C. S. Lewis: On Education as Opposed to Training

In an essay entitled Our English Syllabus – which can be found in Rehabilitations (1939) – C. S. Lewis discusses the difference between education and vocational training, as well as the more subtle difference between education and learning. He begins by reflecting upon the assessment of the late medieval/early modern mind (via Milton) and the corresponding assessment of the classical mind (via Aristotle), which is that the primary purpose of education is to produce the ‘good man and the good citizen…the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man, and almost the happy man’ – the task of the educator is to awaken and sharpen the logical and moral faculties latent in mankind, by exposing them to all the wisdom that culture has to offer; it is not primarily geared towards setting the student up to perform a particular duty or becoming well skilled in a specific area of expertise.

The duty of the trainer however is precisely this, and so the trainer’s brief is essentially utilitarian and narrow. This is not said to disparage vocational training or vocational trainers, but merely to make an important distinction – vocational training has a very different end in mind to education (or at least what was considered to be the essence of education until fairly recently). Lewis’ essay is designed to alert the reader to the fact that education has become not only conflated with training, but to a great extent subsumed by it – when we think of education nowadays, it is usual to see it as a stepping stone on the way to getting a job. Now, this is to a certain extent inevitable, as the prior concept of education was based on societies where hierarchical inequality was assumed and where education was therefore limited to those with enough free time to devote to it. In our own time though, we must aim to find a balance between the two ways:

When societies became, in effort if not in achievement, egalitarian, we are presented with a difficulty. To give everyone education and to give no one vocational training is impossible, for electricians and surgeons we must have and they must be trained. Our ideal must be to find time for both education and training: our danger is that equality may mean training for all and education for none-that everyone will learn commercial French instead of Latin, book-keeping instead of geometry, and ‘knowledge of the world we live in’ instead of great literature. It is against this danger that schoolmasters have to fight, for if education is beaten by training, civilization dies. That is a thing very likely to happen. One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost…

…And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply ‘Humanity’, by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end,’ and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

taken from Our English Syllabus

                Whilst it is true that equal opportunity for social betterment must be afforded to all, we are making a grave mistake if we conceive of this opportunity only in terms of making available more means to earn money by storing up ‘useful’ techniques and bits of information. For it is precisely the useless things in life that make us most human, that make civilisation civilised. The ‘dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century optimism’ do not though, even after the horrors of their full-scale implementation in various twentieth-century regimes and the similarly horrific warning signs to their contrary in that same century’s great wars, seem to have lost any of their hold over us – we are still of the mind that secular, materialist progressivism will save the day, and continue to pour all our efforts into perpetuating that vision of things, particularly in our schools.

The results of these efforts are not only that people in the West are increasingly alienated from the riches of their own cultural heritage, but that they are also becoming less skilled in the utilitarian arts as well – each year we read that numeracy and literacy levels are decreasing and that we are producing fewer engineers and scientists with the skills necessary to compete in the global market. There seems to be something analogous to Matthew 6:33 here – that if we seek first the path of virtue and wisdom (i.e.; of education), all the skills needed for meeting vocational standards will be added to us, but if we aim for training alone, we lose out on both fronts. The goal of education is to produce someone who, by being steeped in the wisdom of the ages, has had their critical faculties honed so well that they can turn their mind to any task – thus it acts as a foundation for engagement with vocations of any kind.

The goal of training however, is to deliver a limited set of information and/or skills to the student in order to perform a task or set of tasks – thus, when meeting said tasks, and encountering the range of difficulties that most jobs present (and this is particularly so in today’s world, when so many disciplines overlap) there is not always present in the actor the depth of insight and range of critical faculties required to meet those difficulties satisfactorily. In summary, you could say that training equips the student to meet this task, to fit this role, whereas education provides the student with the aptitude and powers of judgement to meet any task or fit any role. This ties in to what Lewis has to say about the difference between education and learning, where he contends that the latter presupposes that the student has already had his appetite for knowledge shaped by the former. On those who have been so shaped and thus desire to know more, he writes:

Now it might have happened that such people were left in civil societies to gratify their taste as best they could without assistance or interference from their fellows. It has not happened. Such societies have usually held a belief-and it is a belief of a quite transcendental nature-that knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who’ specially pursue it are being specially human; and that their activity is good in itself besides being always honourable and sometimes useful to the whole society. Hence we come to have such associations as universities-institutions for the support and encouragement of men devoted to learning…

…The schoolmaster must think about the pupil: everything he says is said to improve the boy’s character or open his mind-the schoolmaster is there to make the pupil a ‘good’ man. And the pupil must think about the master. Obedience is one of the virtues he has come to him to learn; his motive for reading one book and neglecting another must constantly be that he was told to. But the elder student has no such duties ex officio to the younger. His business is to pursue knowledge. If hi pursuit happens to be helpful to the junior partner, he is welcome to be present; if not, he is welcome to stay at home. No doubt the elder, of his charity, may go a little out of his course to help the younger; but he is then acting as a man, not as a student.

ibid.

                The ‘elder student’ Lewis speaks of is of course the university tutor, as he considers that at this point both professor and undergraduate are, having both been formed by education, embarked together upon the journey of learning – of pursuing knowledge in order to deepen understanding. Thus, whilst the tutor may (and no doubt ordinarily will) aid and accompany the undergraduate on this journey, they are in it together – it is the case of a more experienced traveller giving advice to someone just starting out on the trail, and assumes that the novice has already had their mind and will educated in order to respond to and learn from what the journey will present along the way. Lewis goes on to point out that in his own time Oxford had already become a place of continuing education, not primarily of learning. He also notes that this is not completely a bad thing, if it occurs as a by-product of Oxford’s primary occupation as a place of learning:

What do these changes mean? They mean, I think, that a temporary immersion in the life of learning has been found to have an educational value. Learning is not education; but it can be used educationally by those who do not propose to pursue learning all their lives. There is nothing odd in the existence of such a by-product. Games are essentially for pleasure, but they happen to produce health. They are not likely, however, to produce health if they are played for the sake of it. Play to win and you will find yourself taking violent exercise; play because it is good for you and you will not. In the same way, though you may have come here only to be educated, you will never receive that precise educational gift which a university has to give you unless you can at least pretend, so long as you are with us, that you are concerned not with education but with knowledge for its own sake. And we, on our part, can do very little for you if we aim directly at your education.

ibid.

