Lewis, Tolkien, TS Eliot, Vikings, Virgil, Bill and Ted: On History

The hardy romp through theories, stages and general phenomenon of history, as provided by Mark Tiberius Gilderhus in History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction, brings to mind the various intersections of a notion such as “historical consciousness” and a “philosophy of history” and various readings in cultural apologetics thus far.[1]  It would be nearly a crime to not begin with material from C.S. Lewis, given his significant role in modern apologetics, and so we begin, working backwards perhaps though history to find our way.

[1] And as this was written during my final course in the online MA program in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, a number of such connections flooded my mind. Were I to have written a thesis, this might be the outline of how it could have gone.

I  Lewis, in Theory: Metaphorical and Scientific Language

Lewis’s Bluspels and Falansferes essay is perhaps pivotal in understanding the “imaginative apologetics” approach pioneered by Lewis among others, so we will being there.  In considering the origins and nature of language, Lewis hypothesizes how words such as “Flatlander’s sphere” might transmogrify through ages of use to become “falansferes” and have great emotion attached to the virtues and defense of such an entity, while later generations might completely lose track of the origins and meaning of the original phrase; a similar exercise is conducted for the evolution of “blue spectacles” to “bloospels” or “bluspels.”  At the heart of this malleability of language is a non-reductive, non-materialistic insight that Lewis culled from his friend, Owen Barfield, author of Poetic Diction. The vital role of metaphor in our understanding of the world and use of language nearly dwarfs any such attributions to physicalistic language, the language of science. Those who insist on the latter, Barfield described as “confining themselves to one very old kind of figure” and are “absolutely rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences, which today make up practically the whole-meaning system of so many European minds.”[1]  Even such common scientific terms as organism, stimulus and reference Lewis cites as possessing a metaphorical rather than physicalistic pedigree.  Of course, Lewis continues, “not all our words are equally metaphorical”[2] but its role in providing meaning is undeniable, and hearkens to a more humanistic or even social basis of meaning.  Lewis addresses approaches such as the social sciences in a roundabout way through his discussion of metaphor and ‘scientific’ language or jargon (typical of social sciences):

“The percentage of mere syntax masquerading as meaning may vary from something like 100 per cent in political writers, journalists, psychologists and economists, to something like forty percent in the writers of children’s stories.  Some scientists will fare better than others: the historian, the geographer and sometimes the biologist will speak significantly more often than their colleagues; the mathematician, who seldom forgets that his symbols are symbolic, may often rise for short stretches to 90% of meaning and 10% of verbiage. The philosophers will differ as widely from one another as any of the other groups …”[3]

The role of the imagination is yet subservient to the dictates of reason, and ultimate truth. Lewis concludes B&F with the following formulation:

But it must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense.  I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the natural organ of meaning.  Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”[4]



[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (London, 1928), p.140. Cited in C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Falansferes” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 251-2. Also available online: http://www.pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf.

[2] Lewis, Bluspels and Falansferes, 264.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 265.


II Lewis and Myth, with a Dash of (for?) Joy

Lewis waxes in favor of myth – an originator of a certain class of religious metaphor if you will, over fact – in a sense, in his essay Myth Became Fact. The story, or mythical, element of the Christian story is powerful – like the stories of so many other ancient religions that Lewis cites, in which a god dies then comes back to life, bringing the fate of the world along with him.  Such stories or myths nourish in a dramatic way that mere ‘facts’ of existence often do not.

Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern.[1]

Lewis continues later:

But Christians also need to be reminded … that what became Fact was a Myth that it carries into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less.  We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology… If God chooses to be mythopoeic – and is not the sky itself a myth – shall we refuse to be mythopoeic. For this is the perfect marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar and the philosopher.[2]

And for Lewis aficionados, it is hard to forget his description of dropping the philosophically fashionable, materialistic New Look: after re-reading Euripides Hippolytus, a moving tale of tragedy and forgiveness, Lewis finds his “long inhibition n was over, the dry desert lay behind, (I was once more into the land of longing, my heart was at once broken and exulted, as it had never been before.”[3]  In fact, Lewis’s argument from desire and joy gained its name in part from the historically oriented poem by Wordsworth, Surprised by Joy, in which Wordsworth could not retain hold on the moments of joy from the past:

To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return

Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore[4]


Lewis saw them instead as but glimpses of the Joy that lie ahead, “signposts” in fact he termed them.

Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out itself to be a remembering.  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 them was longing.  These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past = are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[5]

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 64.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: William Collier &Sons, 1955), 173. CH. XIV “Checkmate.”

