C.S. Lewis' Turn From Argument to Poetry

Essay: C.S. Lewis's turn from argument to poetry

Map of Narnia / Anastasia Alén
February 5, 2017

Generations after they were written, The Chronicles of Narnia continue to be read by parents and children the world over. My own children have not only become enchanted by the stories but have begun to reenact them every time they play together. There's always competition for who gets to be which character, of course, and on a recent occasion I was reminded of the wide range of fortunes one might meet, depending on the role. My eldest daughter (the self-styled mistress of the roles) dictated to others in her circle which parts they would play, turning first to her brother: "Benedict, you're the lion. I'm the witch. And Dad," here she paused, sizing me up to determine if I was ready for the severity of the role she had in mind, "you're the wardrobe." Thus we played The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for hours. Reviews of my performance will remain private.

Part of the joy children get from reading C.S. Lewis' Narnia tales is that they take place in a world apart, a world that seems not to have the murky and difficult-to-manage partisanship of our world. This otherworldliness is quintessential Lewis: Throughout his life, Lewis maintained a distance from worldly politics, even going so far as to reject a knighthood offered by the Queen in 1952 on the ground that he would be perceived by the public as partisan. Lewis' life was outside the sphere of partisan politics, and his reputation as an apolitical thinker and writer has persisted since his death in 1963.

Lewis avoided the slugfest of partisan politics, but that does not mean he had nothing to say about politics, as Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson argue in their book C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural LawAs the authors point out, politics is not "merely the instrumental hurly-burly maelstrom of self-interest and cynicism" we are regrettably familiar with today. In a wider and truer sense, politics is about the institutions, mores, and education that set the stage for people to lead the best possible life. Politics is the wide array of civil society institutions and customs that bear on the quality of life for ordinary human beings. When considered from this angle, Lewis is a deeply political thinker. "In reality," the authors note, "Lewis did have much to say about the underlying foundations of a just political order."

While Lewis had much to say, what is truly remarkable is the way he chose to say it. Rather than writing on contemporary politics, Lewis chose to comment on the underlying ethical and cultural trends of his time through literature. The story of his career is the story of how he came to address the problem of moral relativism as a writer.

The Great War of 1914-18 spread the notion in Western society that there are no absolutes—no good or evil, knowledge or value. Friedrich Nietzsche, that violent physician, had pronounced God dead in 1882, yet it took the catastrophe of the Great War for Europe to reject reason and the tradition of the Enlightenment. Religious faith and reason suffered grave wounds in the fields of France during World War I.

A new kind of ethic filled the vacuum left by traditional notions of good and evil. This ethic held that values are relative, and therefore merely a matter of taste and perspective. Within a generation, school children were being taught that their emotions were the deepest meaning they could access in life, and that these emotions had no necessary connection to the objects or experiences with which they came into contact on a daily basis.

Lewis agreed with the new ethics about the important place of emotions—or tastes—within ethical life. But the new subjective ethics, because it taught that there was no meaning outside our emotions, denied children the ability to learn how to respond properly to their experiences and to objects around them in the world. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis criticized the new ethics, writing that for thousands of years "all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it." Children needed to be taught the proper emotional responses to experience and objects. Indeed, "Lewis argued that the primary task of early education is to train our emotions to respond correctly to objects in the world."

This was no academic disagreement between Lewis and moral relativism. According to Lewis, the difference between his view and the view of the moral relativists was the difference between maintaining the whole tradition of value carried through mankind's history and casting it off in one generation. To throw out the tradition of value was to fail to provide children with tools they could use to live the best life possible.

Lewis' arguments often fell flat, largely because the rot of moral relativism had already taken hold of many of his contemporaries. Moreover, the very education Lewis had argued against in The Abolition of Man was daily shaping children who lacked the proper training in sentiment and tastes. But only those who have had an education in taste can recognize the foundational principles of morality. To argue with someone who has not had this experience "is like arguing about geometry with a man who does not assent to the validity of the law of noncontradiction or who denies that parallel lines do not touch." In other words, Lewis' assault on the new moral relativism through rational argument was doomed to fail.

Where rational argument would fail, poetry might succeed. Lewis therefore turned his attention from arguing with his contemporaries to writing stories for young people. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy—the first for children, the second for young adults—were meant to shape the tastes of their readers according to the tradition of value Lewis had argued for previously in The Abolition of Man.

Lewis' stories are not mere propaganda, nor are they dogmatic diatribes against the newest philosophical fads he encountered throughout his life. By showing how characters informed by the new ethics of moral relativism met challenges in the worlds he created, Lewis showed how those ethical frameworks broke down and proved insufficient, even as he avoided using philosophical or ethical language to prove it. This is what Dyer and Watson mean when they write that Lewis has much to say about a just political order. Through his stories, Lewis illustrates the conditions for the best human life.

The increasing popularity of Lewis' stories over time prove his point: Human beings have within them the ability to see the truth about how to live the best life. This ability is either God-given or hardwired, depending on one's theological views (and Lewis recognized high-level and understandable disagreements on this score). Dyer and Watson's book is groundbreaking because they have shown Lewis as a thinker who used storytelling to help human beings lead the best life they can.

Published under: Book reviews