Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Back to school: Lewis on the pursuit of learning (3)

The follow excerpt is from a sermon C.S. Lewis preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford University in Autumn 1939, thus the title, “Learning in War-Time.” Even though we are not on the brink of WWII, we do live on the edge of precipice, making Lewis’ perspective on higher education just as relevant now as it was then.

We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?” and we have, at the moment, to answer the additional question, “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think of anything but the war?”War-And-Peace-Leo-Tolstoy Now part of our answer will be the same for both questions. The one implies that our life can, and ought, to become exclusively and explicitly religious: the other, that it can and ought to become exclusively national. I believe that our whole life can, and indeed must, become religious in a sense to be explained later. But if it is meant that all our activities are to be of the kind that can be recognized as “sacred” and opposed to “secular” then I would give a single reply to both my imaginary assailants. I would say, “Whether it ought to happen or not, the thing you are recommending is not going to happen.” Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things. Before I went to the last war I certainly expected that my life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign; and I am pleased to find that Tolstoy, in the greatest war book ever written, records the same thing—and so, in its own way, does the Iliad. Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and soldiers are still men: the infidel’s idea of a religious life, and the civilian’s idea of active service, are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Essential C.S. Lewis (New York: Touchstone, 1986) 371-372.

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