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February 13, 2005

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Sebastian Holsclaw provides a long but engrossing excerpt of a speech by C.S. Lewis which touches on the insidious way in which the human desire to belong to [Read More]

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Thanks, Sebastian, for an absolutely beautiful commencement speech from this master writer. I recently re-read the Screwtape Letters and was overwhelmed all over again by the beauty of his expression. There was a great speech at the end of that too; a sort of follow-on to the noise with which the SL had been received. And the subject matter of this beautiful speech you posted is particulary timely. I wish there were many more thoughtful conservatives on the Internet with which liberals could interact.

Thanks, Sebastian.

I've learned in my life that it's important to give time to anything C S Lewis had to say. Thanks, Sebastian. An excellent choice for a post, and its many points are indeed very, very much worth keeping close to the forefront of one's mind.

This is a great way to spend the early hours of a Sunday morning. I guess just by commenting in these posts (or in your case posting) we exhibit the emerging stem from C.S. Lewis' seed. I remember the three kids in high school that sat off to the side, 'obviously' commenting in together in private about those of us around them. I held them in contempt, now knowing, not from their perceived rudeness, but from my exclusion. I've always suffered from 'cleverness'. It has taken until being at this age, my middle-aged moralist phase, to recognize I've always done this to test the waters. To extend a conversation a bit, to smell the intent, to measure the level of intelligence and finally to detect an opening, an opening to join in and be an accepted contributor. I suspect I am not alone. Thanks Sebastian for exposing the foundation on which I sit.

A lovely speech, but I'm a bit confused with you calling it a description of 'peer pressure'. Googling, I find this page which also describes it as such (scroll down) But I've always taken peer pressure as a way of maintaining the group. Yet what Lewis is talking about here is the desire to ascend. Given the fact that Lewis is addressing a group of University of London students, there is an interesting dynamic going on, I think. Lewis is speaking as a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, to a group of students who were not Oxbridge, the underlying thought could be taken as not being of peer pressure, but of desiring too much and overreaching and it is something that has permeated English society and English academia. If I were a smart ass deconstructionist, one could suggest that Lewis is suggesting that people don't get too high above their rightful station, but that would be far too unfair to Lewis' thought. Yet to not see the outlines of that argument within this would be to ignore the circumstances from which it arises, especially when Lewis discusses his position as a 'middle-age moralist'. But what separates it from a 'mind your place' speech is Lewis' lovely linking of friendship with the notion of craftsmanship.

Ironically, two years later, Lewis was passed over for a Merton professorship, largely because of his publishing success and his open advocacy of Christianity, which makes me wonder if Lewis is describing his own desires. (I'm pretty sure that Wilson's biography talks about this, but I also think that there is a note about it from Sayer's biography) At any rate, I think that Lewis got a lot of flak from his colleagues at Oxford (though not from Tolkien) so when Lewis says

It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces

I wonder if this is informed by his life experiences.

LJ - Personally, I would say that one decides for oneself who one's peers are. In this sense Sebastian is quite right to say C S Lewis is talking about peer pressure. In life it's often the case that we make a distinction between people we like and people by whom we want to be liked. It is these people we try to impress, these whose favour we seek; they are the Inner Ring we wish to join - their approbation being our membership card - and the need to fulfil their requirements of entry our peer pressure.

James,
That is one way of looking at it, but if you look at the passage, it is talking about people on the outside looking in. While I agree that a Taoist approach where we alter our way of looking at things rather trying to alter the things themselves is important, especially if we find ourselves on the outside, peer pressure (at least to me) is what makes us do distasteful things to people outside our circle not because we want to strengthen our group membership but because we can't imagine how those on the outside may feel.

My favorite passage of Lewis is On Forgiveness, which was supposed to be published after his death, but was only found and published in 1975. I can't find a link, but it has the notion that 'to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you'. In googling to try and find it, I came across this post by Moe, in which he promoted a comment by Hilzoy, where she quote Lewis' Mere Christianity (Katherine's comments are also worth attending to)

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.

