C. S. Lewis: Jack the Giant-Killer

by M. D. Aeschliman
He took on many modern shibboleths, but above all philosophical subjectivism.

On November 22, 1963 — just 50 years ago today — three eminent men died: President John F. Kennedy and the writers Aldous Huxley (b. 1894) and C. S. Lewis (b. 1898). In 1982, the philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote a clever and valuable fictional “dialogue of the dead” among the three, imagining them meeting and conversing just after death in a purgatorial state — Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere beyond Death.

The fortunes of the three figures’ reputations over the last half-century make for an interesting comparison. The young, handsome, glamorous Kennedy, brutally slain by a left-winger at a time of rising liberal optimism, has remained a media icon to the point of credulous idolatry, but his reputation among the reflective does not stand high. Thomas C. Reeves’s A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991) was a devastating portrait of the president’s moral and political deficiencies. In November 2006 the Kennedy-hometown Boston Globe was shocked that, when ten eminent American historians were asked by The Atlantic (originally also a hometown liberal institution) who were the 100 most influential Americans of all time, their list did not include Kennedy. Historical judgment has given us more positive views of Truman and Eisenhower than might have been expected, but Kennedy now seems more appropriately lodged in the neighborhood of his great, disgraced antagonist Richard Nixon.

Aldous Huxley was one of the most sheerly intelligent of 20th-century English-language writers, the author of the profound, hauntingly relevant, satirical-philosophical dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) and several other powerful works of fiction and nonfiction, including the religious-philosophical anthology The Perennial Philosophy (1945). But the last 15 years of his life in California, under the influence of his Francophone Belgian first wife (who died in 1955), make for a strangely ambiguous chapter, not least owing to drug use, promiscuity, and participation in a quite decadent southern-California world well but sadly described by David King Dunaway in Huxley in Hollywood (1989).

C. S. “Jack” Lewis, at the time of his death on that same autumn day in 1963, surely was seen by many as the least interesting, most backward-looking, most dated figure of the three, even a kind of surviving “dinosaur,” as he once described himself: a late Victorian as the swinging Sixties moved into high gear and the gates of Eden seemed to be opening. Yet 50 years after Lewis’s death, his books have been translated into many languages, 200 million of them have been sold, and a wide variety of people affirm the crucial role in their lives of one or another of his works. Plays and films have been made of his Narnia Chronicles for children, of his Screwtape Letters, of imagined dialogues between him and Sigmund Freud in London at the beginning of World War II, and of his life. A book of essays on his views of science, scientism, and society, The Magician’s Twin, has been published recently, and conferences and celebrations are taking place all over the world; these include a symposium at Westminster Abbey and the dedication there of a memorial to Lewis in Poets’ Corner. According to Publishers Weekly, 150,000 copies of Lewis’s Mere Christianity were sold in the U.S. alone in the last year, with “lifetime sales of about 18 million in the U.S.” The dinosaur is far from extinct.

One reason is that the dinosaur C. S. Lewis was also “Jack the Giant-Killer,” to evoke the title of an excellent essay on Lewis published in 1984 by the distinguished Oxford literary critic A. D. Nuttall (1937–2007), who had been a star Oxford student of the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch. One has the sense that Lewis, having seen intense combat and been badly wounded as a British soldier on the Western Front during World War I, had learned not to fear lesser pains, such as being unfashionable in elite atheistic groups and agnostic opinion-making circles. An adult convert to Christianity, through painful experience and arduous reasoning, assisted by his great Catholic colleague and lifelong friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis was unafraid of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, believing, with his older contemporary Dean W. R. Inge, that “he who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widower.”

