(This is the first guest post in the Philosophy Weekend series. James Berrettini is a friend and fellow software developer with whom I’ve conducted intensive private debates over difficult questions of philosophy and ethics for many years. He and I often disagree, but I know he shares my belief that these questions are keenly relevant to modern life. Here’s James’s introduction to a popular but misunderstood writer and thinker, C. S. Lewis. — Levi)
Sarah Palin was mocked for telling Barbara Walters for saying that she turns to C. S. Lewis for “divine inspiration.” Richard Wolffe, a commentator on Chris Matthews’ show, thought this indicated a lack of seriousness, assuming that she was referring to “a series of kids’ books.” Defending Lewis, Matthews interrupted saying: “I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis.” Wolfe continued: “I’m not putting him down. But, you know, ‘divine inspiration’? There are things she could’ve said for ‘divine inspiration.’ Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one.”
C. S. Lewis was indeed an interesting writer, if not for the reasons that Wolffe believes. Like many people, he was unfamiliar with Lewis beyond knowing that he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books, which we all “know” now, thanks to the good people at Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Who was Lewis?
Born in Belfast, Clive Staples Lewis (Jack to his friends) was a novelist, essayist and popular theologian. He and his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien moved in an Oxford literary circle known as “The Inklings.” Early in his career, Lewis was drawn to esotericism and occultism such as was prevalent among both his friends, such as Owen Barfield and his idols, such as William Butler Yeats. His mid-life conversion to Christianity was integral to his views and writings later in life.
Lewis was a critic of aspects of modernity; we see this in his work, The Abolition of Man. In it, he asserts that there’s a fundamental moral truth all mankind knows, regardless of the specifics of race, creed, or culture. Lewis refers to this truth as the Tao. Mankind’s freedom doesn’t consist in mere license. Rather, it follows from our living fully to our potential, which means living in accordance with the Tao. Put simply, choosing to do evil — say, abusing hard drugs, or eating endlessly, or stealing wealth — doesn’t make us free. It enslaves us to drugs, or gluttony, or greed.
Lewis claims the Tao is universal, and nearly everyone acknowledges it, even as individuals fail to live by it. Our recognition of morality doesn’t come from pure intellect, which allows us to ponder without consequence; nor does it come from our appetite, since it merely drives us to consume. Rather, following Plato, he locates the facility for living according to the Tao between the head (intellect) and the stomach (appetites). We follow the Tao from the chest, which we might refer to as the passionate or spirited element of our souls. The book asks the question, is it possible to abolish the moral sense from human life and human culture, to create what Lewis calls Men Without Chests? He sees that, in recent history, it’s been tried both with increasing force and increasing subtlety. He sees the abuse that is possible in various technologies (propaganda, eugenics, etc.) In this, he has a lot in common with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
Lewis was no facile moralist. In his moving personal reflections, very late in his life, on the death of his wife Joy Gresham, he revealed the kinds of spiritual doubts and despair it caused him. For him, faith was not a matter of consolation on the cheap — it was a gritty, lifelong struggle with black periods and few easy answers or paths. He’s very far from a shallow writer of children’s books — he was a serious thinker, an excellent prose stylist, and worth reaching for, whether or not you find yourself in need of “divine inspiration.”