C S Lewis and chronological snobbery: “Why–damn it–it’s medieval!”

Old-books-on-shelves-001Lewis was born to save the modern world from trashing its traditions – both Christian and classical. Once he had converted from his own “chronological snobbery,” he quickly found a vocation in recovering tradition for others. This is the second post from the “Tradition chapter” of Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis. The first is here.

For an idea of how Lewis viewed the power of tradition, we turn to his answer to the Christian Century magazine when they asked him, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The wording of that question is crucial. They asked not “what books did most to influence your style?” or “fire your imagination?” or “give you templates for your own writing?” etc., but rather “what books shaped your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” As we see in the preface to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione, retitled “On reading old books” in later anthologies, and even more in his De Descriptione Temporum address at Cambridge in the Fall of 1954, nothing more triggered for Lewis “the place where his deep gladness met the world’s deep need”[1] than the modern abandonment of tradition. I mean his sense that in abandoning tradition, the modern world had dealt itself a grievous wound, which only his Christian faith kept him from seeing as inevitably fatal.

Lewis was perhaps the best prepared person of his generation for the task of appreciating and passing on the wisdom of past generations to those yet to come. From his earliest years, Lewis found the greatest pleasure in both reading and writing “old books.” His lawyer father’s house contained many hundreds of books, which he read avidly, finding in some of them those earliest experiences of sehnsucht, joy.

From 16 to 18, Lewis studied with the former headmaster of an Irish college, William T. Kirkpatrick, who observed that Lewis read more classics than any boy he had taught. His training in the classics under Kirkpatrick prepared Lewis to find in “old books” not only aesthetic pleasures but meaning for living—more a medieval than a modern trait: a trait, in fact, that points to the Christian church, which, as a “People of the Book,” grounded itself for more than a millennium in the apostolic teachings handed down in narrative form from generation to generation.

Books were Lewis’s native element. That so many of the books he read were ancient or medieval is certainly important, but that they were books, and that Lewis loved them and sought in them wisdom for living, shows him to be intuitively at one with medievalism. In other words, Lewis came early to that bedrock medieval presupposition: our best authorities for truth are the ancient, written authorities.

It is true that as a young man, Lewis turned consciously against this insight, building instead a teetering modern “new look” philosophical edifice. But the respect for tradition was always there in the background, and it didn’t take long to re-emerge, in the oddest of ways.

It happened at Oxford, when his friends Harwood and Barfield converted—not to orthodox Christianity, but to the mystical philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (anthroposophy). As Lewis saw their new creed at the time, “here, apparently, were all the abominations; none more abominable than those which had once attracted me. Here were gods, spirits, after-life and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. ‘Why—damn it—it’s medieval,’ I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men wallow on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into Hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in. . . .”

Of course Lewis has set us up. Very soon after this episode, Lewis was “taken in” by many things that were “medieval.” In fact, he found himself on a path that wound up not only in traditional, orthodox Christianity, but also in the Cambridge Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. And one of the chief aspects of Lewis’s movement from idealism, to theism, to Christianity, was his increased sense of the permanent verity and validity of truths and traditions of the past, and the fact that in many ways these older understandings have not been improved upon, especially in the areas of religion and ethics. And this was a medieval insight. Discussing how medieval authors, despite the rarity of books, often presented or repeated things their audience already knew, Lewis said, “One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien’s Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew” (DI, 200). In ancient and medieval worship, this principle is called anamnesis—it is the bringing of important things to memory again and again by communal recitation, to work them deeply into our hearts.

In the ensuing “Great War” with Barfield, his responses to Lewis’s “violent” arguments against Steiner’s teachings

“made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and [208] how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in tose widespread assumptions which are so ingreained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (207-8)

This understanding of the limitations and blindnesses of our own age—and thus of the necessity of turning to other ages for wisdom that will strip away those blindnesses—shows up in many other places in Lewis’s writings. In fact, it forms the core of his argument for the necessity of education, even in war-time (when he told a group of concerned Oxford students that their scholarly vocation was still important, because “Good philosophy must exist . . . because bad philosophy needs to be answered”).

[1] Frederick Buechner.

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