Monday, April 30, 2018

A recent excursion into C. S. Lewis

Looking for some light reading after doing some dense critical theory, I decided to wander over the local Bookman's and grab myself a number of C.S. Lewis books:
  • The Screwtape Letters
  • The Abolition of Man**
  • Mere Christianity.
My thoughts?

(1) Lewis is a remarkably clear writer, and his style is refreshingly pleasant.

(2) He may not be a genuine philosopher, but he's funny, he's charming, and he writes with an incredible honesty. He's someone who I'd really like if I ever had the chance to meet him -- and that's not something I often contemplate when reading an author. Quite the opposite, actually.

(3) On much of the practical advice that he gives, we're pretty simpatico. For example, he calls "gluttony" any situation where someone is overly picky about the food they eat. I might call it something else, but it's a tad too self-indulgent for my taste**** and also, if you're out in public, just plain bad manners. Likewise, Lewis was famously careless about the way he dressed, and that shows up in his advice about fashion.

Although, unlike Thoreau who also wrote markedly on fashion, Lewis takes an explicitly Christian take on the subject: "The aim [of fashion] is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely" (Screwtape 106). Maybe I've swallowed too much feminism, but having "marriage" be the ultimate goal of inter-gender relations seems a tad much.

(4) Sometimes Lewis has truly Straussian moments (although neither Leo Strauss nor Lewis had mostly likely ever heard of the other). For example, Screwtape: "The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase  in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the 'present state of the question'. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge -- to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour -- this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded" (Screwtape 150-52).

(5) Still, he's about as anti-activist a writer as you can imagine. Check this out: "If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is ever-lasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment" (Mere Christianity 75).

While I agree that individuals are more important, CSL's frequent & dismissive remarks about mass political activism (a la the French Revolution and the American Revolution) suggests how strongly he feel such political activism is "unimportant" in light of "higher" concerns. No wonder establishment lit crit hates him -- critical theory is basically nothing but political activism by other means. Lewis's views on this subject nearly appall me; if accepted, in my view, they're nearly fatal to the brand of Christian humanism he advocates.

**The Abolition of Man actually came up during my dissertation defense, so I'd been meaning to read it for awhile.

*** See what I did there?

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