Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

Lewis: The Abolition of Man

October 17, 2019

The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis
(Fount, 1978) [1943]
63 p.

Lewis mounts a critique of the view that moral judgements are not objective, and defends what he calls the Tao: the basic, objective moral order that underwrites and secures our practical moral reasoning.

His argument is partly empirical, inasmuch as he compiles a raft of citations from texts, philosophical and religious, from Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, and Indian cultures to argue for cross-cultural agreement on basic moral norms regarding beneficence, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, justice, truth-telling, mercy, and magnanimity. These we may, for the sake of the argument at least, take as the content of “the Tao”, although not exhaustive. Synonyms in world traditions for this body of moral norms are “Natural Law”, “First Principles of Practical Reason”, or “First Platitudes”. The Tao consists of the axioms of moral reasoning, on which all moral judgments ultimately rest.

His main line of argument, however, is not just that the Tao is common, but that the Tao is inescapable, and that attempts to deny it are secretly relying on it at a deeper level. (He thus accuses moral relativists of committing a particular fallacy — denying your opponent a premise that you yourself rely on — that I’m sure must have a name, but that I cannot think of.) Those who profess to debunk objective values themselves harbour values that they think immune to debunking. To be sure, their values are not always precisely those which they deny, but Lewis contends that all the first principles of moral reasoning are equally self-evident, and that therefore every effort to pit one against another can be motivated only be desire, not by reason. The Tao is a unity that stands or falls together.

This is not to say that criticism of the Tao is not possible, but he distinguishes two types: from within and from without. Criticism from within he compares to a poet using the resources of a language to enrich it. Distinctions are made; understanding is refined. Criticism from without is mere “debunking”: a clumsy exercise in arbitrariness and a failure to understand what is being destroyed, for “only those who are practicing the Tao will understand it”.

His point is that moral judgments of any kind rely on there being a moral reality: the kingdom of “ought”, the realm of obligation. This is the Tao. Without it, there can be nothing obligatory at all, nothing properly moral. We cannot derive it from any consideration of utility or appeal to instinct, for these cannot generate an “ought” without implicitly relying on one. We can’t get here from there. Any “ought” — including the claim that we ought not to make moral judgments, or that we ought not to believe things that are not true — affirms the Tao and the objectivity of value. Those who try to escape it have nowhere to go:

“Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.”

The only course, therefore, open to those at war with the Tao — and there are, of course, many — is the total refusal of it, an abandonment of a relationship between reason and action, exile from the kingdom of ought. What remains to them is only strength and will — a will, ex hypothesi, bereft of any reference to “good” or “bad”, and therefore either arbitrary or governed by appetite. In human society, this would devolve to some class of persons exercising power over the others, conditioning the populace, using techniques savvy or crude, for its own purposes, a world of social engineering and the reduction of human persons to artefacts:

“Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

If this is so, I should be motivated to honour and uphold the Tao. I should acknowledge the objectivity of moral judgments — not always their correctness, of course, but even incorrectness only makes sense within a realm of objectivity. The horizon of the good is the background against which my moral life is lived out; I should respect and love it, for the intelligibility of my moral life depends on it. Paraphrasing Lewis: things merit, and do not merely receive, my reverence or contempt. I should abandon the pretence that my will can define what is right or wrong. In our time, we fall under a particular obligation to clear the mind of cant.

Indeed, the nature of the interior moral life is dramatically dependent on whether or not one accepts the objectivity of the Tao. St Augustine — who lived under the Tao — defined virtue as ordo amoris, ordered love. Ordered to what? To real value. The moral life is loving more worthy things more and less worthy things less, and progress in the moral life consists in conforming ourselves more and more to this objective order, so that we live in greater harmony with it, rather than trying to bend it to our will.

Augustine’s framing of the moral life in terms of love — rather than, say, duty — is important, because virtue consists not merely in thinking rightly about goodness and badness, but in feeling rightly about them. Moral education, in fact, consists largely, and maybe preeminently, in training ourselves to have the right sorts of emotions about things: love and affection for good things, and repulsion and disgust for bad things. And this is the consistent testimony of our pre-modern inheritance:

Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

I am going to pause and read that again.

