The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings
May 29, 2019 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy
DECEMBER 1, 1993 CRISIS MAGAZINE
Old Western Man: C.S. Lewis
The title of Lewis’s address is De Descriptione Temporum—a look at Time, the very stuff of history: time and its divisions. Lewis was a splendid speaker—lucid, witty, brilliant, and, above all, powerful. He could hold an audience spellbound, as he did this one: Cambridge dons and undergraduates, as well as a considerable contingent from Oxford crowding a large lecture hall.
The chair that Cambridge had created for him was Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature; and Lewis pointed out that the title indicated the decline of the traditional antithesis between the two periods. We have all, he went on, been educated to believe that there are two great divides in Western history, two chasms that cut across it: the Fall of Rome along with the Christianizing of Europe is the first; and the second is the Renaissance, dividing the dark obscurity of the Middle Ages from the bright rebirth of mind and spirit of the Renaissance—or so it once was expressed.
Not so, says Lewis. Neither one is the Great Divide; there is a greater one. But before considering that, let us look at the two traditional ones, beginning with the lesser one, the Renaissance.
Conforming Reality to Man
The Renaissance, first of all, despised the Mediaeval, just as every new age despises the one preceding. The early-twentieth century scorned the Victorian Age—its architecture, its prudishness, its indoor plants were held up to ridicule. So the Renaissance saw the Middle Ages—a time of darkness. Unable to see the architectural miracle of Chartres Cathedral, they labeled it Gothic, that is, barbaric, because it lacked Roman columns. They were blind to the power of Aquinas or Dante. An older historian spoke of Copernicus as “the first rift in the darkness,” and a turn-of-the-last-century student wrote that Thomas Wyatt was one of the first men “who scrambled ashore out of the great, dark, surging sea of the Middle Ages.” No one would write such things now. And yet the Renaissance was a new age—a significant shift in direction. For the wise men of classical times there was a desire to see things as they are, and to conform the soul to that reality. The mediaevals enlarged things as they are to include Christ’s Revelation of God but still sought to conform to all of reality. But the Renaissance began the effort through the twin studies of science and magic (the high noon of magic was not Medieval but Renaissance) to conform reality to man.
The Fall of Rome—that immense Empire stretching from Syria to London—along with the spread of Christianity—has far greater claims to be the Great Divide. And yet Latin, a living, developing language, remained the language of the educated, and the language of the universal Church. Men read Virgil. (Oddly enough, it was the Renaissance in its fascination with the really dead, classical Latin that killed the living Latin.) Still, Lewis says, the claim of the Fall of Rome with the enormous shift from Paganism to Christianity to be the Great Divide would have to be allowed if he did not know of a far greater Divide.
The Great Divide
To take first that enormous and seemingly irrevocable shift from Paganism to Christianity, we have seen a greater—the de-Christianizing of Western society. It is still incomplete, of course, just as there were lingering pockets of Paganism in the disintegrating Roman world. But one often hears today of “post-Christian.” And we’ve all heard references to our returning to Paganism. That, at least, is nonsense. We are not about to see a Prime Minister or President Clinton struggling to slit the throat of a milk-white bull in front of the Capitol as an offering to the gods, or grave Senators spilling libations on the floor of their chamber. To say we are returning to Paganism from Christianity is rather like saying that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. Paganism like Christianity was a devout belief in divinity—something beyond and above man. Thus, the shift from Paganism to God Incarnate, great as it was, was a lesser shift than this: from God Incarnate to Man himself.
This alone is vast enough to indicate a greater Great Divide than the Fall of Rome. And there is more, much more. But before considering other aspects of this Greatest Divide, we should locate it in time. Lewis puts it at about the time of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott: at the end of the eighteenth century and a little way into the nineteenth. And those who lived before the Great Divide are those he calls “Old Western Man.” But, like the long-drawn-out Fall of Rome, this later, Greater Divide is gradual. Old Western Man continued in unaffected areas. Lewis himself is, he says, an Old Western Man. And some who consider this may be Old Western Man. As we look further at the Great Divide, the reader will perhaps decide about himself.
