WASHINGTON -- Clive Staples Lewis was known as Jack to his friends and is known as C. S. Lewis to his still-growing legion of readers. Many more than 50 million copies of his books -- no one knows how many -- are in print 35 years after his death. When he died on Nov. 22, 1963, the world paid scant attention, having another death on its mind. So let us now praise this famous man -- as famous now as when his picture filled Time magazine's cover in 1947 -- on the centenary of his birth in Belfast on Nov. 29, 1898.
What 20th-century writer has had the largest influence? In terms of effect on history, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, nominates Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose "The Gulag Archipelago" made impossible what had seemed incorrigible -- many intellectuals' belief in the Soviet Union as a moral advance for civilization. Timothy Garton Ash, author and journalist, nominates George Orwell, who coined such locutions as "Big Brother," "newspeak" and "doublethink" to describe modes of mendacity now called "Orwellian."
C. S. Lewis ranks among the century's most influential writers. His influence was -- is -- not closely connected to the century's great struggles against totalitarianism, but to the religious sensibility's struggle against the century.
A literary life
His outwardly uneventful life -- he taught English literature at Oxford and Cambridge -- turned on his adult conversion to Christianity. After which he became an oddity, a learned celebrity in tweeds, finding, on radio and in print, remarkable resonance for his apologetics, the most famous of which is "Mere Christianity." However, his best-known work is "The Chronicles of Narnia," a seven-volume children's fable in which faith is advanced obliquely, by insinuation.
Lewis was led to Christianity not by logic of the sort he wielded in his apologetics, but by a sense that the everydayness of life is permeated by glory. The "man on the Clapham omnibus" is a British locution akin to Americans' "man on the street," and Lewis had a mystical sense of divine presence while on a bus.
Another episode on his road to religion was (literally) pedestrian -- a walk around Addison's Walk at Magdalen College, Oxford, during which he believed he felt the immediacy of the divine. The kind of path Lewis took to belief was understood by an earlier, much more theologically sophisticated Oxford man. In "Apologia pro vita sua," perhaps the greatest record written in English of an individual's religious transformation, John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman wrote:
"It was not logic that carried me on. As well might one say that the quicksilver in the barometer changes the weather. It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years and I find my mind in a new place: how? the whole man moves; paper logic is but the record of it."
What one biographer calls Lewis' cult of the ordinary, plus his nostalgia for childhood, were facets of a coherent sensibility. Lewis lived, as a specialist in medieval literature might be expected to do, a romantic's reaction against the segmentation, routinization and bureaucratization of modern life. First, the horrors of war, then the banal materialism of welfare statism, built a receptive audience for him.
In "The Abolition of Man," his essay most pertinent to today's discontents, Lewis refuted the crux of modern radicalism, the idea that human nature has no constancy, being merely an unstable imprint of the fluctuating social atmosphere.
That fallacy emboldens politicians as social engineers. So Lewis warns, "If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be."
One of Lewis' contemporaries, another Oxonian, novelist Evelyn Waugh, created the character Scott-King, a teacher at a boys school whose headmaster admonishes him that parents are only interested in preparing their boys for the modern world: "You can hardly blame them, can you?"
"Oh yes," Scott-King replies, "I can and do," adding, "I think it would be a very wicked thing indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."
At home in the world
When Lewis came to see the world -- the sky, a grain of sand, friendship -- through the spectacles of faith, he felt completely at home in the world. And alienated from his time.
In Lewis' light masterpiece, "The Screwtape Letters," a seasoned devil warns a novice devil that their work is frustrated by great moralists. Such moralists, the devil says, do not inform men, they remind them.
Lewis' deceptively modest mission was to remind readers that they -- their natures; their susceptibility to the numinous -- are among life's constants. Evidence of which, his millions of readers might say, is the continuing hunger for his adversarial stance toward life in our time.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 11/26/98