[4] William Wordsworth, “Surprised by Joy” in Poems (1815). Online: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/50285

[5] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Collier Books, 1965), 7.


III History: TS Eliot

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But moving on from Lewis (for the time being), the historical consciousness is recognized by T.S. Eliot, Nobel Laureate poet of the early 20th century.  In the 1920 essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot pays homage to the fundamental role of what Gilderhus and R.G. Collingwood refer to as “the historical consciousness:”

“Tradition … involves, in the first place, the historical sense … a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe … ad his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.  This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional … (and) most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.[1]

And perhaps more poetically put, Eliot put it this way:

“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.”[2]

Eliot concludes with the poet’s necessary internalization of the past, stating that the poet

“is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past” and is “conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”[3]

Or perhaps even more poetically, in Little Gidding V, Four Quartets, Eliot states

“We shall not cease from exploration, / and the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”[4]

[1] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in The Sacred Wood (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2015), 44.  also online: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69400

[2] Ibid., 46.

[3] Ibid., 53.

[4] T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding V, The Four Quartets (1943), 1-4.  Online available http://www.poetry.eserver.org/little-gidding.txt


IV  History and the Ancients: Middle Earth and Virgil

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The sense of remembrance of history even finds its place in Lewis’s Oxford and Inklings colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, who set an aura of persistent sadness in Middle Earth, from a decay since the days of old.  In describing the story of Beren and Tinuviel from the First Age, Strider (Aragorn) laments “it is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift your hearts.”[1]

d a      d b

Tolkien’s epic melancholy, as it were, echoes roots from the ancients.   Epic Greek works, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad of the thirteenth century B.C., as well as Virgil’s paean to Rome,  The Aeneid written in the late first century B.C. (27 – 19 B.C.), continue the theme.  While Homer’s works exhibit the longing for family and home against the whims and dictates of the gods, or of larger forces one might posit as undergirding ‘history’ (perhaps …), it is with Virgil that the praise of the Roman state is brought forth with a critique as well.  Commissioned by Caesar Augustus, Virgil finally, reluctantly (due to aesthetic standards he felt would be difficult to fulfil with a piece of propaganda, however epic in length) agreed to compose.  Combining standards of unity from Horace and Aristotle, as well as “a grand fusion of Homer and the best qualities of post-Homeric literature,” [2] Virgil’s Aeneid includes a historical awareness to “open the eyes of his readers to deeper meanings, to those unseen, divine forces that propel history along its appointed grooves.”[3]  Such ‘grooves’, at least superficially, were those that marked the advent of the Roman Empire, “to pacify, to impose the rule of law / to spare the conquered, battle down the proud,”[4] goals of noble goals of Romans indeed, which even GK Chesterton cited in his Everlasting Man as currying divine favor over the human-sacrificing, Ba’al worshippers of Carthage (“Hannibal’ meaning ‘grace of Ba’al), which led “Chesterton, like Dante before him,” to see “in Rome the highest achievement of man apart from grace.”[5]

d c

But to the Tolkienian point: despite Virgil’s infusion of a teleological aspect to history (looking forward from Aeneas to the founding of Rome), there nevertheless “exists a strong competing desire to look backward nostalgically to a lost past … a melancholy mood (suffusing so) much of the epic that critics have referred to (it) as the ‘Virgilian sadness,’”[6] a reflection on what had been lost from the Homeric past.  It is Virgil the Poet, Markos cites, that surfaces, offering such a critique of apparent historical inevitabilities.  Flawed choices of Aeneas carried along yet by an overarching plan (post-moderns need not apply for roles in this epic!) populate the story, though Virgil offers strong critiques of what might otherwise appear a secular historical inevitability, and an unreflective paean to the “glory of Rome.” Virgil cries out at the fury of Aeneas and his fellow warriors “Was it thy pleasure, Jupiter, that peoples / Afterward to live in lasting peace / Should rend each other in so black a storm?”[7] And in the final scene, Aeneas grants clemency to his vanquished enemy, Turnus, until spying a belt on Turnus scavenged from the corpse of a friend of Aeneas, at which point Aeneas “[sinks] his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest (XII.1287)” – using the same verb for sink as was used for the “founding” of Rome as well as Romulus’s sinking of his sword in the body of his brother Remus, brother and co-founder of Rome. With this imagery, Virgil thus issues

a stern warning: that the sword once drawn cannot easily be resheathed. But he may also be prophesying to his later, Christian audience that the ‘good’ pagans of Rome could only go so far in their messianic role. The time was coming – and was now at hand – when the true Jupiter would reveal to the world his own eternal Pax Romana.[8]

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), I.11 “A Knife in the Dark,” 258.

