Lewis’s “Great Myth”

I have spent countless hours combing through C. S. Lewis’s essays in preparation for a course on those essays that I will teach beginning in January. I’m not complaining about the time I have spent: just the opposite. I can hardly imagine how time can be better spent. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been sharing key thoughts from some of those essays. Here’s another one I want to focus on today.

My study of other writers that Lewis admired shows me that some of this particular essay owes a great deal to G. K. Chesterton. As Lewis noted in Surprised by Joy, Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man gave him his initial understanding for how Christians should view history. I see Chesterton in this essay, yet Lewis adds his uniqueness into how he incorporates Chesterton.

Lewis begins by explaining that a theory of improvement—otherwise known as evolution—was transformed into a cosmic theory. “Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards.’” He then provides the basic logic of this scientific faith.

What’s wrong with this formulation? If understood properly, this means, according to Lewis, “that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming.” Why “aimless”? If there is no “mind” behind the process, where is the purpose? Why is it happening at all?

The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational—if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel—how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution?

Drawing on Chesterton’s insight on how something smaller growing into something larger may not always be the case, Lewis expands his argument in this way:

Chesterton states in his Everlasting Man, “The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized. Perhaps it reveals a civilization already old. … It has appeared to a good many intelligent and well-informed people quite as probable that the experience of the savages has been that of a decline from civilization.” He continues,

According to the real records available, barbarism and civilization were not successive states in the progress of the world. They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side. There were civilizations then as there are civilizations now; there are savages now as there were savages then.

Lewis echoes Chesterton when he says, “It may be true that if we trace back any existing civilization to its beginnings, we shall find those beginnings crude and savage. But when you look closer, you usually find that these beginnings themselves come from a wreck of some earlier civilization.” Lewis’s finishing touch on the essay showcases his subtle humor:

Let this be an encouragement to those who have read Lewis’s books but have not yet explored his essays. It’s time to delve further into what he has to offer.