                Again, there is something of Matthew 6:33 here; that we have become a society which aims to achieve the useful or immediately desirable without aiming for what makes for wisdom and virtue – i.e.; the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The story of our reforming education in terms of training and of learning in terms of continuing education (which, in our own time, has more often than not become continual training instead) is connected to the wider narrative in which we seek to frame our culture – that of eschewing the permanent things in order to chase after short-term, material satisfaction. The great irony of this is that in doing so, in trying to reframe the pursuit of happiness in terms of the immediate and the contingent, we are cutting ourselves off from all that has made our culture what it is and are thus corroding our civilisation from within.

As Lewis’ essay notes at the outset, ‘if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.’ The great tragedy of our age is that we, on the whole, still have not noticed the cultural suicide that we are effecting – we have so much stuff to keep us both sated and occupied, and so much trivia to keep us distracted, that it is all too easy to ignore the slipping away of all that made the West what it is in the first place. We are, in effect, fiddling while Rome burns, and it seems gleefully so. Most attempts to sound the alarm on any aspect of our decline are written off as obscurantism – people find it hard to believe that anyone would see anything wrong in such a time of plenty as ours. ‘Just embrace it,’ we are told. Well, time will tell I suppose; but Lewis’ words on education certainly ring true with a lot of what is already observable in our schools, and chime with a great deal else that is wrong with our age. We would be unwise to ignore such warnings, and it is not yet too late to turn the ship around – there is plenty at harbour that would make for our revitalisation.

C. S. Lewis: Christianity, Historicism and the Enlightenment Narrative

In an essay from October 1950 entitled Historicism, C. S. Lewis critiques the various schools of thought that would confidently proclaim a defined ‘inner meaning’ to history. In the essay, which first appeared in Volume IV of The Month, Lewis begins by distinguishing between actual historians, who may indeed infer a certain meaning related to a series of events based on known facts (and may even go on to infer the correct sense of future or past events in relation to the known data), from the historicist, who claims to be able to infer from the same historical premises conclusions that have a much wider import – conclusions that are metaphysical, existential, theological or (as Lewis makes sure to add) a-theological. The historian speaks in terms of cause and effect or grounds and consequences; the historicist talks in terms of ultimate necessity, based on a prior theory of the way history is going (according to his particular theory of history).

Examples of such would be Hegel, Marx or Novalis, and Lewis also cites Keat’s Hyperion, as an example of historicism (in this instance evolutionism – the idea that things inevitably march or lurch towards a more perfect future) embodied in verse. After noting some of these examples, Lewis also goes on to rescue Christianity from the range of historicist schools – he notes that even though the Old Testament contains some passages which suggest calamities have befallen Israel because of a divine judgement, we have in these cases a guarantee only that judgement was afforded because of sin in these cases; we do not have the authority to attribute the same meaning to all calamities we see in life. Lewis also notes that, although the Old Testament has this feature in common with the contemporary pagan cultures, it is also contains many correctives to it that the pagans do not – the Book of Job and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah for instance.

Furthermore, for the Christian, we have dominical authority that not every disaster is the result of divine judgement in Luke 13:4 and John 9:13, so surely this kind of historicism is not allowed us. It is also often said that Christianity is unique in having a sense of linear history, in contradistinction to the pagans, but whilst this may be true of the Greeks, Lewis points out that both the Norse culture and the Romans had a keen sense of history, expressed vividly in the story of Ragnarok and the Aeneid respectively. When Saint Augustine wrote his De Civitate Dei, he was indeed engaging in historicism, but he was doing it to refute a pagan historicism that attributed the fall of Rome to the anger of the rejected pagan gods. What then should the Christian view of history be; and how legitimate is it for us to indulge in historicism? Lewis answers thus:

What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God. If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. The question is not what could be done under conditions never vouchsafed us in via, nor even (as far as I can remember) promised us in patria, but what can be done now under the real conditions. I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?

taken from Christian Reflections (1981), p.136, Fount Paperbacks.

Thus we see the problem clearly – it is one thing to recognise the fact that all that has ever happened and ever will stems from God (from whom else could it come?) and that therefore the whole historical process must be revelatory; but for us to get the sense of what that whole process is revealing, we would have to not only know it all, but be advised by God Himself as to its proper interpretation. This is a situation that we will never be in – thus historicism, in its truest sense, is off limits for the Christian, precisely because of our prior recognition that God is God and we are not. Having established this, Lewis then goes on to examine how it is that various men of distinction have come to believe that they are able to divine an ‘inner meaning’ to history without having anywhere near the full realm of knowledge that would be required to do so.

He lists six ‘senses’ of history, before concluding that historicists speak of it in what he lists as number six of the senses – ‘that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man’ (ibid, p.137). To try and give their case as much room to prove itself as possible though, he credits that they may, in theory, and not knowing the future, be working with the second sense of history – the ‘total content of past time as it really was in all its richness’ but goes on to observe that this does not really help the historicist’s case much either:

It would surely be one of the luckiest things in the world if the content of time up to the moment at which the Historicist is writing happened to contain all that he required for reading the significance of total history. We ride with our backs to the engine. We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility? If, indeed, we knew that history was cyclic we might perhaps hazard a guess at its meaning from the fragment we have seen. But then we have been told that the Historicists are just the people who do not think that history is merely cyclic. For them it is a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it…

…But even if it were possible, which I deny, to see the significance of the whole from a truncated text, it remains to ask whether we have that truncated text. Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness? Clearly not. The past, by definition, is not present. The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission “Of course we don’t know everything” that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.

ibid, pp.138-139.

