C.S. Lewis and Arguments

Lewis’s book ‘The Abolition of Man’, of all his books that I’ve read, has proved to be the most interesting to me, not necessarily because of its content (which is brilliant) but because of how Lewis engages with his topic, which is moral relativism – keeping this in mind, I’m going to focus on the form of his argument as opposed to the content here.

Lewis adopts a tactic that is, by all appearances, without academic integrity. His target is moral relativism, yet he doesn’t cite a single contemporary proponent of moral relativism. He doesn’t merely refrain from attacking easy targets, which any responsible philosopher should do – he refrains from attacking any target at all, easy or difficult. There’s no survey of the literature, no discussion of various religions in relation to moral philosophy, no engagement with the pragmatists, nothing. Instead, he singles out a single school textbook on the subject of reading and writing that was sent to him free of charge in exchange for a review.

Why does he go about it in this way? Why not go after the big, well-read, sophisticated schools of thought? I suspect that Lewis realized that relatively few people are actually influenced by such schools of thought – the ivory tower. Sure, some people are – but Lewis’s target, after reading through the book, becomes clear: it’s not bad philosophy, or philosophy he disagrees with, it’s bad popular philosophy. The dumbed-down kind of things one hears such as ‘Einstein proved it’s all relative, man’. This dumbed down pop moral philosophy is Lewis’s target.

Now, is it legitimate to attack popular philosophy, ignoring the sophisticated ideas of the ivory tower? One could think of the arguments of the new-atheists – a standard rebuttal is that the arguments concern a dumbed-down conception of god, and not (to give one example) the god of classical theism. Well, that may be true – but is it invalid? Lewis used, it could be argued, popular philosophy to launch a deep, powerful critique of positivism/scientism’s ethics – and his argument was anything but dumbed down.

So the question is, I suppose, is there an obligation to engage only ivory-tower positions, or can popular conceptions be engaged as a springboard to larger and deeper arguments that do, in fact, pertain to the ivory-tower positions? Another question: what’s the relation of ivory-tower positions to popular viewpoints? At what point does one get to say, ‘well, you’re just attacking an unsophisticated conception of X’?

One thought on “C.S. Lewis and Arguments

  1. Theophilus April 12, 2014 / 5:07 pm

    While I certainly don’t think Lewis’ approach would be accepted by academia, I don’t think that matters much where the truth is concerned. The book of James says that there is a type of knowledge that is demonic (Jas. 3:13-17), and much of the postmodern rhetoric and secular philosophies of our age fall into that category.

    Academia, because it is basically a guild in the spirit of the Renaissance guilds, and because it has fallen under the power of mainly God-denying people, has over time become a way of increasing confusion instead of a way of finding clarity, in some ways. I’m not throwing out the baby with the bath water–I understand that there is much truth taught in higher education these days, but what are we to make of literature classes that claim not to even know what an author or reader are, of claims that the task of the scholar is always to throw down and trample what previous generations have learned, or of the Sokol affair?

    To me, these things reveal that academia has actually ceased to be a pursuit of truth and has instead become a means of obscurantism. It has become compromised, so we as Christians have to look to a higher power for approval, since a Godly existence and Godly reasoning are unlikely to approved of by academia, in its current state. Gone are the days that theology was “the queen of the sciences.”

    Can we still participate in academia and live Godly lives? Of course. But we must be prepared that if we do, we will face what Jesus predicted: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” So to your question, “is it legitimate to ignore the opinions of academes,” I would say that depends on whose approval we seek. The academy has chosen their position on how they engage, which is consistent with the way most private clubs operate, and they do what they have to do to maintain their existence, which is to change what must be learned every generation (preventing generational knowledge) and to separate from themselves anyone who does not abide by their values.


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