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C. S. Lewis: Jack the Giant-Killer
He took on many modern shibboleths, but above all philosophical subjectivism.


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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.

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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.”


C.S. Lewis Remembered
C. S. Lewis — one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century — was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898, but spent most of his life in Oxford — first as a student, and then, for 29 years, as a fellow and tutor in the English faculty, until he was hired away by Cambridge.
Besides keeping up a full teaching load and speaking to a wide variety of audiences (most notably in his wartime talks on the BBC), he wrote more than 30 books and enough articles, sermons, letters, and other occasional pieces to fill another 30 books.
But life wasn’t all work for Jack Lewis. There was plenty of time for long walks in the countryside and for high-spirited gatherings with friends, including J. R. R. Tolkien (inset upper right), Charles Williams, Neville Coghill, and Lewis’s brother, Warren (shown here with CSL), at their favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, a.k.a. the Bird and Baby.
Lewis’s last two years were plagued by illness, and on November 22, 1963, he died quietly at his home, known as The Kilns, on the outskirts of Oxford, about an hour before the world was stunned by the news from Dallas.
The following quotations are a sampling of Lewis’s wide-ranging writings on faith, God, the human experience, and literature.
ON CHRISTIAN FAITH: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: that it really happened.”
“That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
“If we are not Christians, we shall dismiss this [the frequent vindictiveness in the Psalms] with the old gibe ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ That is impossible for us who believe that God chose that race for the vehicle of His own Incarnation, and who are indebted to Israel beyond all possible repayment.”
“Even the New Testament bids me love my neighbor ‘as myself,’ which would be a horrible command if the self were simply to be hated.”
“As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation.”
THE DIVINE: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.”
“If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you.”
“Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: ‘We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’ Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection -- if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent.”
In reply to those who argue that intercessory prayer is ineffective and presumptuous: “Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found) however much soap you use.”
In The Great Divorce, a man newly arrived on the fringes of Heaven reports that everything is “so much solider than things in our country”: “The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen.”
KNOWLEDGE & WISDOM: “You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?”
“It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’ It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall.”
“You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? . . . Use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”
THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.”
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
“I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.”
THE LITERARY LIFE: “All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.”
“If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.”
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.”
Updated: Nov. 22, 2013

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