Apart from the Tao, our emotions cannot be fitting or just, and we cannot have reasons (real rational reasons, not just desires) to prefer them in ourselves or encourage them in our children. But without just and fitting healthy emotions, human beings have a tendency to fall apart: some into their heads, where they suffer that particular lunacy which, as Chesterton said, “consists in losing everything but their reason”, and others into their bellies, the realm of appetite. It’s all there in the Republic:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

This image is the origin of Lewis’ famous coinage, from this book’s magnificent first chapter, of “men without chests”, meaning those without appropriate emotional responses rooted ultimately in respect for what is real.

**

Two apparent weaknesses in the argument deserve some scrutiny. One is the claim that the moral realm is entirely distinct from the realm of “fact”, and that no bridge between them is possible. No “is” implies an “ought”. But Aristotelian moral philosophy, based on the virtues, seems to be an effort to establish such a bridge, and an impressive one. For Aristotle, morals are derived from observation of what is good for human beings, what allows us to flourish as the kind of thing we are, together with the premise that we “ought” to do those things — a very modest premise which all other creatures endeavour to follow naturally. It does rely on some conception of what is good for us, but Aristotle, I believe, thinks this can be discerned by a careful study of our nature. It is not clear that this moral theory can survive a thoroughly materialist Darwinism, but, averting that course of hari-kari, seems to me a challenger to Lewis’ general account of things. Perhaps he is right, though, that Aristotelianism moral counsels never do quite rise to the level of obligation, but are always counsels of prudence, and, if so, this does seem to be a weakness.

The second weakness is his claim that the Tao, consisting of a set of basic moral premises, is indivisible and one, such that one cannot use one part of it to deny some other part. In logic, of course, it is always possible to reduce the number of independent premises one reasons from, so his claim cannot be strictly logical. His principal justification for the claim is that the basic premises are equally self-evident, and so there can be no rational grounds for pitting one against another, or for accepting one and denying another. But are they equally self-evident? How many basic premises are there? (St Thomas thought that the basic moral premise was “Seek good and avoid evil.” Lewis seems to think the Tao is more elaborate and specific than that.) How do we know that a particular moral principle is truly basic and therefore immune to further analysis? At what deductive distance from the basic premises do moral counsels become susceptible of doubt and scrutiny? None of these questions are really addressed by Lewis, but I suspect he would answer that such is the subject matter of moral philosophy. Indeed, if we peer into St Thomas we might well discover the answers we seek.

**

Lewis argues that if the Tao be rejected then the consequence, at a societal level, must devolve to the exercise of power of a few over the many: a tyranny of social engineering. But this is to see it from the point of view of the few, who see and understand what they are doing. But what would it look like, and feel like, to the many? This is a question that Lewis doesn’t really address, but it seems to me an interesting one. The many would be governed by behavioural norms imposed by their elites, which, though not properly moral norms, might seem so to the unreflective or uninformed. An appeal to the “good”, cynically made for the sake of social order or to achieve a certain end, might seem genuine to those to whom it was addressed. But appeals to something that might be mistaken for a transcendental good would be dangerous for the powers that be, so undesirable behaviour or thoughts would be best enforced by social means, perhaps through appeals to the importance of getting along, cultivation of a taboo against moral judgment in those realms where the regime is at odds with the Tao, or through shaming or intimidation. Evidence that one was living under such a regime would be that moral norms would be protean, always evolving, or, to use a suggestive term, progressive.

**

It’s a small book, but one on which the commentary has been voluminous. As a critique of what Alastair MacIntyre would later call “emotivism” in morals, as a defence of the natural law tradition, broadly speaking, and as an eloquent presentation of the metaphysical preamble to moral education it is justly honoured. And it’s beautifully written too.

**

[Education and the Tao]
The educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’. The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully dissipated.

[Magic and science]
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins.

Lewis: Space Trilogy

September 25, 2019

On my first attempt on Lewis’ Space Trilogy, over twenty years ago, I mostly disliked it — disliked it enough, at least, that I abandoned (space)ship after the second volume. When I mentioned this to a friend a few years ago I was told (to vary the metaphor) that I had left the wedding just as the best wine was being served. So I thought that I would give the series — the entire series — another try, and I have finally made good on that decision.

***

Out of the Silent Planet
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1938]
158 p.

Lewis wears his debt to the science fiction of H.G. Wells on his sleeve. Out of the Silent Planet will remind Wellsians of The Time Machine and especially The First Men in the Moon on account of its speculations about other rational species and varieties of social organization conjoined to a marked lack of interest in the niceties of rocketry and thermodynamics.

