. . . in which C S Lewis’s Screwtape explains how “historicism” has rendered the past useless to modern scholars


C S Lewis's demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES "historicism"

C S Lewis’s demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES “historicism”

Today I begin posting from the “Tradition chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis – or as I’m now less flippantly inclined to call it: Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.

Though this is not the opening of the chapter, I’d like to start with Lewis’s take on the “presenting problem” when the church begins talking about tradition in the 20th (and now 21st) century:

Lewis states the modern problem

The situation we find ourselves in, where we would even have to defend tradition as a good thing in the Christian church, dates back to Lewis’s day and beyond. In his famous lecture to the Cambridge University audience assembled to witness his installation as the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at that university, Lewis described his own mid-20th-century European setting as one of cultural darkness and amnesia, and himself as a kind of dinosaur—one of the few left in that dark age of wars and rumors of wars. He described himself as a specimen who still spoke the native language of the old Christian Western tradition as a native, and who could thus be a precious resource for a society and a culture that had drifted far from its moorings in the Great Tradition of Christianized Greek thought.

Lewis found this change diabolical, and he made this clear by putting it in the mouth of the senior demon in his Screwtape Letters: “Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” The infernal realm had accomplished this, Screwtape continued, by making “the Historical Point of View” into a scholarly dogma. Those infected by historicism never ask whether the things they read in ancient sources are true. Instead, they perform all sorts of tortuous text-critical tests on them, to find out “who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’.”

In other words, the scholar is immunized against seeing in old texts anything that “could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior.” The result of this is the tragic loss of the wisdom accumulated over countless centuries: “Since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others [my italics]; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to Our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk’.

“Your affectionate uncle

“Screwtape” [Lewis, Screwtape Letters, in Signature Classics, 263-265]

I suspect that there has never been a culture more inclined than our modern Western (and “how much more so” our postmodern American) to ride out like the lone cowboy, remaking ourselves and cutting ourselves off from all that came before. Lewis was seeing that already in the mid-20th century, and we are living with the relativistic, fragmented, weak, amoral, confused fruit of that movement, which began in the 18th-c. Enlightenment and was shaped by the historicism that rose to prominence in the 19th century.

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