Interestingly, there is a further part that is

You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Lewis goes on to explain how it is possible to kill when necessary, but how that killing has to be emptied of anger, making reference to his experiences in WWI. He summarizes and says:

We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must simply be killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs it's head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. even while we kill and punish we must try and feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves-to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good.

Amazing stuff.


Thanks for a great post. I am a liberal who has always learned a lot from Lewis. I think Liberal Japonicus is right in assuming that Lewis's thoughts about Inner Ring are informed by his own exclusion, but most good essays (or commencement speeches) are based on personal experience and our reflection on it.

I am an academic who has never found his way into the Inner Ring of a college faculty and I have consciously chosen not to seek entrance. My problem is that I can still feel resentful about the power and behavior of the IR. Lewis reminds me that the IR is inevitable. If I have chosen not to play in those instances where I could have, then I should be content and own my own decisions. To complain about the IR is like complaining about gravity. It is possible to find true friends in academia, and elsewhere, and my occasional resentment should not result in my isolating myself.

Yep, a good Sunday a.m. reading. Thanks again.

Excellent.

And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.

This in particular is wonderful advice. I have a close friend who is one of the few people, I think, who understand this from an early age, and I've learned a lot from him.

This is beautiful stuff, Sebastian. The shorter C.S. Lewis was given to us by Groucho Marx: something about clubs and having me as a member.

I admit, however, having once pined to be in the inner ring of the promiscuity "caucus". Maybe if I had called it "caucusing" I'd have made more progress.


Yeah sure, Lewis is terrific, and this is the Lewis I loved best, the non-fiction moralizing. Since Joyce never got a Nobel, I can't get too excited that Lewis didn't get one, but he certainly deserved one as much as Sartre.

Long excerpt, and I need to read it again, and more closely. But we all create our own measures of status and sources of status and Rings we seek admittance to, and perhaps the sin is in the seeking for status, and approval, acceptance, admittance. Did Lewis feel superior, part of a clique("Inklings"?) that included Tolkien? A little group of outsiders with different and better values, one of which was the renunciation of public symbols of status?

Lewis was deep, and he starts by saying he isn't talking about the public measures of status, or the public and obvious heirarchies. Boris decides where he wants to belong. Do you seek the approval of family & friends? Feel a pride in belonging to a group, any group?

Course, the hermit can be the worst offender.

This is a beautiful post, sermon-like in the best way. I sort of grew up on C S Lewis because my family attended a Unitarian fellowship which featured weekly readings from various philosophers-Lewis was a staple. As I read the post my mind kept jumping to my experiences and the experiences of others-seventh grade hell, for example when many people, including me, were utterly consumed by the Inner Circle and one's relation to it. As we grow older the same concerns stay but we become much more sophisticated and perhaps self-deceptive about it. As CS Lewis points out one can be just as obsessed with membership in an "out" group as membership in the IR. It seems that we humans have a real issue with establishing our own identities in terms of our relations to others.
Sebastian via Lewis has also made an extremely important point: it isn't the Devil that makes us do it. People slip incrementally into decisions and behavior that they themselves don't like in order to be part of the group. The most shameful incident in my life is the decision I made to have my cat declawed. I did it to please my husband. My cat died of a broken heart and, eventually, I got divorced.
I also am mulling over the section on seeing things blacker than they are in order to increase one's own sense of superiority or preserve one's own perspective. I have to admit there was part of me that wanted the election in Iraq to be a failure. It wasn't a part of part of me that I liked very much so I tried to hide it and instead celebrated the election.
My boyfriend is a Bhuddist. I reading from a Bhuddist text every night. I have a real problem with any kind of mysticism but, on an intellectual level at least, I do do understand the value removing one's ego from the way one percieves life. Without the obsession with ego a person doesn't value either the group or the not-group, nor does the person need to please others or displease others. An asumption of Bhuddism is that selflessness leads to empathy and loving kindness. This isn't in contradiction to CSLewis of course. I'm just rambling now so I'll stop.
Lovely post, lots to think about as we drive out to the ocean.

Thank you, Sebastian. That was indeed a lovely and thought-provoking post. I thoroughly enjoyed it...and now shall go back and read it again.

It reminds me in a weird way of Paul Grahams "why Nerds are unpopular.