The premise, if anyone should be ignorant of it, is that Ransom, an English academic, is kidnapped and taken via makeshift spacecraft by two mad companions to Mars — which, as we soon learn, is called Malacandra by all rational creatures save ourselves. The story follows Ransom as he lands on Malacandra, escapes from his captors, and lives for many months among the native species, learning their ways.

The book is partly an imaginative exploration of several of the themes of his great non-fiction book The Discarded Image — that is, an exploration of pre-modern astronomy and cosmology. We learn from Ransom, for instance, that our modern conception of interplanetary space as “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness” is inept, the ancients’ name for it — “the heavens” — being much more suitable. The book is also, more thoroughly and specifically, an attempt to think through Christian and Platonic ideas about embodiment, rationality, morality, and the hierarchy of being(s). It attempts, in fact, to take many of the elements of medieval cosmology and adapt them to the new world-picture given us by modern astronomy. The Christian doctrine of the Fall, for instance, plays a central role: Earth is the silent planet, whose creatures and presiding spirits have been “bent” and fallen out of contact with the other rational beings who inhabit the solar system.

In addition to Ransom, the book introduces us to two other characters, Weston and Devine, who reappear in subsequent volumes and are, in their own villainous ways, central characters in the trilogy.

It’s a good book, better than I remembered. I think that my younger self was put off by the somewhat corny and unconvincing handling of the scientific elements of the story — this has always been an obstacle to my enjoyment of science fiction — and he, my younger self, was also probably not astute enough to appreciate Lewis’ larger and more learned interests and concerns.

**

Perelandra
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 1996) [1943]
192 p.

It was Perelandra that crashed my spacecraft on my first attempt on these books. My memory of exactly what went wrong was, I would have admitted, hazy, but if pressed I’d have pointed first to that garish sequence in which Ransom, now spirited away to Venus, witnessed a herd of pastel-coloured beasts, long-legged and flimsy, like a cross between a Star Wars Walker and one of Dr Seuss’ more whimsical creations, galloping across a field of lily pads. This was just too much for my sober imagination.

All of which would have been quite amusing, because, as I now discover, there is nothing like this in the book. Where these lurid imaginings came from I cannot now say.

I had this much right: Ransom goes to Venus. He is summoned, and knows not why. Eventually he learns that his arch-nemesis, Professor Weston, is also there, intent on colonizing the planet, destroying whatever native life he finds there, bringing evil and sin to a world where it does not yet exist, and Ransom infers that his task is to prevent it.

Misapprehensions being corrected, I find that there is actually much to like about the book, which is clearly deep in conversation with Lewis’ beloved Paradise Lost. His Venus is Edenic, an unfallen world, complete with its own Adam and Eve, and some of the images he uses are echoes of Milton’s own. It has often been said that it is easy, for us, to imagine and describe evil, but to do the same for goodness, to make goodness alluring and involving, is strangely elusive and difficult. Lewis here does his best to climb that endless mountain.

A great strength of the book is Lewis’ portrait of Venus, the watery planet. He gives us vast floating islands like lily pads (there they are!) which flex as waves pass beneath them, and stunning mountains, and cataracts, and, in one memorable sequence, intricate networks of caves. Of course, the fact that he calls his planet Venus, rather than, say, Planet X35, is complicated by what we now know of Venus, but, that aside, it is an impressive attempt at cosmic world-building.

Perelandra is also a very theological and philosophical novel. The Space Trilogy is much concerned with bringing Christian theology to bear on matters typical of science fiction — other worlds, alien creatures — and Perelandra is focused closely on the nature of original innocence, and how temptation might appear to it, and what sin actually is, and also on how the Christian story, seen from an Earthly perspective, might fit into a larger cosmic story which is, nonetheless, still ultimately the Christian story.

Lewis was a more than competent theologian and had a keen philosophical mind, so this is quite excellent on the whole. It does, however, make the novel quite wordy and discursive. I didn’t always mind this — the long peroration with which the book ends is a fine example of Lewis’ high rhetoric on a high theme — but overall I found it delayed and disrupted the action of the story. The book also, I think, has a problem of narrative structure, with too little to happen and the reader often at sea (as it were) about the direction in which the narrative wind is blowing.

**

That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis
(Scribner, 2003) [1945]
384 p.

That Hideous Strength returns to Earth, to England, where the cosmic conflict anticipated in Perelandra is beginning to play out. Lewis sub-titled this volume “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, and it is true that the science fiction elements of the previous volumes are here largely set aside in favour of something more wondrous strange.