Lewis expands on this by remarking that in each individual life every second is filled to bursting with data (sensations, emotions, thoughts), and that we cannot possibly grasp all of it; that ‘a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that has ever lived’ (ibid). Not only is it nigh on impossible to access the preserved history of each and every peoples that have ever lived, but those recorded histories do not contain anything like the full range of experiences that have actually occurred to all human beings – thus only a tiny fraction of lived human experience (i.e.; of history) is available to us. Again, this is not to denigrate the role of the historian, as pattern and meaning can be perceived within that fraction of experience we have available to us; all Lewis is insisting on here is that we cannot possibly uncover some grand narrative or inner meaning to all history – we simply do not have the data.

Lewis then pre-empts a possible reply from the historicist, namely that they know enough – they may not have access to every single piece of lived experience that has ever occurred, but they know the important parts. This, for the historian, would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say – for example, the military historian, specialising in the Napoleonic Wars, could legitimately say that he has access to enough of the relevant facts pertaining to that period to form a consensus about the meaning of certain events within that period, or even the period over all; moreover, the undertaking of a study of that particular period presupposes that such relevant facts exist, otherwise it would never have been studied. The historicist however, is making the claim that he knows the ‘important facts’ which reveal the inner meaning of all history – aside from the issue of the heterogeneity of the data that actually does survive, how would the historicist be able to judge which are the significant facts and which are merely historical detritus?

Clearly, the facts selected as being of significance are chosen based on the prior conviction that they fit in with the historicist’s philosophy of history – it will always result in being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the historicist will always be making a somewhat prejudiced selection from amongst the data of recorded human experience in order to fit his prior theory. This can be simply an act of self-glorification, but as Lewis goes on to point out, it can also be used for more nefarious means:

On such a small and chance selection from the total past as we have, it seems to me a waste of time to play the Historicist. The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data. Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous. It encourages a Mussolini to say that “History too him by the throat” when what really took him by the throat was desire. Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed. And what quack or traitor will not now woo adherents or intimidate resistance with the assurance that his scheme is inevitable, “bound to come”, and in the direction which the world is taking?

ibid, p.143.

Herein lies the real danger of historicism – it is not only bad history (in truth, it has little to do with the real task of the historian at all), but it gives support to those who wish to subvert either small groups under their influence or culture as a whole to their own ends. In the former case, there have been a number of groups, spawned by the emergence of Protestant fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 19th Century, who have claimed to be able to apply passages from Scripture to history and predict the immanence of the end-times; in most cases this has only led to a narrow grasp of both Christianity and Western culture, but in some cases (those involving a personality cult of some kind) it has led to great psychological harm and sometimes tragedy. It is the latter case though – that of wedding a certain view of history to one’s own political ends, and of subverting the surrounding culture to those ends – that is most damaging.

Lewis cites the example of Mussolini (and alludes to Hitler); to this we could also add Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and many other statesmen beholden to the Marxist view of history. In their fervent belief that history was tending towards an earthly utopia, one free of both want and of risky liberty, rid of the interference of religious faith and objective morality, and of which they would be the primary agents in implementing, they committed acts of violence still unrivalled in both quantity and kind. Lenin’s famous saying that ‘if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs’, whilst doing a great disservice to the intense suffering caused by these regimes, pretty much sums up their ethos – history was on their side, so they were justified in doing whatever it took to bring its ends about.

Not unrelated to this view of history is the narrative which has its roots in the Reformation period (where solid groundwork was done to tar the name of both the Catholic Church and anything that the prior medieval period may have achieved) but is most commonly associated with what came afterwards – the Enlightenment. In the 17th and 18th centuries particularly, we read more and more of the idea that reason (unchained from faith of course) and science will set us free, that all we need to be happy is to cast off the religious and cultural shackles of old, embrace naked liberty and decontextualised empiricism and let ‘history’ take its course. Because of course history is on our side, and thus anything new, anything ‘progressive’ is a step in the right direction – be that in the realm of experimental science or in faith and morals.

Improvements in science and technology have of course been made, but the ideas that a.) we had to implement a divorce between faith and reason to achieve this, and b.) that we can see morals and philosophical categories in the same way have no foundation other than in the narrative forged during and after the Reformation and fully unleashed during the Enlightenment period – it is based not on history (which, as this thorough review outlines, actually undermines such a view; see also here) but on historicism. And, as we see more and more ethics being cast aside in the name of ‘progress’ (e.g.; easy-access abortion, legalisation of euthanasia, the eagerness that the UK government has to approve methods of genetic engineering that could have any number of disastrous short and long term consequences, and which raise significant ethical questions) as well as the speed with which Western culture seems to be gutting its own sense of identity from within, it is justifiable to wonder whether the Enlightenment narrative is not actually quite a damaging one as well.

For the Christian though, what does Lewis’ negative assessment of historicism mean for how we view history – clearly we must believe that everything is in some sense providential, so how do we reconcile this with not being able to actually assess the ultimate significance of past events in our life? Well, it is important to remember that rejecting historicism does not mean rejecting history, let alone God’s revelation of Himself within it – we can still have great confidence, based on both faith and the careful work of real historians, that the great events embodied in the Creeds are sound, and that we can appeal to a correct interpretation of sacred history via the voice of the Church.

