A Letter to C.S. Lewis
Professor C.S. Lewis
Headington, Oxfordshire, UK
Dear Professor C.S. Lewis,
I hardly mean to bother you. I know you receive thousands of letters each year and that it is your habit to answer all of your mail. I do not want to burden you with more; but it is precisely because you answer your mail that I write you now. I look at my world in crisis. I have read all of your books, and I am amazed at the exacting measure of your judgments and your ability to speak clearly in the midst of complex matters. So I seek your thoughtful response to some questions now very heavy on my heart.
You wrote that your first goal in teaching was to help your students see some given tract of reality—that is, because the world is objective, it exists independent of our thoughts about it. Our tendency to self-referentialism can be corrected if we can get to reality. I know we cannot utterly divorce ourselves from the perspective we bring to a given question, but still, can we not gain an understanding of the world around us that approximates objectivity? If so, how?
I was impressed when you wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, “In coming to understand anything we must reject the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.” How do we achieve this? It seems especially difficult in a world so polarized, where people are so emotionally invested in their present point of view they have difficulty even considering that those of a different mind are not stupid. Is it possible to change when our commitments to ideologies seem, at times, to be based more on emotion than reason? Can you help us here?
I know you wrote an essay on bulverism, that tendency to call a person a name rather than define the point of contention and then reason from the definition along an inferentially coherent way. You pointed out the dangers of calling people “socialist,” or “racist,” or “bigot.” Today we use other words to denigrate, like “xenophobe,” “misogynist,” and “evangelical,” as if these epithets remove us from the responsibility of having to make the case for the claim.
I know that in an argument one of the worst things to do is to “beg the question”—to assume the outcome before proving the point. It seems to me that if I begin by assuming my perspective is the right one without taking the time to clarify how this might be so, it is too easy for me then to assume that others who do not see it the way I do must be fools, or worse, evil. We have grown lazy, it seems, unwilling to do the hard work required to prove a point. We have become arrogant, forgetting the skills required to empathize. While we get easily “hurt” by those who disagree with us, we often neglect the feelings of others.
I know I should seek to do better myself. That is, I should care even for those who see things differently than me. But, how exactly can I do better? How can my culture do better? You seem to avoid these common pitfalls in your writing. How do you do it?
I still remember reading The Personal Heresy: A Controversy, where you and Cambridge professor E.M.W. Tillyard published both sides of a debated literary point over which you disagreed. I could not find one informal fallacy in the whole book. There was no poisoning the wells, no dismissive ad hominems, no red herrings or hypotheses contrary to fact, and no false analogies. How did you do it? All I hear today is bulverism. It’s become so pervasive that I doubt most people could even identify an informal fallacy when they use one, or realize when they’ve been taken in by one. We hear them in lectures, sermons, news broadcasts, and casual conversations, all at the loss of sound thinking and clarity, to say nothing of civility.
“All studies end in doubts,” you once wrote. You somehow cultivated a healthy hermeneutical suspicion that was aware of human limitation and brokenness. You believed that we could reason our way to some sure word about a matter, even though we will never have a last word about it. Who could ever say, “I’ve got it all right and I know that no modification will ever be necessary”? Could you help us rediscover this humility, one that is quicker to suspect our own motives before judging those of others?
You wrote, “Many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and . . . God insists, very loudly, on our putting them right again.” I am sure if you could write this, you must have thought a lot about where to begin in setting things right. I am writing to you because I long for wisdom and insight that can restore healthy respect in our culture. Still more urgent, even if our culture has gone too far, can you tell me how I might make improvements for my own soul?
Yours most sincerely,
Professor, Wheaton College