We are introduced to the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a suitably Orwellian name for a quasi-government agency with loads of money, lots of political clout, and high ambitions to transform society along progressive lines using propaganda, scientific methods, and — this being a fairy tale — magic. In the novel’s early stages they are attempting to recruit a promising young sociologist, Mark Studdock, and it is primarily through his eyes that we, as readers, come to know about the inner workings of the N.I.C.E.

Meanwhile Mark’s wife, Jane, is being pulled in quite another direction: she has begun to experience peculiar, disquieting dreams and, in an effort to get to the bottom of them, is quietly and providentially drawn into the orbit of Ransom, around whom a small group of people has formed who are determined to resist the advance of the N.I.C.E.

Having read the previous volumes, we are not surprised to learn that the N.I.C.E. is, in fact, the instrument by which the bent presiding spirit of Earth (aka Lucifer) intends to advance an inhuman ideology and political programme designed, ultimately, to erase from humanity the imago Dei by a thorough reconstruction of human nature and society, and that Ransom, a friend and servant of the unfallen planetary intelligences — the eldila — is the keystone in the counterplot. The story plays out as an escalating conflict between the two sides.

To a large extent the book continues the dialogue between Christianity and secularism that was begun in the earlier volumes, but here Lewis adds an unexpected third partner to the dance: the Arthurian tradition, which plays a key role both theme-wise and plot-wise. I’m not quite convinced that this is entirely successful, on the whole; unless I missed it, there was nothing in the earlier books about Arthur, and its introduction feels a little ad hoc. (This despite Lewis’ attempt, late in the book, to frame the Arthurian elements as simply a manifestation of England’s true self, the natural form which her native genius takes.) On its own merits, I rather enjoyed the Arthuriana, but artistically it’s a tad awkward — though perhaps no more awkward than having a fairy tale conclude a science fiction adventure.

Readers familiar with Lewis’ other writings are likely to notice how ideas in That Hideous Strength remind them of Lewis’ other books, so much so that I began to think of the novel as a kind of Lewisian ouvre in miniature. Essays like “The Inner Ring” and “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” are obvious points of reference, and I also picked up ideas which are familiar from The Discarded Image, The Abolition of Man, and even The Chronicles of Narnia.

Naturally, it’s quite gratifying to read a novel in which progressive causes are bad. Lewis had a life-long aversion to social planning and scientific, “rational” disruptions of traditional ways of life, and, as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, shared none of modernity’s characteristic fascination with the newfangled.

In the end I found That Hideous Strength, like the trilogy as a whole, to be a quite fascinating attempt to combine things not normally treated together in fiction: theology and science, technology and magic, Arthur and Wells, sociology and sophiology. It makes one think about the intellectual and spiritual currents which contend against one another in our times, just as they did in Lewis’, and to consider, like Mark and Jane are forced to do, where one’s allegiance lies. The ambitious — indeed, cosmic — scale of the storytelling is attractive, and, I think, a necessary preparation for the story that the final volume wants to tell.

*

I cannot help noting that there is today, in the UK, an organization called N.I.C.E.! I guess not everybody reads.

**

I’m so pleased to have finally read this trilogy in its entirety, after so many years of intending to do so. Lewis is an unimpeachable stylist, always graceful and civilized, always a pleasure to read. The trilogy is better than I had judged on first acquaintance, even if it is not likely to rank among my favourite of Lewis’ writings. This is what is called “praising with faint damnation”.

***

For an envoi, we must listen to the song “Out of the Silent Planet” by King’s X. They made an entire album called Out of the Silent Planet, but this song comes from what I think is their best record, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. It must be played loudly.

Here and there

May 23, 2019

First, some film notes:

  • Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film, A Hidden Life, premiered this week at Cannes, and the critics seemed to like it, calling it his best since The Tree of Life and, perhaps on account of its World War II setting, something of a partner to The Thin Red Line, all of which is wonderfully good news. It’s the film I’ve been most anticipating this year, though whether I’ll actually get to see it this year is another matter.
  • Deal Hudson praises First Reformed, while sketching out its relationship to the so-called transcendental style of film-making.
  • Another good film from last year was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Ross Douthat argues that it’s “a particularly transparent window into their unique sort of metaphysical agnosticism” — which, if it wasn’t clear, he sees as a good thing. It’s a thoughtful take on the film.
  • There is a documentary from a few years ago — it never found a distributor, which tells you something — called An Open Secret which argues that the grooming system for child actors in Hollywood includes networks of sexual abuse and exploitation. The highest ranking Hollywood brass named in that film was Bryan Singer, director of several X-Men films. A few months ago The Atlantic ran a good piece in which his accusers told their stories.