For other events though, we are in the same position as anyone else, and it is only really to the present moment that we can reliably look for signs of divine import. What task is put before us now, in this moment, is something to which we can always apply the call to love both God and neighbour, and thereby discern its significance. It is also the only place where, in this life, we can touch Eternity. Furthermore, knowing that we do not, indeed cannot, have access to the inner meaning or big picture of God’s intentions in history means that even the smallest acts of charity we perform may well have a significance far beyond anything we can imagine – in preventing us from the belief that the way of things is ‘on our side’, humility before history also ensures that we recognise the worth of every contribution to it, no matter how small.

George MacDonald: The Fantastic Imagination

George MacDonald, whilst not a wholly reliable guide to Christian orthodoxy in some respects (his Christology was not always clear and he seemed to see belief in the Holy Trinity as a negotiable issue with respect to one’s identity as an orthodox Christian – though he did firmly believe in it himself), remains a very important figure in terms of his contribution to the resources with which people can encounter Christian truth imaginatively. His stories (particularly his fairytales, but I would certainly include novels like Lilith and Phantastes in a list of relevant works as well) have an amazing ability to move our horizons, alter our assumptions and reawaken that sense of wonder that most of us lose sometime after childhood.

MacDonald’s stories also manage to communicate a great deal of what the Christian life is all about, without explicitly mentioning Christianity (or indeed, any particular theology at all). This is achieved mainly through his characters, and what they learn during their adventures; certain truths or ideals are indeed embedded in the structure of the stories themselves, but it is the characters’ encounters, and their response to what they experience that bring those truths out. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, written (7th March 1916) a good many years before his conversion to Christ, C. S. Lewis wrote about his discovery of MacDonald, and the excitable way he writes about this new discovery conveys something of what many others have also felt upon first reading him:

I have had a great literary experience this week. I have discovered yet another author to add to our circle – our very own set: never since I first read “The well at the world’s end” have I enjoyed a book so much – and indeed I think my new “find” is quite as good as [Thomas] Malory or [William] Morris himself. The book, to get to the point, is George Macdonald’s “Faerie Romance”, Phantastes, which I picked up by hazard in a rather tired Everyman copy – by the way isn’t it funny, they cost 1/1d. now – on our station bookstall last Saturday. Have you read it? I suppose not, as if you had, you could not have helped telling me about it. At any rate, whatever the book you are reading now, you simply must get this at once: and it is quite worth getting in a superior Everyman binding too.

from Yours Jack: The Inspirational Letters of C. S. Lewis (2008), p.1, Harper Collins.

There is a wonderful sense of youthful enthusiasm in this letter (Lewis was, after all, only seventeen at the time of writing), and the references to the book’s price and binding are charming touches. But what is most significant for our purposes here is the way in which the story Lewis picked up connected with his imagination – the literary ‘circle’ mentioned by Lewis to Greeves was replete with works of myth and legend, and stories that touched the imagination were very dear to Lewis, informing much of his own approach both to fiction writing and to his apologetic work (he was just as concerned with what sort of grand narrative Christianity presented as the logical arguments in its defence). In this letter he goes on to point out that MacDonald’s actual prose is not the greatest, but that this does not undermine the appeal of the stories – which is that they engage the imagination.

The importance of this experience was noted many years later by Lewis when he came to write his ‘spiritual autobiography’ Surprised By Joy. Many years passed between that moment and his embrace of Christianity, but he never forgot the effect that MacDonald’s work had in ‘paving the way’ for that embrace:

The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. For in one sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense all was changed. I did not know yet (and I was long in learning) the name of a new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness…

…in this new region all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed. There was no temptation to confuse the scenes of the tale with the light that rested upon them, or to suppose that they were put forward as realities, or even to dream that if they had been realities and I could reach the woods where Anodos journeyed I should thereby come a step nearer to my desire. Yet, at the same time, never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself.

Surprised By Joy (1977), pp.144-145, Fount Paperbacks.

Lewis would also refer to his encounter with Phantastes as the moment that his imagination had been ‘baptised’, and this is a very suitable word to choose to describe the effect of MacDonald’s writing, as whilst the Sacrament of Baptism transmits real grace to the believer, it can often take many years for that grace to be actualised in the life of the recipient – just as it took many more years for Lewis to make the connections between his imaginative world and what he believed about the world in general. The concluding part of the above quote though, is an excellent description of what good imaginative or fantastic literature should do – that there was ‘no temptation to confuse the scenes of the tale with the light that rested upon them’ yet that a deep sense of awakening or longing (both aspects of what Lewis termed ‘Joy’) permeated the story, is the mark of a good fairytale.

George MacDonald wrote an essay entitled The Fantastic Imagination, which was published as part of an essay collection in 1893 (more than a decade after he had completed the last of his fairy tales) and which he also used as an introduction to later American editions of The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales. In this essay, MacDonald writes about precisely what Lewis had experienced in reading Phantastes – that what the author is trying to communicate cannot be summed up other than in the telling of the story itself; the meaning is embedded in the tale, and cannot be abstracted. If it were otherwise, then the ‘scenes of the tale’ would indeed be confused with the ‘light that rested upon them’, the reader would see the author’s hand forcibly trying to make a point, and the imagination’s alarm bells would go off, rendering the story ineffective.

MacDonald describes this point in his essay, but first notes that just because one cannot isolate the meaning of a story and break it down outside the context of the story itself, this does not mean that there is not order and harmony involved in creating it, nor that because it is a fantasy that the author can alter things that are fundamental to our lived experience (though he may well add to and expand the breadth of the sensible data the characters in the story can respond to):

The mind of man is the product of live Law; it thinks by law, it dwells in the midst of law, it gathers from law its growth; with law therefore, it can alone work to any result. Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy the journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying laws, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracting the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey – and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales (1999), pp.6-7, Penguin Classics.

