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C.S. Lewis and the Case for Responsible Scholarship

It is increasingly difficult to say anything new about C. S. Lewis; perhaps you have noticed. And to say that he was a responsible scholar appears to be among the least interesting things to say; but no statement is truer.

By "scholar," I refer to one whose vocation is academic inquiry, one who marshals evidence in the pursuit of theses (for testing and development) and shares his discoveries with peers in the forums of his discipline. Such inquiry assumes the effective use of those tools, verbal or instrumental, available to the scholar: shaped by the perspectives and values he brings (consciously and unconsciously) to the task, the scholar is judged by the cogency of his argument and his impact on both the practitioners of his discipline and the wider commerce of ideas in the culture at large.

By these standards, Lewis is a towering scholarly figure in the world of 20th Century letters, particularly in literary criticism and history. Between 1931 and 1961, he published an astonishing number of scholarly works, countless articles, and more than five major, seminal works of influence and provocation-all the while maintaining an equally active, impressive career as an apologist, fantasy writer, and, of course, correspondent. It was in one of his fantasy works, The Great Divorce, that Lewis epitomizes the difference between the work of the responsible scholar and that of much modern and contemporary academic discourse.

During his dream journey to the netherworld, Lewis overhears a conversation between two characters, one of whom, If you recall, is a citizen of the grey town, an apostate bishop who deigns to escape what is to him an increasingly impertinent discussion with one of the Bright People, Dick, who has come to try to rescue him. Dick, a redeemed soul who knew the venerable bishop before his death, earnestly tries to get him see that he is, in fact, dwelling in Hell–not as a theological abstraction but as an actuality. This Episcopal ghost becomes quite agitated by Dick’s insistence that his earthly opinions were not arrived at honestly, that there are firm and true answers to his theological heresies, and that he has had the audacity to call upon him to repent. As Lewis listens in, he hears the climax of this obtuse conversation:

"Well," says the ghostly ex-cleric, "really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know."

"You have gone far wrong," Dick replies, "Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage" (44).

Dick’s pointed answer, which the bishop regards as both irreverent and obscene, indeed offers a stinging rebuke to the spirit of our own age, one whose errant scholarship often surpasses in foolishness and squalor even Lewis’s dire predictions. Its disdain for even the possibility of objective truth; its fostering of inquiry that is only about itself; and its veneration for postmodernism’s "free play" of discourse in which meaning is tied neither to persons or things: this is the diabolical epistemology of hell that Lewis’s beloved mentor, George MacDonald advances upon the scene later to explain:

"Hell is a state of mind-you never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind-is, in the end, Hell. But heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains" (69).

So it is in our little grey dungeons of "academic inquiry" at the end of the twentieth century, a socially constructed universe each within our own heads resting on truth that is only, at its best, consensus, and a consciousness which suspects nothing of a transcendent order, lacking both the tools and the will to investigate it. The question to be answered in this essay is, What can Lewis offer us as antidote to what he called in An Experiment in Criticism, "egoistic castle-building"-shallow, self-indulgent scholarship that folds in on itself in Seinfeldian fashion and is about precisely "nothing"? As we head toward a new millennium, we turn once again to Lewis as a wise navigator whose instruction and example may lead us out of the morass of subjectivism and doubt that renders our campuses and public square so impotent in the search for understanding. To accomplish our task, we must consider first how the young Lewis grew to become the astoundingly erudite and successful scholar he was.

