The school year is beginning, and my thoughts have returned to C. S. Lewis’s ideas about English education. He thought a lot about education (as evidenced by his profession and by the fact that I am not even going to quote from The Abolition of Man, his major work on the subject, in this post). And one of his main points about education is that, rightly done, it will combat chronological snobbery.
Chronological snobbery is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy, 207).
In other words, it’s like ethnocentrism, but on a historical rather than a geographical scale.
We tend to assume (not out loud, but subconsciously) that, because we are more technologically advanced, we are also more morally advanced. People in the past were wrong about some of our commonly held scientific maxims: heliocentrism, let’s say. So we throw the baby out with bathwater: “if they were wrong about geocentrism, they were wrong about EVERYTHING” is the unspoken assumption. But cars and iPhones and required high school science textbooks don’t necessarily make us better people than they were. In some ways, might they make us worse?
Hidden in this blind acceptance of Progress Across the Board is a huge blind spot: the idea that we—no, I—have finally reached the pinnacle of morality–right here, right now. I am at the moral epoch of history, personally positioned to cast correct judgment on all other views. Doesn’t our all-too-frequent personal moral outrage, our readiness to be offended, assume this?
The problem with this is that the modern worldview, like all worldviews, has some good points–and some bad. We must remember that, in the future, people will look back on our time period and see where we were wrong. Alan Jacobs writes in his biography of Lewis, “In . . . The Problem of Pain, [Lewis] argues that human cultures are prone to ‘lopsided ethical developments’: they have their ‘pet virtues’ but also their ‘curious insensibilities’ to other virtues. Why should our time be any different?” (The Narnian, 166).
Therefore, Lewis implicitly argues throughout his body of work that education, particularly in his stomping grounds of literature, should be learning what we can from the virtues and vices of other ages. Where did they excel where we do not? Where do they fail where we also fail?
It’s important to know this, because it is, to Lewis, a shield against succumbing unwittingly to evil. In The Screwtape Letters, the titular demon is aware of the inherent blindness of the current moral standard:
The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. . . . Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm. (137-138)
I’m not saying (and Lewis wouldn’t say) that all our culture’s virtues are actually wrong. We are right about some things: racism is wrong is wrong is wrong, for example. But the argument is that even if we’re virtuous in one area, we’re lacking in other areas—areas in which other time periods may have excelled. We can dismiss medievalism’s bravery because it was racist, a vice we hate. But what if we combined the courage of the medieval era, the willingness to lay down your life for your band of brothers, with our decrying of racism? Looking at both time periods, with each as a corrective to the other, we can make real progress rather than ping-ponging back and forth between each age’s pet virtues and vices. But if we never measure ourselves by another standard, we are in danger of always blithely assuming that we’re on the right track (because Progress).
Screwtape later explains that this is why demons encourage chronological snobbery:
And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; 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. (151)
That’s the point, I think. Literature makes a “free commerce between the ages” so that “the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of the other.”
For an example, I quote Alan Jacobs quoting Problem of Pain again (I’m relying on him because it’s been a while since I picked up the source material):
Ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. . . . From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling of how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God. (qtd. in The Narnian, 166)
The idea of an outside look into our age is humbling, and rightly so. And literature gives us that very outside look: it puts our own age in perspective.
How does this play out in the classroom? Well, I have been an avid student of English Literature since high school. The lion’s share of the classes I took looked at the worldviews of Odysseus, Gawain, Hawthorne, and Arnold through a modern lens: “Isn’t that crazy? Look at those wacky medievals/Victorians/Modernists! How could anyone believe that?” If not preached from the front of the room, this idea was at least disseminated in the looks and comments we students gave to one another.
Look, some medieval and Victorian views are wacky. I would even go so far as to say that they are wiggidy-wack. But let’s have the humility to acknowledge that our modern views might be wacked out in some ways, too. Let’s have the wisdom not to dismiss those who have gone before us, but to learn from them, both their flaws and their virtues. As Lewis writes in Discarded Image, “I am only suggesting considerations that may induce us to regard all Models [historical worldviews] in the right way, respecting each and idolising none.”
Pssst. Check out my other C. S. Lewis Digest post, on Memory, here.
Jacobs, Alan. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP, 1964.
—. The Screwtape Letters. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
—. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. Harcourt Brace, 1984.