C. S. Lewis taking modernity and postmodernity out to the toolshed

Yesterday my esteemed friend Brian found a rare point on which he disagreed — mildly — with C. S. Lewis.  Lewis wrote, in The Abolition of Man, that the educator’s chief job was to irrigate deserts rather that cut down jungles. Brian agreed that educators need to irrigate deserts, but disagreed regarding jungles. The jungle — which Brian in his post defined as the “mass of ‘facts,’ ideas, and [competing] truth claims” that presently overwhelms us — needs cutting down.

Now, in Lewis’s defense, I could quibble over a few definitions and analogies, but in the main I think Brian is right.  In arguing to the pressing need of his day (which is still a pressing need in ours), Lewis didn’t foresee the pressing need of the generation of educators that would follow him.

What I find remarkable, though, is just how rare it was for Lewis to be so preoccupied with the present that his foresight failed him. Because he read so many old books, and so kept the “fresh sea breeze of the ages” blowing through his mind, he typically avoided preoccupation with the narrow, provincial concerns of his age. Thus, his work almost never sounds dated. While he spoke first to his age (like all of us, he had no other choice) what he said sounds fresh and timely today as well.

Take, for example, Lewis’s essay “Meditation in a Toolshed.” The door of the shed in which Lewis had the meditation in question was ever so slightly ajar. From one corner of the shed, Lewis could see a beam of light streaming through the crack, illuminating a few specks of dust and, more faintly, a few odd objects in the shed. But when he moved to another corner of the shed, while he could no longer see the beam itself, he could look along the beam to the trees and sky outside, and all the way back to the beam’s source, the sun. Standing outside the beam looking at it, and standing within the beam looking along it, were totally different experiences.Looking along

“Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door . . .”

Lewis’s essay was a polemic against the general mindset of his day, which insisted that a “true” account of any thing must come from those who look at it rather than along it. So according to the then-dominant mindset, to get a “true” account of love you would go to psychologists and neurologists, not lovers. To get a “true” account of religion, you would go, not to its practitioners, but to anthropologists and sociologists, or perhaps again to psychologists and neurologists. Lewis thought that was nonsense. The view from within something provides a world of insights that the outside observer cannot imagine. Thus Lewis concluded:

One must look along and at everything.

Since Lewis penned his essay a significant pendulum shift has occurred. Now conventional wisdom says that the true account of a thing comes from those within it, who look along it rather than at it. “Tell me your experience” is now the means for discovering truth. That is so even where one person’s account conflicts with other “true” accounts from other vantage points. The conclusion “that’s true for Smith, this is true for Jones, so-and-so is true for me” is the ultimate exaltation of looking along over looking at. And Lewis’s conclusion that we must look along and at everything opposes that new mindset — sometimes called the “postmodern mood” — just as ruthlessly as it opposed the former one.