I recognize the mechanisms and it is why I always state that I want my kids to become 'independent thinkers'; think for themselves, not follow the hivemind.

Lewis talked to students about the rings they would be involved with in their lives. It occurred to me, after taking communion today, that Lewis was also talking about Jesus and his ring, the 12 disciples, breaking bread and drinking wine in the upper room. Jesus also had an inner ring within the 12, an inner ring which Judas became resentful of.

It occurred to me, after taking communion today, that Lewis was also talking about Jesus and his ring, the 12 disciples, breaking bread and drinking wine in the upper room.

Taking the lecture purely on face value, I'd say that interpretation might be a bit of a stretch. But given that it is Lewis, you're quite likely right.

And now I have to go and cleanse my mind of the phrase 'the inner ring of Jesus'.

Well, ya know, without intending to offend, what was Jesus's most famous sin? I know, some, well maybe most, say Jesus could not sin because, like, he was Jesus. And I don't mean the moneychangers tables, that was cool, righteous indignation and all that.

But the Marriage at Cana? Couldn't they have just called out or sent some young chicks to stomp some grapes? "With great power comes great responsibility" and using Jesus-miracle-power to impress the mother's friends and keep the party cooking seems like a bad move to me. Blew his secret identity and pretty soon everybody asking him for fish & chips. Even the best of us alienate ourselves from ourselves, and thus from others, when we compromise to belong.

Hat-tip to Rilke's Marienleben, who says something like as the water turned to wine, mother & son looked into each other's eyes, and both wept blood.

bob, I assume you've read "Tres Versiones de Judas" from Borges's _Artificios_.

Rilke, read a bunch of Borges in the 70's don't remember him cause I didn't like him. Like Magritte or Escher as compared to Dali or Kafka, he was interesting and clever, but didn't move me. Or even make me laugh, which I remember Barthelme managing. Bad translation, maybe, or callowness of youth.

If "Pierre Menard, Author of Quijote" (comparing _Don Q_ as written by a modern guy to Cervantes's identical original) doesn't make you laugh, well too bad.

Anyway, the story in question proposes a series of increasingly blasphemous explanations for Judas's role in the redemption, finally arguing that the Messiah's sacrifice was to be born as a man who betrayed his best friend and then killed himself, sending himself to hell.

By the way, if you've read Kafka in translation, and it wasn't a recent one, you might want to try again.

Rilkefan, found a discussion of the Borges thing. Meta-meta kinda thing.

"Woman, what concern are you to me. Mine hour has not yet come."

The attempt was at an ironic blasphemous tone that was not blasphemous in content. For I did not think myself a blasphemer. Were you to ask me, I would call myself an unbeliever who yet cannot say Jesus was just a man. I can't say or think it. Really weird.

Yet on deep googling, I find all interpretations of the Miracle at Cana doing somersaults and cartwheels to avoid the simple story delivered simply. Jesus could not have surrendered to a moment's weakness or temptation so the 100 words have to be explicated very deeply and profoundly. It's all very complicated, and the surface should not be taken literally.

Sigh. May I be struck with lightning for thinking the guy was just being nice to his mother. And starting down the road to calvary with a trivial act of overgenerosity.

A favorite poem by Richard Wilbur:

A Wedding Toast

St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding-feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.

And it was really good stuff, huh. So saith the governor.

But John? I was thinking Mark or Luke. If John, there is the problem. I supplied insufficient pnuema to my interpretation, for the story makes good "earthly sense" to me, and less spiritual sense. It is obviously one of my favorite scriptures, being both comic and inexpressibly tragic at the same time.

Christians (IIRC, rilkefan, you are not) bring on the scourge. If I have terribly blasphemed, I need to know.
Not a very good atheist, but certainly a worse candidate for Christian. I seek penance.

Sorry, Bob, I am what is referred to as a 'backslid' Christian. Going from the world of high school in a small Southern town to the from the outside only slightly more relaxed university, but from the inside, like the difference between 500 calories a day to an all you care to eat buffet, I am not the one to scourge you. Your observation about water into wine made me wince a little, but having worked in a restaurant, when you run out of something, it is usually a big deal.