In his far from uncritical, highly informed essay, Nuttall (whom Harold Bloom once called the finest living English literary critic) persuasively argues that the particular giant Lewis slew was philosophical subjectivism — what Lewis called in his brilliant A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) “a world of incessant autobiography.” Nuttall is referring particularly to Lewis’s tightly argued The Abolition of Man (1943), his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism” (1943), and probably also his science-fiction/philosophical fable That Hideous Strength (1945), which is worthy of comparison with Brave New World and 1984. Despite making minor criticisms of Lewis’s approach in The Abolition of Man, Nuttall says “the argument as it unfolds is dazzling,” and asserts that it is “odd that a work which so thoroughly routs whole volumes of Nietzsche and Sartre is not more widely admired” in scholarly circles, “especially as the style in which it is presented is brilliantly lucid.” Himself the author of numerous highly esteemed works of literary criticism (e.g., Shakespeare the Thinker, 2007), Nuttall mordantly adds: “It is hard to avoid the inference that Lewis might have pleased the intelligentsia more if only he had taken the trouble to obfuscate his style.” (Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe all seem to have thought that a major reason for Emerson’s popularity in America was his sophistical, bamboozling obscurity.) 

According to Nuttall, the “principal factor” in the frequent hostility of the intelligentsia to Lewis was his “mere opposition to the Zeitgeist. . . . At present people do not want to be told that value is objective,” a point that had been made candidly by Huxley in self-criticism in his chapter “Beliefs” in Ends and Means (1937). For the objectivity of value — the truth of the Natural Law or what Lewis ecumenically called “the Tao” — restricts the absoluteness of the self, subordinates it to the good and true, and vindicates the fundamental sanity and soundness of the whole rational-moral tradition of “right reason” (a phrase William F. Buckley Jr. loved) from Socrates onward. In fact, it vindicates the very idea and possibility of “civilization.” The great sociologist Peter L. Berger tells us that “relativism has massively invaded daily life in the West,” partly because students are educated by teachers who promote, wittingly or unwittingly, relativistic ideas. Lewis’s Abolition of Man is precisely a book for teachers (and parents and citizens) because it reiterates in a fresh, lucid, modern idiom the central arguments against relativism and subjectivism that have always formed the spine of Western civilization inasmuch as it has been a civilization and not merely an aggregation of competitive selves, countries, classes, coteries, or companies. His own writing — in scholarly, apologetic, and fictional modes — is a standing reproach to an academy of nominalism and neophilia and a literary culture of histrionic, incessantly autobiographical posturing, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. It is gratifying to find Lewis praised by a truly noble American writer, Wendell Berry.

In January 1988, 25 years after Lewis’s death, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was invited to give the St. John Fisher Lecture at Cambridge University, where Lewis had spent the last years of his teaching career until he was forced by ill health to retire and return to his home outside Oxford (at his untimely death, he was one week shy of 65). The great scholarly Bavarian cardinal devoted his lecture to the significance of Lewis’s arguments in The Abolition of Man, from which he quoted extensively. Appreciatively noting Lewis’s positive, ecumenical treatment of traditional Chinese and Indian religious and ethical insights, Cardinal Ratzinger also refers to Lewis’s loyalty to the rational-moral heritage of Greek philosophy, of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, who “intended to lead” the human person “to an awareness of reason in his being and from that to insist upon the cultivation of ‘his kinship of being with reason,’” a kinship later incarnated in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel and the subsequent orthodox Christian traditions, but which is implicitly available to all persons of good will, in all times, in all places. Cardinal Ratzinger’s great German forebear Leibniz (and then both Jacques Maritain and Aldous Huxley) called it “the perennial philosophy,” and Lewis described its essence as the belief that “the Good is something objective, and reason is the organ whereby it is apprehended.”

Like Jonathan Swift, who depicted the noble, stoical Brobdingnagian king in Book II of Gulliver’s Travels and the noble, modest Portuguese Catholic mariner in Book IV, Lewis was neither sectarian nor ethnocentric. As Nuttall notes in his fine essay, Lewis was able and willing “to engage, if necessary, in fundamental philosophy” (he was a trained philosopher), but the philosophy he gave us “was remote from fashion and yet close to the conceptual practice of the ordinary person.” Like Samuel Johnson, whom he venerated, Lewis thought that “he who thinks reasonably must think morally.” In the 50 years since his death, he has helped millions of people to do so.

— M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. Two of his essays on Lewis have recently been republished in The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, ed. John G. West (Discovery Institute).