Discourses on Modernism

Screwtape Proposes A Toast And Other Pieces - C.S. Lewis

It was either 2001 or 2002 when I first discovered this book. My friend and I were exploring the maze in City Basement Books (which at the time was on Elizabeth Street in Melbourne, but has since moved to 342 Flinders Street in Melbourne, a fact that I have only just discovered) when my friend stumbled across this book in the religion section. My friend then exclaimed that 'The Weight of Glory' was his favourite C.S. Lewis essay of all time, and proceeded to purchase it, at which point I then borrowed the book and proceeded to read all of the essays therein.

I would have that say that it was this book that made me realise how great a philosopher C.S. Lewis actually was (because up until that point the only books of his that I had read where the Chronicles of Narnia, the Science-fiction trilogy, and the Screwtape Letters – I hadn't actually read any of his more philosophical works). It was also when I had decided that I would explore more of his philosophy (despite the introduction to the book suggesting that it is theology, my third reading of this book, as I will expound below, indicates that it is much more philosophical) and take an interest in such works. It was basically the beginning of my love affair with C.S. Lewis.

Since this book is a collection of essays, I feel that it may be better to look at each of the essays individually rather than discussing the book as a whole because each of these essays touch on slightly different topics. However, there are a couple of threads that hold each of them together. The first is that they all have a Christian foundation, and secondly they are all criticisms of modernism (and in a way beginning to touch on post-modernism, though at the time of writing post-modernism was still very much in its infancy).


Screwtape Proposes a Toast

Lewis had promised that he would never write anything along the lines of the Screwtape Letters again since he had said that the book itself was very draining upon his psyche. While he suggested that it wasn't necessarily a hard book to write, his inference is in fact the opposite – it was way too easy to write, suggesting that thinking like a demon and writing as if he were a demon, was something that he really did not want to delve into again. However, many years later, and after a lot of pressure to bring Screwtape back, he finally caved in and gave us this little gem.

Unlike the Screwtape Letters, which is a series of letters of instruction to a trainee demon, this is written as a speech given to a graduating class of demons. Also, the focus of the original book was on the life of a young man, where as the focus of this book is towards society as a whole. What we see, and learn, from this discourse, is how Lewis believes demons see modern society, and in particular democracy. Here Lewis holds nothing back, criticising the modern education system (and he is a very harsh critic of the system, especially since he was a lecturer at Oxford University), democracy, and modern society as a whole.

It is interesting to see him raise the concept of the 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', a syndrome that has been suggested is particularly Australian, yet Lewis clearly points out that it is something that also occurs in England. The idea is that society cannot let anybody get ahead, and if somebody manages to get ahead then the rest of society reacts by knocking them back down again. This, he suggests, also extends to education, where the more capable people in the class are held back so as not to allow the less capable feel left out. Mind you, society never turned out the way he suggested, in that the wealthy and the poor were all forced into the same government schools, however as it appears, unless you go to a private school, you tend to find yourself in the situation where the school caters to the lowest common denominator and as such the smarter students are hindered in being able to reach their potential (though Kevin Rudd went to a government school and managed to become Prime Minister of Australia).


Is Theology Poetry?

I will skip a couple of the discourses in this book because, well, there is not all that much to write about them, and anyway I can probably write a lot more about what I consider to be the major ones (and even then there are only two that I am going to skip). This discourse is an exploration of both theology and poetry and through this discourse Lewis does not just focus on Christian Theology but also the theology of Scientific Materialism.

He suggests that poetry is hard to define because it can actually take many forms. For instance Baudelaire wrote what is known as prose poetry suggesting that poetry does not need to take the form of verse nor does it need to use meter. However, my understanding is that poetry is a device that is used to create word pictures, and also a means to explore a concept using literary devices (though I would hardly call a modern essay poetry).

His exploration of Scientific Materialism is particularly interesting since he suggests that it is a form of tragedy that he compares with the life cycle of a human being. In a way that is not surprising because science tends to develop its theories through looking at the world around it, and as such the development of human civilisation is equated with the development of the individual person. In a way there is no room for an advanced civilisation existing prior to our own because from birth a human is always learning and growing until such a time as they reach the peak of their ability and then goes into decline.

