Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Present Concerns

C. S. Lewis





























  ‘Who is Elizabeth Taylor?’ asked C. S. Lewis. He and I were talking about the difference between ‘prettiness’ and ‘beauty’, and I suggested that Miss Taylor was a great beauty. ‘If you read the newspapers,’ I said to Lewis, ‘you would know who she is.’ ‘Ah-h-h-h!’ said Lewis playfully, ‘but that is how I keep myself “unspotted from the world”.’ He recommended that if I absolutely ‘must’ read newspapers I have a frequent ‘mouthwash’ with The Lord of the Rings or some other great book.

  As most of those familiar with Lewis’s writings will know, it was the ‘news’ in newspapers that Lewis thought ‘possibly the most phantasmal of all histories’. Several times he showed me the only newspaper I remember being delivered to his house on Sundays. It belonged to his gardener, Paxford, and when Lewis and I read the headlines on that paper we hoped to goodness the news in it was phantasmal. In any event, I haven’t bothered much with newspapers since the brief and immensely happy period when I was living in Lewis’s house. And I have tried to be faithful to his prescription regarding ‘mouthwashes’.

  I do not want to give the impression that Lewis was a Pharisee. He did not condemn either those who wrote for newspapers or those who read them. Otherwise he would have had to censure himself as all but two of these essays were written for newspapers and magazines. Indeed, they provide us with the most complete picture we have of C. S. Lewis the Journalist. It was a role which suited Lewis admirably, for he possessed to an astonishing degree the gift of saying what needed to be said clearly and briefly. There is another thing which sets this book apart from his others. Most of his works are about Theology and Literature. While some of these pieces touch on those subjects, they were brought together because they are about so many other things. Their very variety helps answer the question ‘What else was Lewis concerned about?’

  The title of this book was suggested by Jeremy Dyson, President of the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society. Mr Dyson is much younger than I, and after reading some of these essays he found Lewis’s concerns very ‘present’ to him. However, in writing the footnotes for the book I began to wonder how ‘present’ Lewis’s concerns and interests would be to most people. How many readers have heard of Colonel Blimp? Almost everyone would have known who he was when ‘Blimpophobia’ was first published. In the end I found the answer very close by. I had never found out who Colonel Blimp was until I began editing the essays, but I had long known what Lewis meant by Blimpophobia. The truth is that while some of the outward clothing of the things Lewis wrote about has changed, the essentials in all these essays are as important as they always were. I shall be surprised if the essay ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ is not of greater concern today than when it first appeared.

  C. S. Lewis the Journalist would not be nearly so well represented were it not for the man who introduced me to ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’. He is Gordon Wright of Pye Bridge, Derbyshire, and he wrote to me after discovering ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ and ‘Three Kinds of Men’ cut out of whatever journals they had appeared in and stuck into a copy of a book by Lewis. Mr Wright came to Oxford with these treasures—both new to me. It was not difficult to find the source of the first essay but ‘Three Kinds of Men’ seemed impossible to track down. However, by following various clues provided by the war-news on the back of the cutting I eventually traced it to The Sunday Times. I am deeply indebted to Gordon Wright for his generosity. As so often, I have benefited from the willingness of my friend Owen Barfield to go over my own work. Finally, I am grateful to all those publishers who have allowed me to reprint the essays which make up this collection.

  ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ is Lewis’s title for the essay published as ‘Notes on the Way’ in Time and Tide, vol. XXI (17 August 1940), p. 841.

  ‘Equality’ is reprinted from The Spectator, vol. CLXXI (27 August 1943), p. 192.

  ‘Three Kinds of Men’ is reprinted from The Sunday Times, no. 6258 (21 March 1943), p. 2.

  ‘My First School’ was Lewis’s title for his ‘Notes on the Way’ from Time and Tide, vol. XXIV (4 September 1943), p. 717.

  ‘Is English Doomed?’ is from The Spectator, vol. CLXXII (11 February 1944), p. 121.

  ‘Democratic Education’ is Lewis’s title for his ‘Notes on the Way’ from Time and Tide, vol. XXV (29 April 1944), pp. 369–70.

  ‘A Dream’ is reprinted from The Spectator, vol. CLXXIII (28 July 1944), p. 77.

  ‘Blimpophobia’ is from Time and Tide, vol. XXV (9 September 1944), p. 785.

  ‘Private Bates’ is reprinted from The Spectator, vol. CLXXIII (29 December 1944), p. 596.

  ‘Hedonics’ comes from Time and Tide, vol. XXVI (16 June 1945), pp. 494–95.

  ‘After Priggery—What?’ is reprinted from The Spectator, vol. CLXXV (7 December 1945), p. 536.

  ‘Modern Man and His Categories of Thought’ is published here for the first time. It was written at the request of Bishop Stephen Neill (1899–1984) for the Study Department of the World Council of Churches. The essay exists only in typescript and it is dated October 1946. At that time Bishop Neill was Secretary of the Assembly Commission II, and the two movements, ‘Life and Work’ and ‘Faith and Order’, had come together to become what was formally constituted as The World Council of Churches in 1948.

  ‘Talking About Bicycles’ is reprinted from Resistance (October 1946), pp. 10–13.

  ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ is taken from the last issue of the annual magazine Informed Reading, vol. VI [1948], pp. 78–84.

  ‘The Empty Universe’ is my title for Lewis’s Preface to D. E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in the Universe (London: Faber and Faber, 1952).

  ‘Prudery and Philology’ is reprinted from The Spectator, vol. CXCIV (21 January 1955), pp. 63–64.

