C.S. Lewis and the Great Divide

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C.S. Lewis

Recently, I’ve been reading as much of and about the British author C.S. Lewis as I can, as you can see from my Amazon reading list in the right-hand sidebar. My original reason was to inform myself as I will teach two of his Narnian stories next academic year. I found Selected Literary Essays in our university library. The book contains some real gems, but is apparently and unfortunately out of print.

The first essay is Lewis’ inaugural lecture as Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance English Literature in the University of Cambridge, delivered in Cambridge on 29 November, 1954 and published in 1955 by Cambridge University Press: De Descriptione Temporum. ( Walter Hooper‘s very helpful notes can be downloaded from the website as a Word document.) This My Blog summarizes the lecture:

Lewis also talks about the difference between the Renaissance and modern culture- even recent modern culture. The secularization of society, increase in skepticism, and emphasis of progress are wholly different from the ideologies that tie every other period of history together. We are not returning to paganism, we are rejecting religion altogether. We do not seek to conserve and preserve the goods we have already acquired- we want newer, better things. Modernization has brought about the biggest change thus far in history, Lewis argues.

Finally, Lewis claims that he is a student of this [the pre-modern] era of literature. He may not have the best understanding of it, but he reads Medieval/Renaissance literature as if he lived then. So, what he lacks in understanding hopefully he’ll make up in character. You learn more about dinosaurs by seeing one, not by reading about them for years. In the same [way], Lewis hopes to teach the rest more about Medieval literature, because he is, in a sense, a dinosaur.

First, Lewis discusses the Great Divide traditionally located between mediaeval and Renaissance periods, and points to scholars who were then beginning to doubt whether it was such a great divide as people had thought. He identifies a change which has been coming over historical opinion within my own lifetime. It is temperately summed up by Professor Seznec in the words: “As the Middle Ages and the Renaissance come to be better known, the traditional antithesis between them grows less marked.” (Prof. J. Seznec, La Survivance des dieux antiques(London, 1940)). He then admits both the relative arbitrariness of such historical periods  (in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide. There is nothing in history that quite corresponds to a coastline or a watershed in geography) and at the same time, the existence of a Great Divide: one between modern man and Old Western culture. Lewis felt himself to be a man of the Old Western culture, rather than of today, and while this identity had something to do with his religion (Christianity), it was not the whole story.

This was the point of his which interested me most, so I will quote at length from the lecture to illustrate it. It is, in a nutshell perhaps, Lewis’ conservative philosophy.

The first division that naturally occurs to us is that between Antiquity and the Dark Ages – the fall of the Empire, the barbarian invasions, the christening of Europe. And of course no possible revolution in historical thought will ever make this anything less than a massive and multiple change….The partial loss of ancient learning and its recovery at the Renaissance were … both unique events. History furnished no rivals to such a death and such a re-birth. But we have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists. If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.

Lewis elaborates:

To Gibbon the literary change from Virgil to Beowulf or the Hildebrand, if he had read them, would have seemed greater than it can to us. We can now see quite clearly that these barbarian poems were not really a novelty comparable to, say, The Waste Land or Mr. Jones’s Anathemata. They were rather an unconscious return to the spirit of the earliest classical poetry. The audience of Homer, and the audience of the Hildebrand, once they had learned one another’s language and metre, would have found one another’s poetry perfectly intelligible. Nothing new had come into the world….

(For a critique of  “modern” poetry by a more recent conservative, see Sean Gabb’s excoriation of “the non-poetry of Carol Ann Duffy“.)

The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors, whether they welcomed it themselves as Christians, or, like Gibbon, deplored it as humanistic unbelievers, a unique, irreversible event. But we have seen the opposite process. Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not…. Surely the gap between Professor Ryle and Thomas Browne is far wider than that between Gregory the Great and Virgil? Surely Seneca and Dr. Johnson are closer together than Burton and Freud?

How so? How can Seneca and Dr. Johnson be “closer” than Burton and Freud? What Great Divide separates them greater than the one of time and culture? Lewis has already hinted at it when he wrote of “a man who could not read Virgil though his father could”. He develops his theme:

I have come to regard as the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West that which divides the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott

First, he examines political change:

The change is this. In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers, except at rare and short intervals, was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live “a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” and “pass their time in rest and quietness”. But now the organization of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of “appeals”,  “drives”, and “campaigns”. Our rulers have become like schoolmasters and are always demanding “keenness”. And you notice that I am guilty of a slight archaism in calling them “rulers”. “Leaders” is the modem word. I have suggested elsewhere that this is a deeply significant change of vocabulary. Our demand upon them has changed no less than theirs on us. For of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call “magnetism” or “personality”.