From an early age, Lewis had had a precocious interest in the transcendent, which is to say, the unshakable, the real, and sought through the twin organs of imagination and reason, through nature and the outside world, as well as through books and his inner world, to apprehend the truth. The young Lewis, denied none of the volumes in his father’s library traveled far and wide in history, myth, and story long before he entered Oxford. Listen to his brother Warnie speak to this:

By the standards of a present-day childhood in England, we spent an extraordinary amount of our time shut up indoors. We would gaze out of our nursery window at the slanting rain and the grey skies. . . But we always had pencils, paper, chalk, and paintboxes, and this recurring imprisonment gave us occasion and stimulus to develop the habit of creative imagination. . . And so, my brother’s gifts began to develop: and it may not be fanciful to see, in that childhood staring out to unattainable hills, some first beginnings of a vision and viewpoint that ran through the works of his maturity. (Letters of C. S. Lewis 45)

And, as he grew to manly stature, he sought and received those learning experiences that would help him "put on intellectual muscle" to complement his creative faculties. You will recall his delight in being home-schooled by "the Great Knock," William Kirkpatrick, a man he regarded as close to being a "purely logical entity" for his ruthless dialectical pedagogy; here was a tutor whose interrogation of his prodigy provided Lewis "red beef and strong beer," invaluable training in polemic and debate, the marshaling of arguments and the necessity of precision in definition. Kirkpatrick was the kind of person, indeed, the brand of scholar, Lewis would admire and strive to be himself all of his adult life: "a man who thought not about you but about what you said" (Surprised by Joy 137). "Here was talk," Lewis concludes in Surprised by Joy, "that was really about something" (137).

And so we today, were we to categorize Lewis’s own scholarly output, might say this: Here is scholarship that "was really about something." Something real, something enduring, something consequential. This "something" for Lewis was quite literal, for the basis of what he would call truly responsible inquiry is a profound interest in creation and cosmos, the "is-ness" and "there-ness" of persons and things-a curiosity and respect for their essential nature and purpose. As an inquirer and observer, Lewis was dramatically influenced by one of his Oxford professors, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, who is immortalized in Surprised by Joy as a man who "seemed to be able to enjoy everything; even ugliness":

I learned from him that we should attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere was offering itself at the moment. . . . There was no Betjemannic irony about it; only a serious, yet gleeful, determination to rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was. (199)

Yes, as a scholar, Lewis is always and everywhere determined to promote encounter, the experience of what he calls here an artifact’s quiddity--what it essentially "means," "says," and "does," understood within its own historical and cultural milieu. (Ransom’s adventures on both Malacandra and Perelandra depict this exuberant, exultant submersion in the glory of landscapes and alien creatureliness on alternate worlds.) Consequently, Lewis was dismayed by professional scholars who inserted themselves obstructively between the reader and the information or experience they wished to convey; he preferred the lines themselves and not what lay between them, hence he would have little patience for today’s theory-mongers who care more about what is not said that what is.

Determined to not to inhibit his readers from engaging in their own exploits and discoveries, he worked hard to help the reader avoid "the personal heresy," compelling them to look at the text at hand, and neither the poet, nor the critic. Along the way, this effort might indeed require his explaining an obscure term, illustrating a genre with multiple, judiciously chosen examples, historicizing a text’s original readership and its expectations, or pointing out potential misconstruals from the contemporary reader’s vantage point. But these efforts were all in the name of allowing the reader entrée into a textual world made more "visible" by the scholar’s quick exit from the line of sight: when we "read Plato," Lewis avers, we do so to "know ‘what Plato actually said’–something which the commentator cannot deliver. The intervening modern may be more a threat to clarity than a help to understanding" ("On the Reading of Old Books," God in the Dock 200). Lewis trained the sensibilities of the lay reader to receive and not merely use texts, trusting their ability to discern meaning far more than he did the capabilities of the interloping commentator to remain, if you will, hermeneutically chaste.

As you would surmise, Lewis’s scholarly subject matter permitted him discussion of the permanent things, the origin and destiny of humankind as understood through the ages, as well as our temporal choices and their effects on this world, and the world to come. Against the tide of modern, and now contemporary, thought, Lewis championed the cause of objective truth, and proclaimed the court of heaven as the final arbiter of all knowledge–all aptly summed up in this epigram from The Four Loves: "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date" (188). Most importantly in this regard, Lewis’s lucid prose always subscribes his readers to a conception of language that implicitly upholds its heuristic and epistemic functions, that is, its utter suitability in enabling mere human beings to observe, discover, and express both mundane and profound truth in tolerably accurate and ultimately reliable ways. Lewis was a lifelong anti-positivist, opposing the notion that there could be a neutral, "scientific" way of speaking that avoided metaphor or "poetic diction."