[2] Markos, Louis, From Achilles to Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007),  207.

[3] Ibid., 208.

[4] Virgil, Aeneid, VI.1153-54. Cited in Markos, Achilles to Christ, 235.

[5] Markos, From Achilles to Christ, 198.

[6] Ibid., 214.

[7] Virgil, Aeneid, XII.684-86.

[8] Markos, From Achilles to Christ, 246.


V  Lewis and the Medievals

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Continuity from the Ancient world to the Modern is provided courtesy of the Medievals, though the break from the Ancient to the Medieval was far less significant than that between the Medieval and the Modern world.  But first, Beowulf!

In one of Tolkien’s seminal essays, “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien explained the power of the mythological imagination which drove both him and Lewis in significant ways:

In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time. Doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness. They gather heroes for the last defense… When Balder is slain and goes to Hel he cannot escape thence anymore than mortal man.  This may make the southern gods more godlike – more lofty, dread and inscrutable. They are timeless and do not fear death.  Such a mythology may hold the promise of a profounder thought. In any case it was a virtue of the southern mythology that it could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy.  For in a sense it had shirked he problem precisely by not having the monsters in the center – as they are in Beowulf to the astonishment of the critics… It is the strength of the northern imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the center, gave them victory but no honor, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.  ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable. So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our times.[1]

e balder

Lewis himself found the power and awe of said Norse mythology, and Balder himself, to inspire his glimpses of longing – spiritual longing finally fulfilled by his notion of Joy – as he cited the account of Balder’s death as one of three such experiences from his youth.  A “memory of a memory” – a flowering currant bush reminiscent of the play worlds he and his brother Warnie created, and “The Idea of Autumn” from Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin were his first stirrings of what he associated with John Milton’s “enormous bliss of Eden.”[2] But it was with the reading of Tegner’s Drapna, where the lines

I heard a voice that cried,

Balder the beautiful

Is dead, is dead —–

Which Lewis describes with “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.”[3]

But aside from the legacy of the Norse imagination, the mentalite (to borrow from Braudel and the Annales school) of the ancients persisted nearly unscathed throughout the medieval era, though the Christian worldview fit comfortably on top of it.  In The Discarded Image, Lewis sets forth a “medieval synthesis … the whole organization of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe” which inherited its influences from books “Judaic, Pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive, Christian, Patristic.”[4]  As an example, Lewis cites a poem, Lazamon, from between 1160 and 1207, in which its stating that the air is inhabited by many things, good and bad, hearkened to Plato’s pneumatology, which he in turn inherited from the myths of his ancestors; and perhaps more cosmologically telling, of how 14th century work referred to the orbit of the moon as a frontier between higher and lower realms, ultimately between realms of celestial Being and earthly Becoming (Nietzsche will express his preferences some half a millennium later!).  Incorporated into such things as the Great Chain of Being, it formed a model which Lewis cites as holding not just until the end of the time of the Medievals, but even into the nineteenth!  In fact, Lewis is cited as claiming that “the Renaissance never happened!” – it was not the humanist epiphany, via rediscovery of Roman and Greek writings, so often taught, that marked the watershed of Western culture and thought.  Instead, the overthrow of that model, inherited from as far back as the Ancients and positing the timeless that impinged on reality, the world of Being on that of Becoming, that of the spheres in some sense, on the doings of man, was effected in the nineteenth century.   The advent of the Romantics was pivotal, as for them nature and art came to be seen as canvas for the expression of human emotion, rather than as the (Medieval, at least) canvas on which were written the glories of God, or expressions of some cosmic reality at least.[5]

This turn of Western philosophy and intellect encompassed many disciplines, though Lewis cited astronomy (with its demarcation between the supralunar heavens and sublunar earth) and biology (with its move from devolutionary to evolutionary): “from a cosmology in which it was axiomatic that ‘all perfect things precede all imperfect things’ to one in which it is axiomatic that ‘the starting point is always lower than what is developed.’ ”[6]

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 25-26.

[2][2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: William Collier, 1955), 17-18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 11.

[5] Louis Markos, The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis, The Teaching Company, www.teach12.com , 2000. Lecture 6: “Lewis the Scholar – Apologist for the Past.”

[6] Lewis, The Discarded Image, 220.


VI  Lewis, Moderns, et. al.

