Skip to comments.Master of the Quiet Style
Posted on 12/09/2003 7:40:12 PM PST by Theodore R.
Master of the Quiet Style
November 25, 2003
Forty years ago, on November 22, 1963, I was as shocked as billions of other people by the murder of John F. Kennedy. I didnt even notice the passing of another man the same day, whose name at that time I barely knew: the English writer C.S. Lewis.
But within a few years, Lewis was my favorite modern writer, and he has remained so. He is best known as a Christian apologist, but he was also a literary scholar of great distinction as well as an immensely popular writer of science fiction and childrens stories.
Lewiss books sell even more copies now than they did during his lifetime, and all of them are worth reading and rereading. He wrote with deceptive simplicity on a wide range of subjects, never flaunting his wide-ranging learning but only appealing to the readers common sense. His unfailingly reasonable tone is not only deeply persuasive but, in the long run, endearing.
Lewis would have deprecated the personal adulation he has received, but he brought it on himself. To read him for any length of time is to love and trust him. In that respect he is rather like George Orwell, another modern master of plain English prose. But where Orwell was sharp and spiky, Lewis was gentle and generous.
Lewis once wrote an essay on Orwell that strikes me as exactly right: he said that Animal Farm is a better book than Nineteen Eighty-Four in large part because its four-legged characters seem more human than the featherless bipeds of the latter novel. The essay is so fair-minded and appreciative that youd never guess that the anti-religious Orwell had rather nastily attacked Lewis in print.
Lewis generally ignored public events, disliked and avoided newspapers and radio (though he was a huge success in his own radio broadcasts), and seldom wrote about politics. Yet he made some profound remarks about modern politics, because his scholarship had taught him how deeply Western mans basic assumptions had changed since ancient and medieval times.
Even during World War II, Lewis saw that the differences between Fascist, Communist, and democratic regimes were essentially superficial a point he made with great tact in his little wartime book The Abolition of Man. All three types of regimes had at bottom repudiated what earlier men had recognized as fundamental moral law, otherwise known as natural law or (as Lewis called it, using the ancient Chinese term) the Tao.
For modern man, Lewis pointed out, law is nothing but human will, and the state is free to make law as it pleases, without moral limits. Older traditions had believed that human law must conform to a higher law, but that sense was being disastrously lost in the modern world. The modern state was therefore incessantly engaged in legislation. Old inhibitions on politics were gone.
Lewis said all this not in a tone of angry diatribe, but in detached observation. It was simply a matter of fact. He thought it was urgent to realize the implications of modern prejudices, which were constantly inculcated by public education; but instead of denouncing these prejudices, he quietly showed how the modern schoolboy is subtly conditioned to take one side in a controversy which he has not even been taught to recognize as a controversy at all.
Lewis had a genius for exposing such implications with calm precision. It wasnt his style to use indignant slogans like liberal bias. He simply reminded the reader that modern men made certain assumptions about which there was room for more than one opinion, and about which earlier men had taken very different views.
That was why he always urged his students at Cambridge and Oxford to read old books: not because the old books were necessarily right, but just because they showed that our modern assumptions were far from universal. For Lewis the past was a source of mental liberation.
Its the very modesty of Lewiss style that makes it powerful. He never seems to be trying to impose his views on the reader; he only seems to offer them for consideration. But he does so with logic, wit, analogy, courtesy, and apt quotation. His method is less the flat statement than the quietly irresistible rhetorical question. Sweet reason was never sweeter.
I like that.
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