Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29, 1898 which makes today his 120th birthday. He has been among my favorite authors since I first cracked open a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child. I say “among my favorite authors” but in all honesty I can’t think of another writer I like better.
C. S. Lewis is familiar to most of his readers through the Chronicles of Narnia. Every few years I dig out my set and reread them all. The Chronicles are often called an allegory of the Christian gospels. This is wrong. Rather, they are an alternate world fantasy in which Lewis described a redemption story as it might have occurred in a fantasy world called Narnia (and then primarily only in the first volume).
Also known for his nonfiction, and it is there that Lewis shines his brightest. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings opus is clearly the superior work of fantasy. But in his works of nonfiction, one finds Lewis to be a deeply learned and genuinely wise man, a Christian apologist speaking like an apologist must, with deepest sincere conviction. I think everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, should read Mere Christianity, for it is simply the best work of apologetics to appear in the last century. We live in an era when religious education has disintegrated among the masses. Many people, even those not hostile to our faith, have only the vaguest caricature in mind of what Christianity is about. Apart from the Bible itself, Mere Christianity is the strongest and sharpest tool we have available to clearly answer the question, “What do Christians believe?”
Lewis wrote many books on many subjects and thousands of books and articles have been written about him and his work by others. For this birthday celebration, I wish to introduce Godversity readers to a couple of Lewis's shorter essays. I have found them to be intellectual treasures. It is essays like these that make Lewis such a favorite of mine. The wisdom contained therein is so succinctly laid out, and so applicable to life in general apart from religion, that I keep coming back to them time and time again.
The two essays I will describe share the odd similarity of having been written as something other than essays, but Lewis’s gift is such that it doesn’t matter. The first is called "On the Reading of Old Books" and originally appeared as the introduction to a book on St. Athanasius (so Lewis’s morsels of wisdom are scattered throughout the essay). The second is called "'Bulverism'" and was originally a lecture. Both essays can be found rather easily online. My copies are contained in a collection called God in the Dock (and the other essays in the book are excellent as well – not a clunker in the lot).
Lessons I learned from “On the Reading of Old Books” I put to work a few decades ago. You see, I am a trained physicist and was working on a problem that involved something called uni-polar induction. Being no expert on it, I had to visit the library to find out what other physicists had to say. I discovered that textbooks are a mixed bag on the matter finding that the more modern the textbook the less useful it turned out to be. This is not to say that all the old textbooks are good ones. No, the past had its share of poor writers and mediocre physicists. But the best of the lot from the old days survive into the present, often those books written by the best old masters. I particularly liked Arnold Sommerfeld's lecture series, especially his Electrodynamics. He was a contemporary of Einstein and his book had exceptionally useful, and correct, material dealing with uni-polar induction.
Now, one of Lewis’s points in his essay is that, though the writers of the old books made just as many mistakes in their thinking as we do today, they tended to make different mistakes. This can tell us a lot. For instance, one can read a book written just before the (American) civil war and note immediately the background notions about slavery that are abhorrent to us today. Or consider how quaint the sexual mores of a few scant decades ago appear in books written then compared with what one reads in an ordinary novel today. What we take for granted today was not always taken for granted, and what we write today will not always be taken for granted tomorrow.
So my own experience with Sommerfeld and other old physics textbooks brought Lewis’s point home. I saw that the books written recently take a great deal for granted that was not taken for granted in the past, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this is not always because more research made anyone any surer of the accepted truths. For instance, Sommerfeld might say: "It is accepted practice to use such-and-so approach, assuming this-and-that..." But in a current text you’ll find "we do it this way" without even noting which assumptions have gone into the mix, nor any indication the author was even aware of any.
Another advantage that came with consulting Sommerfeld is that he was a genius. This validated another of Lewis’s points. Lewis decried the idea common in his and our time, that to properly study a great author like, say, Plato, one should read a book about what Plato said. Lewis says it is much better to find a good translation of Plato and read what the man himself had to say, unfiltered by others. The point is that Plato, having such a fine mind himself, is easier to understand than those who write books about what Plato.
Of course, this observation applies to C. S. Lewis himself.
Since the Bulverism essay was originally delivered as a speech to the Socratic Club it isn’t quite complete. Lewis’s words cut off near the end and it continues as a few notes taken by the Secretary. Yet this particular essay nails down the most common "philosophical" problem of today that I can think of (the subtitle for the essay is "The Foundation of 20th Century Thought).
So what is Bulverism? It is the idea that any opinion that anyone has about anything can be attributed to a cause other than arriving at that opinion via study and logic. Any husband who has heard his wife say "You're only saying that because you're a man!" has been on the receiving end of the Bulverism argument.
This is a very powerful argument, as Lewis discusses in detail. Reason cannot prevail against it. Two decades ago we went through the spectacle of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. His accusers were daily excoriated for being partisan, for pursuing the president solely for political reasons, never because the president had perhaps done something that they honestly felt merited an impeachment inquiry. And the knife cut both ways, of course. The president's defenders were also on the receiving end of Bulverism. They were also excoriated, though in different quarters, for being nothing more than shills for the Administration -- paid liars, entirely insincere in the views they daily espoused on television.
Today, with President Trump in office, resorting to Bulverism to “win” an argument has gotten much worse.
Bulverism is a marvelous argument technique, exceptionally efficient. Why waste time learning and thinking so that you can refute an argument on the merits when it is much easier to just accuse someone of only holding opinions for ulterior motives, or even completely superficial reasons?
But the deepest beauty of the Bulverism approach can be found when you apply it to yourself. You can exonerate yourself for wrong views and bad behavior simply by asserting that some extraneous factor was really at work. This is fantastic! Now, you not only don't have to learn and think so that you can refute another person’s position, you don't even have to learn and think to have any of your own opinions! Why bother when no matter what your opinions may be, you only hold them because you're a product or victim of your upbringing, or your race, or your addictions?
You get the point. What is scary is that Lewis pointed all this out decades ago, and the idea, if not the name, of Bulverism predates him. Yet our society continued and continues to employ Bulverism, more today than ever, without even noticing that it is what is being used.
Thank you for taking the time to celebrate C. S. Lewis’s birthday with me. Now, since Lewis was much wiser and a better writer than I am, I suggest you stop reading me discussing Lewis, and go read the man himself.
Author: Jeffery D. Kooistra