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Lewis Scholar Louis Markos cites this anti-logocentric move – against the idea of a timeless logos which impinges on our imperfect, earthly existence – across four key figures from the 19th century.[1]  Charles Darwin with man evolving from apes rather than bearing he image of a perfect God-Creator is perhaps the key figure, but others figure as well.  Karl Marx posited that human morality and ethics derived from material and social conditions of production, rather than from a God-instilled conscience (one wonders how he could judge anything as better or worse without his own conscience …), while Freud posited God as the product of wish-fulfilment, rather than, as Tolkien would pen in his poem Mythopoeia,

Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,

or some things fair and others ugly deem ?

All wishes are not idle, not in vain

fulfilment we devise …[2]

Friedrich Nietzsche provides a fourth such ant-logocentric voice, with man determining for himself what is truth, since, as Nietzsche famously declared, “God is dead, and we have killed him.”

But Nietzsche gives voice to both the modern rejection of logo-centrism, as well as the postmodern impetus o creation of one’s own values.  Key to this postmodern move as well is an understanding of French philosopher, Jacques Derrida.  Deconstruction, rejecting the logocentric model which has undergirded 2500 years of Western Philosophy, claims Derrida, needs to be jettisoned, as we move to nihilistically create our own values, as it were, in the face of what Lewis otherwise often described as “a senseless and idiotic cosmos.”  Against such futility we are right to rail, Lewis declares:

In a word, unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it.     The more seriously we take our own charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all. The defiance of a good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to         something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative… I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is                   displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a       Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. That is the lesson of the Book of Job.[3]


It is curious that Markos mentions Lewis citing Jane Austen as about the last significant writer of the Old Model era, the Medieval Synthesis, and the Romantics then seeming to be the vanguard of the shift away from logos, in the literary sense.  In his treatise on education, Lewis in fact cites Coleridge, one of the first of the Romantics (and the only one to have an explicit Christian faith), as holding out for the sublimity one can infer from nature.  A waterfall should not be described as simply ‘pretty,’ but instead ‘sublime’ (or invoking feelings of sublimity due to being humbled by it). Lewis quoted modern educators as chiding Coleridge, stating that the observer “appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall … Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but about his own feelings.”[4]

Lewis critiqued modern education in his Abolition of Man – especially citing the needs in wartime England and to avoid extremes of sentimentality, and thus debunking arguments or advertisements based on superficial, emotional appeals.  But with that bathwater of excessive sentimentality was often thrown out the baby of legitimate sentimentality. Humble feelings result from what Lewis later in the essay would refer to as “ordo amoris –  the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that degree of love which is appropriate to it.”[5]


The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries likewise arise in apologetic study through discussion of August Comte, whom Gilderhus mentioned as the father of sociology. His connection with his adopted father, Henri Saint Simon is touched on briefly, but it is elaborated more fully in the Art, Film & Apologetics course text, Daniel Sidell’s God in the Gallery.  Saint Simon, a French engineer and Utopian pamphleteer (1760-1825), had called for “a new priest class” to lead society, using the arts in particular to rally poets, philosophers, intellectuals and entrepreneurs in the cause. “The power of the arts is in effect the most immediate and most rapid of all powers … to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or canvas.”[6]  Saint Simon’s avante garde thus provided the spiritual passions and beliefs, the yearning for beauty, that informed the later Modern Art era.  In a late essay, “New Christianity: First Dialogue,” Saint Simon argued for a return of the church to “the sublime principle” that “men should treat one another as brothers,” and calls for a greater emphasis on worship by the formal church.

Counter to this, however, was the direction taken by Saint Simon’s adoptive son, August Comte, the father of modern social science and sociology in particular.

“In fact, Saint Simon broke with his disciple and adopted son, Auguste Comte, because Comte attempted to develop a purely positivistic scientific and anti-religious program of social progress. Saint Simon criticized Comte precisely because he ‘had neglected the religious, or imaginative and sentimental, side of human nature in his desire to reorganize society on the basis of pure reason and scientific ability.”[7]  Later work in sociology, by influential sociologist (and secularization theorist turned Christian) Peter Berger, has produced works such as A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1969) and The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999) and statements such as “the world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted (whether joyfully or despondently) by so many analysts of modernity.”[8]

[1] Louis Markos, Lewis Agonistes (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2003).

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia , 1931. Written to Lewis by Tolkien after a long walk around the grounds of Madgalen College Oxford in which Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson argued to Lewis the truth of Christianity. Online available at http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967),  70.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Abolition of Man (New York: Collier, 1986), 14.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Daniel Seidell, God in the Gallery (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008),  42. Nook.

