A Man Observed: an Essay

I was going to post another Angel review, but I am dealing with major laptop shenanigans at the moment, and I actually haven’t been able to watch any episodes (oh noes!). Sooooo you get another essay. Again, this is a slight departure from my usual fare since it doesn’t actually discuss fiction (except in passing), but it does discuss C.S. Lewis, and… well… he’s awesome so you can’t complain. It is relevant to the theme of this blog in that it looks at how an author’s fiction/writing affects their own personal ethics, which is an interesting way to approach the issue.

This essay was written for my Heroes of Integrity class in my Junior year. Enjoy.

The phrase “hero of integrity” conjures up for many people an image of someone whose beliefs, be they moral or otherwise, are so strong that they are willing to do anything necessary to see those beliefs fulfilled, often through personal sacrifice. This image makes sense, as it is a merging of the traditional ideas of integrity and of heroism, but it is not the only possible image. Heroism and integrity are not necessarily companions or even compatible, and it is possible for a person’s integrity to have little to nothing to do with their heroism. This is demonstrated through the life of British author C.S. Lewis, who was a hero and a man of integrity, but a man whose heroism did not depend on his integrity, nor his integrity on his heroism.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898 and found his career in Oxford, and later at Cambridge as a professor of English, Philosophy, and Medieval and Renaissance Literature.[1] However, he is better known as the author of numerous books of fiction, philosophy, poetry, and literary criticism, many of them relating to discussions on Christian theology or apologetics. An argument that runs beneath the surface of much of his writings (and above the surface in some) is that intellect and reason are not in opposition to Christianity, as was commonly believed in his time.[2] While not the only one to hold this position, Lewis was able to verbalize it more eloquently and articulately than many others, and in doing so was able to bring into the conversation those who might otherwise have dismissed the topic entirely.

According to McFall’s definition of integrity as the quality of having “coherent” commitments and upholding them with appropriate action, it is necessary to understand a person’s convictions before we can assess their integrity.[3] With C.S. Lewis this is particularly complex, seeing as his convictions are spelled out over multiple detailed books. There are recurring themes, however, and it is these that I will focus on to judge the compatibility of his actions or lifestyle with his words.

Firstly, it is important to understand that Lewis’ view of social morality was a bottom-up model: he believed the morality of a society to be dependent on the morality of individuals, and so for him social morals and personal morals are inexorably linked.[4] This also means that since human beings are flawed, no social system will ever be perfectly successful. Lewis understood that because of this, his social vision was not practical, and yet he believed the model to be necessary, if only in theoretical terms: “Perfect behavior may be… unattainable… but it is a necessary ideal prescribed for all men by the very nature of the human machine.”[5] For Lewis, the perfect society seemed to be more of a principle than a specific set of rules.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Lewis’ social ideal and the “real world” is the idea of receptivity: that pleasures and pains ought to be taken as they come without worrying on the past or the future, and letting the experience of remembering be as valuable as the experience of receiving the pleasure or pain. The reasoning for this principle is illustrated in Lewis’ novel Perelandra, where a character explains that to be without receptivity is “to reject the wave- to draw my hands out of [God]’s, to say to Him, ‘Not this, but thus,’- to put in our own power what times should roll towards us… instead of taking what came. That would have been cold love and feeble trust. And out of it how could we ever have climbed back into love and trust again?”[6] For Lewis, receptivity was the natural response to trusting in God. This idea led him to distrust many aspects of modern society including advertising (which tried to make people dissatisfied with what God had given them), and personal security, including money (which tried to put our future in our own hands, rather than God’s).[7]

While it is difficult to judge Lewis’ personal success in this area as so much of it is attitudinal, we can see it playing out in his struggle over his wife’s battle with cancer and her eventual death. Lewis describes his struggle as “the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it.”[8] It is clear that Lewis was not completely receptive to the pain of his wife’s passing, but also that he was attempting to live it out, as he eventually seems to do: “[death] follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship… It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases.”[9] The fact that he believed in receptivity enough to even attempt to practice it in this difficult time strengthens his integrity, even if it is not an entirely successful attempt. Interestingly, while his wife was still alive, Lewis asked God for her physical pain to transfer to him, and according to him this actually happened.[10] Thus Lewis appears to be more receptive of his wife’s pain than of his own, but he does not seem to want her to have the receptivity that he so values. While understandable in this case, it could be seen as a mark against his integrity unless one takes into account that Lewis’ principles were personal before they were social: his primary moral concern would have been his own receptivity rather than anyone else’s.