Lewis suggests otherwise with Christian Mythology in that humanity started at a peak and then fell into decline, and it is only through the intervention of an outside force that humanity was able to be redeemed. In a way it is like a human who, at the peak of their ability, is suddenly struck down by a nasty disease and unless treatment is provided by a skilled professional, there is no hope for the survival of this particular human. To Lewis, the idea of the cycle of humanity as viewed by the materialists is little more than a tragedy.


On Obstinacy in Belief

This, to me, appeared to be a discourse on the use of language, particularly in relation to the use of the word believe. It is interesting how Lewis points out that the phrase 'I believe' tends not to be as strong as the phrase 'I do not believe'. For instance somebody who says 'I believe that tomorrow is going to be a nice day' suggests that it might be a nice day, but then again it might not. However, if the same person says 'I do not believe that economic rationalism works' the phrase tends to define this person's belief system in a way that no amount of arguments to the contrary are going to change that person's attitude (and yes, I am the person who will say 'I do not believe economic rationalism works', though I will not go into details here).

What Lewis is getting at is the idea that when somebody says 'I believe that Jesus is the Son of God' or 'I believe that Jesus is a good teacher' suggests an attitude that is not all that strong, however I would like to disagree in that regards. I actually don't believe that the two above statements are statements of assumption (on the same level as 'I believe tomorrow is going to be a nice day') but rather in line with the statement 'I do not believe that scientific rationalism works'.

It is funny that people seem to get into a real knot when one starts to explore the use of language to that extent. It seems that many people fear an exposition on the use of language, and I must say that I was one of those people, especially when I first discovered the theories of Wittgenstein. In fact, it appears that Lewis is borrowing from Wittgenstein's work in this discourse. However, I believe that this examination of the use of language is important because language is all about communication, and when people use language to communicate a certain point of view, one's use of language in this regard is very important.

Take for instance Andrew Bolt (who has been described by some as the Liberal Party's Minister of Propaganda) when he writes up his opinions on his blog, or in his column in the Murdoch press here in Australia, or on his television show The Bolt Report. His use of language is exactly what people like George Orwell is getting at, in that the way that he presents his opinions are presented as if they were facts, yet in the end they are little more than a biased opinion. What he does is that he mixes just enough truth into his opinion that when people read his column, unless they are aware of his bias and his political persuasion, are more likely than not to be swayed to his point of view (I could write a lot more in this topic, but instead I will leave it here and move onto the next discourse).



This is a discourse on perceptions and worldviews, and here I begin to see elements of post-modernism and relativism. While the book describes it as a 'sermon delivered at Magdalen College' I am still of the opinion that it is more of a philosophical discourse on the idea of perception, or what Lewis describes, transposition.

The idea that Lewis actually explores is how somebody of a certain worldview attempts to reveal a belief to somebody of a different worldview, and this is a skill that many churches try to teach their parishioners when sharing their faith with their friends and colleges. The problem is, as Lewis explains, is that one's worldview limits the concepts that one can understand. For instance, somebody who has never experienced love will have a very hard time understanding the concept of love, just as somebody who has never been shown affection does not know how to show affection. Lewis uses the example of a brute only ever seeing love as an outpouring of lust, however the problem that I see here is that my understanding of what a 'brute' actually is (and I am not referring to the aftershave) does not allow me to see them as being able to show any form of affection whatsoever, even if it is only to feed one's lust.

So, this is where we move onto another concept, and that is the idea of the clash between scientific materialism and theism. What is suggested here is that the scientific-materialist worldview struggles to see anything beyond that which can be determined rationally and experimentally, and that is the problem when it comes to religion, namely it cannot be determined experimentally (though I would argue that it can be determined rationally). While I am not an enemy of science, and in fact believe that science has provided many great things that have enhanced our lifestyle considerably, I do not see it as the be all and end all of anything. There are many things that science cannot prove experimentally because we do not have access to any data that can prove this one way or another. For instance, science cannot prove the existence of the human soul (and as such there are many out there that do not believe in the existence of a soul), and in the same way science cannot necessarily prove the existence of consciousness, despite the fact that we can see the existence of this consciousness everytime we speak to another human (though I believe that advances in neurobiological science is changing that perception).