Influenced by his friend and linguistic mentor, Owen Barfield, and cognizant himself of the cognitive power of metaphor, Lewis saw language as "incurably" mythopoeic, inevitably and simultaneously linking hearers/readers to items, persons, and relations on one plane of existence–while also pointing them backwards and forwards to ever deeper, resonating layers of meaning that lay beyond any single soul, lifetime, or civilization, into eternity. In particular, as a critic of waning Western culture, Lewis was acutely aware of the necessity of defending language as an adequate tool to allow human beings to see and not just "see through" this world, let alone the world to come. In The Abolition of Man he takes great pains in to debunk the incipient deconstructionism of "the Green Book," an elementary composition textbook that implicitly denied humans could utter predicates of value. Lewis himself provided a principled notion of the craftsmanship and responsibility required of the scholar in a letter to a Cambridge colleague, only two weeks before his death: One should provide the public, Lewis said, "Plenty of fact, reasoning as brief and clear as English sunshine, and no personal comment at all" (Light on CSL 103-104).

Here, as elsewhere, the scholar Lewis practiced "rhetoric" superbly in its classical sense-as a compendium of verbal tools that equipped the artist or essayist with strategies to communicate knowledge more memorably, to express difficult ideas more accessibly, and, ultimately, to make its truth claims inescapable.



Thus far I have been talking very broadly about Lewis’s scholarly tenets, focusing on his proprietary interest in primary encounter, the responsibility of the scholar to train the reader to receive and not merely use the text, and his trust in the adequacy of language to convey both mundane and transcendent truth. Permit me now, if you would, to provide a brief overview of the range of scholarship Lewis actually produced. As Owen Barfield has suggested, there were "three C. S. Lewises"–the fantasist, the apologist, and the literary scholar–and that the readership of first two Lewises often knows little or nothing of the work of the third. Let it be said, however, that such artificial distinctions begin to break down once one crosses over these genre boundaries and becomes equally familiar with all three Lewises, for there is no more integrated thinker or writer than Lewis; to quote Barfield again, "Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything" (Edwards 2). The Lewis who created Narnia, Malacandra, and Glome, and who defended the credibility of the New Testament miracles, articulated the essence of "Mere Christianity," and helped us see the world from a demon’s point of view in Screwtape, is indeed also the "third Lewis" in our trinity of vocations, an estimable essayist and determined social critic, a learned writer of readable treatises on the literature between the middle ages and the dawning of the twentieth century, and a prescient literary theorist.

The effect of reading Lewis’s prose is the same regardless of its topic: the sensation of entering into a new order or level of insight, and yet an experience achieved without apparent contrivance or arduous effort by either writer or reader. Lewis’s scholarship, like his fiction and apologetics, always evinces a certain winsomeness which draws the reader to his side for a salutary intellectual journey. He is ever an amiable companion who by turns instructs, delights, and challenges, and always intrigues. His consummate rhetorical skill, intellectual boldness, perspicacious grasp of time and culture, prodigious memory, and bracing wit are all present in equal doses in every scholarly or popular essay he published.