Next, the arts:

I do not think that any previous age produced work which was, in its own time, as shatteringly and bewilderingly new as that of the Cubists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and Picasso has been in ours. And I am quite sure that this is true of the art I love best, that is, of poetry…. Skaldic poetry was unintelligible if you did not know the kenningar, but intelligible if you did. And – this is the real point – all Alexandrian men of letters and all skalds would have agreed about the answers. I believe the same to be true of the dark conceits in Donne; there was one correct interpretation of each and Donne could have told it to you. Of course you might misunderstand what Wordsworth was “up to” in Lyrical Ballads; but everyone understood what he said. I do not see in any of these the slightest parallel to the state of affairs disclosed by a recent symposium on Mr. Eliot’s Cooking Egg. Here we find seven adults (two of them Cambridge men) whose lives have been specially devoted to the study of poetry discussing a very short poem which has been before the world for thirty-odd years; and there is not the slightest agreement among them as to what, in any sense of the word, it means. I am not in the least concerned to decide whether this state of affairs is a good thing, or a bad thing. I merely assert that it is a new thing. In the whole history of the West, from Homer – I might almost say from the Epic of Gilgamesh – there has been no bend or break in the development of poetry comparable to this.

The third change is in religion, or what Lewis calls “the un-Christening” of the world:

Thirdly, there is the great religious change which I have had to mention before: the un-christening. Of course there were lots of sceptics in Jane Austen’s time and long before, as there are lots of Christians now. But the presumption has changed. In her days some kind and degree of religious belief and practice were the norm: now, though I would gladly believe that both kind and degree have improved, they are the exception. I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ” relapsing into Paganism“. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

The fourth change is the rise of technology and the development of machines:

Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. (The only pejorative sense which Johnson gives to Primitive in his Dictionary is, significantly, “Formal; affectedly solemn; Imitating the supposed gravity of old times”.) Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”? Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. For the two great imaginative expressions of the myth, as distinct from the theorem –Keats’s Hyperion and Wagner‘s Ring – are pre-Darwinian. Let us give these their due. But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

I thus claim for my chosen division of periods that on the first count it comes well up to scratch; on the second and third it arguably surpasses all; and on the fourth it quite clearly surpasses them without any dispute. I conclude that it really is the greatest change in the history of Western Man.

Lewis sees the period since the Iliad was composed till Waterloo was fought as having a continuity that does not extend after that fateful battle:

Of course within that immense period there are all sorts of differences. There are lots of convenient differences between the area I am to deal with and other areas; there are important differences within the chosen area. And yet despite all this-that whole thing, from its Greek or pre-Greek beginnings down to the day before yesterday, seen from the vast distance at which we stand today, reveals a homogeneity that is certainly important and perhaps more important than its interior diversities.

Lewis announced himself, in this lecture at least, as the spokesman of Old Western Culture, albeit in such halting fashion as I can. Lewis then reassured his audience:

In the individual fife, as the psychologists have taught us, it is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us. I think the same is true of society. To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. The unhistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past. Dante read Virgil. Certain other medieval authors evolved the legend of Virgil as a great magician. It was the more recent past, the whole quality of mind evolved during a few preceding centuries, which impelled them to do so. Dante was freer; he also knew more of the past. And you will be no freer by coming to misinterpret Old Western Culture as quickly and deeply as those medievals misinterpreted Classical Antiquity; or even as the Romantics misinterpreted the Middle Ages. Such misinterpretation has already begun. To arrest its growth while arrest is still possible is surely a proper task for a university.

Lewis concludes his talk thus:

the vast change which separates you from Old Western has been gradual and is not even now complete. Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet; are meeting in this room… I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours… You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modem anthropologist could never have told us? He would tell us without knowing he was telling. One thing I know: I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modem scholarship had been on the wrong track for years. Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners… It is my settled conviction that in order to read Old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modem literature. And because this is the judgement of a native, I claim that, even if the defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

Here are some further gems I found memorable:

We can’t get into the real forest of the past; that is part of what the word past means.
We notice in Beowulf that an old sword is expected to be better than a new one.


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Comments 1

  1. CastleQwayR wrote:

    I have been enjoying the books of Mr. Lewis from my pre-Christian days and now try to learn as much as I can about his life and all of his work. In reading the three volumes of letters, I am at the point immediately before his conversion. I did a brief post and would like your insights, observations or whatever thoughts you might share.

    http://wp.me/py5dX-4K

    Thank you.

    –Ron C

    There is a very nice private C.S. Lewis collection at Taylor University up the road from my home which I have enjoyed. I’m friends with the donor, Dr. Brown.

    Posted 04 Oct 2011 at 8:48 pm