Then, some book notes:

  • Will Lloyd laments the rise of politicized books for children.
  • It’s my favourite colour and yours, and now Michel Pastoureau has written a book about it. The book was in our home, courtesy the public library, where, alas, it sat in a place of honour for some weeks before being returned, unread. But I would like to read it, and in the meantime Jesse Russell has written an appreciative review.
  • James Panero writes perceptively about the ghost stories of Russell Kirk (which I read a few years ago around about All Hallows Eve).
  • Finally, I have to recommend Michael Weingrad’s superbly barbed exploration of Harold Bloom’s life-long antagonism toward the Inklings, and especially toward C.S. Lewis.

For an envoi, let’s watch Buster Scruggs’ death scene, featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings singing “Spurs for Wings”:

Lecture night: Educating freedom

December 11, 2018

It has been a while since we had a lecture night. In this talk, entitled “Educating Freedom: An Allegory of the Allegory of the Cave”, Michael Hanby speaks about liberal education, the modern understanding of freedom, the relationship between the two, and the implications of each for contemporary politics and culture, with constant reference to Plato and Puddleglum. It’s an excellent lecture.

Montaigne: On Education

July 23, 2018

On the Education of Children
Michel de Montaigne
Translated from the French by Charles Cotton
(Doubleday, 1947) [c.1580]
40 p.

In an essay on sixteenth-century literature C.S. Lewis, describing the Essays of Francis Bacon, makes the observation that

if Bacon took his title from Montaigne, he took nothing else. His earliest essays resemble essays by Montaigne about as much as a metallic-looking cactus raised on the edge of the desert resembles a whole countryside of forest, filled with light and shade, well stocked with game, and hard to get out of.

which, of course, disinclines one to read Bacon ( — as does another of Lewis’ memorable witticisms at Bacon’s expense: “Everyone has read him, but no-one is ever found reading him”). At the same time, his comment suggests, by the art of subtle implication, that the essays of Montaigne might be quite delightful, rather like a whole countryside of forest, filled with light, etc.

On the strength of this recommendation, I, some years ago, purchased a volume of Montaigne’s essays and now, some years later, have read one of them. This particular essay is in the form of a letter to Madame Diane de Foix, Comtesse de Gurson, counselling her on the education of her son.

*

Montaigne’s own education, it comes out, was an odd one. His parents assigned him a Latin-speaking tutor, and kept him (Montaigne) isolated from other children, with the consequence that he grew up speaking Latin as his mother tongue. Little good it did him, in the long run, for, as he tells us, when once he left the tutulage of his master and began to speak French, he rather quickly lost his Latin and retained little into adulthood, an experience that will be familiar to many children of immigrant families.

Among the most contested questions in the history of thought about education is whether we should tell the little darlings what they should find interesting and important, or whether the little darlings should tell us what they find interesting and important. There are arguments on both sides, and Montaigne comes down decisively in the mushy middle. On the one hand, he tells us that we ought not to pay too much attention to the learning objectives of the young:

…I am clearly of opinion, that they ought to be elemented in the best and most advantageous studies, without taking too much notice of, or being too superstitious in those light prognostics they give of themselves in their tender years…

On the other hand, the education a child receives should be responsive to that child’s abilities and inclinations:

…children are to be placed out and disposed of, not according to the wealth, qualities, or condition of the father, but according to the faculties and the capacity of their own souls.

It seems that as to the matter of education Montaigne holds that children should be guided and instructed, but as to the manner, they should be seduced — that is, made to think that they themselves have chosen that which we have chosen for them:

Education ought to be carried on with a severe sweetness … tempting and alluring children to letters by apt and gentle ways.

There is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.

And so students should be lead on, not wholly receptive, but engaged in a dialogue with the material, and the teacher

permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn.

In this way, the student will appropriate the material he learns, making it his own, so that he can make use of it naturally and readily, as the body makes use of food:

‘Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed; the stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct.

Montaigne himself sets a good example of this art of appropriation, for he liberally salts his essay with passages from ancient authors — Horace, Virgil, Lucan, Seneca — but in each case the authority has been turned to purpose, saying aptly what Montaigne needs him to say.