  ‘Interim Report’ is reprinted from The Cambridge Review, vol. LXXVII (21 April 1956), pp. 468–71.

  ‘Is History Bunk?’ is also reprinted from The Cambridge Review, vol. LXXVIII (1 June 1957), pp. 647, 649.

  ‘Sex in Literature’ is reprinted from The Sunday Telegraph, no. 87 (30 September 1962), p. 8. Introducing the essay was this note from the publishers: ‘We are facing a crisis in morals, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment by novelists of sex. Ought we not to recognise that literature, while we hope it may do good, in fact often does harm? Do not those modern novels that take—admittedly sometimes with high artistic motives—abnormal sexual behaviour for their theme, popularise and make fashionable and permissible the abnormal sexual behaviour of their characters? . . . We have invited Dr C. S. Lewis as a critic, a novelist, and a Christian apologist to give us his views on this matter, addressing himself to the further question of what in all this should be the attitude of the law. Here is his article.’

p; And here are eighteen other articles as well. I hope they will prove to be as tonic and pleasant a ‘mouthwash’ to others as they are to me.

  Walter Hooper

  8 January 1986




  The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things—from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train. But if we want to understand chivalry as an ideal distinct from other ideals—if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme il faut which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture—we cannot do better than turn to the words addressed to the greatest of all the imaginary knights in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. ‘Thou wert the meekest man’, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot. ‘Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.’1

  The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth. When Launcelot heard himself pronounced the best knight in the world, ‘he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten’.2

  What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world? It is terribly relevant. It may or may not be practicable—the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it—but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die.

  Let us be quite clear that the ideal is a paradox. Most of us, having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition, were taught in our youth that a bully is always a coward. Our first week at school refuted this lie, along with its corollary that a truly brave man is always gentle. It is a pernicious lie because it misses the real novelty and originality of the medieval demand upon human nature. Worse still, it represents as a natural fact something which is really a human ideal, nowhere fully attained, and nowhere attained at all without arduous discipline. It is refuted by history and experience. Homer’s Achilles knows nothing of the demand that the brave should also be the modest and the merciful. He kills men as they cry for quarter or takes them prisoner to kill them at leisure. The heroes of the Sagas know nothing of it; they are as ‘stern to inflict’ as they are ‘stubborn to endure’. Attila ‘had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired’. Even the Romans, when gallant enemies fell into their hands, led them through the streets for a show, and cut their throats in cellars when the show was over. At school we found that the hero of the First XV might well be a noisy, arrogant, overbearing bully. In the last war we often found that the man who was ‘invaluable in a show’ was a man for whom in peacetime we could not easily find room except in Dartmoor. Such is heroism by nature—heroism outside the chivalrous tradition.

  The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson. It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop.

  In so doing, the Middle Ages fixed on the one hope of the world. It may or may not be possible to produce by the thousand men who combine the two sides of Launcelot’s character. But if it is not possible, then all talk of any lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine.

  If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be ‘meek in hall’, and those who are ‘meek in hall’ but useless in battle—for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. The ancient history of the Near East is like that. Hardy barbarians swarm down from their highlands and obliterate a civilisation. Then they become civilised themselves and go soft. Then a new wave of barbarians comes down and obliterates them. Then the cycle begins over again. Modern machinery will not change this cycle; it will only enable the same thing to happen on a larger scale. Indeed, nothing much else can ever happen if the ‘stern’ and the ‘meek’ fall into two mutually exclusive classes. And never forget that this is their natural condition. The man who combines both characters—the knight—is a work not of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.

  In the world today there is a ‘liberal’ or ‘enlightened’ tradition which regards the combative side of man’s nature as a pure, atavistic evil, and scouts the chivalrous sentiment as part of the ‘false glamour’ of war. And there is also a neo-heroic tradition which scouts the chivalrous sentiment as a weak sentimentality, which would raise from its grave (its shallow and unquiet grave!) the pre-Christian ferocity of Achilles by a ‘modern invocation’. Already in our own Kipling the heroic qualities of his favourite subalterns are dangerously removed from meekness and urbanity. One cannot quite imagine the adult Stalkey in the same room with the best of Nelson’s captains, still less with Sidney! These two tendencies between them weave the world’s shroud.

  Happily we live better than we write, better than we deserve. Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this ‘sternness’ there is much ‘meekness’; from all I hear, the young pilots in the R.A.F. (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model.

  In short, there is still life in the tradition which the Middle Ages inaugurated. But the maintenance of that life depends, in part, on knowing that the knightly character is art, not nature—something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen. And this knowledge is specially necessary as we grow more democratic. In previous centuries the vestiges of chivalry were kept alive by a specialised class, from whom they spread to other classes partly by imitation and partly by coercion. Now, it seems, the people must either be chivalrous on its own resources, or else choose between the two remaining alternatives of brutality and softness. This is, indeed, part of the general problem of a classless society, which is too seldom mentioned. Will its ethos be a synthesis of what was best in all the classes, or a mere ‘pool’ with the sediment of all and the virtues of none? But that is too large a subject for the fag-end of an article. My theme is chivalry. I have tried to show that this old tradition is practical and vital. The ideal embodied in Launcelot is ‘escapism’ in a sense never dreamed of by those who use that word; it offers the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable. There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.



  I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who be
lieve advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

  This introduces a view of equality rather different from that in which we have been trained. I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.

  But medicine is not good. There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. And that is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.

  When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian. But it would be wicked folly to restore these old inequalities on the legal or external plane. Their proper place is elsewhere.