What Lewis almost said: some thoughts on quoting carefully

Detail of page 99, _Selected Literary Essays_, C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper. (Cambridge University Press, 1969).

I’ve ranted in the past about C. S. Lewis misquotes. So has the C.S. Lewis Foundation, Essential C. S. Lewis,  and a host of other Lewisians.

I’ve often wondered why I care about this so much, why it rankles me so deeply when someone tosses around a quote offhandedly – or heavy-handedly, as the case may be – and then takes special care to note that it is from none other than C. S. Lewis, implying that it (the quote) is nearly scriptural and therefore they (the quoters) are entirely trustworthy and authoritative.

Does it really matter?

I think so (for reasons mentioned here). I think it speaks to something about how we use language, words, and ideas, how we view authority, and how we tend to accept (often blindly) what we are offered by Those-Who-Know, whether in virtual conversations, printed text, or spoken word.

We often let others do our thinking for us. But to make it look like we’ve done our own thinking, we buttress it with a quote by Someone Really Important and Smart, like C. S. Lewis, or countless other dead people whose words have been dissected into convenient sound-bites that make us look good.

Sometimes the quote is nearly-right, as in the case of this popular one:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live among those who are.

This quotes gets almost 3 millions hits in a Google search. Bravo for Clive on being viral, a thousand times over.

Unlike many of Lewis’s other misattributed quotes (including: “Humility is not thinking of yourself less: it’s thinking less of yourself,” and, “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream,” and, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”), this one is almost spot on. What Lewis actually wrote was:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are: that good fortune I have enjoyed for nearly twenty years. (C. S. Lewis, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?”)

If the misquoters knew that the original included “in a circle of” as opposed to “among,” I suspect they would love it even more. We are all about circles these days – circles of friends, circles of life, circles of prayer, circles of circles.

[“Circle” is a very strange word if you look at or say it over and over and over again.]

The problem with this quote being used as it so often is – i. e. to say that if one’s friends have common sense and real-world wisdom, then so will you – is that Lewis wasn’t talking about that at all (which isn’t to say he wouldn’t agree).

This quote is from one of Lewis’s literary essays, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” You can find it in at least three places: Proceedings of the British Academy (Vol. 28, 1942), They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses (Geoffrey Bles, 1962) and Selected Literary Essays (ed. Walter Hooper, Cambridge University Press, 1969). It appears rather unexpectedly about two-thirds of the way into Lewis’s argument that Hamlet is best enjoyed for its poetic power and prowess rather than being critiqued along various theoretical and critical lines. He tips his hat to Owen Barfield, not for being a friend who helped Lewis navigate the difficulties of daily decision making (though perhaps he did do that) or for being a friend whose mere presence deepened and expanded Lewis’s own daily wisdom (though perhaps that did happen).

Instead, he tips his hat to Owen Barfield specifically and his other literary friends generally for being the kind of people who kept Lewis grounded as a reader and critic, for being people of deep intellect and smart ideas who challenged Lewis as a reader and critic, for being people who thought carefully and thoroughly and creatively before spouting off about nothing in particular.

For those who are interested, Lewis tends toward a reading style that embraces the poetry, the lyricism, the words, the essence, the donegality, and the visceral responses rather than a reading style that hacks and dismembers texts into lifeless blobs of intellectual blubber. Lewis believed that the many critics who had examined Hamlet’s character through every lens from every angle had missed something important. He warns that our own reading of Hamlet (should you choose to read it, which he would strongly recommend) will also miss something important if we approach it in the same clinically sterile way.

Perhaps I should rather say that it would miss as much if our behaviors when we are actually reading were not wiser than our criticism in cold blood. (“Hamlet: The Prince of the Poem?” in They Asked for a Paper, pp. 68-69; Selected Literary Essays, p. 103)

Lewis’s famous quote about wise friends is assuredly about wise friends – but not in the sense that most people use it.

And perhaps that’s not a very big deal at all. Perhaps if the quote is powerful and good and true, it has limitless applications.

But maybe it is a big deal. Maybe we need to be very careful about what we write and say and quote. Maybe knowing the context is as important as knowing the words.

If a writer doesn’t know absolutely certain where a quote is from (which includes almost every wildly popular [uncited] internet quote) but the words are good enough to stand on their own without the weight of Someone Really Important and Smart behind them, then simply say so. “As someone once said: … ”

Don’t claim the words as your own if they aren’t. At the same time, don’t attribute them to someone else if you have not checked and confirmed their source. Language is too important and powerful, too beautiful and poetic to be flung about lightly and carelessly.