Lewis Among Ancients … and Moderns

“The Renaissance never happened!”

C.S. Lewis declared, more than a bit ironically, when accepting the newly created Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Cambridge University in 1954, which he would hold until his death in 1963.  Instead, there is a legacy from the Ancients through the Christian Medievals that was not broken, Lewis claimed, until the age of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, around 1800. For instance, art and poetry began to reflect primarily one’s own emotions (subjectivism) rather than the glory of creation.

Consider what scenes or passages from his many writings, including fiction such as The Chronicles of Narnia (ex. knightly valor and courage) or anything else of his you’ve heard or read that might betray Lewis’s very unmodern, cosmic bias.  WE will take a particular look at his Abolition of Man through this journey …

C.S. Lewis’s essay The Abolition of Man, delivered as a set of lectures in 1943, was both timely for audience of the day, as well as timeless.  Subtitled Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, Lewis intended The Abolition of Man (AoM) as a corrective to the tendency of English schools to entirely debunk values which they meant to critique, tossing out baby and bathwater.  The backdrop of World War II may have played a role in Lewis’s message, as he sympathizes with the educators[1] who “may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment (and) see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda,” having “learned from tradition that youth is sentimental.”[2]  But Lewis’s argument stems from his intimate familiarity with the Ancients – Plato, Aristotle and Augustine – and can also be seen to play itself out in his views of the Moderns.  A walk with Lewis among these figures as he develops his argument in the The  Abolition of Man will help us to see Lewis’s case as perhaps not quite as unique as suspected, but with the echoes of many voices in support of its truth.


The School of Athens – Raphael, 1511

Plato points to the Heavens, Aristotle to the Earth


That Lewis drew from many – and ancient – sources can be seen in various incidental ways in AoM.  A quote from Confucius is the very first statement given as a preface,[3] and the appendix, “Illustrations of the Tao,” cites figures from cultures both ancient and modern as illustration of the universality of the code of morality for which Lewis argues.[4] And perhaps just as telling, Lewis gives this code an Oriental if not ancient title, the Tao, as if to highlight how unoriginal was his argument.

But Lewis first formally tips his hat to the Ancients in Chapter One, “Men without Chests,” as he draws on an analogy of the soul developed first by Socrates, which Plato describes in The Republic. Taking up the question of how to justly organize the polis – the city or nation of his day – Socrates likens it to a human figure (and ultimately the human soul) complete with head, chest and belly. Three such classes emerge for Socrates in analyzing society: a wise group, Guardians, which “thinks resourcefully about the whole community;”[5] a courageous group, the military, which is able to sense “the kinds of things to be feared”[6] and act; and finally the numerous masses, the artisans, who with discipline produce and consume goods, wrestle with desires, pains and pleasures, but are ruled by the guardians and military. But these classes reflect a deeper structure in the human soul, Socrates acknowledges, and it is this which Lewis grasps in developing his own analogy.  The head, or sense of reason, Plato describes as “responsible for the mind’s capacity to think rationally,” while the stomach is set in natural opposition to it, “an ally of certain satisfactions and pleasures – (responsible) for its capacity to feel lust, hunger, and thirst, and in general to be stirred by desire.”[7]  In between these warring factions, Reason and Desire – the head and the appetites of the stomach – is the chest, or the “auxiliary of the rational part … (but) as distinct from the rational part as it is from the desirous part.”[8] Then, as if to emphasize the location of this auxiliary arbiter twixt reason and desire, Socrates then quotes Homer: “he struck his breast and spoke sternly to his heart” and notes this is the rational part rebuking the part whose “passion is becoming irrationally aroused.”[9]

aol b

Lewis follows Socrates here almost in lockstep, but with a few twists.  Lewis constructs just this same man, this same community, with

we were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’ The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, or emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment – these are the indispensable liason officers between cerebral man and visceral man.[10]

Lewis then, interestingly, adds

It may even be said that by this middle element that man is man: for by intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite he is mere animal.  The operation of the Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests.  It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals.[11]

The training of sentiments to recognize and promote virtue (allowing reason to rule the passions) Lewis finds in many sources. “Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought” Lewis states in the opening chapter of AoM, “Men without Chests.” He adds that Plato said as much: “the little animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which are really pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”[12] Lewis does not shy away from the importance of such practical training in virtue, stating “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that a gentleman does not cheat, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers”[13] (!) And not just the Greeks: the Chinese have their Tao of which Lewis states “It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the way in which the universe goes one, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge … the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”[14] Further, the Indians have their own Tao as well – Lewis cites the Rta from early Hindu writings, stating that  “the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta (righteousness) and obey it.[15]

Lewis’s argument in AoM thus is, in many senses, not his own, but that of cumulative wisdom, across both space and time.  It was important to establish this, as the problems facing hos own time (the mid Twentieth Century, with Fascists, Communists and Scientific and Technological developments of all sorts) often had an Orwellian Brave New World aura about them.  Scientific and political innovations were coupling themselves with moral innovations – and inventing a “moral innovation” Lewis has showed really is problematic, paradoxical, approaching the level of the oxymoronic. And Lewis will show how this contradiction begins to show up with the Romantics in the modern era.