Since science is one of the things that is changing the world, it might be thought that the Great Divide ought to be earlier with the general acceptance among the educated of the thought of Descartes and of scientists like Copernicus. But the effects of such ideas were delayed. Science, in Lewis’s words, was “like a lion cub whose gambols delighted its master in private [and which] has not yet tasted man’s blood. . . . Science was not the business of Man because Man had not yet become the business of Science.” But when Watts makes his steam engine and Darwin begins to monkey with Man’s ancestry—and Freud not so far ahead—the lion will be out of his cage. It is when the many are affected, not just the few intellectuals, that the Great Divide occurs.
Somewhere between us and Jane Austen’s Persuasion in 1816 runs the chasm between Old Western Man and New Western Man—the Great Divide. Old Western Man feared and worshipped his gods, accepted axiomatically what Lewis in The Abolition of Mancalls the Tao or Natural Law, and, if Christian, believed in the Revelation of God Incarnate. Almost a definition of Old Western Man. New Western Man—well, I shan’t attempt to define him, but as we consider the post-Divide developments, perhaps he will appear. This much, though, is I think certain: Seneca and Dr. Johnson, though separated by 18 centuries, have more in common than Dr. Johnson and Freud, less than a century later.
Let us consider what the Great Divide actually divides in terms of the six (and only six) aspects of any society: political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, aesthetic. (The initial letters make the word PERSIA.)
Politically, what we used to call “rulers” we now call “leaders.” In the past the aim of rulers was to keep the people quiet, getting on with their lives; now it seems to be whipping up feeling—appeals, drives, campaigns. A vast computerized bureaucracy penetrates our lives and fortunes as no government of the past ever did. Where once we asked from rulers justice and incorruptibility, we now want magnetism or charisma. And a shadow in the future, if ever it comes (which God forbid!), may be government by scientists and psychologists—adjusting us to like it.
Economically, above all the coming of the machine. Where once we wanted government to defend us from enemies, foreign and domestic, and we paid taxes for those purposes, now we expect everything from government: jobs, relief from poverty, health care. Government spending trillions it doesn’t have. And money without intrinsic value—not gold.
Socially—well, I hardly need to mention the word. The family in decay—that rock-hard institution of Old Western Man. Marriage itself breaking down: multi-marriages or, so to speak, serial polygamy. Or no marriage at all. Social morality all but dead. And for good or ill—since Lewis’s lecture—a change that would be almost unbelievable to Old Western Man, a change as great as any in all history: feminism. If feminism (unisexism) is here to stay, it will be overwhelmingly the greatest social change of all time, equal to the coming of the machine. Overwhelming change and very possibly overwhelming error, too. Socially, there is no question that it is the Great Divide.
Religiously, no question either. The de-Christianizing.
Intellectually, one of the greatest changes is the onset of ideology—everything else subordinate as a world force. Killing in the name of ideology. We have touched on the lion—science—getting out of his cage, and on Darwin, and Watts’ steam engine. The machine. TV and the computer. The machine permeates our lives. Here again the change is so enormous as to leave no doubt about the Great Divide. Not only does it alter our very lives; it alters our language. For instance the word new. When it comes to cars or TVs, the new is usually better, but not in other areas—the “new morality” is very likely worse. Yet we’re taught to salivate at new. What was once admired aspermanence is now called stagnation. And primitive, which in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary suggested “pure” or “formal” now suggests the obsolete or crude. If we slipped through a time-fault into the eighteenth century, our plain English and their plain English might have very different connotations. Needless to say, feminism is also altering the English language for the worse: they would insist that Lewis say Old Western Man “or Woman.”
Aesthetically, the last of the six aspects, is marked by change as great as the others. Aesthetically, our brave new world is almost unrecognizably different. In the visual arts, no previous era has ever produced work so shatteringly and bewilderingly different and obscure as that of the Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Picasso. And in the art that Lewis loved best, poetry and literature, the change is as drastic. It is simply untrue to say that all poetry was when new as difficult as ours. Alexandrian verse was difficult because it required learning; but if you got the learning, it was perfectly intelligible. John Donne’s dark conceits had one meaning which he could have told you. There was never anything like The Wasteland. Six men, learned in poetry, discussed T.S. Eliot’s “A Cooking Egg” for an hour, and no two of them agreed on its meaning. And the poems—or as I call them, prosems by “prosets” who have followed Eliot—there seems no link at all with the great tradition of poetry. Apart from different languages a reader of Homer would understand Beowulf, and Catullus and Spenser would understand each other, or Shakespeare and Virgil.
