CS Lewis had style

Since I care so much about writing, and since one of the greatest pleasures in life is a well-tempered sentence, I have been reflecting quite a bit lately on what makes for good style. I’ve been asking how to improve my own style as well as reviewing some writers whom I particularly love reading, among whom I’ll mention Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh.

We remember CS Lewis as a saint of apologetics; perhaps the greatest apologist since St. Augustine according to some. One reason he was so great as an apologist was because he could express his thoughts with such astonishing clarity. I used to imagine I could write like him if I just imitated his form. Maybe so, if I’m going to write about the rules of a baseball game.

But Lewis could write so clearly because he understood so clearly; because his mind was so orderly. He had a place for every idea that entered his mind, and those places highlighted relationships among the ideas rather than obscuring and concealing them. As a result, he could write with precision when precision was called for, analogy when analogy was called for, and beauty – well, always, it seems, with beauty.

Let me illustrate with a more or less randomly chosen passage from Lewis’s Medieval and Renaissance Literature:

The infinite, according to Aristotle, is not actual. No infinite object exists; no infinite process occurs. Hence we cannot explain the movement of one body by the movement of another and so on forever. No such infinite series could, he thought, exist. All the movements of the universe must therefore, in the last resort, result from a compulsive force exercised by something immovable. He thought that such an Unmoved Mover could move other things only by being their end or object or (if you like) target–what he calls their ‘Final Cause’–not as one billiard ball moves another, but as food moves the hungry man, as the mistress moves her lover, as truth moves the philosophical inquirer. He calls this Unmoved Mover either ‘God’ or ‘Mind’.

The more I read that passage the more it amazes me – the balanced phrases, the logical clarity, the sensitivity to the reader, the hesitation at just the right moment (or… or… (if you like)…), the perfectly suited analogies. Perhaps if we would read him more we would learn to think more clearly. Perhaps if we would learn to think more clearly we would be able to write better.

That is my aspiration.

A Pretty Relevent Application from the Same Essay

If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is somehting to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as ‘vision’, ‘dynamism’, ‘creativity’, and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial — virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.

CS Lewis: Christian Reflections: The Poison of Subjectivism

The Poison of Subjectivism

Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present… I am referring to Subjectivism.

After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenon which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of an evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.

CS Lewis, Christian Reflections: The Poison of Subjectivism

This essay by Lewis he develops into The Abolition of Man and into the novel That Hideous Strength, both of which I urge you to read. Here is the crux of the matter. Put Dewey against Lewis and you see the conflict that is determining and will determine the path of our age: will we cast aside civilization and its discontents along with its contents, or will we rediscover the belief in truth that serves as the only tenable foundation for ethics and politics – for the right ordering of soul and society.

Read these essays. I’ll try to find a link to a carrier as soon as I get a chance. Read these texts!!