Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Reviews: C S Lewis

Lewis, C S The Dark Tower (1977) I didn't finish the title story, a "romance" playing with the themes of time travel, precognition, clairvoyance (across "time"), and the nature of reality. According to the note by Walter Hooper, Lewis was much taken by Dunne's An Experiment with Time, and Dunne's theory of dreams as visions of the real past and future. It is of course nonsense, of the kind that building vast theories on ignorance and a little learning provokes. Dunne (or anybody else at the time) didn't have the neurological data that make it pretty clear that dreams are random activity in the brain, perhaps with the side effect of storing and pruning the memories of the past day(s), and certainly influenced by whatever anxieties perturb the sleeper. Lewis, like almost all Dunne's enthusiasts, knew too little physics to realise that Dunne's theory was probably bunk, although the state of physics and cosmology at the time left some possibilities open which now appear closed.
The other tales are intriguing. The Man Born Blind shows, via his puzzlement at not being able to see light, how everyday usages confuse and mix many different meanings. The Shoddy Lands provides an eerie glimpse into the mind of a shallow, silly, self-centred woman. Ministering Angels is a neat little satire on a number of themes, mostly on "the new ethicality", and the role of sex in people's lives (certain types of academics get it all wrong, it seems.) Ten Years After is an wonderful fragment about the aftermath of the sack of Troy, and Menelaus's and Helen's eventual reconciliation (perhaps). ***

Lewis, C S The Abolition of Man (1943, 1978) Lewis argues that the still-current attitude that crime is a sickness abolishes moral responsibility, which has two bad consequences. First, it reduces a man or woman to an infant, incapable of moral or ethical choice. Second, by promoting treatment rather than punishment, it results in far crueller confinement that mere punishment would do. He makes a good case.
But this argument is a starting point for a more serious one: that there is a universal moral standard, or natural law, and that all the great ethical teachers and traditions have recognised it. What's more, it's remarkably consistent across time and culture. It is not a matter of faith or religion, for religious traditions that disagree directly about the existence of god nevertheless agree on the ethical fundamentals. It is not mandated nor does it logically flow from any religion. It is merely the way things are, and human beings of all kinds recognise it to be true.
Finally, Lewis notes that those who wish to insist that it is kinder to treat people as sick rather than wicked are making assumptions about values. Thus the argument is one about justifying values. But no ought can be justified by pointing to is. So the argument that what is should govern ought depends on a hidden assumption of values – yet values are what the argument explicitly denies. Therefore, the argument is self-contradictory. This is an updating of Socrates argument against the Sophists, and a pretty one it is, too.
Lewis admits that although there is a universal standard, there is no universal agreement, and that the agreement varies over time. He claims that this lack of agreement and variation merely reflects the fallen nature of humankind, which entails that our perception and understanding of the universal moral law will be distorted, contingent, and partial. To some extent, history, with its record of philosophical argument, will over time correct and enlarge our perception. This in turn entails that our descendants will consider us to be just as benighted morally as we consider our ancestors to be.
What is attractive about Lewis is his clear-eyed gaze on our moral predicaments, and his willingness to urge commitment to what he knows is a partial and flawed moral judgement. Yet that partial judgement is all we have to guide us. In this he reminds me of Luther's "Sin boldly", for Luther too understood the contingent nature of our moral (and legal) judgements. Yet we must act. The moral value of our actions will of course also be flawed, which means that we will inevitably commit some wrong. What Lewis has noticed is that we try to avoid the inevitable guilt for that wrongdoing by transforming our moral judgements, limited and subjective and personal as they are, into supposedly value-neutral scientific choices. That, he says, is evil. (He ignores the equivalent transformation of individual moral judgenment into claims of universal, divisnley authorised, moral law.)
Some of his examples don't work well after a half century of neurology, but his core argument, that we are morally responsible, and that punishment recognises and acknowledges this responsibility, is sound. We each suffer from some glitch or flaw that makes us incapable of making certain judgements correctly, but we are still responsible for them. To deny that responsibility is to rob us of our dignity as human beings, as moral agents. There is another consequence: it offers the perpetrator an escape from responsibility, which I think may be worse.
Lewis did not live to see the increasing number of refusals of moral responsibility on the grounds of physical or psychological illness. He would no doubt have added a chapter to this essay. ***½