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The Table Video

George Marsden

C. S. Lewis: Intellectual Virtues and Civil Discourse - George Marsden

Lewis, though sometimes controversial, cultivated some intellectual virtues that are helpful for promoting civility. Lewis follows Augustine in defining virtues as “right-ordered affections,” that need to be cultivated. Intellectual virtues should operate within the framework of these other virtues. So rather than seeing rationality as simply objective, he sees it as needing to operate in the context of properly ordered affections. In Mere Christianity he appeals to the imagination of his audience as much as their reason. Lewis’s quest for timeless truths is another intellectual virtue that leads him to find common ground with diverse audiences in perennial human nature. Historical perspectives also help him to recognize how much modern people’s views need to be re-enchanted. While his presentations have a winsome personal dimension, they ultimately point not to himself but to the realities he sees as answering perennial human needs.


Thank you, Tom. Those were good days and ping-pong is something I can still do. [laughter] That’s fun. Talking about C. S. Lewis and Intellectual Virtues in Civil Discourse. When I first was invited to this conference and thought, what could I talk about? I thought about C. S. Lewis and civil discourse. I had some doubts as to whether Lewis would be a particularly helpful model. Because in 20th century England, where Lewis was, he was often a polarizing figure. He remarked to a younger colleague once with much passion, “You don’t know how much I’m hated.”

And, as you may know, his colleagues so detested him that they blocked the possibility of him receiving a chair at Oxford University. Eventually Cambridge offered him a chair, recognizing his academic merit. And part of the problem was, he was part of that British academic culture that relishes putting down opponents and witty condescension and disparagement of the people whom you disagree with. And Lewis partook of that culture and he gave as much as he got probably. For years he was the head of a, what they called a Socratic club, that cultivated clever argument.

And some of his witty retorts to his critics are brilliant and they’re fun to read. My favorite I think is, his reply to a Professor Norman Pittenger that you can find in “God in the Dock.” Which is just a devastating reply to a critique. But that kind of wit doesn’t exactly cultivate civic virtue and further discourse. Even so, despite recognizing that Lewis was occasionally polarizing. I think we can learn much from him as a model for cultivating intellectual virtues and also for promoting civil discourse. First, I think it’s clear that Lewis thought of the Christian life largely in terms of cultivating virtues. In “Mere Christianity,” he talks about the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude.

And then the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. And he sees the proper cultivation of human character as a matter of developing habits or practices. He says in “Mere Christianity,” “And taking your life as a whole, “with your innumerable choices all life long, “you are slowly turning this central thing,” that is yourself, “either into a heavenly creature “or into a hellish creature. “Either into a creature that is in harmony with God “and with other creatures and with itself. “Or else one that is in a state “of war and hatred with God “and with your fellow creatures “and with itself.” In “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis provides what amounts to his view of intellectual virtues. He cites Augustine as defining virtue as ordo amoris, or right-ordered affections.

So intellectual virtues have to be understood in that context. In “Abolition of Man,” Lewis’ complaint was that recent school textbooks, reflecting the vogue of logical positivism at the time, were teaching that all statements about values, such as statements like, “This waterfall is sublime.” That reflected merely the subjective state of the observer, and did not pass the modern scientific test of objectivity. Lewis’ response was to cite Augustine and Plato before him that, as Lewis put it, the head rules the body through the chest. So quote “reason must rule over the mere appetites “by means of the spirited element.”

And by the “spirited element,” what Lewis means is the properly cultivated affections, or loves. These affections, or loves, I suggest, ought to be cultivated as moral virtues. The guiding principle for shaping these virtues, he argues, can be found in the Tao, or natural law principles, endorsed in all sorts of cultures, such as duties to family and nation, principles of justice, honesty, mercy, magnanimity and so forth. So our reason, when it’s properly functioning, reason when properly functioning, does not guide us purely dispassionately as an objective agent. But rather it should rule through the properly cultivated, and in the context, through and in the context of, the properly cultivated affections.

One example of what he has in mind is found in a paper called “The Obstinacy of Belief,” which he published in 1955. And there he criticized the positivist scientific ideal that said that people should tailor the strength of their beliefs to the strength of the evidence supporting that belief. But Lewis pointed out that in ordinary experience it’s often necessary to commit to a belief that goes beyond the immediate evidence that we have for that belief.