As such, science cannot prove God, and because science cannot prove God, there are many scientists out there that have determined that God does not exist. However, it is interesting that Jesus equates the existence of God with the wind, suggesting that while we cannot see the wind, we know the wind exists because the of responses of objects to the wind (such as a leaves fluttering, and the feel of the air passing over our face). Thus, it is suggested that like the wind, while we may not be able to see God, we can see the results of God's influence in the word, however, as C.S. Lewis indicates, only those of us who are open to the acceptance of the existence of a God are likely to perceive these interventions – those whose worldviews do not accept the existence of God will no doubt have other explanations for these events.


Weight of Glory

At one time this was my favourite discourse in this little book (namely because my friend kept on talking it up) however having read this book a third time this particular discourse as fallen down in the rankings. It does not mean that it is a bad discourse, far from it, but rather my focus was on the other discourses in this volume.

The Weight of Glory is, as can be seen from the title, an exposition on the definition of the word glory (and once again we see Lewis exploring the uses of language). What he is doing here is creating another definition for the use of this word beyond what he considers to be the current modern usages. In his mind there are two definitions that enters the modern mind, the first being luminosity (which he considers its use relating to a human being somewhat absurd), and the second equating with fame. His problem with the use in the second definition is that fame is something that equates with pride – thus the glory of a famous person is, to him, an example of pride, something against which we are warned in the Bible.

However, as Lewis explores its usage in the Bible, he comes to understand the third definition, and that is being appreciated by God, and this, as he knows, is something that we cannot earn. In both the second and third definitions, glory is something that is bestowed upon us (by an adoring public in the second definition, and by God himself in the third). However, while the second definition suggests that we earn glory, in the third definition God bestows it upon us not because we have earned it, but rather because he does so in his grace.


Good Work and Good Works

This is the last of the discourses that I will write about, namely because it struck me how there seems to be some influence from the works of Karl Marx here, namely from his treatise The Estrangement of Labour. It is interesting that in church over the past month we have been looking at the Biblical understanding of work (in reference to employment), and that as we discussed these issues in Bible study, we always seemed to come back to this concept that was espoused by Marx (despite the fact that many of us did not realise this).

The idea is that prior to industrialisation, work was carried out by individual people, meaning that the carpenter made the chair and the blacksmith made the saw to allow the carpenter to make the chair. The thing is that the artisan's reputation was based upon the quality of the work that was performed in this instance, meaning that if the artisan did a poor job then the artisan would fail in his (or her) respective trade. However this began to change as industry moved out of the cottage and into the factory. No longer was any skill required to make the chair because the chair would be made on the assembly line, and further, the pride of the manufacturer making the best chair as possible also began to disintegrate.

In this sense Lewis explores the idea of built in obsolescence, namely that things are built to break down, because if they did not break down then the manufacturer would not be able to sell any new components, nor could they sell the latest model. In fact the modern economic system is based upon us buying and selling stuff, which means that if the television that we buy did not break down for ten years then the manufacturer could not continue selling as many televisions. However, there is also the idea of the new model. The manufacturer simply cannot make the best television there is because, first of all, they would run out of money developing this product, but also it would inhibit the ability of the manufacturer to produce better and better products. Taking the television for instance, we see it developed in the following ways:

  • the small, black and white, cathode ray tube (CRT);


the large, black and white, CRT;


the small, colour, CRT;


the large, colour, CRT;


the small flatscreen;


the large flatscreen;


the even larger flatscreen;


the 3d television;


and finally the curved 3D television.

So, as can be seen, the economic cycle requires us to continue to produce new and better products so that we can not only stay ahead of our competitors, but that we can entice the consuming population to continue to purchase luxuries so that the manufacturer can continue to stay in business and that the executives can continue to have money to fly business class and sip lates at their favourite coffee shop.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1062611652