Since there is an open thread feel to this, I pass on this fascinating article from the Guardian.

To hell with all this highfalutin' talk; I'm going to drag in some good old teenage angst. And by old, I mean old:

Every year is the same And I feel it again, I'm a loser - no chance to win. Leaves start falling, Come down is calling, Loneliness starts sinking in.

But I'm one.
I am one.
And I can see
That this is me,
And I will be,
You'll all see
I'm the one.

Where do you get
Those blue blue jeans?
Faded patched secret so tight.
Where do you get
That walk oh so lean?
Your shoes and your shirts
All just right.
But I'm one etc.

I got a Gibson
Without a case
But I can't get that even tanned look on my face.
Ill fitting clothes
I blend in the crowd,
Fingers so clumsy
Voice too loud.

But I'm one. I am one.
And I can see that this is me.
And I will be, you'll all see I'm the one.
I am one. I am one!

Inner circle is everywhere, and usually most visible to those on the outside.

Outside of other considerations, the "water-into-wine" story always confused me vis-a-vis the Christian temperance movement. I mean, if drink is so evil, what was wrong with the water in the first place? It wasn't poison or anything, it just wasn't wine.

Oh, and as for the Lewis piece, I think Lewis glossed over the role played by social class in the establishment and maintenance of the inner rings about which he spoke (i.e. in midcentury Britan). As noted above, in context, his remarks could be read as an exhortation to the scions of the middle class not to concern themselves with the abstruse doings of their social betters. To Tolstoy, at least, social castes were the second, or hidden, layer of social interactions, and could not easily be chosen or rejected as Lewis seems to imply.

However, modern American society, while not classless, is certainly far less defined by rigid caste than Lewis' was, so Lewis's ideas have, at least to me, shed this uncomfortable aspect and, oddly, gained in import. I largely eschew the daily after-work round of bitching and gossiping in my workplace, and none of my circle of friends work for my company, let alone in my profession. I think this is one of the best things about my life right now, and Lewis captured it perfectly. Thanks for passing this along.

"Oh, and as for the Lewis piece, I think Lewis glossed over the role played by social class in the establishment and maintenance of the inner rings about which he spoke (i.e. in midcentury Britan). As noted above, in context, his remarks could be read as an exhortation to the scions of the middle class not to concern themselves with the abstruse doings of their social betters. "

I think the first sentence may be correct but I'm pretty sure the second isn't. But to the extent that Lewis glossed over social class, I think it is defensible because no matter which class you find yourself in the temptations of the inner ring remain. That is one of his best points in the speech--actively seeking the Inner Ring can never satisfy you because there is always a more exclusive ring to seek. I definitely agree that his speech has even more relevance in US society where there is a greater fluidity of social interactions.

Sebastian: I think the first sentence may be correct but I'm pretty sure the second isn't.

Fairly sure you're right. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis depicts three Inner Rings - and the two wholly positive Rings, Mark and the tramp, and Ransom's company of oddities, are composed of people from different classes. (In, I fear, a rather deliberate in-the-eyes-of-God-we-are-all-equal manner, but that's probably the best a solid middle-class man of Lewis's upbringing could manage.)

Don't forget, Lewis felt that society was moving toward perfectability. There is the toast in Screwtape Letters where Screwtape says

But by the latter part of the century the situation was much simpler, and also much more ominous. In the English sector (where I saw most of my front-line service) a horrible thing had happened. The Enemy, with His usual sleight of hand, had largely appropriated this progressive or liberalizing movement and perverted it to His own ends. Very little of its old anti-Christianity remained. The dangerous phenomenon called Christian Socialism was rampant. Factory owners of the good old type who grew rich on sweated labor, instead of being assassinated by their workpeople -- we could have used that -- were being frowned upon by their own class. The rich were increasingly giving up their powers, not in the face of revolution and compulsion, but in obedience to their own consciences. As for the poor who benefited by this, they were behaving in a most disappointing fashion. Instead of using their new liberties -- as we reasonably hoped and expected -- for massacre, rape, and looting, or even for perpetual intoxication, they were perversely engaged in becoming cleaner, more orderly, more thrifty, better educated, and even more virtuous. Believe me, gentledevils, the threat of something like a really healthy state of society seemed then perfectly serious.

