C.S. Lewis in Wartime: Patriot & Prophet

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By Bradley J. Birzer, The Imaginative Conservative, July 18, 2018

Though C.S. Lewis had certainly been a patriot in the First World War, he was determined to be a prophet in the Second. In his speeches and his writings, he spoke directly to a people roused by the heat of battle and war, when morality and norms traditionally fail, even in the best societies…

Bradley J. BirzerIn the middle of England’s noble efforts against the Nazis in the first half of the 1940s, C.S. “Jack” Lewis bravely delivered a series of intellectual and spiritual public and radio addresses, and he wrote a number of essays, all dealing with the themes of war, civility, order, purpose, and ethics. Indeed, he gave several such series (orally and in written form), each asking the British to possess fortitude in their struggle against the German National Socialist threat, but, equally important, to understand why the war mattered so deeply at the level of Western civilization and humanity. Physical lives mattered, Lewis knew, but eternal souls mattered more. If the English should somehow mimic their enemy in the Second World War, all the sacrifices in the world would mean something far worse than nothing. They would amount to aiding evil itself, an evil that would now be associated with the British as well as with the National Socialists.

Lewis’s primary theme in these addresses and essays, of course, was not new. Socrates had told Crito the same, claiming that any adoption of evil—at even the most minute and fundamental level—corrupted the good, thus corrupting the individual soul as well as the harmony and order of society. Roughly at the time of Lewis’ death, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recognized that those Russians the Soviets murdered immediately upon arrest had the better deal. To survive arrest meant nothing but prolonged bitterness, hatred, self-doubt, self-loathing, and temptation in the Gulag. At least a person executed immediately died a martyr. The Gulag, rather, existed for the sole purpose of destroying the individual soul of each of its innumerable inmates. Few spiritually survived its tortures, especially in their desire to cheat death. They betrayed not only their neighbor, but themselves. All, of course, as the Soviets had desired in their millions of victims. All ideologies, the greatest of twentieth-century Russians, reminded us over and over, throve on the blood of their torture chambers and death camps.

What made Lewis’ argument so brave in the early 1940s, then, was not its originality, but rather its ability to remind the British what was eternally and always true: that only good begets good. In his speeches and his writings, he spoke directly to a people roused by the heat of battle and war, when morality and norms traditionally fail, even in the best societies.

Of course, Lewis himself had volunteered as an officer in the First World War, and he had served not only bravely, but with honor. As a Northern Irishman, he had been exempt from the British draft, but he fought for England regardless. Somewhat famously, the brilliantly liberally-educated man stood at his first hearing of sounds of warfare—bombs bursting and machine guns rattling—by proclaiming, in awe, “So, this is what Odysseus felt.” No one could accuse him of not being a patriot, though many might have said the same of Socrates, also a war hero, decorated for his bravery in many of the battles of his own youth. To be sure, patriots usually fare better in wartime than do prophets. During the war, Lewis sustained severe injuries to his back and internal organs. Lewis’s older brother, Warnie, also served in the British Army, fighting in World War I and remaining an officer for a full twenty years.

Though Lewis had certainly been a patriot in the first war, and he was determined to be a prophet in the second.

Lewis rarely, if ever, questioned his participation in World War I, seeing it, then and later, as a necessary war, in defense of the best of Western civilization. He regretted, of course, the massive loss of life, but he also understood war itself to be a brutal undertaking.

What worried him about the Second World War was the blurring of lines between civilization and military, and between the government and the military. Unlike the first war, the second inspired a goodly number of nobodies—to use Lewis’s understanding—to create parades, spectacles, and wastes of time to feel important and to enjoy, even if very briefly, a minute expression of power.

He will be, I think, a retired business man who, having few brains, finds the time hanging heavy on his hands, and, being a bore, is the greatest nonentity in his neighborhood. The cartoons almost draw themselves. We see [him] rising, say, in the Home Guard. We see how endless and useless parades, which are an unspeakable nuisance to his more intelligent neighbors, are a perfect godsend to [him]; here is something to do, here is self-importance. We see him doing things which no officer in the real army would be allowed to do—parading the men without greatcoats in winter while he wears one himself, or practicing ceremonial drill in wartime. We see him developing a disquieting tendency to theocracy and becoming fond of church parades, though he himself, perhaps, hardly knows his catechism.

Here, Lewis is nothing short of brutal when dealing with those whom he considers ill ordered in the good society. Having no meaning or purpose themselves, they willingly bring ruin upon all, in what Americans would later begin to call a “civil religion.”

Along with this blurring at the neighborhood level came the national government’s intrusion into the lives of its citizens at every level. In the first war, Lewis claimed, all new the national government’s war measures to be temporary. In the second, though, no one quite knew when the war measures would actually come to an end, and, even more disturbingly to Lewis, few seemed to care. Martial life was offering purpose to a floundering people, and that people might well accept such centrally-guided purpose for years to come. In almost every way, Lewis addressed these concerns in one of the finest science fiction and dystopian novels ever written, 1943’s That Hideous Strength (not published until 1945). As one female character notes in despair at a critical moment in the novel, the police were behaving so poorly, it was almost as though Britain had lost the war. Her attitude reflected Lewis’s own fears.

Unlike Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and many other Americans of the 1940s, the Northern Irish Lewis was more than willing to accept national conscription if it was (or is) truly necessary to protect the nation state, but he preferred that the military remain distinct from both the national and political centers of power and the multitude of decentralized local associations.

“For the sake of our national existence we are ready to endure the loss of liberty. But we are not ready to endure it for anything less.” Lewis believed the failures of the British people came not merely from some national flaw, but, instead, for a failure of education to promote what was liberal and what was universal. He would develop these arguments repeatedly in books such as The Abolition of Man, not only one of the finest books of the last century, but one that is too great and important to deal with in this essay. Onward!

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