Pope Benedict XVI on C.S. Lewis

time csl coverSource: “Cardinal Ratzinger in Cambridge,” BRIEFING 88, vol. 18, no. 3 (5 February 1988); reprinted in the CANADIAN CSL JOURNAL no. 63 (Summer 1988), 4-5.

“Long before the outbreak of terrorism and the invasion of drugs, the English author and philosopher, C.S. Lewis, called attention to the grievous danger of the abolition of man which lies in the collapse of the foundations of morality.  He thus gave stress to humankind’s justification upon which the continuance of man as man depends.  Lewis shows the continuance of the this justification with a glance at all the great civilisations.  He refers not only to the moral heritage of the Greeks and its particular articulation by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoa.  These intended to lead man to an awareness of reason in his being and from that to insist upon the cultivation of ‘his kinship of being with reason.’  Lewis also recalls the ideas of the Rta [sic] in early Hinduism which asserts the harmony of the cosmic order, the moral virtues and the temple rituals.  He underscores in a special way the Chinese doctrine of the Tao: ‘It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road.  It is the Way in which the universe goes on. .  . It is also the Way in which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.  Modern mankind has been persuaded that human moral values are radically opposed one to another in the same way that religions are.  In both cases the simple conclusion is drawn that all of these are human inventions whose absurdity we can finally detect and replace with reasonable knowledge.  This diagnosis, though, is extremely superficial.  It hooks on to a series of details which are set up in random fashion, one next to the other, and so it arrives at the banality of its superior insight.  The reality is that the fundamental institution concerning the moral character of being itself and the necessity for harmony between human existence and the message of nature is common to all the great civilisations; and thus the great moral imperatives are also a possession held in common.  C S Lewis expressed this emphatically when he said: ‘This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law, or Traditional Morality or the First principle of Practical Reason, or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value.  It is the sole source of all value judgements.  If it is rejected, all value is rejected.  If any value is retained, it is retained.  The effort to refute it and to raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.’  Morality has been eroded and man as human being has worn away with it.  It is no longer prudent to ask why one should hold fast to this kind of survival.  Once more I would like to have C S Lewis put in a word.  He saw this process already in 1943 and described it with keen accuracy.  He discerns in it the old compact with the Magician: ‘ . . . give up our soul, get power in return.  But once our souls, that is, our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us . . . It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere “natural object” . . . The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his dehumanized Conditioners.’  Lewis raised this warning during the second World War because he saw how, with the destruction of morality, the very capacity to defend his nation against onslaught of barbarism was imperiled.  He was objective enough, though, to add the following: “I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, or those who are our public enemies at the moment.  The process which, if not checked, will abolish man, goes on apace among Communists and Democrats, no less than among Fascists.”  This seems to me to be a common of great import.  Lewis refers as well to the law of Israel, which unites cosmos and history and intends above all to be the expression of the truth about man as much as the truth about the world.  An appreciation of the great civilisations discloses differences in detail; but starker by far than these differences is the great common strain which reveals itself as early evidence of the human business of living: the teaching of objective values which are manifest in the being of the world; the belief that there are attitudes which are true in accord with the message of the All and therefore good and that there are other attitudes as well which are contrary to being and thus are wrong for good and for all.”

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