In a sermon delivered in the Fall of 1939 titled Learning in Wartime, C.S. Lewis asserts,
every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is 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
Now I can only guess about the anxiety and feelings of dread that Lewis was addressing among the student body at Oxford at that time. Bombs had not yet dropped on London as they would a year later during the German Blitzkrieg of 1940. I don’t know how his sermon was received at St Mary’s Church that particular evening in the Fall of ’39, but I regret to say that my own sense for self-preservation would probably have precluded me from sticking around to the end of it should the bombs have started dropping a little earlier.
Nonetheless, I wonder if he might have delivered the same sermon during the virus of 2020?
Granted there must be a difference between the feelings of those who faced possible enlistment, and consequently imminent death, and the feelings of a people whose confrontation with death and mortality is largely based on screen-induced fear and media-driven panic. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that C.S. Lewis would surely be empathetic with the terrible dread and anxiety of present-day thinking Americans, even despite its irrational basis.
I admit it. When the financial markets plunge, when nations quarantine their citizens, when the diocese of Rome cancels all public Masses, when hand sanitizer and Kleenex are flying off the shelves, I can’t think of a time when the study of Latin and Greek and Euclidean geometry seemed more insignificant (except for maybe here). I can’t remember a time when teaching the liberal arts, the seven arts of the Quadrivium and the Trivium seemed, well…more trivial.
As Lewis asks his students,
why should we – indeed how can we – continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
Yea, learning the liberal arts at the present time is in fact quite like fiddling while Rome burns! No, even more, it is not like fiddling… it is fiddling.
Thirty years ago I suppose I was thinking there was still enough time to spread liberal education throughout the land. There was still enough time, that is, to stop and put to rout the forces of modern barbarism.
I told myself that even a handful of classically minded teachers could affect the entire nation. If 12 apostles could spread Christ’s gospel throughout the world, then certainly several hundred liberally educated teachers could transform a single nation!
Student by student, family by family, what with the laws of exponential expansion and the magic of liberal education, I would participate in making small ripples which, though parochial as they were, would in a matter of a decade or so increase to a tsunami-sized deluge, transforming and disposing the hearts and minds of thousands and even millions towards an enthusiastic embrace of Western Civilization!
Oh well, thirty years later here we are. Standing on the brink of collapse. Brought to this pathetic state by a mere virus. Reduced by something akin to the common cold! So much for hic, haec, hoc and qui, quae, quod!
What is the point of learning now? My efforts and those of a great many others do not appear to have transformed the culture. What a colossal waste of time to teach students how to conjugate a verb and decline a noun.
Arma virumque cano….whatever!
But I ask myself “What would C.S. Lewis do?” “How would he respond to my despair?”
Well, I think I know. He would say, No! This way of thinking is nothing but Tomfoolery! As if the primary purpose of pursuing a liberal education was to transform the culture in the first place! Hogwash! Yes, maybe liberal education is part of a solution for those who wish to transform the culture, but how insulting it is to assert that this is the purpose of such an education.
He would go on to point out that the present calamity that is the virus of 2020 “creates no absolutely new situation,” as neither did World War II.
The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.
When precisely, I ask, is a person supposed to pursue the excellence of soul for which he was created? We are not like the insects who as Lewis says, first seek
the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.
Like Archimedes in his beleaguered Syracuse and Boethius in his cell and Thomas More on the scaffold and James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and the noble Spartans who resisted the Barbarian at Thermopylae, we should not cease from the practice of truth, beauty, and goodness just because our own civilization appears to be collapsing.