But then, the perfectability of that society meant that everyone knew their place. He goes on to deride the notion of fundamental equality when he says:

Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won't. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle's question: whether "democratic behaviour" means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.
You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided.
The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I'm as good as you.

But that's only a warm up to this, which is English classism at its most absurd.

In that promising land the spirit of I’m as good as you has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma -- Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Lewis has a number of things that recommend him, but he is still a product of a society and a time which was in its own way as rigid as anything one could compare it with.

"Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not."

I had forgotten about that passage, but the funny thing is you seem not like it, while to me to appears frighteningly prescient.

This is absolutely what my two teacher friends say is one of the biggest problems in teaching: "All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching."

"Lewis has a number of things that recommend him, but he is still a product of a society and a time which was in its own way as rigid as anything one could compare it with."

In fairness to CS Lewis, he's talking about something different here from class rigidity; he's arguing for what at his time of writing was its opposite, which was meritocracy. Lewis was an Ulsterman, and Northern Ireland didn't (and still doesn't) have the same level of class divide that England has; it's a divided society in many ways, but not by class in the same way as the rest of the UK or even the US.

Post WW2, largely that's due to an emphasis on streaming the top 30% into more elite schools *at 11 years old*. It means if you have academic ability, you'll have remarkable upward mobility (the rates of higher education from schools in the ghetto-like Falls Road are frankly, staggering compared to its equivalents in Britain or the US). It means that the number of private schools in Northern Ireland can be counted on one hand. It also means that you're telling 70% of the population they're a failure before they've hit puberty).

If you want to read a good critique of Lewis' view, then "Rise of Meritocracy" is a good parody. But what Lewis is arguing is for is not "English Classism"; it's grammar-school boy arguing for grammar schools.

I don't know - in the context of the Tolstoy quote, I don't think the class context can be so easily disregarded. It isn't social insiderism or cool-kid exclusivity that allows Prince Andrey to snub his superior officer, it's caste, and nothing more. While clearly Lewis believes, as you point out, that the process he describes can be found at every level of society, Lewis was too smart not to know the context into which he was speaking - a room full of graduates from a second-tier University, every one of whom had read War and Peace, who know that they are heading into "hospitals, inns of court, dioceses, schools, businesses, and colleges" where Oxonians and Cambridge men will be comfortably ensconsed in the highest positions.

But I don't want to make too much of this aspect (if I haven't already). The social context was clearly just a launching pad for Lewis' main philosophical point, which I think you describe accurately. I do believe that Lewis has struck here on a very mainspring of human unhappiness, and his general prescription to avoid such pointless striving is deeply wise.

"where Oxonians and Cambridge men will be comfortably ensconsed in the highest positions. "

You say that like it's a bad thing.

UrSA, MA(Cantab)

I say that like it's a true thing, and even more true in 1944.

A bad thing? I dunno, it's hard to say that Oxford and Cambridge have been bad for England (and by "hard" I mean "stupid"). But they have not exactly been, er, engines of social egalitarianism, either.

Thanks for posting this, Sebastian.

"ensconced" of course. Grrr. We didn't all go to Cambridge, apparently.

st: But they have not exactly been, er, engines of social egalitarianism, either.

Depends. My dad was the son of a publican and the grandson of a railway porter: he got to Oxford on a scholarship for local boys. (Of course, to get the scholarship he had to get into a private school - a state school would not, at that time, have taught him what Oxbridge students were required to know for the entrance exam. And to get into the private school, he had to lie about what his father did for a living. This was before WWII.)

Still, it was always possible for poor-but-bright students to get in to an Oxbridge college: though the more poverty-stricken they were, the brighter and harder-working they had to be, whereas the rich and privileged could get in despite being thick as a brick and determinedly lazy.

Thanks Sebastian. This is one of many such piercingly observant and flawlessly articulated commentaries found in Lewis-- I'm thinking in particular of The Four Loves and The Screwtape Letters.

