This week I’ll pick up the discussion of fifteen differences C. S. Lewis identified between our current way of seeing the world (influenced by the Enlightenment) and earlier ways of thinking. I have discovered, and am trying to show, that new is not always better. Thinking that new is better amounts to “chronological snobbery,” as Lewis put it. So here are several more distinctions that come out in Lewis’s writings. These should help us to love God with our minds more effectively and should lead to more godly decisions and actions as a result.
Outer Image vs. Inner Character
You may have noticed an underlying theme in several of the distinctions already discussed. Prior to the Enlightenment, most people believed that what is unseen is just as real as what is seen–that the immaterial is as real as the material.
This conviction shifted in the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment philosophers argued that, in essence, “if we can’t see it, it isn’t real.” This thinking trickled down to the broader culture and became the widely accepted perspective.
One implication of this new way of thinking was that the outer image is more important, because it is more real. For instance, in ethics the emphasis became more and more on one’s actions, not one’s character. This shift in ethics and its implications were masterfully detailed in Alasdair MacIntyre’s watershed 1981 book After Virtue. MacIntyre showed how this shift has distorted our ethical outlook, and he called for a return to “Virtue ethics,” an approach that dates back to Aristotle and focuses first on becoming the right kind of person (character), which will then result in doing the right things (in general).
Another watershed event continuing this trend from the inner character to the outer image was the advent of television, which is all about outer image (literally). For instance, the first presidential debate to be televised was the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This was the early days of television, and so only some could watch the debate. Many others listened to it on the radio. Most who listened to it on radio thought Nixon won, for they heard the substance of the arguments back and forth. But most who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won, for he projected a more appealing outer image. Political discourse would never be the same after that.
In fact, due to the shift in focus from the immaterial to the material, we have become less and less able to think without imagining. Imagining, literally, means thinking of images. However, some things cannot be “imagined” at all, such as God, souls, moral values, or logical axioms. These are immaterial realities that have no corresponding image. So it is increasingly difficult for our culture to believe these things are real, because without imagining we cannot think about something.
We have now become accustomed to saying “I can’t imagine X,” meaning “I can’t make sense of X” or “I can’t conceive of X” or “I can’t believe X.” This, too, belies the fact that we are children of the Enlightenment, assuming that if something can’t be “seen” (as an image) then it can’t be conceived of or believed.
Lewis’s writings are full of this distinction, and he stresses how important it is to be able to think without always imagining. As you read Lewis (which I encourage you to do regularly), watch for this distinction. And watch for it in other things you hear and see in our culture—examples abound!
Substance vs. Style
A closely related distinction is between substance and style. Substance has two meanings. The contemporary meaning is something solid. We think of a substance as something that is physical. From it we get the term “substantial”—meaning something of value, importance, or reality.
The pre-Enlightenment understanding of substance is very different. It was first discussed at length by Plato and then by Aristotle (who used the term “secondary substance”). This understanding then played a central role in helping early Christians make sense of the Trinity. For instance, the Nicene Creed speaks of Jesus as “of the same essence as the Father” where “essence” is ousia or substance (so the Nicene Creed uses the word homoousios-or “of the same essence”).
As embodied persons, our substance is that which “stands under” our properties, including our physical properties. It is our soul. (Technically, our soul is an individuated substance; we all share the same secondary substance, or essence. See my post here under “What is a Soul?” for more, and here for arguments that we have a soul..)
The point is that the pre-Enlightenment understanding of substance was that it is fundamentally immaterial. In this sense, it is directly opposed to style, which is something material—a way in which physical reality exists.
We still reveal our pre-Enlightenment heritage when we speak of “substance over style”–implying that substance is more fundamental and real than the superficial, surface reality described as style. However, this distinction makes less and less sense to children of the Enlightenment, for whom substance is physical and so refers ultimately to only the surface reality we can see. But by using this phrase, we are living on borrowed capital.
I think we should continue using this phrase. But we must do more–we must embrace all this implies. It implies we cannot reduce substance to style. Rather, those of earlier times were right–substance is immaterial and in some ways more real (at least more lasting) that style.
Immediate vs. Long-Term
Also related to these distinctions is that between the immediate or instant and the long-term or delayed. What we can see is always changing and fleeting. Therefore, if what we can see is more real (or the only thing that is real), then it follows that we must grab hold of it when we can right now, for it may soon be gone. These experiences of physical reality are what matter most, so we should seek immediate gratification.
If, on the other hand, the immaterial realm is just as real and even more important than the material realm, then the opposite is true. If substances and other universals exist (see here for more on universals), then understanding and living in light of these immaterial things becomes most important.
Related to ethics as discussed above, this consideration gives us a reason to take the “long view” of living well, and to orient our life toward developing virtues. Virtues are, by definition, not things we have automatically and immediately. They take much time and effort to develop.
It seems clear to me that Scripture assumes the existence of universals, such as substances (including souls, which are individuated human natures), moral absolutes, and Truth. Furthermore, God, the most basic reality—that which all other reality depends upon for its existence—is immaterial. These are all strong endorsements of the pre-Enlightenment view of reality, as opposed to the modern, Enlightenment understanding.
I had hoped to discuss five of Lewis’s distinctions in this post, but I got to only three. I’ll pick this conversation up next week.
Until then, grace and peace.