In all of this, the teacher is obviously of the greatest importance for the student, acting now as Solon and now as Socrates. Montaigne counsels that parents seek a teacher “who has rather a well-made than a well-filled head”, and, interestingly, he counsels against mothers instructing their own children:

A child should not be brought up in his mother’s lap. Mothers are too tender, and their natural affection is apt to make the most discreet of them all so overfond, that they can neither find in their hearts to give them due correction for the faults they may commit, nor suffer them to be inured to hardships and hazards, as they ought to be.

Such hazards may be greater for boys than girls, and would be more concerning for only children than the abundantly-siblinged. And Montaigne perhaps did not foresee our schools, in which elementary school classrooms, at least, are almost uniformly peopled with female teachers not widely noted for the hardships and hazards they impose upon their charges. But, even so, it is noteworthy that Montaigne thinks sternness more salutary than gentleness.

If the Comtesse de Gurson was hoping to be provided with a well-organized curriculum for her son, she would have been disappointed with Montaigne’s letter, for he has relatively little so say about what the child should study. He recommends poetry for its pedagogical value:

…as Cleanthes said, as the voice, forced through the narrow passage of a trumpet, comes out more forcible and shrill: so, methinks, a sentence pressed within the harmony of verse darts out more briskly upon the understanding, and strikes my ear and apprehension with a smarter and more pleasing effect.

and he testifies to the good done by reading old books:

[The student] shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best ages.”

[…]

I never seriously settled myself to the reading any book of solid learning but Plutarch and Seneca; and there, like the Danaides, I eternally fill…

More important than the specific content of the child’s learning is the moral formation of the child, which he argues ought to be first both in priority and in sequence:

After having taught him what will make him more wise and good, you may then entertain him with the elements of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric …

(This last remark informs us that the education he has in mind, as to content, is a traditional classical education, such as is hard to get these days.)

This method of moral instruction first was that followed by Aristotle when he served as tutor to Alexander:

Aristotle did not so much trouble his great disciple with the knack of forming syllogisms, or with the elements of geometry; as with infusing into him good precepts concerning valour, prowess, magnanimity, temperance, and the contempt of fear.

Among the virtues to be taught is, first, a love and respect for truth:

Above all, let him be lessoned to acquiesce and submit to truth so soon as ever he shall discover it, whether in his opponent’s argument, or upon better consideration of his own.

To the intellectual part of learning Montaigne would have us conjoin a regimen of physical exercise and social decorum, out of respect for human nature:

I would have his outward fashion and mien, and the disposition of his limbs, formed at the same time with his mind. ‘Tis not a soul, ‘tis not a body that we are training up, but a man, and we ought not to divide him.

*

Education is, as he admits, “the greatest and most important difficulty of human science”, and it is correspondingly difficult to speak sensibly on the subject. I find nothing wholly new in Montaigne’s advice to the Comtesse, nor nothing absurd. His advice, in miniature, is stout and solid: teach the tradition by means of charms; let the child appropriate what he learns; promote moral formation; discipline the body; honour truth above all.

Or, by implication, education ought not to be rote, not faddish, not value free, and not skeptical.

We can be gratified, at least, that our schools do not teach by rote.

*

I fear that in making the above summary of this essay, I have been unable to resist liberally quoting from it, disgorging what I ate in the same condition it was swallowed, and this is indeed a fault. Montaigne knows this vice, and has some choice words about me which, not without a certain perversity, I cannot resist quoting in full:

The indiscreet scribblers of our times, who, amongst their laborious nothings, insert whole sections and pages out of ancient authors, with a design, by that means, to illustrate their own writings, do quite contrary; for this infinite dissimilitude of ornaments renders the complexion of their own compositions so sallow and deformed, that they lose much more than they get.

This is just and true; my writing is a sallow and deformed thing when set beside the writing of many of the authors from whom I learn, Montaigne included. Though I read in translation, I found his style robust and pithy, with strong bones and little ornament. Were I to venture a metaphor, I should say that it resembles a whole countryside of forest, filled with light and shade, well stocked with game, and hard to get out of.

*

Montaigne is a writer who makes frequent asides and forges neat aphorisms with apparent ease. Here, indulging my vice for regurgitation to a truly revolting degree, I proffer some of these choice morsels:

[Sport and spectacles]
Well-governed corporations take care to assemble their citizens, not only to the solemn duties of devotion, but also to sports and spectacles. They find society and friendship augmented by it.