[7] Seidell, God in the Gallery , 46.

[8] Ibid., 47.


VII  Poets, Philosophers and History

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The roots of transcending a purely historical point of view were in fact identified in the medieval era in particular, though one can hearken back to the transcendentalism of Plato as well as Neo-Platonists, and even Aristotle’s notion of ‘contemplation’ as the highest form of activity. Since the gods did not engage in petty transactions, contemplating rationality beyond that of practical virtue would bring the greatest pleasure, “the activity of philosophic wisdom (being) admittedly the pleasantest of all virtuous activities.”[1] But Joseph Pieper heralded the medieval basis for the notion of contemplation (or leisure) over that of mere, day to day rationality, as ratio – the medieval word for discursive, logical thought and abstraction was complemented by intellectus, the understanding and intuition, a “contemplative vision … the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.”[2]  Intellectus allows what Pieper otherwise titles his book after, leisure, that which allows culture:

Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship… For that very reason it is of the first importance to see that the cultus, now as in the distant past, is the primary source of man’s freedom.[3] Similarly, the philosophic act, Pieper goes on to describe, is similar to the activity of the “poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel.”[4]

Culture in some respect is a shared experience – however individual pursuit of contemplation may form its basis.  The author recalls hearing culture described, somewhere, as a set of shared meanings or answers to life basic questions.  Saint Simon, in espousing his avante garde push of the spiritual by the artist, led to art movements that regarded a work of art’s interaction with its intended audience as nearly fundamental to the work itself.  Historian and philosopher Robin C. Collingwood echoed a similar theme, and not dissimilar to his claim that history is a set of shared experiences, rivalling (if not eclipsing) the basic nature of man.  “The real ‘work’ of art exists first in the imagination of the artist, and then in the imaginations of those who appreciate its work. It never actually exists in the realm of physicality.” It “takes us beyond the surface in some sense to see or experience something which otherwise remains hidden in us … an emotion which the artist discovers within himself” and offers to others to enter in to.[5]

Theories of history yet impinging through the study of cultural apologetics – the fields come to look nearly synonymous at points – include notably the Art, Film and Apologetics text, Thomas S. Hibbs’ Shows about Nothing – a study of nihilism in especially American culture and film.  Nietzsche’s nihilism, and the propensity of democratic liberalism to veer towards it, is in fact claimed to be anticipated by American Political theorist, Alexis De Tocqueville (1805 – 1859).  Nietzsche’s ‘creative nihilism’ (we create our own values) influenced both the German philosopher Heidegger and French philosopher Foucault, “respectively, a notorious Nazi sympathizer and an advocate of the liberating power of sado-masochistic sexuality… echoing Nietzsche’s celebration of extremes” – “limitless presumption of appetite and … transcendence of reason in violence.”[6]

Paying homage to both the nihilism of Nietzsche and the Seinfeld-inspired title, Hibbs states:

By exalting the confrontation of the creative will with nothingness, Nietzsche hoped to revive the grandeur of the tragic hero.  But the absence of any goal or standard in light of which we might appraise the hero’s life as noble opens the possibility of a comic reversal in our perceptions of the hero, whose longings now seem silly and farcical.  Comic nihilism, with which Woody Allen and the Coen brothers so often flirt, comes to fruition in Seinfeld.[7]

Tocqueville in fact anticipated the nihilistic conundrum suggested by political liberalism (and which Nietzsche extrapolated from, our ‘killing of God’ due to cultural liberalism, as it were). The two competing tendencies, or dominant passions, in democracy: love of liberty, and love of equality, with the latter the more powerful.  The drive for, in particular, economic equality, then drives progress while otherwise “it dissipates the soul by immersing it in the pursuit of consumer goods and petty pleasures.”[8]  Further, Liberalism often results in big government, with a discordant, and alienating, combination of centralization and individualism resulting.  The worker has simply his immediate circle of family, friends and work relations with whom he interacts, while the state is run by bureaucrats whose task it is to look after such narrowly defined lives.  Tempering the passion for (economic) equality was Tocqueville’s solution, and that by way of customs and mores, to “invigorate individuals with a sense of the grandeur of a life in a democracy” and using examples of virtue and self-sacrifice required to sustain the spirit of liberty. “Without being explicitly religious, popular culture should contain a kind of civil religion that teaches us to cherish, love and care for our common life.”[9]

Thus, the camaraderie of films such as Harry Potter – friendship and a community as an antidote to nihilism – or Lars and the Real Girl, are seen as positive examples of film in the tradition of Tocqueville’s civic virtues.