It is, I think, unarguable that we have been looking at THE Great Divide in the history of the West, which is really the history of the whole world. It is strange, the smallest continent, Europe, has been the most dynamic ever since the Greeks, all the world wanting what the West has. Almost unimaginable change.
Now, the reader has C.S. Lewis’s 1954 argument for the Great Divide in De Descriptione Temporum with a few updatings of mine, such as the drastic change that is feminism, which he was spared. The argument is for me totally convincing. He concluded the lecture by saying that he is a representative of Old Western Man and reads their texts as a native. But Old Western Man, he says, is not going to be around much longer, and thus he may be of value as a specimen, if not otherwise. After all, he says with a smile, if a dinosaur dragged its slow length into the lecture hall, would we not look back even as we fled? So that’s what the creature looked like!
He was done. Thunderous applause. And people went about the university for weeks saying, “I’m a dino—are you?”
A CANCER IN THE UNIVERSE?
--Dr. David Naugle, Chair, Department of Philosophy, Houston Baptist University, in cslewis.com, August 2015
“I agree Technology is per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the Universe. Certainly if he goes on his present course much further man cannot be trusted with knowledge.” – C. S. Lewis, responding to a letter from Arthur C. Clarke
My back was turned completely to the classroom. I sat atop a stool behind the lectern, with trademark white wires fashionably dangling from each ear-bud in route to my iPod. I was also scanning a book, obviously multi-tasking!
Outwardly absorbed in the music and the text before me, I pretended not to notice as about thirty-five students shuffled incrementally into to my introduction to philosophy class on the first day of a new spring semester. Though I knew the lecture hall had filled up, I turned around on my seat and pretended to be surprised by a classroom full of students. I was too electronically pre-occupied to notice!
With a newfound presence of mind, I proceeded with regular, first-day formalities: a cordial welcome, a Scripture reading and prayer (I teach at a Christian university), then the class roll, followed by an overview of the syllabus… only to be interrupted by a planned call and a bogus text message on my cell phone, the advent of both signaled by appropriate electronic sounds. My wife was texting me to remind me about the delinquent electric bill, and a friend phoned me up to talk about Tiger’s miraculous triumph at a PGA event the day before. At least that’s what I told the class, fingers crossed behind my back!
In my effort to stimulate interest and get students’ attention, I was trying to demonstrate how technology affects our lives and impacts our relationships, often without our awareness. They began to catch on to my antics, slowly but surely. At a propitious moment, I passed out a one-page handout on a philosophy of technology with a succinct definition and few themes briefly summarized, as I explained that a chief goal of our class was to move from a state of pre-reflectivity to reflectivity, from unexamined to examined lives! The response, I must say, was gratifying!
Perhaps it’s megalomania, but I think C. S. Lewis would have appreciated this pedagogical gimmick of mine and here’s why: he believed that the most significant line of division in Western history occurred between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the reason was because of the rising prevalence of science and the application of technology to everyday life!
This was a main point Lewis made in his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture titled De Descriptione Temporum (Latin: “A Description of the Times”) when he was installed as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University in 1954. Lewis was suspicious of dividing history into time periods, even though he saw them as useful historical tools. Quoting Cambridge historian G. M. Trevelyan, Lewis declared: “Unlike dates, periods are not facts” (DDT, p. 2). Thus, Lewis disputed with those who wanted to draw the thickest line of demarcation in occidental culture in the seventeenth century “with the general acceptance of Copernicanism, the dominance of Descartes, and (in England) the foundation of the Royal Society” (DDT, p. 6-7). To be sure, science and its technological offspring were making great strides during that transitional century, but had yet to become socially pervasive. Science, Lewis stated, was “like a lion-cub whose gambols delighted its master in private; it had not yet tasted man’s blood” (DDT, p. 7). Up to this point, science dealt mostly with lifeless nature and slung out a few technologies. However, it was not yet the business of humanity because humanity was not yet the business of science (DDT, p. 7, paraphrased). But when human persons became the scientific target — between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — everything changed: “When Watt makes his engine, when Darwin starts monkeying around with the ancestry of Man, and Freud with his soul, and the economists with all that is his, then indeed the lion will have got out of his cage. Its liberated presence in our midst will become one of the most important factors in everyone’s daily life” (DDT, p. 7).
Point well taken! But is this progress?