[Rote learning]
To know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only to retain what one has intrusted to our memory. That which a man rightly knows and understands, he is the free disposer of at his own full liberty, without any regard to the author from whence he had it, or fumbling over the leaves of his book. A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it.

[Truth as common ground]
Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after.

[Wisdom and serenity]
The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that of things in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.

[Lady Philosophy]
It is she that calms and appeases the storms and tempests of the soul, and who teaches famine and fevers to laugh and sing; and that, not by certain imaginary epicycles, but by natural and manifest reasons. She has virtue for her end, which is not, as the schoolmen say, situate upon the summit of a perpendicular, rugged, inaccessible precipice: such as have approached her find her, quite on the contrary, to be seated in a fair, fruitful, and flourishing plain, whence she easily discovers all things below; to which place any one may, however, arrive, if he know but the way, through shady, green, and sweetly-flourishing avenues, by a pleasant, easy, and smooth descent, like that of the celestial vault.

[Virtue and reward]
The height and value of true virtue consists in the facility, utility, and pleasure of its exercise.

[Actions and beliefs]
The conduct of our lives is the true mirror of our doctrine.

[Speech and truth]
“Let the language that is dedicated to truth be plain and unaffected.” — Seneca, Ep. 40.

[Exhortation]
“Dare to be wise; begin! he who defers the hour of living well is like the clown, waiting till the river shall have flowed out: but the river still flows, and will run on, with constant course, to ages without end.” — Horace, Ep., i. 2.

Screwtape on music and silence

July 6, 2017

Infernal ambitions:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! … no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

And, I daresay, a bad deal of progress has been made since Screwtape wrote these words in 1942.

MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin

June 5, 2016

The Princess and the Goblin
George MacDonald
(Everyman’s Children’s Classics, 1993) [1871]
340 p.

Our oldest children are now 4 and 7, and for some time I’ve been looking for a way to transition our bedtime reading from picture books to novels. With The Princess and the Goblin I think we might have finally managed it. The kids loved it.

The story is about a princess who lives in a mountainside castle, where the local peasantry are miners, digging tunnels deep into the mountain. Yet there is more activity under the hill than you might expect: long ago a group of disaffected subjects retreated under the mountain, and have nursed a hatred for the royal family for many generations. These goblins — for so they have become, hidden away from the sun and the fresh breezes — are also miners, and it is almost inevitable that at some point their tunnels will encounter those of the kinprincess-grandmotherg’s loyal subjects, and the ancient malice against the royal house break into the open…

This book was a favourite of C.S. Lewis, who was a great admirer of MacDonald. And G.K. Chesterton accounted it one of the books most formative of his whole outlook on life:

But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I ever read … it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…

It really is a beautiful book, informed by courage and faith. On one level it is a rousing adventure story, of secret missions and clashing armies, but it has a mysterious register as well, a spiritual aura of goodness that emanates from Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother, who lives, under enigmatic conditions, in the little-frequented upper passages of the castle.

I do not know much about MacDonald’s theology, but for me the “great, huge grandmother” is redolent of the Blessed Virgin: a loving, maternal figure, clad in blue, surrounded by stars, and possessed of a rare grace and quiet power. She makes an effective contrast with the horrid goblins who dwell under the ground.

MacDonald wrote a sequel to this book, called The Princess and Curdie, which does not seem to be as widely read. But we enjoyed this one so much that we may try it.

Lecture night: Educating the heart

May 17, 2016

My favourite pastime on YouTube is to watch news anchors making mistakes, but my second favourite is to listen to lectures. There are many excellent lectures posted from all manner of venues. I could listen to something interesting nearly every night, if I had the leisure. It occurs to me that I might post some of the more interesting of these lectures here.

For today, here is a lecture by Fr Andrew Cuneo, an Orthodox priest, broadly on the topic of education, and broadly based on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Fr Cuneo is the first Oxford graduate to have done his doctoral degree on C.S. Lewis, so he knows his subject, but he wears his learning lightly. It’s a very thoughtful lecture.

Incidentally, I rarely sit and actually watch these lectures; I listen to them while I commute to and from work. (I usually use a simple tool to reduce the videos to audio only.)

Barfield: Saving the Appearances

March 3, 2016

Saving the Appearances
A Study in Idolatry
Owen Barfield
(Harcourt Brace, 1957)
190 p.

