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


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).

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