Sense and Nonsense: “In the shining light, destroy us”

For a course I gave recently on political philosophy and natural law, one of the books I had wanted to read, or reread, with my good class was C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book I realized I had not taken a look at for some time, though its powerful theme has almost become a part of the way I think. I felt doubly bad about not rereading this book more often, since I am constantly referring students to Lewis’s remark that someone who has only read a great book once and thinks he is done with it has not read it at all. (Every semester, it seems, I have at least a few students — but only a few, so it is encouraging — who come up to me after reading, say, Aristotle’s Ethics to tell me gravely it is just another book, as if the problem lies in Aristotle and not in themselves.) The Abolition of Man, in its own way, is a classic book about our lot.

At the beginning of the second chapter, entitled, “The Way,” Lewis, without translation — he wrote for literate people — cited the following Greek phrase: en de phaei kai olesson. I figured the phrase was from Homer, at the very basis of our civilization, but my dictionary only brought me to brightness of day and destruction. I did not recall the context. Finally, I wrote a note to Father Ed Bodner, in our classics department at Georgetown. He quickly informed me the phrase was indeed from the Iliad, where Menelaus is praying to Zeus: “Father Zeus, draw from the mist the sons of the Achaeans, make bright the air, and give back sight to our eyes; in shining sunlight, destroy us, if to destroy us be your pleasure.”

When I read this, I smiled again in marvel at the erudition of C. S. Lewis, as well as at his sanity. For when I went back to the context, this particular passage from Homer touched exactly what Lewis had in mind. He had been reading high school textbooks — “in the upper forms of school,” as the British say. He became increasingly appalled at what he was finding in English literary criticism and writing books; at the kind of emotional theory erstwhile teachers were putting in the minds of unsuspecting youth. He thought these ideas undermined the very structure of civilized life, because they separated emotional life from the good of what is. Lewis wanted us to be sure we knew where these ideas led.

To do this, Lewis pointed out that the traditional ideas of sanity (or natural law), which he held, also could sometimes lead to death. Then he added, “The true doctrine might be a doctrine which, if we accept, we die. [The doctrine that courage is a virtue would be an example.] No one who speaks from within the Tao [Lewis’s word for natural law] could reject it on that account.” Then came, with no further explanation. The Greek phrase: en de phaei kai olesson — destroy us in the broad light of day. That is to say, ultimately, we should know why it is we must sometimes do things that may lead us to death, thereby acquiring the emotional support, which will enable us to do what is right.

Coincidently, I had also been looking at Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles. I was interested to see that the famous passage about Inch Kenneth played a basic part in the Lewis thesis: “That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!” Lewis had just pointed out the consequences of telling the young that when we see something “sublime” — he had referred to Coleridge’s waterfall — we are referring to the waterfall itself and endeavoring to conform our emotions appropriately to something out there, in reality, the lovely waterfall. But English schoolboys were being taught that when one says the waterfall is “sublime,” he is referring only to his thoughts, not to the waterfall. Lewis had great fun with the logic of this curious notion from modern philosophy. Thus “when I say, ‘you are despicable,’ ” Lewis chided, “I really mean I have despicable thoughts.” The Abolition ofMan is a book dedicated to saving the world and our responses to it, to what it is, from the destructive logic of philosophies, which seek to separate us from what is out there, the sublime waterfall.

The value of Lewis’s book, of course, is its capacity to ask about where ideas really lead if they are carried out in the full light of day. They may destroy us without the nobility. The project of substituting the order of being as we discover it for something we make ourselves, so that our emotions are themselves a product of our own making, has totalitarian implications. All of this, Lewis discovered, much to his perplexity, is found in innocuous things like textbooks used in our grammar schools by very earnest teachers assuming they are about ordinary language lessons. Lewis talked about “the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds.” He noted that as we get nearer the end of the human race, the less effect our choices or our technology would have, since power depends on posterity.

In this regard, I also came across a little book by Malcolm Muggeridge, called The End of Christendom. These were originally the Pascal Lectures given at Easter- time at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, in 1978. After the first lecture, there were a number of questions, one of which was this: “Mr. Muggeridge, what do you have to say to the established Church in the West, which at this point has at least one foot still in Christendom?

Muggeridge gave this marvelous answer, mindful as it is of Lewis’s logic about where ideas actually might lead us: “It all depends entirely on where you think the other foot is.”

If the other foot of contemporary Christendom is indeed, as it often appears, in the kind of world wherein man creates his own values and future, so that religion functions as a sort of midwife to encourage us to accept this brave new world, then, of course, the self-abolition of man will also entail the abolition of God. “In shining daylight, we destroy ourselves.” This is a prayer no longer addressed by the Achaeans to Zeus, but, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, a project of some men to control all the others who still live by what man is, from nature.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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