Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis is still with us. Almost every serious Christian student I have had at my university, for example, has had some familiarity with Lewis, even beyond the Narnia series. Many of those students would say that Lewis has been instrumental to the development of their faith, and a fair number would also attribute any interest in philosophy to Lewis’s influence as well.
Will the same be true in another 50 years? I suspect so: Lewis’s achievements as a defender of faith, a popular philosopher, and a novelist were timely, to be sure — but the ills that he diagnosed, and for which he hoped to provide an antidote, have become, if anything, even more entrenched in the years since. For those seeking a better way forward, then, his influence is sure to continue.
What are the characteristic evils that Lewis recognized? At the root was an intellectual image of humanity, and the cosmos, as entirely disenchanted, as no more than material stuff. That picture was complemented by the view that the mastery of nature by technological means is the only real imperative for enlightened humankind. There are, among Lewis’s opponents, no principled limits to the use of that technology; to think otherwise is to fall prey to merely sentimental objections.
Of course, as Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man, in the nakedly materialistic world, talk of an “imperative” is ultimately unintelligible. Imperatives direct us to ends, and the ends for which technology may be used, even including the betterment or saving of the human race, are ultimately without justification in a world with no “Tao” — the concept Lewis uses to indicate an objective way that things, including human things, ought to be.
Lewis shows us, in Abolition, and in the novel That Hideous Strength, how a world with no Tao is one in which there is only a struggle for power, for might in the absence of right. In the end, those with the power to determine what ends will be pursued, and what means utilized, will in fact be both a minority and the effective enslavers of the rest of the human race, treating them as no more than material over which to exert their domination. This is a narrative Lewis presented on a grand scale in his Space Trilogy, of which That Hideous Strength is the concluding volume. Today’s in vitro creation, manipulation, and destruction of human beings in their earliest stages shows the lessons of this narrative played out in miniature, though to no less horrific effect.
For those seeking relief from the disenchanted world, Lewis’s Narnia delights, and will continue to delight (and the dead world of Charn from that series’s The Magician’s Nephew will continue to haunt). Lewis’s aesthetic achievement in both the Narnia series and the Space Trilogy is judged by some to be inferior to that of Tolkien’s fictions; but Lewis’s fiction nevertheless has a charm and earthiness that, like the best of his nonfiction, makes recognition of the enchantment of human life attractive. Lewis’s most human characters (even the animal ones) eat, drink, dance, joke, and love; the evil characters of the Space Trilogy consume primarily one another, and dance and joke not at all.
The worldview against which Lewis set himself was one in which the enchantments, not just of nature and humanity, but also of divinity, were stripped away; there can be no room for God in a world without the Tao. Lewis’s fiction was intended to provide a counter-image to this world-without-God. The effectiveness of the Narnia series is a reason both for its massive success and for some of the otherwise inexplicable hostility it occasionally engenders.
But even Lewis’s nonfiction writing does not disappoint on the subject of God. Lewis was no professional theologian, as he reminds his readers often, and while it is not quite accurate to say he was an amateur philosopher (his first academic position was in philosophy), he was not quite a professional either. Lewis was reminded of this to notable effect in his famous exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe. Yet both his theological and his philosophical endeavors have had a significant influence across the years, seemingly out of proportion to their oft-perceived technical deficiencies.
Consider Lewis’s famous trilemma: Jesus, because he announces himself as divine, must either be such, or be mad, or be wicked. Because he is neither mad nor wicked, he must therefore be divine. This argument has been criticized for its failure to recognize other options, and for its lack of historical awareness. Yet the argument still finds its way not just into blog discussions, but into journal articles in the philosophy of religion, perhaps because something about it is right. Lewis is on to something in suggesting that Jesus could not simply have been a “great moral teacher.”
Similarly, Lewis’s famous argument in Miracles that naturalism is self-refuting was arguably question-begging, assuming the truth for which it argued. Yet variations of the argument are still with us, as presented by figures as estimable as Alvin Plantinga. Again, Lewis may not have had the final form of the argument worked out, but he points us in an important direction in questioning whether the naturalist really can assert his view, with all that such an assertion entails, in a way that does not undercut the intelligibility of the assertion.
#page#Or, to give a final example: Though hardly unique to Lewis, his argument in Mere Christianity that there is a route from moral truth to a being who makes that truth possible is one of the better, and certainly one of the most accessible, statements of this idea. And again, one reasonably wonders with Lewis how a thoroughly disenchanted universe could possibly be such as to give sense to our moral knowledge. When the naturalist-atheist convicts the theist of unreasonable belief, he surely adverts to a standard that is unavailable in the world of (at best) merely efficient causation.