Such are the attributes that may be observed in even a casual examination of Lewis’s scholarly oeuvre, from his first publication on Milton’s Comus (1932) to his last full-blooded treatment of the literary enterprise in An Experiment in Criticism (1961). These works reveal a mind consistently fixed on the enjoyments and adventures of scholarship itself, and a writer voluntarily sublimating his own tastes, expectations, and desires to the affective choreography of the artifact before him. This is indeed one of the secrets of Lewis’s success, his undisguised enthusiasm for that in which he is engaged. Kathleen Raine, his Cambridge peer and fellow poet, has observed that Lewis’s posture stood in vivid contrast to the attitudes of "bored superiority or active hatred" toward literature displayed by many other academic figures of their times; given "his love of the material itself [which] was life-giving as a spring in a desert . . . I went to some of his lectures on the ‘matter’ of Rome, France, and Britain," she explains, "and remember how he made the dullest Latin text seem enthralling. . . " (103). Echoing Raine’s sentiments, Helen Gardner, the Medieval and Renaissance scholar who turned down the Cambridge position Lewis eventually obtained, categorizes Lewis’s magnum opus The Allegory of Love as a work "written by a man who loved literature and had an extraordinary power of stimulating his readers to curiosity and enthusiasm" (16).

It is not too much to say that one can classify the great majority of Lewis’s critical works in one of two ways: (1) informed, enthusiastic reports of his own astute and powerful readings of texts great and not-so-great, well-known and obscure, accessible and elusive; or (2) polemical works designed to defend, rescue, or rehabilitate authors, themes, texts, or whole eras that have been misconstrued or unfairly marginalized through intentional scholarly embargo or simple ignorance.

Lewis’s critical canon is replete with both kinds of influential studies. The already mentioned, The Allegory of Love (1936), radically altered critical perceptions of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and reinvigorated discussion and debate about the role and meaning of both courtly love and the genre of allegory in the medieval tradition. His Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) nearly single-handedly rehabilitated Milton’s reputation in an era in which his epic poem was either undervalued or valued for the wrong reasons. His massive English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954) offered lucid summaries of and challenging observations about scores of texts, authors, and movements with incisiveness and grace. His last scholarly work, published posthumously, incorporated all the strengths of his public lectures at Oxford and Cambridge that so enthralled his undergraduates: The Discarded Image (1964) is a stunning evocation and exposition of the medieval and Renaissance worldview, a work that propounds a theory of paradigmatic revolution long before it occurred to Thomas Kuhn. Lewis was equally adept at terse, well-targeted rebuttals of critical judgments of works that he felt arrogantly deprived readers of joy and instruction, praising Jane Austen for her ethical "hardness," rescuing Hamlet from damnation as a "failed play," or defending Shelley as a "great, flawed poet"–as such collections as Rehabilitations (1939), Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1966), and Selected Literary Essays (1969) well exemplify.

Literary historian George Watson, has summarized Lewis’ scholarship by describing its ". . . chief purpose. . ., in a negative sense, [as] the discrediting of sixteenth-century Humanism and twentieth-century modernism, both of which he saw as dry, starved, and stultifying," and that ". . . explaining, justifying, and consolidating ancient truths was what he did best" (3; 5). In the end, this indeed is Lewis’s greatest strength as a scholar, his own perspicacious reading and transcultural awareness, comprising a vast, encyclopedic knowledge of human thought, its texts, and its values. He is an acknowledged master of revealing to readers with great immediacy and poignancy the epistemological framework and cultural commitments which undergird a particular work or period or, indeed, an entire civilization.


Having offered this judgment, one final, important corollary question begs to be addressed: What is the relationship between Lewis’s scholarly prowess and his Christian commitment? To answer we must examine his most sustained treatment of the theme of responsible scholarship, its premises and its desired fruits, found in his famous 1939 sermon, "Learning in War-Time," in which he defends the value of education and the necessity of scholarship, even under the cloud of Nazi aggression.

