The values assume in literature have seldom been those of Christianity.”

3. Look upon the classics as “improving literature.” In other words, this misconception goes, it’s the sort of thing you should read but wouldn’t want to read. Ryken counters: “I suggest that we view the classics as a form of entertainment first of all. Any usefulness they might hold can come as a byproduct. . . . I prefer them over most other reading material because I think they are more fun.”

4. Regard the classics as beyond criticism. Ryken: “The classics are worthy of our admiration and should make us feel humble, but we should not venerate them as something sacred.”

5. Assume that moral considerations are irrelevant to the classics. Ryken: “The classics generally espouse a system of virtues and vices with which a Christian can agree. But when we turn virtues and vices to the values espoused by the classics, we suddenly have to scale down the claims we make for their compatibility with Christianity.”

6. Be sure that you do not see anything in the classics that the author and original audience did not see it in it. This is the intentional fallacy. Ryken: “We must protect an author’s right to be misunderstood. But having understood a writer, we are not limited to see in a work only what the author saw there.”

7. Assume that all that matters is what a work says to you. This is the affective fallacy. Ryken: “We should not try to suppress our responses. They are important. But they are always subject to modification and correction by the work itself.”

8. View the classics as relics in the museum of the past. Ryken: “I am not indiscriminately interested in the past for its own sake. Much more valuable to me is what is universal in the classics. They have an unparalleled ability to capture what is true for all people at all times in all places.”

—Leland Ryken, Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective, pp. 8-13.

Photo credit: Liam Quin