Another aspect of Lewis’ ideal for society is that he envisioned it as a dance or a body, where each member is distinct and yet completely dependent on every other member.[11] While this may seem like a somewhat socialist vision, Lewis represented it more as a highly-structured hierarchy, where every member has an authority over it, putting them in the position to see themselves as not the ultimate beings in the universe.[12] He said, “A world in which I was really (and not merely by useful legal fiction) ‘as good as everyone else’ … would be insufferable. The very fans of the cinema stars and the famous footballers know better than to desire that.”[13] In this model, there would be no totalitarianism and no individualism, which Lewis saw as equally dangerous extremes.[14]

Lewis was fairly successful in implementing this principle in his own life, since he seemed to have a very “give and take” relationship with those around him. For example, he took care of multiple sick friends and relatives, sometimes over long periods of time, and he was described as being generous with his time, but he also depended greatly on his friends’ opinions on his work and met regularly with them to discuss it.[15] Clearly, he allowed others to depend on him, and he was not afraid of depending on others. However, he was also described as being quite emotionally removed, and he reports being frequently uncharitable to his father, so while he did have elements of interdependence, it was certainly not complete.[16] In regard to the hierarchical aspect of his vision, Lewis did go against this in his support of democracy, which he saw as being a lesser system than, say, a monarchy, but he did so because he thought that men could not be trusted with power, and democracy was the best medicine against that.[17] While this could be seen as a barrier to his integrity since he is not pursuing what he believes to be best, it must be taken into account that the ideal of the monarchy was fit only for a perfect world; for a less-than-perfect world, a less-than-ideal system was necessary.

Regarding violence in society, Lewis was very clear: he thought pacifism to be without a strong basis, Biblical or otherwise, and thought of violence as being sometimes necessary, but always to be done out of love rather than self-gain: “Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment- even to death… Even while we kill and punish we must try to … wish that [the enemy] were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good.”[18] This attitude was confirmed in his own life via his participation in World War I and later in the “home guard” since he was not called up to fight in World War II.[19] He was willing to fight and kill if necessary, but was never known to be violent in other contexts. It is difficult to judge whether he fought out of love, but it is apparent that he did not fight out of hate based on his comment, “I have often thought to myself how it would have been if… I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death…. I think we might have laughed over it.”[20] That he was willing to put his beliefs regarding violence into action illustrates Lewis’ integrity on this point.

The final aspect of Lewis’ social ideal that I would like to examine is also perhaps the most important in regard to his integrity, and is certainly the most important factor in his heroism. Lewis believed that a society should have no “hangers-on,” that everyone ought to produce something useful.[21] Arguably Lewis’ most useful contribution to society was his ability and commitment to challenge the thinking of his day. This relates to his integrity only in part because integrity requires continuity between belief and action, but also in that Davion claims that a crucial component to integrity is that the agent be “committed to paying attention to [them]selves,” or that they critique their own beliefs.[22] The fulfillment of Lewis’ principle of producing something useful is, in his case, also a fulfillment of his need to self-examine.

Much of Lewis’ philosophy is a direct result of his self-examination. He became a Christian through a long process of trying to figure out his own desires and matching those desires up against a rigid logic: by examining his own desire for “Joy,” as he called it, and using reason to break apart his own atheistic defenses put up against Christianity, he found a belief in God to be the only logical conclusion.[23] Whether or not his logic is agreed upon, it cannot be denied that Lewis excelled at “paying attention to” himself, even to the point of accepting what he did not want to believe: “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”[24] That he was able to take his self-examination and put it into practice is crucial to his integrity. That he was also able to then use that reasoning to produce something useful via refuting what he saw as the public’s flawed thinking is also crucial for his integrity, because it kept consistency between conviction and action.

