More Than One Mistake
In the fall of 2020, I wrote the paragraphs below. I found myself looking over them again this morning and decided that they were—after a few edits—just as relevant today.
Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
Consider these words from October of 1939:
If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secured the search would never have begun.
Nearly all references to 1939 are overwrought, misappropriate, or simply expose how a writer lacks historic analogies. What makes them useful, however, is when they reveal the minds that inhabited a previous time, and provide a context that we might consider timeless.
The words above were delivered to university students in Oxford, one month after Germany invaded Poland, one month after the United Kingdom declared war. Looking at them today triggers my curiosity about the mind of C.S. Lewis as he prepared his speech, knowing that many in his audience would soon face war, knowing that many would never complete the education he promoted. The trenches of World War I had left an indelible mark on Lewis, visible in his later writings, clear from his letters, so what images stirred in his mind the night before he spoke?
Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.
Should you begin a task that you’re unlikely to finish? What are the most urgent tasks? Does the project of civilization contest the threat of barbarism? Lewis deemed these questions urgent once the prospect of war lurched to the promise of war. And these questions, of course, haven’t lost any relevance.
Learning in War-Time was actually delivered as a sermon, at University Church of St Mary the Virgin, but there’s still much to discover in a secular reading of his words—even though Lewis would certainly disagree.
If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.
There’s a smack to the idlers, loafers, dawdlers, to all those who forget how the clock forever ticks; it’s a smack of those perpetually with grand plans, to those waiting for the ideal moment, ready with excuses and justifications. As there’s always an excuse to put off what must be done.
In paragraph after paragraph, Lewis practically screams outward to the young students—there’s not a moment to waste! For the utopian-minded reader today, there’s a temptation to place his words in some distant wartime context, only suitable for the spirit of his time, irrelevant for later readings. His questions, however, always linger in the background: A war only strips away the usual illusion about time, because the need to answer is forever ripe, regardless of the season.
Yet Lewis also understood that while the world burns there’s a temptation to stare at the flames, to think of nothing but the inferno, and he warned his students against this fundamentalism, even amidst catastrophe. Especially because there’s always such urgent work to do—regardless of your position. To dither and obsess and talk about limitations is the luxury of those not busy with the work. The words he selects—knowledge, beauty—might appear to have a highfalutin ring. Or be a bit too focused on the academy and an afternoon of leisure when the true problem on that night was to accelerate the manufacturing of steel. But that’s to read Lewis too literally, and to ignore his more expansive use of the word knowledge. Perhaps our frame for the word has shrunk over the decades, as Lewis, we can be certain, included the discipline to confront the coming struggle as crucial to his definition. His title, Learning in War-Time, doesn’t deny the need for war, nor the necessity of learning.
Thus we may have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps, if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention -- so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim -- he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.
Most people have at least a passing familiarity with composing a few sentences for an important event—even if that’s simply a private note. With these paragraphs, my mind keeps returning to C.S. Lewis, how his eye must have examined his own words the night before, on Saturday October 21, 1939, aware that his morning audience would be composed of students, most of whom would soon be soldiers. What’s intriguing is how timeless his message appears, and how he manages to include a sliver of hope within his serious theme. Regardless of the conflict, or of the obstacle, the question always remains urgent—How should you spend your time?—while the clock continues to tick.
Five years after his speech—the world now transformed, Lewis’ words mostly unheeded—he wrote an essay that also looked forward. We might consider the 1939 speech and the 1945 essay as bookends to the calamity that came between them. So what straightforward claim does the 1945 Lewis take from the previous years?
We know from the experience of the last twenty years that a terrified and angry pacifism is one of the roads that lead to war.
To visit a playground with your eyes open is to recognize the triteness of his claim. It is, however, those trite lessons of basic nature that are the easiest to forget. And he addresses, once again, all the daydreamers and those most neglectful among us, all those who insist on wasting time, leaving a line that will forever be contemporary:
The future of civilization depends on the answer to the question, “Can a democracy be persuaded to remain armed in peacetime?” If the answer to that question is No, then democracy will be destroyed in the end.
Thus we have Lewis in 1939 pleading that there’s not a moment to waste, and Lewis in 1944 reminding his readers that the moment for vigilance never quite passes. Of course a double warning simply gives most people the opportunity to ignore your advice twice.