For instance, we often need simply to trust authority or to trust other people for all sorts of things, important things that we believe. And Lewis illustrates the legitimacy of such trust as the basis for belief by pointing out that there are all sorts of situations in life, when we can only help someone else if they will simply trust us. So he says this, “In getting a dog out of a trap. “In extracting a thorn from a child’s finger. “In teaching a boy to swim “or rescuing one who can’t. “In getting a frightened beginner over “a nasty place on a mountain. “The one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. “We are asking them to trust us “in the teeth of their senses. “Their imagination and their intelligence.”

So he says, he argues from that, “So Christians who say that they should continue to trust “in the God that they have once encountered, “even when they face doubts and trials to that faith, “are not acting irrationally. “Continued trust in a person is often “a perfectly legitimate basis for belief in a commitment.” So the larger point is that Lewis saw our rationality as operating properly only in the context of our properly ordered affections. These, in turn, are properly shaped by, among other things, our personal relationships. And those involve trust and love, things that go beyond strictly scientific evidences that we can deal with.

If you’ll permit me a digression that I think may be illuminating, at least to some of you. I think Lewis’ view that we can obtain true intellectual virtues only in the context of properly ordered affections, as similarities to that of another Christian thinker who has become quite popular in the last generation. And that is my friend, Jonathan Edwards. For Edwards, right belief cannot be separated from the affections. Typically, Edwards describes faith as being given as a sixth sense, like being given eyes to see the overwhelming beauty of divine things.

And that experience of supreme beauty, ultimately the experience of seeing the beauty of God in the sacrificial love of Christ, draws us to God. So that experience of beauty, like meeting the person whom we immediately recognize to be perfectly good, both reorders our affections and shapes our trust and love in that person. And convinces us of truths about that person. Alvin Plantinga discusses how Edwards approach speaks to current discussions of intellectual virtues at Warrant, in the epistemological sense.

Now I don’t think C. S. Lewis spells out the role of affections in relation to intellect quite as fully as Edwards does. But I think the model is similar. Lewis’ complaint against modern rationalistic positivistic trends is that it’s creating what he calls “men without chests,” or, in effect, people without hearts or affections. Lewis’ effectiveness as a winsome communicator has a great deal to do with his recognition that intellect does not operate independently of the affections. So even though Lewis was a skilled logician who used many effective arguments, he surrounded those arguments with a host of images and analogies to make the meaning of what he was saying come alive. That approach fit his view that reason must rule through the chest, or through the affections.

As Lewis explains it, he sees the imagination as the organ of meaning and reason as the natural organ of truth. So the best way we have for understanding the meaning of something that we’re not too mired with is by way of analogy with something we do know about. So Lewis, who was a poet at heart, constantly uses images and analogies and metaphors to explain things. Such explanations help his audience relate to what he is saying affectively, as it connects to something that is already part of their experience.

His examples that gets quoted about the dog in the trap and the child with the thorn, etc., are great examples of how, of helping to grasp an intellectual point by building up an effective understanding of the point. We can feel the force of the argument. So how might these understandings of intellectual virtue relate to civil discourse? The first and most important point is that Lewis’ approach of putting intellectual virtues in the context of cultivating other virtues is an essential step in the first step in the right direction. Being a person of prudence and integrity who is concerned with proper duties of beneficence, justice, mercy, veracity, magnanimity and so forth, all go a long way toward helping to get a hearing in the public arena for Christian sorts of views.

Lewis’ writings, and especially in his fiction, have wide resonance because he makes clear that he’s dedicated to these ideals or virtues. They shine through. And also, in the more people that study his life, it confirms that he was cultivating virtues, he worked very hard at cultivating virtues in his personal life. In Mr. David Horner’s excellent presentation he was talking about embody, an embodied oral argument. And Lewis had personal qualities that did, he worked hard at trying to cultivate these virtues that he talked about. So the central lesson we can learn from Lewis is that the intellectual virtues have to, ought to be operating within the context of properly ordered moral virtues.

But going beyond that, I want also to identify some more specifically intellectual virtues, or habits of mind, in Lewis’ work that might contribute to a greater civility. One of those intellectual traits is that Lewis is always looking for timeless, or perennial, truths as opposed to the latest insights that are more culturally bound. Laura Schmidt put it well yesterday saying that it’s an example of working within an intellectual tradition. And the counterpart of working in a tradition is that Lewis is rightfully well known for his critique of what he called “chronological snobbery.” And chronological snobbery was the idea that the latest ideas are the thing everyone has to agree with and you can write off the old ideas as romantic or medieval. And by way of contrast, Lewis saw that historical perspectives provide a critical place to stand in evaluating modern intellectual fashions.