Lewis’s theological musings are often presented quickly, with less context and argument than one would like. Yet they equally often suggest real depths for further inquiry. Lewis clearly believed in a non-empty hell; yet the basic idea of The Great Divorce is that we keep ourselves there through our own rejection of God. Similar claims are to be found more recently in the thought of Pope John Paul II and the language used by the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe hell as a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God.”
Or, consider Lewis’s suggestions that some corruption of the animals by Satan is responsible for animal suffering, that animals are available to be perfected as animals by their relationships to humans, and that, as part of their relations to humans, animals might find a place in the heavenly kingdom. Taken together, perhaps in conjunction with Lewis’s arguments against vivisection, they could constitute a start to a theology of animal life that remains to be completed by some adventurous young scholar.
Lewis lived, as we do too, at a time when “traditional” morality was (is) increasingly seen as bunk. Part of this was occasioned by the disenchantments I have already mentioned. Part was also an inevitable, I think, outgrowth of the combination of technological achievement, by which human beings have been allowed to escape the natural consequences of their worst excesses, and democracy, with its occasional antipathies to excellence, authority, discipline, and suffering.
Lewis is, I think, at his very best (and, to some, most infuriating) when he is articulating the principles and rationale of traditional morality. He is one of our great depicters of temptations of the most ordinary sort: of the impetus to feel inordinate pride in having done well, or resentment at the success of others; of the desire to be needed by others; and, as in the character of Mark Studdock in That Hideous Strength, of the desire to be one of those “on the inside.”
This last desire is perhaps also at the heart of Susan Pevensie’s abandonment of Narnia, which remains one of the most controversial aspects of the Narnia series. Lewis’s detractors, and sometimes his friends, unfairly think of Susan’s absence from Narnia in The Last Battle as definitive proof that Lewis was both sexist and anti-sex. Yet if her vice was that of wanting to be part of the “in” crowd, then she, like Studdock, is plausibly a stand-in for the young Lewis himself, at least as depicted in his memoir Surprised by Joy. Not hell, as Philip Pullman asserts, but “re-conversion” most likely awaits Susan.
I will mention briefly two further features of Lewis’s moral writings that make him still a force to be reckoned with.
The first is that Lewis might deserve to be considered one of the founding figures of the 20th century’s virtue-ethics movement. Drawing on the same classical background as Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre, he was deeply attuned to the importance of the virtues: Without them, the two other parts of morality — fairness to others, and the pursuit of our final end — are destined to failure. Lewis’s writings, both fiction and nonfiction, are especially good at giving brief descriptions or portrayals of what life with or without a particular virtue is like; this aspect of his work will, I expect, never grow old.
The second feature concerns Lewis’s understanding of sex and marriage. Lewis is old-fashioned, but not because he writes at a time when everyone is old-fashioned. He knows, in Mere Christianity, that what he is saying is going out of vogue: He actually gives a defense of patriarchy. But his defense is not an apologia for male privilege, and readers should not fail to note the need for mutual submission of spouses to something beyond themselves.
Lewis has a sympathetic sense of the power of the sexual drive, and a realistic sense of the way in which sexual desire can distort our reason. He is solid on chastity, and very interesting on marriage. Lewis was, I would argue, mistaken in drawing as sharp a line as he did between Christian and civil marriage. But he prefigures contemporary natural-law work on marriage in his claim (in Mere Christianity) that through marital intercourse spouses become “a single organism.” And, in That Hideous Strength and elsewhere, he demonstrated a remarkable sense of the challenges that a marriage could, and in the modern world would, face.
Lewis’s recent biographer, Alister McGrath, notes the hostility Lewis suffered at Oxford for being a “popular” writer, despite a scholarly track record that is quite admirable. No doubt Lewis could have generated more scholarship without the novels, or done better philosophy (or theology) had he devoted his life more single-mindedly to these disciplines. But these possibilities cannot be serious opportunities for regret: The world was, and remains, a better place for the C. S. Lewis it actually possessed. The very multiplicity of his talents and achievements is a reminder, 50 years later, that the world really is enchanted, and that we need to seek the ultimate source of that enchantment with the same energy and honesty with which he did.
– Mr. Tollefsen is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and the author of the forthcoming book Lying and Christian Ethics.