During my recent sabbatical, I read more of C.S. Lewis’ fiction and non-fiction. Once again, I was mesmerized by his writing, and how clearly and forcefully, yet gently, he communicated vital truths. I think part of his appeal is that he is, in his own words, a “dinosaur.” I, for one, would like to more like him in this. Let me explain.
The Temptation of Chronological Snobbery
I serve with an organization that deeply believes ideas matter. What a person believes results in what a person does. Ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty, explored and expressed in the various academic disciplines, as well as trades, lead to actions that are true, good, and beautiful. These virtuous actions lead to human flourishing. When ideas that are false, bad, and ugly prevail, false, bad, and ugly actions follow. Individuals and cultures do not flourish. Neither do we.
Yet we think we know the true from the false, the good from the bad, and the beautiful from the ugly. We think that the best ideas are those things we have always believed. It is the same things that those around us think. It is what our culture tells us to believe.
This smug provinciality is what C.S. Lewis referred to as “Chronological Snobbery.” He defined this as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”
Our first step toward not being a chronological snob is being honest enough to admit we may not have everything figured out. We may only believe as we do because we don’t know any better. We may only believe as we do because we assume that whatever the “newest” or “most modern” idea is must be the best or truest idea.
But admitting we don’t know it all is very hard for us to do. As children of the Enlightenment (a period of intellectual history beginning in the 17th century), we have been told we have it all figured out. How we refer to our time in intellectual history, and other times, makes this clear. We refer to our time as the “Age of Enlightenment’ We are finally, “enlightened.” We know stuff. But not those who came before us. They were in the “Dark Ages.” Their thinking was so “medieval.” They were clueless. Isn’t it great that we aren’t like them! We are some of the biggest chronological snobs of all time!
Chronological Snobbery has far-reaching implications, leading us away from flourishing as individuals and as a culture. And lest we believe that Christians who study their Bibles are immune to this, think again! In fact, Western Christians have been some of the worst offenders!
The Antidote to Chronological Snobbery
Lewis (and others) have shown us that the cure is to learn how others, living in other times, have thought about what is good, true, and beautiful leading to human flourishing. We would be wise to follow his path.
Lewis can be our guide because, unlike most, he did embrace all Enlightenment ideas. He believed some of the ideas of the ancient and medieval periods of intellectual history were actually (and still are) true. And so this made some Enlightenment ideas false. His questioning of the Enlightenment made him a “dinosaur.”
I use this term because he first used it about himself. In his inaugural address as a professor at Cambridge University he spoke of himself this way, to make the point that he was one of the few who actually still believed there was truth we could discover from those who wrote before the Enlightenment.
I don’t mean to imply Lewis thought everything those of earlier periods said was true, and everything those of our times say is false. He discusses this very thing in an essay entitled, “On the Reading of Old Books” (reprinted here).
In this essay, he says people of all times have false assumptions, beliefs, and practices. When we read old books (authors communicating ideas from another time in history), we can easily spot their errors and won’t succumb to their falsehoods. However, they don’t have our current blind spots, and so what they have to say will help us see our mistakes, which are very hard to spot when we and everyone around us assume these things to be true.
How Lewis Can Be a Guide
This is why Lewis’ books are so helpful. Whether we know it or not, he is invariably contrasting how we see things from our Enlightenment point of view with how pre-Enlightenment people perceived the world. In his words, he is allowing the “clean sea breeze of the centuries” dust off our minds.
He makes extended comments on this in “On the Reading of Old Books”:
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books….The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
Lewis read old books often. From this he was able to identify at least fifteen specific areas of contrast between pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinking.
Each of these fifteen areas of contrast are very helpful in challenging our thinking about what is really good, true, and beautiful. We can confront our Chronological Snobbery by considering each of them. If we have eyes to see, we may slowly apprehend “new” and better ways to understand and live by what is good, true, and beautiful.
Next week I’ll share the fifteen contrasts between Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment thinking which appear throughout Lewis’ writings. I think you find them very helpful! Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading, I suggest an excellent article on the C.S. Lewis Institute website by Dr. Art Lindsey, which I drew upon for this post: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/596