Perhaps the most profound exploration of history and meaning can be found in the text of literary criticism, William F. Lynch’s Apollo and Christ (1960). Arguing that the abstract, rational constructs typical of Apollonian types of wisdom, presented by both Nietzsche and the Historian Spengler as the counter to Dionysius, the pairs respectively representing energy and form, romantic and classic, enthusiasm and control, and infinite and finite (this last would seem the reverse of what one would expect though). Lynch takes the “symbol of Apollo as an infinite dream over against Christ who was full of definiteness and actuality”[10] – the Incarnation in fact.  Itself a bit of an abstract formulation, Lynch explains how it is Christ’s “in taking on our human nature (as the artist must) took on every inch of it” that distinguishes Him from an otherwise “autonomous and facile intellectualism, a Cartesianism, that thinks form can be given to the world by the top of the head alone, without contact with the world, without contact with the rest of the self.”[11] Such an approach offers what Lynch concludes with, an examination of a “Christ as the creator and actuality behind a new imagination and a new creation.”[12]

Lynch’s approach yields historical insights such as the following, offered as perhaps a sampler to whet the appetite:

“The weapons of art, we may conclude, are terrible and not merely ornamental.  They are the cognitive allies of the Holy Ghost and, as Aristotle said, they are more philosophical than history; they are superior to history and superior to pure concepts.  The mind that has descended into the real has shot up into insights that would have been inaccessible to pure concepts.”[13]

In speaking of TS Eliot and his idea of “dissociated sensibility” – in the Four Quartets, Eliot shows us that the problem seems to be that we are immersed in time, and flattened down to its dimensions:

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time…

Distracted from distraction by distraction…

Much curiosity searches time past and future

And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation of the saint.[14]

[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.7.1177a.23-28.

[2] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1963),  28.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid, 82.

[5]  Trevor Hart, “Through the Arts” in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003),  9-10.

[6] Thomas S. Hibbs, Shows about Nothing (Waco: Baylor Press, 2012), 20.

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo (Wilmington DE: ISI Books, 1960/2004), 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 36.

[14] Ibid., 228.


VIII Russia vs. Germany, take 3: Nietzsche & Dostoevsky

Counterposing Nietzsche also is Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nineteenth century Russian novelist and philosopher.  In Twilight of the Idols, instead of the bald (and quite famous) declaration of God’s death, Nietzsche dispenses with Christianity with statements such as  “life terminates where the ‘Kingdom of God’ begins”[1] and “we deny God, we deny responsibility in God: thus alone do we save the world.”[2] With the denial of God and the subsequent embrace of ‘the will to power,’ Nietzsche anticipates what psychologist Victor Frankl would predict a century later as the alternatives once there is an existential vacuum, or loss of a ‘will to meaning: “the will to power” (and its “most primitive form … the will to money”), and the “will to pleasure.”[3] Perhaps even more famously, Malcolm Muggeridge described it in these terms: “If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Hefner.”[4]

h 3  h 4  h 5

But Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov – the protagonist of his Crime and Punishment, endures an at times self-afflicting conscience, which elucidates Dostoevsky’s claims about the ideological and philosophical currents of his day.  Reacting in part to the socialist Fourierism that originally landed Dostoevsky in a Siberian work camp for ten years of his life, and to its nihilism and naivete of the human soul, Dostoevsky holds unassailability against the simple agenda of social reforms being effective without engaging the soul of man.  “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently” [5]  Raskolnikov notes; but sadly, the reformers rely on mathematical models of  social systems, assuming they can simply grow a “normal society … and instantly make it righteous and sinless.”[6] Instead, the “the living process of life … the living soul” is left out, and it is that soul, “suspicious” and “retrograde” but not yielding to simple mechanical analysis, that Dostoevsky claims is the true subject matter of history, and of life.[7]

[1]              Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols.” In  A Nietzsche Compendium, ed. David Taffel, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008), 374. Nook.

[2]              Ibid., 357.

[3]              Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 112.

[4]              Wow is the source hard to find … though highly quoted.

[5]              Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 235 .

[6]              Ibid., 256.

[7] Ibid., 256.


