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
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
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.