“So much for the present situation. About remedies the question is more difficult. For my part I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also at a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins: but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle Atheism. I would almost dare to say ‘First let us make the younger generation good pagans and afterwards let us make them Christians.” — C.S. Lewis
I’ve had a longstanding argument with a good friend (coughJakeMeadorcough) about the differences and similarities between the Inklings’ response to the decay and degradation they saw around them, and the response of social conservatives in our own time. I have long wondered how people like Lewis and Chesterton could announce what they effectively saw as the end of the civilization they’d inherited, but maintain what seems to me to be a palpably different atmosphere than contemporary reactions against liberalism, capitalism, or whatever other -ism is lately being blamed for our social decay. Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, Sayers and Eliot, in his own way, are all sharp critics of the social and intellectual order that they saw emerging. But they managed to make those criticisms without adopting the anxious shrillness that seems to pervade much of our conservative media.
My account of the differences between them and us are impressionistic, of course. Lewis did not hesitate to name how dire the situation was in his own time. In the same letter as the excerpt above, he notes that we are in a “worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith.” Apostasy is uniquely bad, he rightly observes: it not only rejects the supernatural light of God’s grace, but removes from the apostate the natural light of reason as well. There is nothing of a cheap or easy optimism in Lewis’ approach: he was far too intelligent, and too Christian, for that.
Even so, Lewis’s own response to the situation was to go on acting as though the natural light of reason were still present. He made arguments, and when those arguments failed to find a hearing he started telling stories to get at others sideways. In other words, Lewis never needed to issue a qualification or clarification about whether the Christian might still remain engaged in politics, or philosophy, or the like. He never needed to add “but hope” as a qualifier at the end of a litany of despair. For all his reactionary tendencies, he went about his business. He enjoyed the luxury, yes, of doing so in an environment where it was still possible to use masculine pronouns without checking the room to see who might be offended. Yet the whole tenor of his corpus radiates his unstinting activity for the sake of ends he doubtlessly knew were impossible. He could speak fondly of the ‘old order’ without it seeming as though it were impossible for him to exist in the present one, and without him pretending that we could go back to what was before.
I’ve tried out a variety of hypotheses for what I take to be the differences, though none of them quite succeed. Perhaps the differences stem from the fact that Lewis and company were deeply Augustinians in their politics, and we are not: they baked into their outlook the inextricability of tragedy from our political order. Lewis had nice things to say on occasion about aristocracy. On his view, the democratizing of goods was often accompanied by their degradation. But for that he wouldn’t say we should recover that form of life. “Perhaps in a fallen world,” he writes “the social problem can in fact never be solved and we must take more seriously–what all Christians admit in theory–that our home is elsewhere.” This tragic approach to politics has been largely missing from social conservative politics the past thirty years. The political perfectionism that has dominated our responses to cultural conflicts has meant at every turn we’ve failed to seek compromises: we’ve had no answer to which evils we must allow for a social order to remain healthy. (I’m skeptical the anti-capitalist, anti-liberal millennials are any less perfectionistic in their politics: we have traded one utopianism for another.)
Or maybe the difference just stems from their utter Englishness (yes, even Eliot). The inherently reserved nature of the English temperament breeds a kind of reluctant acceptance of grave evils, which the more animated, apocalyptic American spirit simply cannot abide. Or perhaps Lewis had so internalized their sense that history is a series of defeats (as Tolkien put it) that they were genuinely unsurprised by the decay they saw around them, and so did not expend the kind of emotional energy bemoaning them that many reactionaries seem to waste these days.
Whatever lies beneath those differences, I cannot quit myself of the impression that yesterday’s reactionaries understood matters at a level we do not—and so were able to speak of them with a sobriety and even joy that we struggle to manage.