Wednesday, April 9, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Worst Essay? (part one)

So, I've recently enjoyed skimming through C. S. LEWIS: ESSAY COLLECTION AND OTHER SHORT PIECES, ed. Lesley Walmsley [HarperCollins, 2000]. Apparently published only in the U.K., this is a massive (894 page) collection that brings together everything from his short fiction (e.g. THE DARK TOWER, "Forms of Things Unknown", &c) to all kinds of ephemera: letters to the editor, pieces written in response to articles he'd read in some journal, and the like. Naturally, out of such a mass of material (135 separate pieces), the quality varies enormously. But I was struck both by how readable the whole collection is and by how far off the mark Lewis could sometimes be. This division is evident in his longer works, of course -- for every SCREWTAPE LETTERS or DISCARDED IMAGE there's also a MIRACLES or ABOLITION OF MAN -- but somehow it seems starker in his shorter pieces. Hence I thought it might be interesting to look in more detail at some of his worst essays, since his best work is so well known as to need no analysis.


Second Runner Up: "Why I Am Not A Pacifist" [1940]

To be fair, I shd note that Lewis never attempted to publish this piece; it survives only because his friend George Sayer requested a copy and, many years later, provided Fr. Walter Hooper with a transcript. It was first published in THE WEIGHT OF GLORY [1980], itself an expanded edition of the 1949 book TRANSPOSITION AND OTHER ADDRESSES (which had included five of the latter book's nine pieces); see page 18 of Hooper's Introduction to that book. Thus it is a better representation of Lewis as a debater than as an essayist.


Delivered to a pacifist group at Oxford in the early part of World War II, this one made it onto my short list not so much because I disagree with him (which, of course, I do) but by how weak I found his argument. That is, I read the piece knowing full well that Lewis was no pacifist, as his service in World War I and the actions of his characters in his novels clearly show. But I expected him to make a good case against pacifism, and sought out this piece because while I didn't expect him to sway my own opinion (I don't think I've ever changed my mind on any subject because of anything I've read in Lewis) I wanted to see what he had to say.


In brief, since it's a long article (more than a dozen pages in this densely packed anthology) and a complex one, I was surprised by the degree to which his argument hinges on an appeal to (civil) authority and majority opinion. He denies that individual revelation (what he calls "intuition") can be taken seriously when it goes against the example of most political leaders (in whom he includes the fictitious King Arthur!) and many of his favorite writers. Thus, for Lewis, belief in pacifism would put one in a minority, and on that ground alone is probably wrong. This seems to me such a strange argument that at first I thought he must be joking, but it's clear he really is arguing that the majority position must thus be the correct one ("the universal opinion of mankind"), as if morality were simply decided by majority vote (in which case, what about "give us Barabbas"?).

This alone of course would not make this essay rank among his worst, of course. Much more troubling are his tactics. Like a speaker more concerned with winning a debate than arriving at the truth, Lewis very carefully works to exclude all evidence that counters his point. For example, he quotes The Book of Common Prayer in support of Anglicans supporting 'a just war' in good conscience, wh. is fair enough, but then goes on to imply that ALL Christian denominations support 'the just war' --which is of course flatly untrue: cf the Quakers, Amish, Shakers, Mennonites, &c., not to mention the early church before Constantine got his hands on it. But what he actually says is "All bodies that claim to be Churches -- that is, who claim apostolic succession and accept the Creeds -- have constantly blessed what they regard as righteous arms". Can he really be claiming that if you're not a member of such a 'Church', you're not really Christian or your opinion doesn't count?

Finally, he does tackle the most difficult point of any Christian who is not a pacifist: the 'turn the other cheek' passage in the Gospel. Lewis's solution is to argue that this cannot possibly have any military application, since "the audience were private people in a disarmed nation" --which is disingenuous, given the long string of uprisings that bedeviled the area, the most well-known of which are the Maccabees' revolt a century before and the disastrous revolt a generation later that ended at Masada. He goes on to assert that Jesus would surely approve of anyone with rightful authority using force to defend himself against violence, most amusingly using as one of his examples a tutor fighting back against a student who wanted to hit him (just how heated did CSL's tutorials get?). He concludes this section with references to two New Testament epistles, both from passages urging submission to civil authority: ROMANS Chapter 13 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment") and 1st PETER Chapter 2 ("Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right"); the latter comes from the same section that admonishes servants to obey their masters (long used as a justification for slavery) and for wives to "be submissive to your husbands". I shd have thought it much more apropos to cite the scene in Gethsemene where Jesus rebukes Peter for striking the guard (an example of violence in defense of the innocent if ever there was one).


So, in conclusion: Lewis was proud of his oratorical skill, and rightly so; he was by all accounts a marvellous speaker, and the few surviving bits of audiotape bear this out. But his gifts fail him here, leaving him with an overly complex essay marred by several ad hominem attacks on his audience in passing. Far better as a presentation of Lewis's ideas about the duty of submission to civil authority is "The Conditions for a Just War" [1939] (pages 767-768 in the same collection), where he argues that it's not the hangman's job to decide who is and isn't guilty, merely to hang those sent to him for hanging; so too he claims that a citizen can't know whether a given war is just or not and so must leave that to his government, who alone can make that decision, and serve as a soldier in whatever war his government deems necessary. But even here he complicates his point by adding that the hangman "must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent", nor the soldier "murder prisoners or bomb civilians", which acknowledges individual responsibility based on individual judgment after all. Even so, this short, focused piece is far superior to "Why I Am Not A Pacifist".