Romantics & Moderns – and their Problems

col ww

Beyond the Ancients whom Lewis cites – Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian – whom even the Romantics (some, the right ones anyway) lend their support.  Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) is shown to claim that “through virtue the stars were strong”[16] while Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) “is assuming the same belief” when comparing the soul to an Aeolian lyre (harp), but with the further ability to “accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them.”[17]  And it is Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834, and collaborator with Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads), arguably the lone orthodox Christian among the ranks of the Romantics,[18] whom Lewis cites early in his essay. Lewis praises Coleridge’s example of the proper description of a waterfall as sublime rather than merely pretty, referencing something besides the observers own feelings about it.  Just as with proper training of sentiments at the level of “the Heart,” so did the waterfall itself evoke “ordinate or appropriate” sentiments worthy of it.  Lewis then jumps all the way back to the Christian Saint, Augustine (354-430 A.D.), who “defined virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.”[19] This implication of transcendence – that moral truths exist that are perceived by us, impinge on us and move us – will be a key insight as Lewis analyzes the plight of the Moderns.

Lewis’s view of history – intellectual, philosophical, literary – can be understood by examining his notion of “chronological snobbery,” though the case he builds in AoM against modern culture goes much deeper than that. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (SBJ), Lewis discusses how various of his Christian friends, and Owen Barfield in particular, “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 out why it went out of date.”[20] And “why it went out of date” is exactly what Lewis provides us.  Once his “chronological snobbery” was jettisoned, Lewis describes in SBJ how he proceeded to find meaning in works both Ancient and Modern – the old Norse Dream of the Rood, John Donne, George Herbert and John Milton and the like. He found such writers so stimulating (before his conversion) that he adapted a line from an epic poem to read “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.”[21] But Lewis’s specific view of the twists of history provide a more explicit account for the differences between the Ancients and the Moderns, and these differences drive his argument in AoM.

“The Renaissance never happened”[22] Lewis declared in his inaugural lecture as the Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature in 1954. This is quite an ironic statement given its occasion, one must admit. But it highlights Lewis’s struggle with common conceptions of history.  “The Renaissance,” Lewis continued in the lecture of Monday, November 29, 1954 at Cambridge, was “an imaginary entity responsible for anything a modern writer happens to approve in the Fifteenth or Sixteenth Century.”[23]  Lewis essentially regarded the construct as a piece of humanist propaganda, a myth constructed to cast the culture, learning, writing and life of the Middle Ages as drab and ignorant.  Lewis’s numerous studies sought to resurrect the credibility of this era, which inherited so much of its fabric of cosmic order and virtue from the Ancients.[24]

Instead, the real break in Western history occurred not with the Renaissance, but later, with the Romantics around the turn of the 19th century.  Just after the time of Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), noted Lewis Scholar Louis Markos claims,[25] is when Lewis placed the break in Western history and thought: when literature and art came to be seen more as a reflection of the writer and artist, than as expressing truths such as the truths and beauty of creation.  The timing of this break can be seen from various of Lewis’s comments. In his 1941 sermon, The Weight of Glory, Lewis asks

“Do you think I am 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 awake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost all our education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our philosophy has been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.[26]


But Lewis is even more explicit in his summary of The Discarded Image, explaining the “Model” that the Medievals inherited from the Ancients and kept alive until the moderns of the 19th century:

“the glory of the best medieval work often consists precisely in the fact that we see through it; it is pure transparency … one is tempted to say that almost the typical activity of the medieval author consists in touching up something that was already there … the aim is not self-expression or ‘creation;’(italics here mine) it is to hand on the ‘historical’ matter worthily; not worthily of your own genius or of the poetic art but of the matter itself.”[27] [28] [29]

Thus, it is perhaps with a sense of irony and historical moment that Lewis cites Coleridge’s example of the description of the waterfall in introducing his case for the transcendent. Coleridge, one of the key figures of the Romantic Age sprouting in the early Nineteenth century, but still beholden to both his Christian faith and the legacy of the Ancients and Medievals which his culture had bequeathed him. This tradition of a transcendent perspective is something at risk even today, under the all too familiar guise of “the Post Moderns.”  Lewis scholar Markos observes how the program of PostModerns, like Jacques Derrida, consists in turning back the clock on Western thought 2500 years, to before both Christ and Plato, and combat the transcendent, other-worldly assumption otherwise known as logocentrism[30] (logos being a received “word,” as Christ himself claimed to be just such a Word of God[31]  He perhaps followed in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, who responded to (what Lewis would term “chronological snobbery”) the statement: “someone said: ‘the dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”[32]

That the vision of an ordered cosmos, and its moral claims, of the typically Christian Medievals has been tossed aside by Modernity is no secret; that we are tossing aside much of our moral and intellectual tradition dating to the Ancients is not quite so obvious.  And Lewis pinpoints this turning point of Western culture and thought with the Romantics of the early Nineteenth century.  How might the contemporary soul recover from this great loss? We find Lewis’s answer in his unique approach to the notion of happiness, or “Joy” (though it will be seen, once again, to be entirely not unique or innovative!).