MacDonald is insisting on the maintenance of moral order not just because he believes in an objective moral realm, but because he knows that characters in a fantasy or fairytale must act like real people – they must be believable as persons. It is the juxtaposition of characters we can identify with, acting in and reacting to a world that operates according to a recognised moral framework, with a physical world that is uncommon and may not behave as we expect, that makes fantasy what it is. If the characters were not believable (which a supposed good man acting badly is not) or the environment were not strange, we would not be enchanted as we are – both continuity and unreality are required, as we must be rooted in the new world before we can be changed by it. This is the substance of Lewis’ testimony to the effect of Phantastes on his imagination.

Further on in the essay, MacDonald comes to the question of meaning. What does the story mean; can it mean anything; does it mean only one thing; how can we discern what it is trying to say? Using a dialogic format for this section, MacDonald responds to a range of questions provided by his imaginary interlocutor – his answers give us some sense of why they can’t be answered in the way the questioner would like, and thus shines a light on what the real task of the fairytale is:

”Suppose my child asks me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor the child should know what it means? It is not there so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning…

…The true fairytale is, to my mind, very much like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something: and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough – and that little more than needful…

…I will go farther. The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is – not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself. The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any respect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite…?

ibid, pp.7-9.

What MacDonald is drawing our attention to here is the multivalent nature of stories – the idea that the author started out with (character, rough plot, ending) gradually becomes padded out with detail as the story is written, and the images that are part of that padding out will all contain in germ something of that original intention; but they act as symbols, and symbols generate various layers of meaning, all connected to that original seed in the author’s mind (whether they were conscious of it or not) but fanning out in unexpected ways, providing new layers of meaning which are communicated to each reader according to their capacity and character. This multi-layered means of communicating truth to the imagination is, MacDonald goes on argue, due to the analogy of being between Creator and creation:

One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought; it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

ibid, p.9.

                Because all things came into being through the logos of God – His word or reason – all of creation is suffused with potential significance, and what MacDonald is arguing is that particularly in the act of ‘sub-creation’ that the author engages in, and in which he echoes the work of his Creator, those layers of possible meaning are brought especially close to the surface. In that sense, story writing and/or myth making can be seen as an incarnational process – the writer embodies his meaning within the story, and this embodied meaning, itself in some distant continuity with the ultimate truth that emanates from the mind of God, takes on an enormous amount of symbolic power. Thus, as a different range of readers engage with the work, the scope for interpretation will be wide – and yet, all such responses, if the story has integrity, will be true to the original authorial intention (the significance of which will not be known in full even by the author).

I shall leave the final words to MacDonald, who, at the end of his essay, returns to the question of whether it is actually incumbent upon the author to provide some kind of summary reading or ‘final’ interpretation of his story at all. In providing an answer to this, he reminds us of that multivalency latent in the story itself, that the various responses to it will in turn depend upon the dispositions of the reader, and also what the task of story-telling is – not to win arguments or to give lessons, but to cleanse our vision and rekindle the fires of the imagination:

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an Aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant, ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

The best thing to do with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child, must however, need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a very large creature indeed. If any strain of my “broken music” make a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.

ibid, p.10.

C. S. Lewis on ‘Bad Christians’ and the Raw Material God Works With

Towards the end of Mere Christianity, where he discusses the impact that Christian faith should actually have in one’s life, C. S. Lewis draws attention to a very important point, and one which provides a compelling defence against the oft-heard argument that Christianity can’t be true because there are so many bad Christians. This argument does indeed have some truth to it – if Christianity is true, and the grace of God can transform people’s lives, we should expect to see some evidence of this in the sort of behaviour we find coming from individual Christians. However, it is also true that a good deal of Christians don’t actually practise what they preach, do not pick up their cross daily and allow their wills to be converted to Christ – their faith remains either a mere intellectual assent or a nominal affiliation for the purposes of identity.

With respect to this point – that, as Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but has barely been tried at all – one cannot therefore judge the truth of Christianity on the fact that a lot of people either find it too much of a challenge and prefer to stick with the various comforts and routines they have gotten used to, or that in countries with a Christian heritage a lot of people who identify with Christianity never actually undergo any sort of conversion to Christ. Lewis makes a different sort of counter to the ‘bad Christians’ argument though, which is that we do not all start from the same place – God has to work with a vastly differing range of personalities, and so the ‘raw material’ that He starts with must be factored in when assessing the end results:

Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much “nicer” than what is being managed in Miss Bates’. That is not the point. To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything at all; considering the first-class outfit at Factory B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than it ought to be…

…But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God’s eyes Dick Firkin needs “saving” every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

Mere Christianity (1982), pp.175-176, Fount Paperbacks.

            At times of the year such as Advent and Lent, when we make a concerted effort to focus on purification of the will, on readying ourselves to remember the great acts of God and receive His graces anew, it is very easy to become dispirited – we realise just how little progress we seem to have made and become downhearted at how selfish, greedy, lustful and proud we still are. But we often neglect to remember where we started off, and that, compared to ten years (or even ten months) ago, we might (and, if we are steadfast in our devotions, usually will) have changed in ways that, for us, are significant. Just because we are not like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this does not mean the grace of God is not operative and effective in our lives; and this is something that it is just as important for us to remember as it is for the critic of Christianity.

In the second paragraph quoted above though, Lewis alludes to a further point that is worth remembering – that, whilst authentic faith should indeed produce fruit in our lives, salvation is not about ‘niceness’, and that the ‘good atheist’ needs saving just as much as the ‘bad Christian’. In fact, Lewis argues, those whose ‘raw material’ consists of a good upbringing, a stable temperament and keen conscience may be more in need of salvation than those with obvious faults – the latter awakens one to our need for redemption, whereas the former state can lull us into a state of self-sufficiency such that we are unable to hear the voice of God:

There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God – it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we give freely to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.

