Lewis: False Presuppositions of the Modern Mind

C. S. Lewis 14One of the essays I had my students read this semester in my C. S. Lewis course was “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” It’s probably one of Lewis’s most overlooked essays. The first time I read it, I wanted to be sure students were exposed to it.

In it, Lewis takes aim at the presuppositions that modern men take for granted and then shows why they have accepted unsound reasoning. Modern men have assumed, without thinking it through clearly, many ideas from what Lewis would call pseudo-science.

Here’s an example:

To the modern man it seems simply natural that an ordered cosmos should emerge from chaos, that life should come out of the inanimate, reason out of instinct, civilization out of savagery, virtue out of animalism.

This idea is supported in his mind by a number of false analogies: the oak coming from the acorn, the man from the spermatozoon, the modern steamship from the primitive coracle.

So what’s the problem with these assumptions? Lewis calls on us to think more deeply:

The supplementary truth that every acorn was dropped by an oak, every spermatozoon derived from a man, and the first boat by something so much more complex than itself as a man of genius, is simply ignored.

The modern mind accepts as a formula for the universe in general the principle “Almost nothing may be expected to turn into almost everything” without noticing that the parts of the universe under our direct observation tell a quite different story.

Lewis has a way of telling that “quite different story” and making us rethink our assumptions.