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C.S. Lewis on Modern Man and His Categories of Thought

We are still spirited in the West, but the modern spirit is based on egoistic ambition and self-referencing subjectivism. A spirit of relativism today leads us into the desert of self-determination, where we are encouraged to build our own castles on shifting sands.

Our grip on revealed truth about the ontological realities of God the Father has slackened to the point of release, and we have collectively abandoned the Father of Creation as we have turned our gaze almost exclusively towards His creation. We have lost our grasp of the Logos and live today untethered from Divine Truth and Divine Reason.

Education is the formal cause of a nation. Education is the very soul of our land, and what the polis manifests is a reflection of its formal cause. Our modern system of education is emblematic of the soul sickness that plagues the Great Western Tradition. To know that we have lost our way is self-evident, but to see the underlying causes is more difficult.

CSLewis

C.S. Lewis

We can turn to a modern visionary for some help in understanding what has gone so terribly wrong in the last seven centuries and why the West is unlikely to recover from this intractable malaise. In his essay “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” first published in 1946, C.S Lewis identifies several trends that make communication of Truth in the modern age very difficult.

Lewis begins by explaining that though “we ought to always imitate the procedure of Christ and His saints this pattern has to be adapted to the changing conditions of history.” What follows is an elucidation of the modern categories of thought that have become stumbling blocks for the faithful who wish to convey the Truth to a modern audience.

Lewis points out that in the early Church the Apostles were preaching to Jews, Gentiles, and Pagans. All three groups held common assumptions no longer held by modern man. For example, “all three classes believed in the supernatural… All were conscious of sin and feared divine judgement… All three believed that the world had once been better than it now was.” There was the Jewish doctrine of the Fall, the Greeks had their Golden Age, and the Pagans had “reverence for heroes, ancestors, and ancient lawgivers.”

All these intellectual and moral predispositions were anchors to a common intellectual and moral ground upon which meaningful dialogue could take place. Today there is no such common territory, and the communication gap widens with each successive untethered generation. Lewis posits six causes to consider if we are going to understand the “radically altered” public mind and how difficult it is for teachers to educate modern citizens of this brave new world.

A Revolution in Education

Lewis laments the modern disdain of the ancient masters like Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil. Educated men of the past could find valuable truths in the ancient books written by great men; “it was natural to them to reverence tradition.” Lewis notes that at the highest levels of education there has been a movement to “isolate the mind in its own age; to give it, in relation to time, that disease which in relation to space, we call Provincialism.” In real educational terms, this is sawing off the branch on which we sit. Lewis simply states that it is the plan of the enemy to divide and conquer. If modern man has no tie to the ancient truths forged by the blood, sweat, and tears of our most illustrious ancestors, then he has no defense against the incoherent ideologies that are flooding the marketplace of ideas in the modern university. This has led to a subjectivism that makes discussions of objective reality nearly impossible.

Feminism

feminismLewis’ ideas on “female emancipation” in 1946, seen through the ever-darkening lense of modernity, may appear as patriarchal and chauvinistic, but they are not. A sober refection on his words demonstrate that a morally-principled man with a well-cultivated mind like Lewis is often quite accurate and prescient. He concludes that compared to the revolution in education that cuts us off from the past, feminism “cuts us off from the eternal” by its disdain for metaphysical reality.

Men, when alone only with other men, do not behave the same way that men and women do together. One of Lewis’ points is that men naturally tend to engage in bravado around women; thus serious discussion of things eternal are put aside, and there is “a lowering of metaphysical energy,” partly because the metaphysical realities of men and women are denied to make false claims of equality. Feminism grounded in the Marxist material dialectic has wreaked havoc the world over and Lewis’ perceptive commentary almost seventy years ago was a description of the camel’s nose under the tent when compared to the reality today.

Historicism

Lewis rightfully refers to historicism as a “fatal pseudo-philosophy” whose root cause is Darwinism. As a biological theorem, and when limited to an honest rendering of a sparse fossil record, there need not be much dispute about Darwinism. However, what Lewis calls “developmentalism” has became “the extension of the evolutionary idea far beyond the biological realm,” and in fact it has become “the key principle of reality.” This lethal error has conditioned modern man to erroneously assume “that an ordered cosmos should emerge from chaos, that life should come out of the inanimate, reason out of instinct, civilization out of savagery, virtue out of animalism.”