This self-examination did not stop once he became a Christian, however, as it can be seen that he was able to self-correct long after he had reached his faith in God. For example, he is often accused of being chauvinistic, and there is some support for this in reports of frequent anti-feminist remarks.[25] However, it is clear that his view, or at least his portrayal of women changes drastically over time, possibly because he came into contact with (and eventually married) Joy Davidman, who is described by him as being an exceptionally strong woman.[26] The portrayal of Susan and Lucy in Prince Caspian, one of his earlier novels, is that they are always following their brothers and never fighting in battles.[27] This is in contrast to Orual, the main character in ‘Till We Have Faces, Lewis’ last novel, who is quite strong and intelligent, and in many cases, a better leader than the men.[28] There is no one point where Lewis says that his thoughts about women were inaccurate, but it is clear that he was able to mold his vision according to new information. Another instance of his ability to self-correct is in his debate with Ms. Anscombe which he lost because of the poor use of a single word in chapter 3 of his book Miracles.[29] He subsequently rewrote the chapter to be three times its original length, just to clarify his meaning.[30] While this does not show a radical re-working of his philosophy, it does show that Lewis was able to admit when he was wrong, and take appropriate steps to amend this.

The result of the consistency between Lewis’ mind and deeds is also crucial to his heroism. Heroism has many competing definitions, but one possible way of seeing it is as the quality of being willing to put one’s own self in the line of fire for the sake of others, and this is precisely what Lewis does when he puts his own intellect up for examination for the sake of improving the intellect of his audience. In Lewis’ time in Western Europe there was widespread agnosticism and mistrust of Biblical scholarship, with the result being a disassociation between religion and reason.[31] Lewis was able to demonstrate through debates, written arguments, and simply by his existence as a scholar that one does not have to give up their intelligence to be a Christian. Indeed, he argued that Christianity demanded reason: “If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”[32] He even argued that the very existence of reason in the human mind is evidence of a “supernature,” or something beyond the naturalists’ scope.[33] Regardless of whether or not his arguments were true, he did force some people into thinking about why they believed what they believed, as opposed to simply going along with the most recent philosophical fad, and he showed that Christianity can hold its own in the academic circle.

Similarly, much of the population at his time had a general cynicism, or what Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” possibly due to World War II or certain rises in technology, where very little value was placed on what was not “modern.”[34] On the other extreme, there was also much of what Lewis called “thrills and raptures,” or an emphasis on emotion rather than thought.[35] Lewis’ response to this was to write fairy tales, not only for children, but also for adults.[36] In doing so, he hoped to smuggle in theology “under cover of romance” and show people a world beyond the simply mechanical workings where myth and antiquity had value.[37] He was playing off of both popular trends to try and correct them both: to draw in an audience using a hook only to show that the hook was not sufficient.

Lewis also addressed the intellectual concerns of his fellow Christians in regard to certain denominational disagreements. Rather than trying to sort out who was right and who was wrong, Lewis tried to transcend the differences and present a Christianity “common to nearly all Christians at all times.”[38] This approach was an attempt to bring all Christians into the same conversation: to allow serious theological thinking to take place without the usual barriers. He described this approach as being “a hall out of which doors open into several rooms… But it is in the rooms, not the hall that there are fires and chairs and meals;”[39] it was not meant to erase the defining doctrines of various denominations, but to provide a common ground.

