Lewis on the Ancient vs. the Modern

C. S. Lewis exchanged Oxford for Cambridge in 1955. He never received the recognition he deserved at Oxford; Cambridge offered him a special professorial chair designed with him in mind. It was a major event when he gave his inaugural Cambridge lecture, speaking to a full house about the distinctions between the ancient and the modern.

It’s in that lecture, De Descriptione Temporum,” that he made his oft-quoted comment about being a dinosaur because he was an Old Western Man, a type he claimed would not be around much longer.

Another passage in that lecture that is well worth contemplating is the part where he critiques the idea that just because something is new it must naturally be better.

“How has it come about,” he queried, “that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation,’ with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence'”? He continued,

Why does the word “primitive” 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. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Acceptance of Darwinian evolutionism as applied to all aspects of society was one answer, he affirmed. We are all supposedly evolving and getting better all the time. But along with that, the coming of the age of the machines helps explain it more fully.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones.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.

Technological improvements, Lewis opined, become milestones in people’s lives. He used examples from his day: the development from an old push-bike to a motorbike to a car; from gramophone to radio to television. Today, we can use other examples: the latest I-Phone simply must be purchased because it’s so much better.

This way of looking at things—this approach to life—has left “footprints on our language,” Lewis asserted, and is the very 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.”

What if those ancestors could somehow make a trek into our modern 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Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would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.

As a historian, I love Lewis’s analysis of the differences between the past and the present. I agree that we have changed our language and definition of terms sometimes in a downward direction.

As a Christian, I resonate with his attachment to the permanent. Our society lives for the new, the more advanced, the latest novelty. Yet our society has little regard for that which needs to be preserved—ideas that permeated an earlier era: we are all made in the image of God; there are moral absolutes given by God; man, in society, needs to get as close to those absolutes as possible, and attain the moral character that they embody.

Will we see that kind of society again? It’s an open question.

Lewis’s Oxford-Cambridge Distinction

I watch from afar (via Facebook posts) those who are participating in the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge conference. I already had my England trip this summer; couldn’t afford this one.

It’s nice to relive, through the posts, some of the spots I visited earlier, especially the Kilns. The conference now moves on from Oxford to Cambridge, where Lewis taught in the last decade of his life. I’ve never been there; my bucket list is not yet emptied.

Moving from Oxford to Cambridge was hard for Lewis, even though he was offered a chair created with him in mind, and despite the poor treatment he received at Oxford, primarily from those who could never forgive him for wading into “religious” writing.

At first, he declined the invitation to teach at Cambridge. He was concerned about moving out of the Kilns after making a life there. At the urging of Tolkien and with the permission of Cambridge, he was able to keep the Kilns as his residence and take the train to Cambridge during the week.

His inaugural lecture created a sensation. In it, he spoke of the loss of the heritage of the past. He famously described himself as a dinosaur from whom others might still learn.

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! . . .

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.

When he made the actual physical move, transferring all his books to the new university, it took him a while to adjust. Joy Gresham, not yet his wife, helped with the move. As I wrote in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis (accessed here),

To some friends she wrote of how Lewis was adapting to the move, revealing the emotional wrench it was for him at first, even though he handled his uneasiness with his usual sense of humor:

“Poor lamb, he was suffering all the pangs and qualms of a new boy going to a formidable school—went around muttering, ‘Oh, what a fool I am! I had a good home and I left!’ and turning his mouth down at the corners most pathetical. He always makes his distresses into a joke, but of course there’s a genuine grief in leaving a place like Magdalen after thirty years; rather like a divorce, I imagine.”

Lewis, according to those who knew him at Cambridge, came to love the place. As he wrote to another correspondent, Mary Willis Shelburne, about his new Magdalene College,

It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and “old woman” here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

I would be interested in knowing if Lewis’s perception of the distinction between Oxford and Cambridge remains today.

Meanwhile, as I enjoy others’ experiences from my vantage point across the ocean, running through my mind is one thought: Oxbridge 2020.

The Un-Christening of the Western World

c-s-lewis-15When C. S. Lewis moved from Oxford University to Cambridge University after nearly three decades at Oxford, it was a major event. Oxford never really appreciated what it had in Lewis, whereas Cambridge created a special Chair designed for him.

His inaugural lecture at Cambridge was a major event as well. In it, he outlined how Europe had become post-Christian, which was a fairly accurate description of Oxford. Lewis noted that nearly everyone thought the switch from pre-Christian to Christian was irreversible. Not so, he explained:

cambridge-inaugural-lectureThe 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. . . . 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.

It was in that same lecture that he famously referred to himself as a dinosaur, and that since not many dinosaurs existed anymore, the world should learn from them while they are still around.

Joy Gresham, who would of course become his wife a couple of years later, was present at the lecture. She had a rather whimsical reaction to it, writing in a letter, “How that man loves being in a minority, even a lost-cause minority! Athanasius contra mundum, or Don Quixote against the windmills. . . . I sometimes wonder what he would do if Christianity really did triumph everywhere; I suppose he would have to invent a new heresy.”

Yet, as I survey the Western world sixty years after that inaugural lecture, I have to say that Lewis, as usual, was delivering truth.