The World's Last Night and Other Essays by C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1952)
This delightful collection contains seven essays, originally published between 1952 and 1959. Lewis's theology and his cultural analysis generally remain accurate and applicable even one-fifth of the way through the 21st century. His specific examples, being tied to his own time and culture, can sometimes be hard to follow, but less so here than in some of his other books.
Two of my favorites remain "Lilies that Fester" and "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," which over the years have become more, not less, accurate in their devastating criticism of our educational system. ("Screwtape Proposes a Toast," though out of courtesy nominally directed at the British system, was largely inspired by American education.)
Here's the table of contents, followed, as usual, by a few quotations.
- The Efficacy of Prayer
- On Obstinacy in Belief
- Lilies that Fester
- Screwtape Proposes a Toast
- Good Work and Good Works
- Religion and Rocketry
- The World's Last Night
From "Lilies that Fester"
To be engaged with the idea of culture, and (above all) of culture as something enviable, or meritorious, or something that confers prestige, seems to me to endanger those very "enjoyments" for whose sake we chiefly value it. If we encourage others, or ourselves, to hear, see, or read great art on the ground that it is a cultured thing to do, we call into play precisely those elements in us which must be in abeyance before we can enjoy art at all. We are calling up the desire for self-improvement, the desire for distinction, the desire to revolt (from one group) and to agree (with another), and a dozen busy passions which, whether good or bad in themselves, are, in relation to the arts, simply a blinding and paralysing distraction. (p. 34)
Those who read poetry to improve their minds will never improve their minds by reading poetry. (p. 35)
The sensitivity that enriches must be of the sort that guards a man from wounding others, not of the sort that makes him ready to feel wounded himself. (pp. 35-36)
Theocracy is the worst of all possible governments. All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.
I don't think we are in any danger of [Theocracy]. What I think we are really in danger of is something that would be only one degree less intolerable, and intolerable in almost the same way. I would call it Charientocracy. (pp.40-41, emphasis mine)
Charientocracy is a word made up by Lewis, and I will make no attempt to define it. I can't even quote his own definition, because that includes both Greek and Latin, as well as social terms that were meaningful back in Lewis's own time and culture, but not particularly comprehensible now. This article may help, if you are curious. Possibly he would have used the phrase "academic and media elites" today, but that's just a guess. Anyway, it leads into one of my favorite passages, which is so much more true about education today than when he wrote it 65 years ago.
Education is increasingly the means of access to the [Ruling] Class. And of course education, in some sense, is a very proper means of access; we do not want our rulers to be dunces. But education is coming to have a new significance. It aspires to do, and can do, far more to the pupil than education (except, perhaps, that of the Jesuits) has ever done before.
For one thing, the pupil is now far more defenceless in the hands of his teachers. He comes increasingly from [homes] where there are few books or none. He has hardly ever been alone. The educational machine seizes him very early and organizes his whole life, to the exclusion of all unsuperintended solitude or leisure. The hours of unsponsored, uninspected, perhaps even forbidden, reading, the ramblings, and the "long, long thoughts" in which those of luckier generations first discovered literature and nature and themselves are a thing of the past. If a Traherne or a Wordsworth were born today he would be "cured" before he was twelve. In short, the modern pupil is the ideal patient for those masters who, not content with teaching a subject, would create a character.... Or if by chance (for nature will be nature) he should have any powers of resistance, they know how to deal with him. (pp.41-42, emphasis mine)
Modern poets are read almost exclusively by one another. (p. 45)
From "Good Work and Good Works"
Until quite recently ... it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct his public. There were, of course, different publics; the street-songs and the oratorios were not addressed to the same audience (though I think a good many people liked both). And an artist might lead his public on to appreciate finer things than they had wanted at first; but he could do this only by being, from the first, if not merely entertaining, yet entertaining, and if not completely intelligible, yet very largely intelligible. All this has changed. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist's duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. He owes us nothing; we owe him "recognition," even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests, or habits. ... In this shop, the customer is always wrong. ...
As "giving employment" becomes more important than making things men need or like, there is a tendency to regard every trade as something that exists chiefly for the sake of those who practise it. The smith does not work in order that the warriors may fight; the warriors exist and fight in order that the smith may be kept busy. The bard does not exist in order to delight the tribe; the tribe exists in order to appreciate the bard. (pp. 78-79)
"Great works" (of art) and "good works" (of charity) had better also be Good Work. Let choirs sing well or not at all. (p. 80)
From "The World's Last Night"
Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so. To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance. The answer of theologians is that the God-Man was omniscient as God, and ignorant as Man. This, no doubt, is true, though it cannot be imagined. Nor indeed can the unconsciousness of Christ in sleep be imagined. (p. 99)
The modern conception of Progress or Evolution (as popularly imagined) is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatever.
I say "evolution, as popularly imagined." I am not in the least concerned to refute Darwinism as a theorem in biology. There may be flaws in that theorem, but I have here nothing to do with them. … For purposes of this article I am assuming that Darwinian biology is correct. What I want to point out is the illegitimate transition from the Darwinian theorem in biology to the modern myth of evolutionism or developmentalism or progress in general.
The first thing to notice is that the myth arose earlier than the theorem, in advance of all evidence. Two great works of art embody the idea of a universe in which, by some inherent necessity, the "higher" always supersedes the "lower.” One is Keats's Hyperion and the other is Wagner's Nibelung's Ring. And they are both earlier than the Origin of Species. …
The Idea that the myth (so potent in all modem thought) is a result of Darwin's biology would thus seem to be unhistorical. On the contrary, the attraction of Darwinism was that it gave to a pre-existing myth the scientific reassurances it required. If no evidence for evolution had been forthcoming, it would have been necessary to invent it. The real sources of the myth are partly political. It projects onto the cosmic screen feelings engendered by the Revolutionary period.
In the second place, we must notice that Darwinism gives no support to the belief that natural selection, working upon chance variations, has a general tendency to produce improvement. The illusion that it has comes from confining our attention to a few species which have (by some possibly arbitrary standard of our own) changed for the better. Thus the horse has improved in the sense that protohippos would be less useful to us than his modern descendant. The anthropoid has improved in the sense that he now is Ourselves. But a great many of the changes produced by evolution are not improvements. … In the battle for survival, species save themselves sometimes by increasing, sometimes by jettisoning, their powers. There is no general law of progress in biological history.
And, thirdly, even if there were, it would not follow—it is, indeed, manifestly not the case—that there is any law of progress in ethical, cultural, and social history. No one looking at world history without some pre-conception in favor of progress could find in it a steady up gradient. There is often progress within a given field over a limited period. A school of pottery or painting, a moral effort in a particular direction, a practical art like sanitation or shipbuilding, may continuously improve over a number of years. If this process could spread to all departments of life and continue indefinitely, there would be "Progress" of the sort our fathers believed in. But it never seems to do so. Either it is interrupted … or else, more mysteriously, it decays. … The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. (pp. 102-104, emphasis mine)
Lewis liked the myth a lot; he was especially fond of Wagner's Ring Cycle. But he was under no illusions that it was true.
Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things—ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. (p. 109)