Lewis phrases the question in this manner: "How is it right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology" (21). His answer entails the recognition that "Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself," and "if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun." (21-22). Men are different from other species in this specific way: "They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae" (22)

This fact alone, Lewis avers, does not, however, prove that such endeavor is defensible for the Christian scholar, since we are fallen and sinful creatures who pursue many activities that may in fact do us harm. Nevertheless it is clear to Lewis is that an "appetite" for the "pursuit of knowledge and beauty," which is his loose, working definition of scholarship in this essay, "exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain." Consequently, we can assuredly "pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so." (27)

Still, the allegiance required of the Christian scholar is unavoidable: "There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable" (25). Scholarly integrity is measured by the worldview of the investigator and his adherence to it; thus, one prerequisite for such endeavor is humility: "All our merely natural activities will be accepted if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not." (25); for Lewis the life of scholar is no more intrinsically noble or important than that of the bootblack. "The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’" (26). This basic posture informs all of Lewis’s published work.

However, this impulse to pursue the intellectual life must be kept "pure and disinterested," for the alternative is to "come to love knowledge-our knowing-more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us" (28). Since a cultural and intellectual life exists and will continue to influence society whether Christian contribute to it or not, the stakes are too high to remain on of the sidelines, out of the academic, public square: "If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated." However, "To be ignorant and simple now-not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground-would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen." Consequently, "Good philosophy must exist, if or no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered" (28).

In the next passage, Lewis articulates what is for him the cornerstone of all such reputable research:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract if nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. (28-29)


Here Lewis is not only reminding us of our need to resist what he calls elsewhere the "chronological snobberies" of our particular age, but also the responsibility of scholars themselves to "live in many times and places," and thus to lift their readers and listeners "out of [their] provincialism by making [them] ‘the spectator[s]’ if not of all, yet of much, ‘time and existence’ . . . and into a more public world." Such a stance frees the Christian scholar to study both secular and sacred texts and to allow them to speak out of their own times or cultures into the present, making possible a discerning perspective on one’s own age as a "period" that needs correction as it is compared with the past, or the future.


In conclusion, Lewis’s scholarly goal was to convince his reader to become a willing inhabitant within a text’s imagined universe, submitting to its narrative or poetic "map," traversing its landscapes, and listening to its myriad voices with the motive of leaving behind one’s own predilections, dogmas, and biases. The "scholarship" that results from such conviction is the genuine, disinterested report of the earnest explorer who has experienced what it is to look through others’ eyes, to think as they have thought, to behave as they behaved within their cultural period. As he puts it in the grand climax of An Experiment in Criticism, his only sustained work of critical theory, ". . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do" (141).

In Lewis’s scholarship one encounters the true and ultimate multiculturalist–and his prose teaches us this simple credo: To find understanding in this fallen world, I need not (and dare not) be part of an elite or intelligentsia, I need only be a creature made in God’s image. The foundation of all free thought and inquiry for Lewis is the nothing less than the unique personhood and humanity of man, each man or woman made in the image of God: I am His, therefore I may know the truth.

This, my friends, is truly responsible scholarship.

Here, as in his apologetics and his fiction, Lewis exudes a generous and earnest spirit that lifts his readers out of their protective selfishness and them in a partnership of joyful discovery, the chief benefit being the companionship of Lewis himself.



Edwards, Bruce L. Ed. The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Writer, and Imaginative Writer. Bowling Green: Popular Press, 1988.

Gardner, Helen. "British Academy Obituary," in George Watson, Ed. Critical Thought Series: I Critical Essays on C. S. Lewis. Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1992. 10-21.

Gibb, Joycelyn. Ed. Light on C. S. Lewis. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

Lewis, C. S . An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

—. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, 1960.

—. The Great Divorce. New York: Macmillan, 1945.

—. Surprised by Joy. New York; Harcourt, 1955.

Lewis, Warren. Ed. The Letters of C. S. Lewis. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

Raine, Kathleen. "From a Poet." In. Joycelyn Gibb, Ed. Light on C. S. Lewis . New York: Harcourt, 1965.

Watson, George, Ed. —. "Introduction," In Critical Thought Series: I Critical Essays on C. S. Lewis. Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1992. 1-8.