Archives For Anger


When C.S. Lewis died, one of his Cambridge colleagues uttered a shocking statement—to his Cambridge students.

“C.S. Lewis is dead,” announced F.R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy (the President was assassinated the same day).

American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.

Who knew the world of literary criticism could be so ill-mannered?

In my readings about C.S. Lewis and his life I’ve noted references to a fellow English professor at Cambridge who waged a lengthy academic argument with Lewis over the heart of English education.

The challenger to Lewis’ history-oriented approach advocated a critical position, which diluted concern for the intentions of the original writers. I’m not a lit major, so I’ll leave the description at that.*

F.R. Leavis, a dynamic influence at Cambridge, dreaded the arrival of Lewis when he moved from Oxford to a distinguished chair tailor-made for him. The two scholars shared several traits which might have disposed them to friendship.

Both were veterans of the Great War.** One difference between the veterans is curious. Leavis declined to join the Officers’ Training Corps while a student, and chose ambulance service when conscription began. Lewis, on the other hand, voluntarily joined the OTC, even though he (as an Irishman) was exempt from the conscription.***

Another similarity between the two was that they inspired many students. Far from the caricature of droning academicians, Lewis and Leavis drew fans and even disciples from the student body. (In a recent post I mentioned the affectionate nickname some of the former’s students had for him: Papa Lewis.)

The Problem

Most writers believe this second “similarity” factored into the strained relationship between the two. Both had strong personalities, and bold convictions. They did not, however, share a common temperament. Lewis was normally respectful of his philosophical adversaries. Leavis, not so much. The following comes from “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement.”

The fact that Lewis could approve of atheists [and] liberals . . . reinforces Brewer’s point that Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.

His public written controversy on literature with E.M.W. Tillyard (later published as The Personal Heresy) was conducted with pugnacity but without personal animus. And though Lewis laid into the arguments of another colleague, F.R. Leavis, with great forcefulness in the pages of An Experiment in Criticism, he never named Leavis within those pages, but covered his opponent in a thoughtfully woven cloak of pseudonymity.

Contrast that to Leavis’ comment with which we began, in which he “celebrates” Lewis’ passing.

Lewis was quite aware of Leavis’ animosity. In a 1961 letter to the publisher of The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the author strikes the Cambridge Review from the publications scheduled to receive review copies.

I’ve not additions to make, but one subtraction. Delete Cambridge Review. It’s mainly in the hands of Leavisites who will blackguard any book of mine, and I don’t know why we should let them have a free copy for their sport!

Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson wrote a column about George Watson’s critique of Lewis. Watson met Lewis at Oxford and later joined him on the faculty at Cambridge.

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic.” Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis.

However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it.” That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

In the aforementioned article, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Barbour candidly describes the disparity between the spirit of the two nemeses.

“[Lewis’] controversies were always impersonal and often ended with the participants finding a good deal of common ground, whereas Leavis’s controversies . . . tended to end in anathematizing and deeply personal wounding.”

Leavis’ reputation for engendering conflict was so pronounced The Guardian actually included the following in his obituary:

Perhaps the most telling counter-assault on him was by C.S. Lewis, who said that the use of subliminal code words like “maturity” and “relevance” smuggled in an entire value system that was never made explicit for scrutiny. Others accused him of being a crypto-Marxist.

Leavis never replied, which was a pity, but then his weapons during his long career of humiliations in the Cambridge English faculty also included silence, internal exile and cunning.

His most murderous and underestimated weapon was ridicule, which he deployed in lectures with the virtuosity of a music-hall star and with an insensitivity verging on paranoia.

The Essence of Their Differences

Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture includes a chapter entitled “Leavis, Lewis, and Other Oppositions.” It’s précis suggests one reason Lewis’ criticisms have possessed a longer lifespan than those of Leavis.

Lewis and Leavis . . . were the dominant figures in literary study in the middle decades of the twentieth century. . . . it is Lewis’s arguments and assumptions that seem to be the more challenging and which have something to contribute to contemporary debates.

This assessment echoes Lewis’ own view that the Leavis tsunami may have crested. Just a month before his death, he wrote to Basil Willey about his retirement. Willey would retire from his own chair two years later.

My dear Basil . . . I have an idea that Cambridge ten years’ hence might suit us both [better] than the Cambridge we have known. . . .

I hope your success will follow you . . . [if not], then our English school, with its neglect of language, becomes purely a school of literary criticism. And criticism, thus isolated, seems to me a positively mischievous instrument of education.

In “C.S. Lewis, Literary Critic: A Reassessment,” which appeared in Mythlore, William Calin describes Lewis’ passionate defense of English authors whose reputations were in jeopardy.

A Preface to Paradise Lost does for Milton what The Allegory of Love did for Spenser, and Lewis does for epic what he had previously done for allegory and fin’ amor [courtly love]. . . . In sum, Lewis defends his authors language from the strictures of Eliot and Leavis; he defends his worldview and its artistic embodiment from the prejudice of 1930s agnostic university faculty in English. . . .

When he tells students “Don’t read criticism” [Lewis] alludes again to Leavis and his disciples, who fetishized the term “critic.” Lewis would have called himself a scholar or an historian.

The following passage from A Preface to Paradise Lost is telling. Leavis is the unnamed standard bearer for the worldview he rejects. It reveals Lewis’ keen discernment in understanding of his unbridgeable difference with Leavis.

It is not that [Leavis] and I see different things when we look at Paradise Lost. He sees and hates the very same that I see and love. Hence the disagreement between us tends to escape from the realm of literary criticism.

We differ not about the nature of Milton’s poetry, but about the nature of man, or even the nature of joy itself.

The Apostle Paul described this difference in his correspondence with the Corinthians.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. . . . But we have the mind of Christ.

In an excellent article entitle “Three Great Critics: F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis,” Michael Aeschliman**** closes with a gospel-oriented thought.

It is pleasing to conclude by imagining C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis now conversing together amicably, recollecting emotion in tranquility, in another and better and more luminous realm, toward which all three of them were fervent pilgrims throughout their embattled but noble lives.

* There are ample online sources available to describe the contrast in detail. For example, Brian Barbour’s Modern Philology essay, “Lewis and Cambridge,” provides a superb explanation of the struggle in its broader context.

** Lewis served in the trenches, where he was seriously wounded. Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to ports.

*** There is no record of which ambulance train carried Lewis homeward after his injury, but wouldn’t it be ironic he and Leavis had unknowingly encountered one another at that time?

**** Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”

It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)

Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.

Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.

Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.

It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.

Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?

Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.

So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!

Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.

This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.

Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.

Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.

Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.

Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.

Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.

The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.

Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.

In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!