It is difficult to assess the practical success of Lewis’ heroic action, as he was trying to affect people on an individual basis, but based on the fact that I personally have witnessed his ideas still being discussed 45 years after his death by both non-Christians and Christians in multiple denominations in regards to theology, apologetics, and literary criticism, I think it fair to say that he was fairly successful in his attempt. Despite the many disagreements that people have over his arguments, his reasoning, and his conclusions, many still consider him to be one of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century.[40]

Because he was able to challenge people’s thoughts and was able to live out, for the most part, the ideals prescribed by his own thinking, C.S. Lewis is both a hero and a man of integrity. He could easily have been a man of high ideals who challenged the public’s thinking without having acted in accordance to those beliefs; he could also have been a man who worked to live his life in the way he thought was right without bothering to make those beliefs a public challenge. His heroism and his integrity are separate facets, and could have existed independently, but it is very encouraging that he was able to have both. Walter Hooper expressed this quality when he said, “Lewis’s genuine and enduring value- that which continues to endear him to a growing number of readers- lies in his ability not only to do combat but to cleanse: to provide for the mind an authentic vision of the Faith which purges and replaces error, uncertainty and especially presumptuousness of those who, as Lewis says… ‘claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.’”[41]

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan, 1952), back cover; James T. Como, “Introduction: Within the Realm of Plenitude” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, ed. James T. Como (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979), xxii, xxiii.

[2] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, (San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 25.

[3] Lynne Mc Fall, “Integrity,” Ethics (October 1987): 7,9.

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 73.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 70.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1944), 208.

[7] Gilbert Meilaender, The taste for the other: the social and ethical thought of C. S. Lewis. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 18.

[8] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1963), 29.

[9] Lewis, A Grief Observed, 41.

[10] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 85.

[11] Meilaender, The taste for the other, 53, 59.

[12] See Lewis, Perelandra, 209-210; C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1965), 69; C.S Lewis, Prince Caspian, (New York: Harper Collins, 1951), 69.

[13] Meilaender, The taste for the other, 72 quoting from C.S. Lewis, Miracles.

[14] Meilaender, The taste for the other, 53.

[15] Walter Hooper, “Introduction” in All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis 1922-1927, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1991) 8; Derek Brewer, “The Tutor: A Portrait” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, ed. James T. Como (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979), 57; Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 123-124.

[16] Erik Routley, “A Prpohet” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, ed. James T. Como (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979), 36; C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 123-126.

[17] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 559.

[18] Walter Hooper, “Oxford’s Bonny Fighter” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, ed. James T. Como (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979), 159;  Lewis, Mere Christianity, 118-120.

[19] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 22, 121.

[20] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 119.

[21] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 84.

[22] Victoria Davion, “Integrity and Radical Change,” in Feminist Ethics, ed. Claudia Card, (University Press of Kansas, 1991),186.

[23] Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 219-229.

[24] Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 228-229.

[25] Derek Brewer “The Tutor: A Portrait” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, 55.

[26] Lewis, A Grief Observed, 8.

[27] Lewis, Prince Caspian, 22, 103-107, 197.

[28] C.S. Lewis, ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1956), 226-232, 308-309.

[29] Hooper, “Oxford’s Bonny Fighter” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, 163.

[30] Hooper, “Oxford’s Bonny Fighter” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, 164.

[31] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 25.

[32] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 78.

[33] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1947), 37-51.

[34] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 24; James T. Como, “Introduction: Within the Realm of Plenitude” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, xxxi.

[35] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: a Companion and Guide, 612.

[36] C.S Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York: Macmillan Publising Co., 1946), 7; C.S Lewis, Of Other Worlds, (San Francisco: Harcourt, 1966), 36.

[37] James T. Como, “Introduction: Within the Realm of Plenitude” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, xxv.

[38] Lewis, Mere Christianity, viii.

[39] Lewis, Mere Christianity, xv.

[40] Lewis, Mere Christianity, back cover; N.T. Wright, “Simply Lewis,” [www page] (Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity) [cited 23 November 2008]; available from http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-02-028-f.

[41] Walter Hooper, quoted by Eugene McGovern, “Our Need For Such a Guide” in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, 129.

~ by ntertanedangel on July 22, 2010.

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