We must not, therefore, be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract such “awful people”. That is what people still object to and always will. Do you not see why? Christ said “Blessed are the poor” and “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,” and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty? One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God. Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger…

…“Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognise their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered…

…God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better, but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders – no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings – may even give it an awkward appearance.

ibid, pp.178-181.

            Why drag God into it? This sums up the attitude of the self-sufficient man described by Lewis above, but also perhaps describes one of the underlying assumptions that the proponent of the ‘bad Christians’ argument is beholden to – namely that they are quite happy getting along with life, and all that stuff about God and ultimate meaning is a hindrance to doing things on their own terms. In other words, the argument that reasons from bad behaviour amongst Christians to the falsity of Christianity itself is a means of distracting from the question of whether Christianity is objectively true or not – because if it is, then we have to change our lives, and that means all of us.

As Lewis says, this is not really about morality – the good conscience and good works that flow from faith are, whilst very important, secondary to the conversion of heart effected by God and the ongoing conversion of our wills to His. He is trying to ‘turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man’, and, quite frankly, a good deal of us do not want this – as I argued (via Karl Barth) in another post, our desire to be left alone by God is more of a hindrance to faith (and more destructive of it when it exists) than we would commonly like to admit. I’m getting on fine with my (good and respectable, we implicitly add) life, so why drag God into it?

Furthermore, this point can be extended to those Christians in traditions that repudiate the necessity of the sacraments. They too will argue that they see people in churches where the sacraments are offered and received, and do not see those people as being any better Christians than they are. This is of course something very difficult to prove either way (though the lives of the saints are a most excellent defence against the critique), but the point no doubt has some validity – we all know of people (most of all ourselves) who regularly communicate and yet whose behaviour is often put to shame by people without the benefit of sacraments (or sometimes without any faith at all). Once again we are led to wonder whether there is any truth to this sacramental business if we can’t see the immediate effects in people’s lives.

However, Lewis’ points about ‘raw material’ and the true end of sanctification are again relevant – we do not know what kind of person God is working with in each case, and the point of the sacraments is not primarily to generate ‘niceness’ but to unite us to Christ at a deeper level, changing us from creatures into His children. One might be able to be a good and even holy person without the sacraments, but the objective truth is that without them you are missing out on the fullness of all God wants to offer you, and that what He wants for you is primarily to draw you closer to Him, not just to make you good. Similarly, being a Christian at all doesn’t guarantee goodness – it should make us better than we are already, but first of all it is about relationship with a God who wants to save our souls, and in the process make us happier and more glorious than we can ever imagine.

All Hallow’s Eve: Dante and C. S. Lewis on Life in Heaven

Today is the day before All Saint’s Day, and so is also known as All Hallow’s Eve. There is a long-standing belief that at this time of year the fabric of the material world grows thinner and we mortals are closer to the heavenly realms than at other times. There is something in this intuition that rings very true. It is not so much that at All Hallow’s Eve the heavenly places actually ‘press in’ closer than they usually are, but that this is a time of year when we remember how fine the line between heaven and earth already is – we live in a world filled with things invisible as well as visible, and now is a time of year for remembering just how much of a reality the saints (and angels) are for us, how alive (indeed, how much more alive) they are, and in doing so, to facilitate a deeper communion with them.

But when we speak of the heavenly realms, the life enjoyed by the saints, what do we actually mean? It is of course true that we know very little of life in Heaven, and that most of what we say about it must therefore consist of negative language, affirming only how much we are at a loss to explain the extent to which life with God exceeds our earthly lives in depth of actuality and also in intensity of love (which are ultimately two ways of saying the same thing). But, grasping for this reality as we must, there have been some compelling attempts to communicate something of what the saints must enjoy; and one of the most exceptional examples is Dante’s Paradiso, the concluding lines of which strive to describe the ineffable:

So my mind, held in complete suspense,

Gazed fixedly, motionless and intent,

And always as if on fire with the gazing.

 

In that light a man becomes such

That it is impossible he should turn away

Ever to look upon any other thing.

 

Because the good, which is the object of the will,

Is there in its entirety; and outside of it

There is some defect in what there is perfect.

 

My language now will be more inadequate,

Even for what I remember, than would that

Of a child still bathing his tongue at the breast.

 

Not that there was more than a simple appearance

In the living light which I gazed upon

And which is always as it has always been;

 

It was my sight which was growing stronger

As I was looking; so what looked like one

Worked on me as I myself changed.

Paradiso XXXIII, 97-114 (trans. C. H. Sisson).

            Dante’s attempt to turn his eyes heavenwards and describe what his poetic vision can discern provides us with several insights common to what Christianity has been able to say with a reasonable degree of confidence about Heaven. Firstly, that the vision of God in His true nature, unmediated by the things of His creation, is irresistible – Dante describes the beatific vision as something from which ‘it is impossible he should turn away ever to look upon any other thing’. Standing before God, it will be impossible for us to want anything else, and we would wonder with bemusement as to why we ever chose any lesser thing, if we were only able to think of anything else but Him.

Similarly, confronted with the fullness of God, we see in Him absolute Goodness, to the extent that anything outside of His being and will (which are one) has ‘some defect’ in it – when we have known perfection face to face, anything else will seem incomplete. As Saint John wrote, ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5) – all Beauty, all Truth, all Goodness subsist in the life of God, who is an eternal triune community of perfect and irresistible Love. No wonder we also read in Scripture that all those in Heaven continually sing His praises (c.f.; Revelation 4-5), and they do so because all their desires have been fulfilled in Him.