Lewis's theology probably gets more widespread attention these days, but, (along with others here) I think his real greatness was as a moralist and critic of thought and behavior on the human scale.

The Four Loves is an amazing work. I also think that every English major should be required to read "On Criticism" which advocates humility when talking about whether or not works are 'great'.

Sebastian: I also think that every English major should be required to read "On Criticism" which advocates humility when talking about whether or not works are 'great'.

Hell yes.

Still, it was always possible for poor-but-bright students to get in to an Oxbridge college
No doubt - where they would work as porters and waiters for the children of the gentry. My point isn't that England's underclass is necessarily permanent, it is that when Lewis glosses over class in his analysis, he is not doing it because he has misread the Tolstoy passage, or is ignorant of his audience, but rather because he feels that it is not necessary to explicitly address the realities of class, having quoted that passage to that crowd in that place.

Oops, I just looked it up, the title of the book is "An Experiment in Criticism". I recommend it to anyone who deals with the difficult issues of differences in taste and differences in quality.

I also reccommend "The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature" It is an excellent discussion of the Medieval worldview. I can't find my copy, but he introduces it with the idea that if you were studying African literature you would constantly find yourself faced with somewhat strange ideas--when studying medieval and Renaissance literature, you should feel the same thing, but often don't because they use certain words and phrases which we still use, but they use them in different ways. This book is all about alerting readers to such things.

A classic example are ideas about space (where the planets are). We always think of space as dark, but since the Renaissance mind didn't know about space as a vacuum, space was though of as being suffused with light.

ST makes a good point--nowadays we expect speechs to explicitly lay everything out. In 1945 it was much more regular to expect the audience to do some of the work.

I found a pretty good review of the criticism book on Amazon:

Typical of Lewis's deeper insight into things, his "Experiment" consists in a reversal of the usual method of literary judgement. Instead of classifying BOOKS, he classifies READERS and how they "use" or "receive" books. The true (unbiased) critic does not pontificate a judgement of 'good' or 'bad' upon a book without careful cosideration of the possible confusion between degrees of merit and differences of kind. "I want to convince people," says Lewis, "that adverse judgements are always the most hazardous... A negative proposition is harder to establish than a positive. One glance may enable us to say there is a spider in the room; we should need a spring-cleaning (at least) before we could say with certainty that there wasn't. When we pronounce a book good we have a positive experience of our own to go upon... In calling the book bad we are claiming not that it can elicit bad reading, but that it can't elicit good. This negative proposition can never be certain."
Central to his argument is the fact that the same book may be read in different ways. It follows then that there is a certain speculative nature to evaluative criticism, and therefore no amount of reliance upon literary criticism can absolve one from the responsibility of becoming a GOOD READER. And what is a good reader? Well, that is the question isn't it? In my opinion (and it is just that... an opinion) I feel that reading Lewis's "Experiment" can answer that question more effectively than anything I've ever come across. Read it, and see where you fit into Lewis's categories of the "literary" and the "unliterary" person (too lengthy to enumerate here). If at any point, you feel offended and want to hurl the book across the room... you are of the latter category.

Lewis deplored the technical dissection of what he loved so dearly... the simple act of reading. I loved his image in chapter 2 of the "status seeker" type of readers, gathered to discuss the finer (and, of course HIDDEN) points of "approved literature" while the only real literary experience in such a scenario "may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bed-clothes by the light of an electric torch."

Lewis sought in books (as he called it here) an "enlargement of his being". He says on page 52, "I am probably one of many who, on a wakeful night, entertain themselves with invented landscapes. I trace great rivers from where the gulls scream at the estuary, through the windings of ever narrower and more precipitous gorges, up to the barely audible tinkling of their source in a fold of the moors. But I am not there myself as explorer or even as tourist. I am looking at that world from outside." This is a terrific/significant book that will be read, re-read, and cherished by anyone who has ever had similar musings. Oh, and by the way... all GOOD readers have !

I had forgotten about that passage, but the funny thing is you seem not like it, while to me to appears frighteningly prescient.