Lewis explains that modern man holds several false analogies that confirm this absurd position of developmentalism: such as “the oak coming from the acorn, the man from the spermatozoon, the modern steamship from the primitive coracle.” In an age in which we use Occam’s razor to excise important realities, Lewis notes that these false analogies ignore the reality that the acorn was dropped in the first place “by the oak, every spermatozoon derived from a man, and the first boat by something so much more complex than itself, a man of genius.” Lewis continues to debunk historicism and developmentalism by pointing out that “the scanty and haphazard selection of facts we know about history” are taken as “an almost mystical revelation of reality.” This is, of course, mistaking the leaves of a tree for the forest, and in so doing, man arrogates to himself the role of being the arbiter of truth.

Proletarianism

russia_proletariat_2Since the advent of Marxism, there has been a growing emphasis on the rights and grandeur of the proletariat as a victimized class. Blaming the aristocracy for its troubles has conditioned the proletariat to be “self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy. They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the word it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame from every evil.” In this new movement, such power and importance is appropriated to the self that even in discussions in which God is brought up, there is no recognition that God judges them; “on the contrary, they are His judges.” The proletariat no longer has “feelings of fear, guilt, or awe.” They think of what God and neighbor owe them, not what they owe to God and neighbor. All religious and intellectual concerns are reduced to material efficacy, which leads to Lewis’ next causal point of practicality.

Practicality

“Man is becoming as narrowly ‘practical’ as the irrational animals.” Lewis notes that when he lectures to young people that they are no longer interested in whether or not things are objectively true or false, but “they simply want to know if they are comforting, inspiring, or socially useful.” Lewis further notes that to “believe in” something has also been reduced to practical considerations and no longer refers to binding belief, but something like, “I approve of it.”

Lewis asserts that “closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is an indifference to, and contempt of, dogma.” The false conclusion is the adoption of a syncretic notion that “all religions really mean the same thing.” Man when reduced to purely practical considerations ignores his intellectual and moral duties to seek truth, goodness, and beauty and lowers himself to equality with the animals. If we concede this lowly position focused exclusively on practicality, then education will be of no avail. It is not a stretch to see that our current educational plight illustrates Lewis’ point.

Skepticism about Reason

Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein

Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein

Lewis explains that “practicality combined with vague notions of what Freud, or Einstein, said, has produced a general, and quite unalarmed, belief that reasoning proves nothing and all thought is conditioned by irrational processes.” Most people hold propositions today that contradict one another or invalidate their primary positions. Call to mind the academic who says, “I am so open minded that I am even open to falsehood.” One of the modern marks of erudition is to sit comfortably with cognitive dissonance. Modern man is apt to accept “without dismay the conclusion that all our thoughts are invalid.” The skepticism to which Lewis alluded seventy years ago has proliferated, and as a result well-ordered reason is even less likely today to make an impression on the modern mind. No longer is there any compulsion to make sure that our language corresponds with our thought, and that our thought corresponds to the world as it actually is.

Still, Go Out and Teach!

The above considerations are some of the more important intellectual issues that we must confront if we are going to teach truth and resuscitate the soul of the Great Western Tradition. These are stumbling blocks not faced by teachers in earlier ages. Before the advent of nominalism there were always battles over the intellect. But there had generally been common ground concerning the supernatural, divine judgement, the doctrine of the Fall, and a reverence for the past. There had been a general consensus concerning an understanding of human learning grounded in virtue according to the objective standard of truth. Men and women were aware of their complementarity, their inequality, and the metaphysical realities of their sex. There had been a respect for the true nature of history as the record of the habits of character of the great souls who navigated the stormy seas of times and events.

For a time spanning several millennia, man had not considered himself the measure of all things, and he knew that he was to be judged in the end by God. Life had never been assumed to be purely material, and the right use of intellect was always valued, even to a degree by the untutored. Today, however, unbridled humanism cut off from revealed truth and rightly-ordered reason has bankrupted our soul and our educational system. We need to return to the educational tradition that has edified the Great Western Tradition. Good teachers like C.S. Lewis can provide a lamp to light our way to a return to the narrow path of truth; let us take him up on his offer.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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Published: Dec 29, 2015
Author
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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1 reply to this post
  1. You have it correct. I finished reading all the Amazon reviews of Professor Esolen’s PIG Western Civilization and his critics–about half of the reviewers–have swallowed the poison and mocked the book as being bigoted right wing trash, not even close to being inquisitive or respectful towards the author or appreciative of Tradition. Sadly, C.S. Lewis is a mere Christian in a post Christian world.

    So, how do we capture enough minds to turn this around?

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