For Lewis, the answer is depends upon what one means by “progress.” Lewis was no Luddite, to be sure, for he recognized and appreciated that humankind had made significant scientific and technological advances throughout history. At the same time, he was in no way, shape or form convinced that such scientific discoveries and technological innovations entailed the perfection of humanity and the move to a better world. In fact, he saw the amoral, if not immoral, foundations upon which human knowledge and power were advancing as positively dangerous, and potentially, if not actually, idolatrous!
Why did Lewis hold to this outlook? The answer is not hard to fathom. It stemmed from his Christian worldview. This outlook stood in sharp contrast to the Greek perspective on history as a “meaningless flux” or “cyclic reiteration” and had become a “discarded image.” Nevertheless, Christianity, building on the Hebraic notion of history as the revelation of God’s mighty deeds and purposes, “makes world-history in its entirety a single, transcendentally significant story with a well-defined plot pivoted on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment.”
History for Lewis, ever an Augustinian, was ”a story with a divine plot” (DI, p. 176) that culminated apocalyptically in judgment. Consequently, it was contrary to modern, secular notions of human perfectibility and the creation of an ideal world. As Lewis wrote in The World’s Last Night,
The doctrine of the Second Coming is deeply uncongenial to the whole evolutionary or developmental character of modern thought. We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly toward perfection, something that “progresses” or “evolves.” Christian apocalyptic offers no such hope. It does not even foretell … a gradual decay. It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without; an extinguisher popped onto the candle, brick flung at the gramophone, a curtain wrung down on the play — “Halt!” To this deep-seated objection I can only reply that, in my opinion, the modern conception of Progress or Evolution (as popularly imagined) is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatsoever.
If history, by divine design, was scheduled to end in an apocalyptic manner, then optimistic views of science and technology as the source of unstoppable human progress was a dangerous deception. It gave false psychological hope to people who placed serious faith in an ever-increasing knowledge and in the advent of more effective machines as the solutions to personal and cultural problems.
Again, Lewis was never against science or technology per se; but he was against their idolization. In criticizing science, Lewis realized he was in a lose/lose situation. Nothing he could say or do would ever offset the false impression that he was anti-science or anti-technology. But it was scientism, not science that he opposed. He objected to both the denial and the deification of science, and his task was to seek a golden mean between these two erroneous extremes. Michael D. Aeschliman explains Lewis’s case against scientism and his mediating perspective of “mere science” in these words:
[Scientism is] radical empiricism, materialism, or naturalism — an implicit or explicit rejection of all nonquantifiable realities or truths, including the truths of reason. Its logical terminus is determinism or “epiphenomenalism,” T. H. Huxley’s notion that the brain and mind are fully determined by-products of irrational physical processes…. Lewis knew that science was one of the great products and capacities of the human mind, but he insisted that it was a subset of reason and not simply equivalent to it. Scientific reason, if accurate, was valid, but it was not the only kind of reasoning; noncontradiction, validity, truth, value, meaning, purpose, obligation were necessary presuppositions of the scientific method but not themselves scientific phenomena.
Lewis viewed this excessive valorization of science and its highly prized technological progeny as a “cancer” in the universe. If unchecked by a higher authority and a true, knowable moral vision, this cultural malignancy could prove to be fatal. In Lewis’s mind, the West, in its selfishness, had come to value science and technology too highly. To be sure, science and technology were real goods, but they must be subordinate ones…subordinate to first things.
In an important essay titled “First and Second Things,” written in the midst of World War II, Lewis affirmed, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” For Lewis this raised the logical question: “What things are first?” As he noted, this question is not just a question for philosophical types, but for all people, everywhere. It is the question of the summum bonum or greatest good for human beings.
What, then, has Western civilization been putting first for many years? The answer, Lewis said, is plain to see: itself. “To preserve civilization has been the great aim; the collapse of civilization, the great bugbear. Peace, a high standard of life, hygiene, transport, science and amusement — all these, which are what we usually mean by civilization, have been our ends” (FST, p. 281). Lewis anticipates people saying that it’s natural and necessary to put civilization first, especially since it is in such grave danger. But why is civilization in such grave danger? Because it has been putting itself first! What “if civilization is imperiled,” Lewis asks, “precisely by the fact that we have all made civilization our summum bonum? Perhaps it can’t be preserved in that way. Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more that we care for it” (FST, p. 218).
This is a point that’s worth more than a moment’s reflection. Reflection. Oh yes. That’s what I was trying to get my introduction to philosophy students to begin to do when I was intentionally ignoring them on the first day of class with my iPod!