“Creating the New Ignorance”: A Christmas Day Idyll with C.S. Lewis

Christmas Day seems like a suitable occasion for a diversion from the political ephemera of the day with an extended reflection on the great C.S. Lewis (because repeating the self-evident arguments about why Die Hard is a Christmas movie is getting boring).

I have previously quoted here the liberal grandee Arthur Schlesinger: “Ignorance is never any bar to certitude in the progressive dreamworld.” This remark appears in his best book, The Vital Center, published in 1949.

Imagine my delight when I came across this from C.S. Lewis: “Experience beats in vain upon a congenital progressive.” (Thomas Sowell has expressed this same thought, too, many many times.)

I doubt Lewis ever read a single thing by Arthur Schlesinger, though as I have noted before, Lewis’s work on moral philosophy, especially The Abolition of Man, is quite congenial with Leo Strauss’s critiques of nihilism and historicism in Natural Right and History. And while I doubt Lewis ever read anything by Strauss, Strauss took note of Lewis, once recommending The Abolition of Man in a 1962 seminar on Rousseau. From the transcript:

May I mention one point? We don’t have time to read it here: there is a book, or rather a series of lectures by C.S. Lewis, the English author, The Abolition of Man, which is worth reading from every point of view. It is his criticism of social science positivism or [right]. And he calls these men here, in the first lecture, “men without chests,” meaning they admit bodily desires, and they admit reasoning, in a way: namely, how to get the objects of bodily desires. The other things, the values, as they are called, are merely subjective. In other words, there is a lower part of the body, stomach and below, and there is a brain; but there is nothing in between. There is no heart. This is not a bad description of this view of man. I recommend it to your reading. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, 1959.

So where did I come across C.S. Lewis throwing some shade on progressives? Thereby hangs a tale. I got to reflecting on something Harry Jaffa once wrote, namely, that he had considered going to graduate school in English literature rather than political science, and that his ambition was to write a great book on Elizabethan Era literature. Which set me to thinking: C.S. Lewis did write a great big book on Elizabethan literature that no one reads any more, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), published in 1954 as a part of the Oxford History of the English Language series. At 558 pages of dense and copiously referenced prose, it had to be a hard slog to write, and in fact Lewis often referred to the project as the “Oh-Hell” after the series acronym, OHEL. It is rightly counted as Lewis’s greatest pure scholarly work.

Turns out I had a copy that I had never opened. Until a few months ago when curiosity got the best of me at last. The book is worth it just for the title of the Introduction alone: “New Learning and New Ignorance.” Yes indeed, there is a lot from this 65-year-old book that sounds jarringly familiar. Like this early passage about witch trials:

It appears to me impossible to be sure that much witchcraft—I had almost said that any—was really going on. Most of the evidence was gossip: nearly all the confessions were made in answer to leading questions and under torture. Judges who examine in that way will infallibly find confirmation of whatever theory the prosecution was holding before the trial began. The witch scare, therefore, concerns us at the moment, if at all, not as evidence of the things practised by common people but as evidence of the views, and (implicitly) the whole world picture, accepted by learned and respectable people in positions of authority.

Sounds like a perfect description of university offices of “equity and inclusion” and Oberlin College protests, not to mention campus Title IX proceedings.

And even though Lewis was not primarily interested—or trained—in political philosophy, he nonetheless offers excellent understandings of the problems in political thought that were arising in the Renaissance, with short but accurate descriptions of the defects of Bacon and Machiavelli, for example.

There’s also this, for example, which describes the correct hermeneutic for reading literature both ancient and modern by way of an attack on the “humanists” who were the early historicists, presaging the postmodernism of our own time that “privileges” the reader over the author:

The humanists, then, brought to their reading of the ancients certain damaging preconceptions; and, as we shall see in a moment, they retained the worst of medieval literary habits, that of allegorical interpretation. What they lost was the power, apparently common in the Middle Ages, of continuing, despite such interpretation, to respond to the central, obvious appeal of a great work. The medieval reader’s interests were often far closer than the humanists’ to those of the ancients themselves. Dante, accepting Virgil as his guide through hell and acclaiming him as the poet of that Italy for which Camilla died, had read Virgil as Virgil wished to be read.

Here again we see a common theme with Strauss, whose first principle of interpretation is always to seek to understand an author as the author understood himself. It is amazing that this is a controversial proposition in intellectual circles today.

Lewis dilated this duty of the interpreter as follows:

He must beware of schematizing. He must not impose either on the old things that were dying out (not all old things were) nor on the new things that were coming in (not all of them to stay) a spurious unity. . . Some think it the historian’s business to penetrate beyond this apparent confusion and heterogeneity, and to grasp in a single intuition the ‘spirit’ or ‘meaning’ of his period. With some hesitation, and with much respect for the great men who have thought otherwise, I submit that this is exactly what we must refrain from doing.

Finally, his statement of the central point that applies well to the intellectual climate of our time (appearing near the center of his introduction, ho, ho, ho):

In the field of philosophy humanism must be regarded, quite frankly, as a Philistine movement: even an obscurantist movement. In that sense the New Learning created the New Ignorance. Perhaps every new learning makes room for itself by creating a new ignorance. In our own age we have seen the sciences beat back the humanities as humanism once beat back metaphysics. Man’s power of attention seems to be limited; one nail drives out another.

“Creating the new ignorance” might well be the suitable motto for most of America’s universities today. There is a lot more worthy material in the rest Lewis’s big book, and perhaps I’ll return to it with a series at some point.

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