I prefer it when it is written by Vonnegut (harrison Bergeron) rather than being expressed as a device of the Devil. To my mind, it is not 'I'm just as good as you' that is the problem, it is the reason why 'I'm just as good as you' is put forward. Accepting the limitations (as Lewis notes "It is not, in fact, very likely that any of you will be able, in the next ten years, to make any direct contribution to the peace or prosperity of Europe.") of the way others think and treat us is one of the things that it seems we have made a lot of progress in chipping away at.

"I prefer it when it is written by Vonnegut (harrison Bergeron) rather than being expressed as a device of the Devil. To my mind, it is not 'I'm just as good as you' that is the problem, it is the reason why 'I'm just as good as you' is put forward."

If you don't like the device of the Screwtape Letters, of course you won't like the device of the Screwtape Letters. What do you think is the reason why 'I'm just as good as you' is put forward? You seem to be projecting huge amounts of something into your understanding of Lewis, without telling us what it is.

"It is not, in fact, very likely that any of you will be able, in the next ten years, to make any direct contribution to the peace or prosperity of Europe."

I don't understand. What are you objecting to in that line again?

Thanks Sebastian. And thanks fellow commenters-- the thread's an interesting window onto many of Lewis's works that I've not yet read.

You know, Seb, acknowledging that Lewis is a product of his life and times is not really as damning as you think it is. I can accept that some of the points that Lewis makes are timeless, but you seem unwilling to acknowledge that some are not.

Without mindreading Lewis, I can't say what the reason for 'I'm just as good as you' was put forward. I can say that the notion is truncated. I'm just as good as you because [fill in the blank]. I have my own ideas of what that fill in the blank is, and I don't think they are the same as the ones Lewis would put forward. Of course, I am a person who feels deeply attached to Christianity, but as an extremely radical proposition rather than an effort to maintain the status quo. As I said, I am as much a product of my life and times as Lewis is of his, but to imagine going in front of an audience of university graduates from what was a university not at the top, but toward the top of the pyramid, and not pointing out the possibilities that exist within themselves at "commencement" (where they are supposed to be stepping off into the 'real world') seems strange, but Lewis was then and this is now. The line of not making any direct contribution, if phrased as an observation in history, is unobjectionable. If phrased before the fact, it becomes a justification.

In fact, one of the points that made me fall away from Christianity as organized religion was the levelling that Christianity imposes. Part of the meme of the world's most annoying Christmas tune, the Little Drummer Boy, is that any offering, made with the right intention, is worthwhile.

You bring up an anecdote of your teacher friends. I teach too and I recognize what they are saying. But then I also realize that 'standards' often represent built in prejudices of what we think people should be able to do.

I have done quite a bit of martial arts and have been involved in dojos where the standards are thought to be unbending. I've learned at those places, but the places that I end up styaing are ones that acknowledge and reward achievement not by setting against a standard, but by taking the persons history and personality into account. In the dojo that I teach as a ranking deshi (which could be described as a family dojo) we have several students who are mentally handicapped. To rigorously apply the standards that exist would be to prevent them from ever moving up.

I marvel at the Oxbridge system that produced people like Lewis and the fact that it was not simply a class system, but that it held out the opportunity for those of lower classes to enter. However, was it not also a means of justifying a system where people who were as thick as two short planks were given a pass on life and responsibilities?

"However, was it not also a means of justifying a system where people who were as thick as two short planks were given a pass on life and responsibilities?" I don't know for sure, but I suspect not. I think it looks that way to you now because the university system is so important to success now. I'm not sure that being deemed not intellectual enough for it meant that you couldn't be successful somewhere else in 1945. And it is an unfortunate fact in this world that responsibilities are found everywhere. :)

the university system is so important to success now

Yes, but at that time, an Oxbridge education was essential if you wanted to access virtually any level of political power, and I think that it is still a rather close run thing. Though that is a very good point about responsibilities as well.

LiberalJaponicus: Yes, but at that time, an Oxbridge education was essential if you wanted to access virtually any level of political power

And still is - pretty much. (Okay, not essential for any level. But if you want to be Prime Minister someday, your best bet is still to get into an Oxbridge college... and the easiest way to do that is still to have the right parents.)

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