Lewis: Present Concerns

November 30, 2009

Yesterday was the birthday of C.S. Lewis (he would have turned eleventy-one), and I was reminded that I had this Book Note buried somewhere in my things.  I dug it out, and here it is.

Present Concerns: Ethical Essays
C.S. Lewis (Fount, 1986; Walter Hooper, Ed.)
108 p.  First reading.

This is a collection of short essays on topics ranging from education to literature to science.  Some fit the titular bill as “ethical essays”, others not, but each was interesting and worth reading.  There are four which I found most valuable, and I will comment briefly on each.

The first essay in the book is titled “The Necessity of Chivalry”, and in it Lewis proposes that Lancelot, that noblest of the knights of the Round Table, demonstrates a character type which is rare in today’s world but very needful.  At his funeral, Malory records that Lancelot was praised in this manner: “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”  His character seems a paradox: it is not achieved by restraining the mild and the belligerent tendencies in his character so as to arrive at some kind of average, but rather by giving each its rein in its proper context.  He should be courteous and civilized when appropriate, and brave and uncompromising when appropriate.  Now there is a tendency today to view violence as intrinsically wicked, to claim that “violence never solves anything”; from this point of view the chivalric ideal appears tarnished by its false glorification of the warrior.  And there is a contrary tendency, less prevalent today but not unknown, to praise the warrior for his bravery and strength; from this point of view the chivalric ideal seems polluted by sentimentality and weakness.  Both tendencies are agreed that the chivalric ideal is internally inconsistent, and, says Lewis, “These two tendencies between them weave the world’s shroud.”  The truth is that we need civilized men with sufficient backbone to defend the good when circumstances call for it.  But, Lewis reminds us, “the knightly character is art not nature — something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.”

In “Hedonics” he proposes that we ought to develop a serious philosophy and science of happiness.  His own aesthetic experience was richer and more subtle than were the aesthetic theories of which he knew — and he knew them all.  He describes an undercurrent in his life, at some times more evident than at others, which he experienced as a quiet and unobtrusive offer of happiness. And he also experienced a temptation to reject the offer, to attribute it to illusion.  Together, these experiences seemed to him to indicate that his inner life was constantly playing host to a kind of spiritual struggle, one which does not manifest itself in the external events of his life.  I was reminded of Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”.  The essay is brief, but suggestive; I am not aware of his developing these ideas at greater length elsewhere, and that is a pity.

Another interesting essay was “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought”.  Trying to articulate the habits of thought of one’s culture is a good exercise in itself, but Lewis is especially concerned about the special problems which modern habits pose for Christian evangelization.  In the ancient world, Christians could count on three beliefs in those they sought to evangelize: in the supernatural, in sin and divine judgment, and in the fact that the world was once better than it presently is.  None can be counted on today.  During the nineteenth-century especially the modern mind was substantially altered, and Lewis explores the causes and consequences of this rift.  First, there were major changes in education; the classical curriculum declined, replaced by a more “relevant” — Lewis calls it “provincial” — education oriented  toward the present and future rather than the past.  The effect of this was a decline in both sympathy for and understanding of the past, and it prepared the ground for the changes that followed.  A second factor, more idiosyncratic and less likely today to be granted the wariness Lewis believes appropriate, was women’s liberation.  In Lewis’ opinion the mixing of the sexes, especially in education, has had the effect of suppressing the characteristically male love of argument and metaphysics, which produced a corresponding decline of interest in the abstract arguments that had animated intellectual discourse through the centuries.  As to modern habits of thought, Lewis picks out four: developmentalism, proletarianism, practicality, and scepticism. Developmentalism is the extension of Darwinian thinking far beyond the natural sciences into a general theory of history; it disposes the modern mind to believe that things are getting better, as if by a natural process, and, in particular, disposes the modern mind to imagine the past as having been “obviously” worse than the present.  By proletarianism, Lewis means to stress the spiritual complacency of modern man, who feels no awe or fear before God and who judges religion by secular standards — by how well it promotes political projects, social harmony, personal well-being, and so forth.  Modern man is also practical in his thinking; he is less interested in whether the claims of religion are true or false than in whether they are helpful, comforting, and so on.  Finally, our time is sceptical, even to the point of being sceptical about reason itself.  Under the influence of Freud (who was more respected in Lewis’ time than in ours, but the point still stands) people are ready to concede that reasoning proves nothing and that thought is conditioned by irrational processes.  This makes rational persuasion difficult.  A stimulating essay.

Finally, I will mention a short but excellent essay titled “Democratic Education”.  A democratic education is “not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy”, and the two are quite different.  For example, some argue that an education which privileges the talented over the mediocre is undemocratic.  But a system which tries to eliminate judgements of “superior” and “inferior” feeds the beast of envy, and this is foolish, for envy is insatiable and will not be satisfied.  On the contrary, “a truly democratic education — one which will preserve democracy — must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly ‘high-brow’.”  Education should be geared toward the best pupils, those who can know and want to know, for then school will be a nursery for the first-class intellects which any nation needs to thrive.  This essay is a refreshing contradiction of the theories of education which seem to be most common today.

There are fifteen other essays in the book, but I haven’t time to say anything further about them.

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