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It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones.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Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would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 Apologetic for Historical Knowledge

Many readers of Lewis are familiar with a comment he made in his “Learning in War-Time” essay with respect to the importance of knowing history. As a historian, it truly resonates with me, and I was reminded of it again when I assigned the essay to my students last week. Lewis wrote,

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

In other words, we need perspective—historical perspective—to properly understand our own time and to, as he says, make us somewhat immune to the “cataract of nonsense” that emanates from our media. In Lewis’s day, that was mostly via magazines and radio; what would he say about the vast social media networks that exist now?

I have The Quotable Lewis, a very useful volume edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, in front of me right now, and under the category of “Prejudice,” I discover that Lewis said something very similar in his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in a chapter on the poet Edmund Spenser. Here’s how he described the same concept in somewhat different language:

There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time.

It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way.

For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.

A key message I always want to communicate to my students is that just because we are farther along the historical timeline, that doesn’t automatically mean we are smarter. Sometimes, the things we believe and the actions we take are more foolish than the beliefs and actions of those who came before us, and that it might be wisdom on our part to study them and find out what they have to offer us.

We are an arrogant age, thinking we know so much better than our ancestors, yet we are also a historically ignorant age. We have much to learn.

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part Two)

C. S. Lewis 2C. S. Lewis’s ruminations on the need for learning, even during times of war or other periods of great stress, in his “Learning in War-Time” essay, are so fulsome that it requires more than one post to cover his key points. This installment focuses on the life of the scholar, so it has special meaning to me.

“The intellectual life,” Lewis explains, “is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.” He then points out the greatest danger on this road:

Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.

Let me interject here that I realize this danger clearly in my own life. It’s so easy to write something and hope that it will get published and solidify one’s reputation as a scholar “with something important to say.” I have to go back to the Lord continually to keep my heart right on this point. Sometimes, when we achieve our goals, we are at the height of the danger. As Lewis notes,

Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

Yet we are not to allow the threat to keep us from pursuing God’s call on our life, as long as we keep our hearts right before Him. And God does want His people in this field, able to answer challenges and help direct the thoughts of others:

To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Then comes the phrasing I have seen others refer to most often in this essay:

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

As a historian, I appreciate, in particular, his next few thoughts:

History CloudMost of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

Probably the second-most quoted portion of this essay comes next:

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Shall we now add “the Facebook postings and Twitter tweets” of this newest age?

Yes, we need a sense of history to see the full context of the drama playing out in our day. Thanks to Lewis, we have that reminder today.

The Pause

Life sometimes needs a pause button.

I’ve been in Williamsburg, Virginia, since Wednesday. My main reason for being here is to show students some of the most significant sites related to the history of the nation, a task that’s hardly a task for me—it’s a joy to do so.

Bassett HallYet I’ve had some free time just to stroll and not feel rushed about anything. On Thursday afternoon, I walked from the Visitors’ Center to the home of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the man who put upwards of $68 million of his own dollars into the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. It probably was about two miles to the home, Bassett Hall, and I’ve not been accustomed lately to extended walking. Later in the evening, I had “charley horses” in both shins, something I don’t ever recall experiencing before. But it was worth it.

It was worth it not so much for the home itself, although it was interesting, but simply for the time to saunter over there and not be subject to a schedule for a change. The rest of the afternoon I spent in the museum, listening for a while to a humorous and informative Q&A with “Martha Washington,” then on to some truly fascinating eighteenth-century portraits. Again, no rush, just relaxation.

House of BurgessesLast night, I had a sandwich at the well-known Cheese Shop in Merchants Square, then a nearly one-mile trek to the Capitol, where I spent a pleasant hour taking in a harpsichord concert of music from the era. The concert took place in the House of Burgesses room in the reconstructed Capitol. This is the same spot where Washington, Wythe, Henry, Jefferson, and so many others helped make history. Although I’ve been in that room many times previously, I had the same sense of historical presence as always. For me, it never gets old.

Afterwards, in weather that was cool, but not too cool, I leisurely retraced my steps back nearly one mile to Merchants Square, got a coffee, and sat on a bench outside, watching tourists going to and fro from one specialty shop and restaurant to another, all under a sky that slowly shifted from dusk to dark. Peace prevailed externally, but more important was the peace within me. On the walk and on the bench, I had a conversation with the Lord about being content with life, no matter what the circumstances. We also spoke of being able to enjoy the small things and treasuring those moments.

No, I didn’t hear an audible voice on the other side of the conversation—but He was there. And where He is, that’s where life is as well. Without Him, and without the peace He brings, we are the most miserable of all creatures.

Life sometimes needs a pause button. Thank you, Lord, for all those pauses that renew our strength and restore purpose.

Lewis: The Importance of History

History CloudWhy is it important to study history? In an essay entitled “Learning in War-Time,” C. S. Lewis provides this insight:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

People have a tendency to look around them and think what they see currently is ultimate reality, when, in fact, it may be only a temporary trend. Knowing history allows them to understand that what we’re experiencing now may be fleeting. He continues,

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

If all you know about your culture and government policies is what the mainstream media is telling you, you are of all people possibly the most uninformed. You are a slave to whatever you’re told because you haven’t taken the time to find out things for yourself. Knowing history helps set one free. That’s why Lewis also commented in another essay, “De Descriptione Temporum,”

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.

Thank you, Prof. Lewis, for your praise of my profession. May I live up to your high expectations.

Lewis: The Christian View of History

I teach a historiography course each year. In it, I cover not only the basics of the history of history writing and how to research and document sources, but also the philosophy of history. As a Christian, I see history as an ongoing story of the relationship of man to God and man to man. There was a beginning, there was a key moment in the “plot,” so to speak, when God came to earth in the form of man, and there will be a grand finale.

Discarded ImageAlthough C. S. Lewis was not a historian, he was in tune with this viewpoint. In his work The Discarded Image, he explained the difference between a Christian view of history and a typical view from an ancient civilization:

To the Greeks, we are told, the historical process was a meaningless flux or cyclic reiteration. Significance was to be sought not in the world of becoming but in that of being, not in history but in metaphysics, mathematics, and theology. Hence Greek historians wrote of such past action—the Persian or the Peloponesian War, or the lives of great men—as have a unity in themselves, and were seldom curious to trace from its beginnings the development of a people or a state. History, in a word, was not for them a story with a plot.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, saw their whole past as a revelation of the purposes of Jahweh. Christianity, going on from there, makes world-history in its entirety a single, transcendentally significant, story with a well-defined plot pivoted on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgement.

Christianity, therefore, makes sense of the whole of humanity’s past; it has an explanation for why things are as they are today. I’ve never viewed my profession as a historian to be separate from my overall understanding of mankind seen through the Biblical lens. That’s why, to me, history remains fascinating.