On the Edge of a Precipice

Out of all of C. S. Lewis’s superb essays, two stand out to me. As with many others, I am enthralled by his war-time sermon (turned into an essay) “The Weight of Glory.” It is Lewis at his highest peak of wordsmithing. The other one that has always captured my attention is “Learning in War-time,” which, like “The Weight of Glory,” was a war-time sermon that became an essay.

The question raised in the sermon/essay is whether, during a time of great duress such as WWII, education should continue as if there is nothing going wrong. Why continue fiddling while Rome is burning? Shouldn’t everyone be so focused on the war effort that secondary things like education be put on the back burner? Lewis, naturally, disagreed with that narrow thinking, and did his best to explain why education was vital, not secondary, for his nation and its culture.

I admit, as a historian who has taught in universities for the last thirty-four years, that I share Lewis’s perspective. But it’s not only because I also share his profession. Rather, I am convinced by his logic.

The first part of his argument makes a point that should be obvious but that might be missed by those without a solid historical sense.

“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” We tend to ignore that. We think that the normal mode of life is peace, plenty, and comfort. “We are mistaken,” Lewis continues, “when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”

Startling words. Yet so true. Historians know this is true. Yes, there are times when tumult, war, and other interruptions of “normal life” are minimal. But, given the nature of man, it never remains that way.

“Human culture,” says Lewis, “has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” However, if men had always decided to wait for “normal life” to resume, the search for knowledge would never have begun. There will always be rationales offered for why we must postpone educational pursuits. “This current crisis must be addressed!” “This injustice must be remedied!” Well, as the old cliché notes, maybe we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Why must it be one or the other? After all, “normal life”—a life absolutely free of all deep concerns and societal issues—is pretty much an illusion.

The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object and intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.

There’s much more substance in this essay that I will save for future posts. I will note, though, that “Learning in War-time” provided the cornerstone for my new book.

Many Times & Many Places

If this post gave you some intriguing thoughts, you might want to go to Amazon and get a copy for yourself.