--JDR

current audiobook: LOST CHRISTIANITIES by Bart Ehrman.

4 comments:

Aelfwine said...

I can't comment on Lewis's essay, since I haven't read it. But I can comment on a few points that you make:

"the latter comes from the same section that admonishes servants to obey their masters (long used as a justification for slavery)"

And yet the letter DOES say that. Should Christians set aside that passage because it was (wrongly) used to justify slavery? (Servants at that time were not so completely regarded as mere property as were slaves in the United States; and remember, under Judaic law they had to be released after a time.) Should we, say, set aside Revelations because some millennialists have (wrongly) used it to justify mass suicide?

"and for wives to 'be submissive to your husbands'."

And, it goes right on to say that husbands must love their wives as they love their own body. Do we set all THIS aside, too, then, because some have (wrongly) used it to justify treating women as property?

"the scene in Gethsemene where Jesus rebukes Peter for striking the guard (an example of violence in defense of the innocent if ever there was one)."

It is that, but it is also far MORE than that. Jesus HAD to die, and it was his CHOICE to do so; this is why Jesus rebukes Peter earlier, and much more harshly ("get thee behind me, Satan!") just for solicitously urging Jesus to avoid his fate. Does this then likewise mean that Christians must never urge others to avoid danger? Peter is rebuked in Gethsemane at least in part for precisely the same reason he was rebuked earlier: he did not accept, and did not understand, that Jesus HAD to die.

Lewis, I am quite certain, understood the danger and invalidity of proof-texting Scripture. Scripture must be interpreted as a whole, not sifted through for the bits we like and interpreting them in such a way as to make the bits we don't like incoherent. There is a time for war, and a time for peace.

John D. Rateliff said...

Aelfwine said...
". . . Should Christians set aside that passage because it was (wrongly) used to justify slavery? . . . ['submissive to your husbands'] . . . goes right on to say that husbands must love their wives as they love their own body. Do we set all THIS aside, too, then, because some have (wrongly) used it to justify treating women as property?"

--My point here is simpler than that: Lewis's ability to quote scripture in support of his cause does not make that cause just, as is shown by the bad causes that have claimed justification from similar verses in the same section of the same epistle.


re. the scene in Gethsemene:

". . . Jesus HAD to die, and it was his CHOICE to do so; this is why Jesus rebukes Peter earlier. . . for solicitously urging Jesus to avoid his fate."

--Unfortunately, the same argument could be used to exculpate Judas. If the only issue is seeing that the fated crucifixion comes to pass, then Judas (who helps cause it) wd deserve more credit than Peter (who tries to prevent it). But Jesus condemns Judas's means just as harshly than Peter's. I conclude that Peter is using the wrong means (violence) in defense of the right end (defending the innocent). Lewis completely ignores that scene when arguing that Christ wants us to use violence to protect the innocent and also ourselves; taking it into account wd have strengthened his argument.



". . . Scripture must be interpreted as a whole, not sifted through for the bits we like and interpreting them in such a way as to make the bits we don't like incoherent."

--Yes, which is why Lewis's highly selective citations don't help him make the case, and why the essay is among his failures. It's not the topic, it's his rhetorical strategies that fail him here.

--JDR

Aelfwine said...

" Lewis's ability to quote scripture in support of his cause does not make that cause just"

As general principle, I agree. (In some cases and for some causes the nature of a quote may indeed be such that it in itself makes the cause just; but it is not a general assurance; cf. proof-texting, again.)

"Unfortunately, the same argument could be used to exculpate Judas."

Well, it could be used that way, but it would be unpersuasive to me. Judas freely chose to do evil, and the fact that a good came out of it (through Providence) does not lessen the evil, or make it good. As I'm sure we both agree. Peter's concern for Jesus (setting aside for now his physical defense), in contrast, was not in itself evil, only misguided in this case, due to Peter's lack of understanding. So it is simply not obvious that Peter is rebuked in Gethsemane purely because he resorted to violence in defense of another; and in fact the verses in question show that he was not ("Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father?... how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled").

And none of this obviously removes from governments the right (or obligation) to defend their citizens from attack. We as individuals may chose not to defend ourselves; but I would never force anyone to be defenseless. And if we as individuals are never to physically defend others, then what does it mean to say that "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends"?

As I said, I haven't read the essay, so I can't comment on Lewis's rhetoric.

Pax said...

"He goes on to assert that Jesus would surely approve of anyone with rightful authority using force to defend himself against violence, most amusingly using as one of his examples a tutor fighting back against a student who wanted to hit him (just how heated did CSL's tutorials get?)."

A.N. Wilson , in his biography of Lewis, relates the following-

"...The feelings may be imagined of the pupil who rashly let fall a slighting reference to Sohrab and Rustum, to be answered by Lewis's brandishing an old regimental sword of his brother's which stood in the corner of his room and shouting, 'The sword must settle this!'..."

Wilson goes on to say, while this incident was extreme, Lewis could be pretty intense at times.