I forget exactly how it came about that I added Saving the Appearances to my reading list some years ago. I expect that it may have been under the influence of C.S. Lewis, who knew Barfield well and once called him “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers”. One of the more memorable sections of Lewis’ wonderful book The Discarded Image appears to have been inspired directly by the present book, so perhaps that was the connection that brought me here.

Saving the Appearances is a book that digs down to bedrock, and then keeps digging. Things you may think of as basic and uncontroversial are interrogated and made doubtful. As he says, “a great deal of the complexity of my argument is due to the deep-seated error, with its consequently innumerable ramifications, which that argument has sought to unravel”. It’s a rather difficult book in that respect, full of unfamiliar ideas — unfamiliar to me, at least. One of the many questions I have about the book is whether the ideas he presents, and the language in which he presents them, are original with him or are part of a larger conversation that I’ve not been aware of until now. Sprinkled through the text are references to anthropologists like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, so perhaps his jargon and his approach is borrowed, at least in part, from them.

Roughly speaking, the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture. And by “experience” I mean something very basic: the very way in which we perceive things, prior to any conscious or reflective engagement with them. It is a book about philosophy of perception, philosophy of nature, epistemology, culture, history, and religion. It covers a lot of ground in a short space, and raises more questions than it answers.

Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)

On the other hand, our culture — and by this I mean Western modernity — is distinctive, and perhaps unique, in this respect: we are generally not aware that our representations are representations. We do not think that we participate in phenomena; to us the things we encounter in the world are independent of us, and intrinsically meaningless. They are “facts”. Such representations, which are not experienced as such, Barfield calls idols. The term is potentially misleading, as we’ll see in a moment, but what is gained by its use is the resonance with “false idol”, because for him the most important feature of our presumed-to-be-just-there representations is that they are false.

I think Barfield is right that we do take the phenomena of our experience in this way, at least most of the time. But if that is so, why is it so? If we are different from other cultures in this respect, how did we come to be different?

Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both. The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world.

***

As I said at the outset, the book raises more questions than it answers. Foremost among them in my mind is a doubt about the meaning of “participation”, which is obviously central to the whole book. I suppose he would say that it is natural for one raised in a non-participatory culture to have trouble with the concept, especially since it is, properly speaking, not a concept at all. Still, I’d have benefited more from the book if it had spelled things out more clearly on this critical point.

Lying beneath this complaint is another set of questions about the metaphysics of “representations”. The usual philosophical bifurcation is between realism and nominalism; in the former, things have real, particular natures independent of human minds and knowledge consists in knowing those natures, and in the latter our categories of thought are mere conventions without any real corresponding structure in the nature of things. The notion of representations seems most consistent with nominalism: on the one side is “the unrepresented”, atoms and the void, which we can never know in itself, and in which there is nothing to know, and on the other side is phenomena, consisting of mental constructions folding together sensory inputs and a variety of mental resources and ingrained habits. Yet at the same time Barfield seems to be taking the position that it is through participation that we know the world most fully and truly, and that idolatry, our besetting sin, alienates us from truth. I worry that he concedes too much to the metaphysics of the materialists when he characterizes “the unrepresented” as merely atoms and the void.

Another question arises from his account of how idolatry triumphed over a participating consciousness in the West. He attributed the victory to the combined efforts of two forces: Judaism and the scientific revolution. Yet we know, from his own arguments, that medieval Europe had a participating consciousness, so it would seem that the scientific revolution was the decisive factor, and that Judaism, despite its influence on Christianity, had little to do with it. And this makes a certain amount of sense, because insofar as participation is naturally expressed through the making of images and the death of participation is accomplished by a prohibition on the making of images, the very fact that in Christianity the prohibition on images was relaxed points to a relaxation of the assault on participation. The same comment can be made about sacramental theology, which seems positively to encourage a participatory consciousness. The possibility remains that Judaism condemned a certain kind of participation (as expressed through the making of idols) but that Christianity permitted another kind. Indeed, Barfield’s closing remarks about the Eucharist, cited above, connect the sacraments to “final participation”, which one only arrives at after having gone through the long dark.

But why does he see in the sacraments a “tender shoot” of final participation, and not a hangover from original participation? After all, the sacraments pre-date the scientific revolution.

I’ve gone on long enough. There is an odd, but interesting and stimulating book.

 

Make room for Jack.

November 18, 2013

This Friday will be the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. I’ve just learned that on that day a memorial plaque bearing his name will be installed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. This is obviously a great honour for any English author — and for an Irish one too. More.