Dante draws attention to one more very important point here. He writes that the light of God (i.e.; God Himself) ‘is always as it has always been’ and that ‘it was my sight which was growing stronger as I was looking; so what looked like one worked on me as I myself changed.’ Our salvation is our sanctification – we are saved by the grace of God which gradually conforms us to the image of Christ and thus to the very life of God Himself (c.f.; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:4). This process remains incomplete for most of us by the end of our lives, which is what Purgatory is for, but this does not mean that the life of the saints in Heaven is static, that they stop growing in beatitude.

We are limited, finite beings, but just as (so we are told) we ordinarily only draw upon a relatively small amount of the potential of our brains, so it is not unreasonable to think that our souls are capable of experiencing a great deal more than they do here and now as well. What Dante points to – that his knowledge and experience of God was progressive, and that this was not because of any change in God but because his own capacity for knowing (and loving) was gradually being expanded and enhanced – is consonant with the intuitions of many throughout the ages who have sensed that the reason our desire for the things of God often exceeds our capacity to receive them is because our desires intuit a time when that capacity for reception will increase.

There is a passage in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia book which describes this process in vivid terms. Lewis emphasises the subjective nature of the experience even more so than Dante, so the description is in terms of how things appear to the one arriving in the new world. But in the context of the book as a whole, and what has been discussed so far, it serves as a very helpful imaginative tool for supposing what the expansion of our capacities when presented with the ultimate reality of Heaven might be like:

About half an hour later – or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here – Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. But when you looked down you found that this hill was much higher than you had thought: it sank down with shining cliffs, thousands of feet below them and trees in that lower world looked no bigger than grains of sea salt. Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden, and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

The Last Battle (1990), pp.168-169, Lions.

            That we might experience a continual deepening of our experience of and participation in the divine (which, we must remember, is not only a heightening of spiritual experience, but a heightening, however hard this may be for us to imagine now, of sensory experience) is not to say that we will in any way become infinite, that we may actually become absorbed into God’s way of being – our life in Heaven remains very much a participation, not an assimilation into God or involving any change in our fundamental nature. Nevertheless (and Saint Gregory of Nyssa has some interesting things to say about this) we can imagine some kind of expansion of our capacity for being that is far greater than what we know now.

Given that the life of the saints may be described, albeit incompletely and with great caution, as something akin to the above, how does this impact upon what we celebrate on All Saint’s Day? As today is a remembrance of the closeness of the saints to us, and of how full of life they are, a consideration of the exultant and rapturous mode of their being, with its ever-increasing possibilities for deepening our knowledge of and love for God, can provide us with a means for meditation upon at least two central aspects of the Faith.

Firstly, it reminds us of how real the saints are and also how ready they are to help us towards the kind of life they already enjoy. Remembrance of the closeness of the saints to us should be a motivation for us to recall that they are not only ever-present but ever-ready to assist, and that, as they are so intimately involved in the life and will of God, that their prayers are greatly efficacious in drawing us closer to Him (c.f.; James 5:16; Revelation 5:8). Secondly, it reminds us that drawing closer to God and readying ourselves for the hereafter should always be our priority. If life in Heaven is as vastly more joyous and incomparably more…well, life-like, than our mortal existence, then we should always be thinking of the heavenly life (c.f.; Colossians 3:1-4) and ordering our present lives to it. May the prayers of all the saints in glory help to guide us there.

C. S. Lewis on Sex, Love, Marriage and the ‘Right’ to Happiness

The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote before his death in November 1963, was a short essay entitled We Have No Right to Happiness, that was published by the Saturday Evening Post in December 1963, and reprinted in the God in the Dock collection many years later (1998). At the beginning of the piece, Lewis considers whether we have any particular ‘right’ to happiness in general, but spends the greater part discussing the issue of whether anyone can be said to have an unlimited right to sexual or romantic happiness, and whether this can ever really be said to justify abandoning one’s marriage vows. The answer to this query may seem obvious to many, but in an age where commitment seems to be ranked lower amongst our priorities than ever, it is a question worth revisiting.

In the essay, Lewis not only provides a strong critique against those who would claim all sorts of things as a ‘right’ which are, by the nature of the case, not so at all, but also draws attention to the validity of certain claims to rights per se, and to the assumptions we all make (even those who wish to contravene or supersede commonly held or traditional moral values) when making such claims, thus highlighting the absurdity of isolating some aspects of those assumptions (i.e.; of the Natural Law) and arbitrarily raising them above the others. Finally, this particular issue is linked to the wider concerns and ramifications of individualism and relativism – things already prevalent in Lewis’ day, but yet to have gained quite as much of a hold over the popular imagination as they have today.

Lewis begins the piece by describing a hypothetical conversation between himself and a woman named Clare, about a man (Mr A.) who had divorced his wife in order to marry another woman (Mrs B. – who had also divorced her husband) on the grounds that they had fallen in love and, because of the ‘right to happiness’, were justified in abandoning their spouses. Whilst there also exist many much more sympathetic reasons for ending a marriage this rationale is unfortunately not only an increasingly common one, but is also now widely seen to be acceptable by our society. I present here the bulk of Lewis’ response to the situation (and Clare’s approval of it):

I went away thinking about the concept of a “right to happiness”. At first this sounds to me as odd as the right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school or moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.

I can understand a right as a freedom guaranteed me by the laws of the society I live in. Thus, I have a right to travel along the public roads because society gives me that freedom; that’s what we mean by calling the roads “public”. I can also understand a right as a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part. If I have a right to receive £100 from you, this is another way of saying that you have a duty to pay me £100. If the laws allow Mr A. to desert his wife and seduce his neighbour’s wife, then, by definition, Mr A. has a legal right to do so, and we need bring in no talk about “happiness”.