Lewis and the Modern Ancient

There is in fact one further gleaning from the Ancients which Lewis exploited, which served as a foundation for his well-known apologetic argument for the existence of God from Joy or desire.  “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world”[33] Lewis states at one point.  In explaining the conflict between reason and desires (settled ultimately through the “auxiliary liason officer, the Sentiments of the well-trained “Chest”), Socrates states how different objects can pull at us: “Each desire is for its natural object only” and “for drink of a particular kind there is also thirst of a particular kind”[34] But Lewis translates this thirst to a more celestial realm. Of his own moments of “Joy” – he follows Wordsworth in pondering them[35] – he states “All said, in the last resort, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”[36] That such desires were in fact attached to, or from, something beyond themselves – well, that is the story of Lewis’s coming to faith, first in a God Himself, then in the Christian faith in particular. Lewis argues:

But it is at the next step that awe overtakes me. There was no doubt that Joy was a desire … but a desire turned not to itself but to its object. Erotic love is not a desire for food, nay a love for one woman differs from love for another woman in the very same way and the very same degree as the two women differ from one another. Even our desire for one wine differs in tone from our desire for another.

And perhaps more poetically, Lewis reconnects this notion with the arts, the field which demonstrate, as a litmus test, the transition from this world held by the Ancients and Medievals, to that of the self-absorbed, self-expressing Moderns:

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. OI am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret which hurts so much you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence …We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But this is all a cheat … The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was longing.” [37]

Thus, Lewis’s argument of the case for virtue, morality and its transcendent ground has come full circle: the arts which give expression to human desire and longing themselves evaporate like mists (or signposts as Lewis liked to put it) in the face of enduring truths, or the eternal.  Lewis’s unique argument for God – from our desires which are not otherwise quenched – seemingly takes the Ancients beyond their arguments for right and wrong and how to practically promote them.  Lewis paves the way, in a sense, with observations like “God may be more than moral goodness: He is not less.”[38]  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were not unfamiliar with this longing for something above the din of human immorality. Socrates’s “Philosopher Kings,” or Guardians, strove to “love every field of study which reveals to them something of that reality which is eternal,”[39] and apprehending the sight of “goodness,” which “is responsible for everything that is good and right … a prerequisite for intelligent conduct”[40] : morality was not so much the end, but flowed from being able to see something greater.  Likewise, Aristotle admits that virtue helps ensure not only healthy functioning of people and communities, but such practice of reason (controlling wayward desires) allows us the “highest virtue … that of the best thing in us,” the “most divine element in us” – a god-like contemplation of “perfect happiness.”[41]

But Lewis takes us beyond what such ancients could achieve, mere, contemplation – or as he summarized Dante’s placement of them in the level of Hades closest to Paradise (and Purgatory), “like Dante’s virtuous Pagans, “in desire without hope.” ”[42] It was, however, on the likes of these, “the most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could feed” compared to the “thin” and “tinny” atheist figures such as John Stuart Mill and Voltaire.[43]  But the desire of Lewis for this beyond-morality or behind-morality he describes all along the way of his conversion process. As a youth, he found glimpses of ‘Joy’ such as the Idea of Autumn from Beatrix Potter and the lines about the Norse god Balder the Beautiful which for Lewis, “instantly … uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity”[44] As a searching atheist, he found classics such as Euripides Hippolytus (a tale of shy but noble suffering) and “all the world’s end imagery” rising before him: he could not patronize it, but instead there was “a transitional moment of delicious uneasiness, and then – instantaneously -the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, my heart at once broken and exalted is it had never been” since his youth.[45] From the philosopher Henri ‘Bergson, famous for his notion of the principle of animating life, elan vital, Lewis learned the meaning of Romantics like Goethe, and to “relish energy, fertility and urgency; the resource, the triumphs and even the insolence of things that grow.”[46]

But, it was finally through the great Ensurer of that moral beyond pointed at by the Ancients, Medievals and (some) Moderns, that Lewis finds ultimate human fulfilment. Lewis found himself moved beyond the mere imagery of “Asgard, the Western Garden or what not,”[47]  or Plato’s ideal Republic, to find what the Christian writer John Milton (1608-1674, author of Paradise Lost) described as “the enormous bliss of Eden.”[48]  Fittingly, Lewis describes Whipsnade Zoo, towards which and in a motorcycle sidecar Lewis found himself realizing he had come to the Christian faith, after quite a bit of mulling it about, as “almost Eden come again” with its birds and bluebells and Wallabies hopping all about.[49]  The desires which the Ancients sought to keep in check – and which still need policing even today – had somehow gone in the direction that the Ancients hoped but could not fully achieve.  Lewis found them pointing to an appetite not meant to be held in check, an infinite appetite for happiness.


