C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Subjectivism - page 3

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From the Summer 2009 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Subjectivism

by Jerry Root, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, Christian Formation and Ministry, Wheaton College

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  In what is perhaps the most important statement in Lewis’s most overt book on objectivity, The Abolition of Man, he wrote, “Only the Tao [“the doctrine of objective value”] provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” He also wrote, “An accusation always implies a standard.” So it is with any judgment. An architect seeking to communicate dimensions to a contractor by means of a “blueprint” assumes that the two of them will be using standards of measure common to them both. Consequently, they will be using objective standards that transcend, so to speak, the whims of feet and inches either of them might have apart from the benefit of a tape measure. Without such objectivity, the society relative to construction—not to mention law, mathematics, physics, history, and the like—would be utter chaos. One could imagine that a society arbitrary about such things would become chaotic; anarchy would prevail. On the other hand, if one anarchist achieved control, a tyranny of the most powerful would be likely to prevail.
  There are rules that govern reason as there are rules that govern the game of chess; knowing the rules does not guarantee you win every time you play the game, but not knowing the rules makes the game impossible. The rules of reason make it possible to describe material objects as well as objects of thought with clarity. Humility and honesty allow one to reason in community in ways that add perspective and corporate understanding. Evil, on the other hand, is destined to manifest itself in a culture leaning in the direction of subjectivism. Once an objective standard for morality is neglected, there is no longer any means for a proper appeal to objective reality whenever disputes arise; that is, there is no longer a way to settle disputes. Harmony is lost because the culture has no common tuning fork by which that harmony might be achieved. 

Why Did Lewis Use Fiction?

  A detailed study of all of Lewis’s books—pre-Christian and post—reveal that he is, one way or another, addressing the matter of subjectivism rhetorically. Of course, subjectivism is not the only matter that concerns Lewis, but in all of his books a strong case can be made that he is arguing for objectivity, whether he is defining reality or warning against rationalizing and self-justification. Interestingly, this is also true of his fiction; his rhetorical interests were also served by this literary genre. Sometimes stories say best what one wants to say, argued Lewis.
  Some have suggested that Lewis’s interest in fiction was motivated by a failed debate with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club on February 2, 1948. He was said to be no longer capable of keeping up with the rigors of serious philosophical debate and thus backed into writing fiction instead. There is no support for such a position. In fact, Lewis wrote thirty-six essays on Christian apologetics before the debate, and another thirty-four—nearly fifty percent of all his apologetic essays—after the debate. Furthermore, Lewis’s first apologetic work was a work of fiction. It is certain Lewis began his career as an apologist believing that fiction could be used as an effective tool in the apologist’s tool box.
  After he published his first work of science fiction, Lewis wrote, “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.” He saw that stories were a means to reach some people who were not likely to be reached by any other means.
  So what rhetorical point was Lewis making in his fiction? Among other things, he was most certainly addressing the matter of subjectivism, for he cast all of his evil characters as subjectivists. He did this consistently over a period of four decades.

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