Saturday, November 25, 2023

Sixty years on, not forgotten

A.N. Wilson, on C.S. Lewis sixty years after his death:
He died on the very day that President Kennedy was assassinated, Friday 22 November 1963, so it is not surprising that the event was overshadowed at the time. With the passage of 60 years, C.S. Lewis’s reputation is undiminished and the sheer range of his achievements as a writer and teacher appears ever more prodigious. For many, he is most beloved as the creator of the seven Narnia books: for others as the author of the science-fiction Space trilogy, which is not only a page-turner but horrifyingly and accurately prophetic.

For still others – and for a long time this would have included myself – the great work is his scholarly but always readable contribution to literary studies. I am thinking of the ever-accessible English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, or the wonderful account of how medieval humanity looked at the cosmos: The Discarded Image. ....

Another book I cannot recommend too highly is a short text he wrote in 1943, first given as lectures at the University of Durham, and published as The Abolition of Man. If I had absolute power, I would make every teenager, every teacher and every parent read this book. It would also be compulsory reading in all the philosophy departments of universities. The book is an analysis of what has happened since the 19th century to the picture of the world as drawn by clever people.

He was writing when Hitler was still in power and when, in order to defeat him, the western allies had embraced Stalin as an ally. But the powerful thing about the book is that he sees that the utter monstrosity of Hitler and Stalin’s worldviews derives from the Enlightenment and from the worldview of 19th-century agnostics, and that comparatively mild figures such as George Bernard Shaw or A.J. Ayer (not named in the text) have had a truly catastrophic effect on the way we think. ‘Many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. “Traditional values are to be debunked” and mankind to be cut into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent “ideologies” at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere specimens… begins to affect our very language – once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. ....

His fantasy of what the world will become as a result of the mild-mannered scientists and amateur philosophers is crudely but quite brilliantly painted in the third volume of the Space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. ....

He could be arrogant in debate and, like Samuel Johnson, he talked for victory, but he was a man of enormous humility. His Christian witness was perhaps most eloquent, not in his apologetics, but in the brokenness with which he tried to match ‘The Weight of Glory’ (the title of his best sermon) with all too human frailties. One thing is certain: he has not been forgotten. And there was a quality of greatness about him. Of all the writers of his generation, he is perhaps alone in being worthy himself of comparison to Dr Johnson. (more, perhaps behind a subscription wall)

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