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Celebrating the Less Celebrated on C.S. Lewis’s Birthday

November 29, 2012

Readers of this blog likely know that next year (2013) will be the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death. You might even know that today would be his (114th) birthday. But did you know that on his 56th birthday he gave his inaugural Cambridge lecture? While there are a number of ways to celebrate Lewis’s birthday, I’m going to be narrow by mainly focusing on this event occurring late in his life.

I can’t help but emphasizing the fact (that has been often noted) that C.S. Lewis was not just the author of the beloved series The Chronicles of Narnia. He was foremost a teacher who began at Oxford University. When he moved to Cambridge he was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Those who know me well are aware that growing up I (unlike Lewis) did not have a great love for literature and didn’t care much for English teachers. But, unlike so many professionals in such a highly specialize field, he had “mass appeal.” Lewis was able to speak to the highly educated and the average person on the street.

In the early 1940’s he was heard on the radio in the U.K. describing “right and wrong: a clue to the meaning of the universe.” These talks were initially published in three short volumes before being combined in 1952 (60 years ago) as Mere Christianity. Interestingly, it was partly because of his outspoken faith that he was never able to advance to a professorship at Oxford. Cambridge did not hold such things against him.

Which leads us to an address that is not as celebrated as much as it should be. Keeping in mind that Lewis was speaking to a highly educated audience, when you read “De Descriptione Temporum” (see link at the end to do this), there are many excellent points for all people. That is why I’m sure he agreed to do a radio version of this talk (which was called “The Great Divide” and can be bought at the link below).

While the following is a very condensed summary, Dr. Donald T. Williams, points out in an essay in C. S. Lewis: Life, Works & Legacy, “Lewis argues that the ‘Great Divide’ in history belongs not between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but between the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” That may make this essay seem less interesting to you, but if you enjoy history (which I always did more the literature), you should enjoy this first excerpt (along with the radio version):

At the very least, I was ready to welcome any increased flexibility in our conception of history.All lines of demarcation between what we call ‘periods’ should be subject to constant revision. Would that we could dispense with them altogether! As a great Cambridge historian has said: ‘Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray.’  The actual temporal process, as we meet it in our lives (and we meet it, in a strict sense, nowhere else) has no divisions, except perhaps those ‘blessed barriers between day and day’, our sleeps. Change is never complete, and change never ceases. Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again. (This is one of the sides of life that Richardson bits off with wearying accuracy.) And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for. A seamless, formless continuity-in-mutability is the mode of our life. But unhappily we cannot as historians dispense with periods. We cannot use for literary history the technique of Mrs Woolf’s The Waves. We cannot hold together huge masses of particulars without putting into them some kind of structure. Still less can we arrange a term’s work or draw up a lecture list. Thus we are driven back upon periods. All divisions will falsify our material to some extent; the best one can hope is to choose those which will falsify it least. But because we must divide, to reduce the emphasis on any one traditional division must, in the long run, mean an increase of emphasis on some other division.

Listen to The Great Divide (Audio Excerpt 1)

This next excerpt should be even more interesting, especially in light of the fact that it was written in the 1950’s by a person in England.

We live in an age of ‘appeals’, ‘drives’, and ‘campaigns’. Our rulers have become like schoolmasters and are always demanding ‘keenness’. And you notice that I am guilty of a slight archaism in calling them ‘rulers’. ‘Leaders’ is the modern word. I have suggested elsewhere (Note: ‘New Learning and New Ignorance’, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama, The Oxford History of English Literature, vol. III (Oxford, 1954), p. 50) that this is a deeply significant change of vocabulary. Our demand upon them has changed no less than theirs on us. For of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality’.

Listen to The Great Divide (Audio Excerpt 2)

Finally, the last excerpt deals with comments on the usage of words that Lewis discusses in other places, but is nevertheless fascinating here:

How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation’, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence’? Why does the word ‘primitive’ at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. (The only pejorative sense which Johnson gives to Primitive in his Dictionary is, significantly, ‘Formal; affectedly solemn; imitating the supposed gravity of old times’.) Why does ‘latest’ in advertisements mean ‘best’? Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. For the two great imaginative expressions of the myth, as distinct from the theorem – Keats’s Hyperion and Wagner’s Ring – are pre-Darwinian. Let us give these their due. (Note: Lewis pronounces a funeral oration over the ‘myth of universal evolutionism’ in his essay ‘The Funeral of a Great Myth’, Christian Reflections, pp. 82-93) But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motorbike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

Listen to The Great Divide (Audio Excerpt 3)

– – – – –

Read the COMPLETE De Descriptione Temporum Address at

Purchase the audio version (all with other Lewis Talks)

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