One of the best places where he articulated that is in a presentation “Learning in War-Time.” In September of 1939, just after the outbreak of World War II, he’s speaking to Oxford students about the question why you should continue to study the classics when the world is at war and you’re facing the draft and there’s this emergency situation. And his answer was that, especially in times of crisis, people needed to know the past in order to recognize that quote “much which seems certain to the uneducated, “is merely temporary fashion.” And he says, “One who has lived in many places “is not likely to be deceived “by the local errors of his native village. “The scholar who has lived in many times “is therefore to some degree immune “from the great cataract of nonsense “that pours from the press “and from the microphone of our own age.”

Perspectives from the past were helpful to Lewis, I think, in leading him to quite consciously avoid the political temptation. And that is to identify Christianity with a political position. You might remember in Screwtape he has a nice passage where he suggests, Screwtape suggests to his subordinate devil, you can undermine your patient’s faith by getting him to think the chief value of the faith is for the good arguments that it provides for his political position. In addition to staying away from politics, Lewis is relentless, however, in undermining the temporary fashion of mid-20th century culture.

Particularly the fashion in the intellectual outlook of his day, that trusted far too much naturalistic, scientific models as providing the best and the definitive explanations of the human condition. If you read Lewis’ fiction, particularly in the space trilogies, his villains are often deluded scientists. Most notably Weston in the interplanetary novels, who wants to exploit the other planets for economic profit. And these are examples of what Lewis is talking about when he says “men without chests,” who actually understand nothing about the true human condition. Critiquing popular contemporary assumptions in the light of broad historical perspectives and traditions seems to qualify as an intellectual virtue, in the sense of improving our chances of getting things right.

But it’s not so clear that such dismissals of the assumptions of our contemporaries are conducive to promoting civil discourse. Furthermore, we might ask whether using satire and fiction for such dismissals is the most civil way to make our case. Satire does not really invite further conversation. Nonetheless, flat-out arguments have the same problem. One rule of life is that our best arguments almost never convince our opponents, but rather only bribe them to be more resourceful in finding counterarguments.

So that we end up with arguing further apart than we were when we began. So perhaps it’s the case for fiction as a way to make our points without confrontation. Especially if we do it with good humor, as in the case of “The Screwtape Letters.” Or even better, in the case of Narnia. Lewis works in his critiques of modern thought in those stories, but he does it in a whimsical way that wins assent by, you hardly know it, by indirection. Lewis’ creation of alternative worlds in his fiction, like his historical perspectives, provide contemporary people ways of viewing the most basic underlying assumptions, or mythologies, of their own culture. One of Lewis’ most important insights is that modern people need to recognize the degree to which modernized cultures have disenchanted their perceptions about reality. So a first step in turning people to be open to the claims of Christianity, is to help them to re-enchant their sensibilities.

So in a famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis, after invoking a sense of our deepest desires and longing for beauty, he then asks, he says this: “Do you think I’m trying to weave a spell? “Perhaps I am. “But remember your fairy tales. “Spells are used for breaking enchantments, “as well as for inducing them. “And you and I have need of the strongest spell “that can be found to wake us up “from the evil enchantment of worldliness “as it’s been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. “Almost our whole education has been directed “to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice. “Almost all our modern philosophies “have been devised to convince us “that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

So fiction and storytelling are one of the most effective ways to help break that spell. For instance, in “The Magician’s Nephew” story about the origins of Narnia, there’s a wonderful character of Uncle Andrew, who believes himself to be a magician, but, in fact, is a hopelessly modern person who is self-centered and also has thoroughly modern scientific assumptions. So when Aslan begins to sing a beautiful song that leads to the creation of Narnia. Uncle Andrew convinces himself that he’s only hearing a roar, because who ever heard of a lion singing?

Unlike the other characters, Uncle Andrew cannot hear Aslan or the other animals speak, because he knows that it’s impossible for animals to speak. Opening people up to recognizing there’s more to reality than modern disenchanted scientism would allow is an important step toward bridging what otherwise is often an unbridgeable barrier in communicating with our secular contemporaries. In Elaine Ecklund’s talk about talking to scientists.