But of course this was not what Clare meant. She meant that he had not only a legal right but a moral right to act as he did. In other words, Clare is – or would be if she thought it out – a classical moralist after the style of Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Hooker and Locke. She believes that behind the laws of the state there is a Natural Law. I agree with her. I hold this conception to be basic to all civilisation. Without it, the actual laws of the state become an absolute, as in Hegel. They cannot be criticised because there is no norm against which they should be judged.

The ancestry of Clare’s maxim, “They have a right to happiness”, is august. In words that are cherished by all civilised men, but especially by Americans, it has been laid down that one of the rights of man is a right to “the pursuit of happiness”. And now we get to the real point. What did the writers of that august declaration mean?

It is quite certain what they did not mean. They did not mean that man was entitled to pursue happiness by any and every means – including, say, murder, rape, robbery, treason and fraud. No society could be built on such a basis. They meant to “pursue happiness by all lawful means”; that is, by all means which the Law of Nature eternally sanctions and which the laws of the nation shall sanction…

…But the question as to what means are “lawful” – what methods of pursuing happiness are either morally permissible by the Law of Nature or should be declared legally permissible by the legislature of a particular nation – remains exactly where it did. And on that question I disagree with Clare. I don’t think it is obvious that people have the unlimited “right to happiness” which she suggests.

For one thing, I believe that Clare, when she says “happiness”, means simply and solely “sexual happiness”. Partly because women like Clare never use the word “happiness” in any other sense. But also because I never heard Clare talk about the “right” to any other kind. She was rather leftist in her politics, and would have been scandalised if anyone had defended the actions of a ruthless man-eating tycoon on the ground that his happiness consisted in making money and he was pursuing his happiness. She was also a rabid tee-totaller; I never heard her excuse an alcoholic because he was happy when he was drunk. A good many of Clare’s friends, and especially her female friends, often felt – I’ve heard them say so – that their own happiness would be perceptibly increased by boxing her ears. I very much doubt if this would have brought her theory of a right to happiness into play.

Clare, in fact, is doing what the whole western world seems to me to have been doing for the last forty-odd years. When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilised people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is “four bare legs in a bed”…

…The real situation is skilfully concealed by saying that the question of Mr A.’s “right” to desert his wife is one of “sexual morality”. Robbing an orchard is not an offence against some special morality called “fruit morality”. It is an offence against honesty. Mr A.’s action is an offence against good faith (to solemn promises), against gratitude (towards one whom he was deeply indebted) and against common humanity. Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behaviour which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust.

Now though I see no good reason for giving sex this privilege, I think I see a strong cause. It is this. It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion – as distinct from a transient fit of appetite – that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such doom we sink into fathomless depths of pity.

Unfortunately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends’ amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last – and sometimes don’t. And when they do last, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also – I must put it crudely – good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.

If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience, but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone (except Mr A. and Mrs B.) knows that Mr A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as deserting his old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman…

…Secondly, though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance towards a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilisation will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add “unfortunately” – be swept away.

taken from Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.388-392, Harper Collins.

C. S. Lewis: Modern Ignorance of the Sense of Sin

After I published my post of yesterday (in which I wrote about the tragic consequences of Original Sin and the equally tragic embracing of self-will that often stems from it), I came across a passage in C. S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain which seemed applicable to what I had discussed. In this passage, Lewis points out that the Apostles (and every other generation of Christians after them until very recently) could assume that their audiences had a keen sense of having transgressed the moral law and were, spiritually speaking, ill. Nowadays this sense of sin has largely been either repressed or explained away, and Christianity must ‘preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure.

The question of whether we can meaningfully talk about salvation or redemption without any sense that we have so transgressed – that we have gone wrong and are deserving of condemnation, correction or punishment – is one that I have explored in an earlier post here, and the results of our repression of that sense is something I have also written about here. Today though I would like to focus on Lewis’ words alone, in which he gives an insightful account of how this ignorance has come about, based on the way his own age conducted itself and spoke about such things. What he wrote then seems to be even more relevant to our own age:

There are two principal causes. One is the fact that for about a hundred years we have so concentrated on one of the virtues – “kindness” or mercy – that most of us do not feel anything except kindness to be really good or anything but cruelty to be really bad. Such lopsided ethical developments are not uncommon, and other ages too have had their pet virtues and curious insensibilities. And if one virtue must be cultivated at the expense of all the rest, none has a higher claim than mercy – for every Christian must reject with detestation that covert propaganda for cruelty which tries to drive mercy out of the world by calling it names such as “Humanitarianism” and “Sentimentality”. The real trouble is that “kindness” is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all his other vices by a conviction that “his heart’s in the right place” and “he wouldn’t hurt a fly”, though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature. We think we are kind when we are only happy: it is not so easy, on the same grounds, to imagine oneself temperate, chaste, or humble.

The second cause is the effect of Psycho-analysis on the public mind, and, in particular, the doctrine of repressions and inhibitions. Whatever these doctrines really mean, the impression they have actually left on most people is that the sense of Shame is a dangerous and mischievous thing. We have laboured to overcome that sense of shrinking, that desire to conceal, which either Nature herself or the tradition of almost all mankind has attached to cowardice, unchastity, falsehood, and envy. We are told to “get things out in the open”, not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the ground that these “things” are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them. But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has usually recognised “shamelessness” as the nadir of the soul. In trying to extirpate Shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they broke their walls and pulled the Horse into Troy. I do not know that there is anything to be done but to set about the rebuilding as soon as we can. It is mad work to remove hypocrisy by removing the temptation to hypocrisy: the “frankness” of people sunk below shame is a very cheap frankness.

A recovery of the sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about.

The Problem of Pain (1980), pp.43-46, Fount Paperbacks.