IX  Concluding with Lewis

i 1

But it is with C.S. Lewis with whom we conclude our apologetic journey into the investigation of history.  The relative – as Henry Ford might say – bunk of history is given eloquent credence in one of Lewis’s more famous addresses, his Weight of Glory sermon:

There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a mere gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.[1]

Lewis imaginatively makes the same point in his science fiction series, The Space Trilogy (though Lewis abhorred the term ‘space’ as it implied a cold, sterile and lifeless universe, not the one teeming with life as we know it):

“He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower like subtleties… He could see wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells – peoples, institutions, arts, sciences and the like – ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished.  The ribbons or cords themselves, in which millions of corpuscles lived and died, were things of some different kind.  At first, he could not say what.  But he knew that in the end, each of them were individual entities.  If so, the time in which the Great Dance proceeds is very unlike time as we know it.  Some of the thinner and more delicate cords were beings that we call short-lived: flowers and insects, a fruit or a storm of rain, and once (he thought) a wave of the sea.  Others were things such as we also think lasting: crystals, rivers, mountains, or even stars. Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colors beyond our spectrum were the lines of personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendor as all of them from the previous class.  But not all of the cords were individuals: some were universal truths or universal qualities. It did not surprise him that  these and the persons were both cords and stood together as against the mere atoms of generality which lived and died in the clashing of their streams.[2]


Lewis’s Space Trilogy does evoke his historical argument from the previously mentioned Abolition of Man. The Space Trilogy, and its finale That Hideous Strength being the fiction illustration of the argument, illustrates the fundamental process of history which results when adherence to universal morality, or “the Tao” is ignored: like the Lord of the Ring’s “One Ring,” history and even its progressive, technological products, become merely the instruments for domination of a smaller group of people over the larger.  Thus, when the planetary imperialist Weston’s schemes are interpreted near the end of the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, claims such as

To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone age weapons and bee-hive huts … has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law … our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower


Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnau’s food and – and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind. … because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people.[3]

But it is in the trilogy finale, That Hideous Strength, when order is restored, that Lewis’s final historical flourish is given.  The lesson of the Abolition of Man is shown to lie in not just the Tao, nor in how its violation destroys humanity, Man, and the society of men, but in this fundamental relation: that of our role as the eternal feminine to the Tao giver’s masculine, our reception to His initiation, and our obedience to find His love (the feminine and masculine constitute a subtext of the middle book, Perelandra). The moral codes of ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans (detailed in Lewis’s Abolition of Man and its argument for universal morality) thus come to life in the Empire of the Eternal King; the poetic “Logres really dominates Britain” of the petty shopkeepers, “the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France,” and “the order of Heaven is really followed in China.”[4]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 19.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003/1944), 187.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003/1938), 134-135.

[4] Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 2003/1945), 369.


PostScript: Lewis and Timey Wimey Stuff


No discussion of Lewis and history, made of the stuff of time, would be complete without this famous observation:

We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless, of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.[1]

Another version of the same thought exists in the following form:

Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (“How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up & married! I can hardly believe it!”) In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.[2]

Or, as has been observed, our children are how time keeps score with us – we don’t feel older, but …

But a perhaps more exhaustive treatment of History, and Historicism, is given by Lewis in the essay simply titled “Historicism.”  By Historicism, Lewis means “the belief that men can, by the use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process.”[3]  Lewis cites as Historicists Carlyle who “Spoke of history as a book of revelations,” Novalis who called history “an evangel,” Hegel who saw it and “the progressive self-manifestation of absolute spirit,”  “the woman who says her wicked father-in-law’s paralytic stoke ‘is a judgment on him’ ”, Keats Hyperion “the epic of Historicism” (with lines such as “O aching time! O moments big as years! / All as ye pass swell out the monstrous truth, / And press it so upon our weary griefs”[4]), or the words of the Greek god Oceanus, “ ’tis the eternal law / That first in beauty should be first in might.”[5]  Such Historicism, Lewis plainly states, is an illusion.

The idea from the Old Testament that catastrophes are necessarily judgments of God Lewis refutes by reference to Job, the fall of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13), and the man born blind (John 9).  “We must guard against the emotional overtones of a phrase like ‘the judgment of history’. It might lure us into the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belabored as the strumpet Fortune. That would sink us below the Christian, or even the best Pagan, level. The very Vikings and Stoics knew better.”[6]

Lewis further disputes that it is the significance attributed to history that distinguishes Judaic and Christian worldviews from the Pagan and Pantheistic.  “For the Pantheist, we are told, the content of time is simply illusion; history is a dream and salvation comes in waking. For the Greeks, we are told, history was a mere flux, at best, cyclic: significance was to be sought not in Becoming but in Being.”[7]

Nietzsche, however, provides the exception:

You ask me what all idiosyncrasy is in Philosophers? … For instance, their lack of the historical sense, their hatred of the idea of Becoming, their Egyptianism … with a feeling of great reverence.  I except the name of Heraclitus … insofar as the senses show us a state of Becoming, of transiency, and of change, they do not lie.  But in declaring that Being was an empty illusion, Heraclitus will remain eternally right. The ‘apparent’ world is he only world: the ‘true world’ is no more than a false adjunct thereto.”[8]

.  But Lewis continues:

For Christianity, on the other hand, history is a story with a well-defined plot, pivoted on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgement. It is indeed the divine revelation par excellence, the revelation of which includes all other revelations.  Lewis declares the difference between Greek and Christian views of history to be more dissonant than between Christianity and the Pagans – especially his faves, the Norse!

The Norse gods, for example, unlike the Homeric, are beings rooted in a historical process. Living under the shadow of Ragnarok they are preoccupied with time. Odin is almost the god of anxiety: in that Wagner’s Wotan is amazingly true to the Eddaic original. In Norse theology cosmic history is neither a cycle nor a flux; it is irreversible, tragic epic marching deathward to the drum-beat of omens and prophecies.  Ad even if we rule out Norse-Paganism on the ground that it was possibly influenced by Christianity, what shall we do with the Romans?  It is quite clear that they did not regard history with the indifference, or with the merely scientific and anecdotal, of the Greeks.  They seem to have been a nation of Historicists. … the Roman epic before Virgil was probably metrical chronicle; and the subject was always the same – the coming of Rome.  What Virgil essentially did was to give this perennial theme a new unity by his symbolical structure… It is from this Pagan source that one kind of Historicism descends to Dante.  The Historicism of the De Monarchica, though skillfully, and of course sincerely, mortised into the Judaic and Christian framework, is largely Roman and Virgilian.  St. Augustine indeed may be rightly described as a Christian Historicist. But it is not always remembered that he became one in order to refute Pagan Historicism. The De Civitate answers those who traced the disasters of Rome to the anger of rejected gods.[9]

ps vik

The problem of providing an adequate philosophy of history is pinpointed as one of ‘insufficient data:’ “I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text? (It would be dull work discussing the inspiration of the Bible is no copy of it had ever been seen on earth).”[10]

And after a fair amount of further discussion, Lewis argues that we can only survey incomplete fragments of historical moments, but not know that history nearly as intimately as those who have lived it, who had all the mental occupations and concerns, and billions of moments that went into creating such history.  Lewis summarizes his view with the following statements:

It will, I hope, be understood that I am not denying all access whatever to the revelation of God in history. On certain great events (those embodied in the creeds) we have what I believe to be divine comment which makes plain so much of their significance as we need, and can bear, to know.  On other events, most of which are in any case unknown to us, we have no such comment.

And it is important to remember that we all have a certain limited, but direct, access to History … We are allowed, indeed compelled, to read it sentence by sentence, and every sentence is labelled Now.  I am not, of course, referring to ‘contemporary history,’ the content of newspapers… I mean the real or primary history that meets each of us moment by moment in his own experience. It is very limited, but it is the pure, unedited, unexpurgated text, straight from the Author’s hand… God is every moment ‘revealed in history,’ that is, in what MacDonald called ‘the holy present.’ Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met?

If I attack Historicism it is not because I intend any disrespect to primary history, the real revelation springing from God in every experience.  It is rather because I respect this real original history too much to see with unconcern the honors due it lavished on those fragments, copies of fragments, copies of copies of fragments, or floating reminiscences of copies of copies, which are, unhappily, confounded with it under the general name of history.[11]

Finally, as an ode to the brilliant work of the premier Apologist of the Dakotas, Jason Monroe, we conclude with Lewis’s character Frost from That Hideous Strength, who declares to Mark

“The real causes of all the principle events are quite unknown to historians; that, indeed, is why history has not yet succeeded in becoming a science.”[12]

[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt, 1986/1958), ?.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Letter of C.S. Lewis to S. Van Auken in A Severe Mercy , 90.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Historicism,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 100.

[4] John Keats, Hyperion, Book I. Available online: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44473.

[5] Lewis, “Historicism” in Christian Reflections, 101.

[6] Ibid., 102.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Gods : Reason in Philosophy 1,2, in A Nietzsche Compendium, ed. David Taffel, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2008), 351. Nook.

[9] Ibid., 104.

[10] Ibid., 105.

[11] Ibid., 112-113.

[12]  C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (NewYork: Scribner, 2003), 254 (chapter 12.4).

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