White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

C. S. Lewis and the Intellectual Life

Published Monday, February 24, 2020 By Joshua Schendel

Writing in late 1939, just after the German invasion of Poland, Lewis raised the provocative question to a group of Oxford students whether a ‘life of learning’ should remain a priority when something of the magnitude of world war was so threateningly imminent. The pursuit of learning, he says, “at first sight seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing?… Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”[1]

Odd, indeed. And for many, not just during a war. It would seem that there are always more important things to pursue in human life and society; more important realities with which to contend—life and death, heaven and hell. Lewis notes that humans have always, and must always, ask: “How it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology?” (48)

This is the curious thing about human nature, though. Bees, for example, or ants, construct and live as part of remarkable communities devoted entirely to survival and propagation. For humans too there is a basic drive to survive. But we pursue knowledge and beauty amidst the struggle, and often for their own sake. So then, “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice has been put to right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes” (50).

The reason for this ‘odd’ pursuit is that it is in our nature. Indeed, the pursuit of truth, of beauty, seems an even more primal drive for humans than physical survival. This pursuit orients our lives in accord with a higher meaning.  For that reason, we need take care not to disparage it. Not everyone will be, or should be, an ‘intellectual’ (a term now often accompanied with much contempt—and not always unjustly so, it must be admitted). But all are learners. All pursue knowledge and beauty. The question, then, is not whether one pursues knowledge and beauty, but how, and how well

If you attempted…to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions (52).

To be sure, the life of learning forms but one facet of that human, cultural pursuit. It ought not be made disproportionate to the other facets, either by atrophy or hypertrophy. But, in its proper place and proportion, the life of learning is an indispensable constituent of human culture-making.

What might be said by way of advice for those who wish to pursue a life of learning well, then? Lewis’ little essay is perhaps most helpful at just this point. His advice, remember, was specifically intended for those in the academy. The wisdom of his advice, however, is applicable to all learners.

Lewis lays down as foundational to the pursuit of learning the Christian principle that a life of learning is to be pursued humbly ‘as to the Lord.’ More particularly, he says, there are both internal and external temptations that must be resisted in order to pursue the life of learning as to the Lord.

The internal temptation that besets the learner is that old foe, pride:

…we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. (57)

Every student who finds in herself great anticipation for the next book to read not so much for what is learned from the book but for what she will be able to say about the book to someone else knows well this temptation. This is one of the very subtle ways pride corrupts the love of learning. All learning do well to be constantly vigilant against it.

Lewis also observes three external ‘enemies’ to learning. First is what he calls excitement, or distraction.

There are always plenty of rivals to our [thinking about our] work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable (60).

“The second enemy is frustration—the feeling that we shall not have time to finish” (60). The truth is, he says, no one ever does. Even the most seasoned scholar finds himself only a beginner when life closes the door on time. Part of dealing with this frustration, he says, is learning what to say no to and when and how. Learning to prioritize well what one reads, listens to, contemplates is essential to learning well. As Thomas Hobbes once quipped, “If I read as many books as most men do, I’d be a dull-witted as they are.”

But this only deals with frustration in part. “A more Christian attitude…is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands” (61). This way, we can engage our work with rigor, focus, and joy in the present. “Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord’” (60).

“The Third enemy is fear” (62). In wartime, Lewis notes, fear of suffering and especially death seem to force themselves upon the mind. This, it would seem, is a hindrance to learning. Yet, he says, even in times of (relative) peace, the threat of suffering and the reality of death is just as looming. The difference is that in times of peace and tranquility we do not pay close attention to suffering and death. But, contrary to appearance, this is actually a disadvantage. Being keenly aware of our mortality awakens us unmistakably to “the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with…” (62-63). This, it turns out, both lends gravity to our contemplations and checks our flights of fancy that what we are doing in our intellectual culture-making is really bringing about the kingdom of God. “If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered… If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth…we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon” (63).

For intellectuals and learners alike, the pursuit of knowledge ought to be conducted in humility, constancy, determination, and courage. Yet, who is capable of this? Only by God’s Spirit and in prayer.




Joshua Schendel is a graduate student at Saint Louis University.




[1] “Learning in Wartime,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins, 1949), 47.