But for want of a nail – some practical morality, “God is more than morality: He is not less” – Lewis warns that man may never get there.  Out education system, and culture in general, has trained us to be suspicious of the very values that can energize and save us.  Lewis decries the situation at the end of his first chapter, “The Abolition of Man” with the prophetic

“And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what Our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”[50]

And Lewis warns us of this danger by taking us back into the world of the Ancients, through the often perverse twists of the Romantics and Moderns, to show how we can dwell in the land sought by all.

[1] “Gaius and Titius,” the names Lewis gives to the authors of a text, which Lewis further masks with the pseudonym The Green Book.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Collier Books: New York, 1955), 24.

[3] “The Master said. He who sets to work on a different strand destroys the whole fabric – Confucius, Analects II.16” follows the table of contents before the essay begins.

[4] Statements or proverbs are taken from Ancient Chinese, Babylonian, Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Old Norse, Hindu, Ancient Jewish, Beowulf, Australian Aborigines, American Indian and Christian sources.

[5] Plato, Republic 428d (Oxford World Classic translation, Robin Waterfield, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1993).

[6] Ibid., 429c.

[7] Ibid., 439a.

[8] Ibid., 441a.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 34.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 26-27. Here Lewis is quoting Republic 402a.

[13] Ibid., 34.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid. Lewis here cites A.B. Keith’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

[16] Ibid., 27-28.

[17] Ibid., 26. Lewis cites Shelley’s Defense of Poetry, 1821.

[18] Louis Markos argues this in the Great Courses lecture series From Plato to Postmodernism (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 1999). Online Available http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/from-plato-to-post-modernism-understanding-the-essence-of-literature-and-the-role-of-the-author.html

[19] Ibid. Lewis Augustine’s City of God, XV.22, IX.5, XI.28.

[20] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (William Collins: Glasgow, 1986), in Ch, 13 “The New Look”, 167.

[21] Ibid., 172.

[22] Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life. Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2013), 290, Nook.  See also https://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/c-s-lewis/i-c-s-lewis-a-life-i-summary-analysis-and-recommendations.html.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Lewis’s works in this explicit vein include A Preface to Paradise Lost, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.  He argued that this “model (that) the Middle Ages adopted and perfected” owed its being to “not only … Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoical (elements, but also) “Christian and Pagan elements” too. Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1995), 12

[25] Louis Markos, The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2000), Lecture 6 “Lewis the Scholar – Apologist for the Past.” CD. Online available www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/life-and-writings-of-c-s-lewis.html .

[26] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in  The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Collier Books, 1980), 7.

[27] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 208-211.

[28] An excellent discussion of the Medieval Model can be found on Rebekah Valerius’ site: https://alongthebeam.com/2017/10/13/the-medieval-model-of-the-cosmos/.

[29] My own site aspires to the elegant insights of [28] above – https://narnianfrodo.com/2018/01/10/models-of-the-medievals-and-dante/.

[30] Louis Markos, From Plato to Postmodernism (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 1999).

[31] John 1:1-18; John 1:1 states “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

[32] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (Mansfield Centre, CT: MARTINO Publishing, 2015), 46. Also available online http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html accessed Feb. 2018.

[33] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

[34] Plato, Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), trans. Robin Waterfield, 437e, 439a

[35] Wordsworth’s poem by the same name as Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1815 www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50285/surprised-by-joy) lamented lost moments of joy (due to the death of Wordsworth’s daughter at age 3); Lewis discussed his own early glimpses of them in Chapter 1 of his own Surprised by Joy, as well as exposited on them in discussing his conversion in the later chapters of SBJ.

[36] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 176.

[37] Lewis, Weight of Glory, 6-7.

[38] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Collier Books, 1986), 65.

[39] Plato, Republic  485b

[40] Ibid., 517c.

[41] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Oxford World Classics, 2009, trans. David Ross, 1177a.

[42] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 169 (Ch. 13 “The New Look”)

[43] Ibid., 171.

[44] Ibid., 21.

[45] Ibid., 173.

[46] Ibid., 160.

[47] Ibid., 175.

[48] Ibid., 19.

[49] Ibid., 190.

[50] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 35.

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