This would fit with that. Such re-enchanting and, hence, connecting with the perennial and cross-cultural dimensions of historical human experience will, of course, only win some people and will not touch the Uncle Andrews of the world who do not have the ears to hear. But nonetheless, as I mentioned above, Lewis’ quest for perennial and lasting truths about the human condition does have a dimension that can at least foster some communication with wider audiences. And that is by studying various cultures throughout history, Lewis is cultivating the intellectual virtue of looking for perennial human nature.

And that perennial human nature helps him communicate so well. It’s one of the reasons why he can communicate so well in his radio addresses that become “Mere Christianity.” He understands ordinary people in his own day because he’s looked for the common elements in human nature. Those common elements once again are related to the common moral traits that he identifies with the Tao. And even though he recognizes the vast gap between Christians and people such as Uncle Andrew, whose combination of selfish affections and modern learning make him deaf to what Christians are saying. Lewis still sees a point of contact. He is someone who is influenced by 18th century common sense philosophy. He’s an admirer of Samuel Johnson.

And in Lewis’ case it’s not a naive trust in common sense as though there’s simply just a common rationality there. Because, as I said, he recognizes the prior dispositional affective and intellectual obstacles to common understanding. But nonetheless, despite that, all humans still hold many beliefs in common and one can still build on such commonalities, and Lewis does that with great skill. One final intellectual virtue that Lewis displays that I think is especially important, both for being an effective evangelist and in communicating civility with diverse audiences, is that even when he is talking about himself and his own intellectual and spiritual journey he is not primarily drawing attention to himself. He wrote an essay called “The Personal Heresy.” An essay in literary criticism.

And in it he argues that when we interpret a poem, we should not be just trying to understand the poet’s state of mind. Quote, “The poet is not a man,” or woman, “who asks me to look at him. “He is a man who says, ‘Look at that,’ and points. “The more I follow the pointing of his finger, “the less I can possibly see of him.” And Lewis would have said the same thing of his work as an advocate of Christianity. Even though his personality is very much present in his apologetic writings. He acts, as many commentators have pointed out, as a friendly guide, or companion, on a journey. To expand that image, he’s like a companion on a hike in the mountains who’s a naturalist, who can point out all the beautiful flowers and formations that you might not have noticed on your own.

And you’re very grateful to this guide, or intermediary, for pointing out these things. But then he leads you, or she leads you, around the bend and you see the most beautiful sight of mountains and lakes that you’ve ever seen. You’re overwhelmed by the beauty of that sight and by the beauty of the object that has been pointed to. So you’re deeply grateful to the guide, but that is not the essence of your unforgettable encounter with this luminous beauty. So Lewis points his audience towards seeing Christianity, not as a set of abstract teachings, but rather that it is something that can be seen, experienced and enjoyed as the most beautiful of all realities. Nonetheless, for all Lewis’ moral and intellectual virtues, which I tried to outline. And for all his winsomeness. He could also be a very divisive person.

They did a survey during his BBC radio talks, that eventually became “Mere Christianity,” and the person who did the survey wrote to him and said, gave this report: “They obviously either regard you as the cat’s whiskers or beneath contempt.” And Lewis wrote back and said, “These two views you report, “cat’s whiskers or beneath contempt, “aren’t very illuminating about me perhaps. “About my subject matter “it is an old story, isn’t it? “They love it or they hate it.”

And that sums up one dimension of the problem we as Christians have in trying to promote both intellectual virtues and civility. The primary intellectual virtues are those that aid us in discovering the truth. Yet for Christians that truth leads to the offense of the cross, and to viewpoints that our fellow citizens are either going to love or, very often, to hate. So if we, following Lewis’ example, are frank in pointing out how radically Christianity separates us from most contemporary views of things. Then inevitable we will, like him, experience the disdain of some of our contemporaries.

Nonetheless, the counter to the inevitable tension involved in the offense of the gospel is to surround our truth-seeking intellectual virtues with all the moral virtues that would promote civility. And here Lewis turns out to be a very helpful guide, in that he recognizes that the intellectual life takes place in the context of the moral life. And hence, if we are to be effective intellectually and communicators beyond just a circle of our fellow believers, we need to start by cultivating moral virtues, such as humility, self-criticism, winsomeness, self-deprecating humor, compassion, concern for justice, concern for mercy, love for our enemies.

We need, as Lewis did, to look for common humanity and for what we share with those with whom we differ. Such moral virtues that shape our intellectual life still will not keep us from the offense of the cross and from some conflict. But if we conscientiously practice and cultivate such virtues, it may at least help us to counter the tendency that we have to think that we can win the day simply by arguing. Thank you. [applause]