Monday, February 22, 2016

"The World's Last Night" by CS Lewis: A Review

To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them. Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious man is blamed for a meanness of character, not admired for the excellence of his logic. (26)

Grand total I have read dozens of CS Lewis's books, essays, and poems plus numerous biographies and other volumes on the late Christian apologists. Yet he never gets old. In fact, it seems that the next chapter or essay is just as piercing and prophetic (if not more so) than the one I read before. One of his lesser known books, The World's Last Night is no different. Like many of Lewis's books, this volume is a collection of individual essays. The essays include:
  1. The Efficacy of Prayer 
  2. On Obstinacy in Belief 
  3. Lilies that Fester
  4. Screwtape Proposes a Toast 
  5. Good Work and Good Works 
  6. Religion and Rocketry 
  7. The World's Last Night
Of these six essays, I suspect the third one is the most recognizable as it is commonly found as an appendix in modern versions of Screwtape Letters. In said essay, I would point the reader to consider the following prophetic word regarding modern education:
In that promising land the spirit of I’m as good as you has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Of course, this would not follow unless all education became state education. (64-67)
Remember that Lewis was writing in 1959. Now over fifty years later, Lewis reads as a sage who was able to see through time. What he criticizes here is precisely what is destroying modern education in our time. Many bright students are being intellectually stunted while many of their peers are struggling with "a cat sat on a mat" all in the name of democracy, fairness, and equality.

Yet Screwtape's toast is not the only essay worth highlighting. In "Lilies that Fester," Lewis equates "religious people" with "the cultured" or what we might say today, "the intelligentsia." Though it takes him some time to develop his thought, Lewis eventually suggests the two worlds are parallels when applied to politics. We should fear theocracy, he says - the worst kind of government. But equally wicked is what he calls Charientocracy, that is, rule of the cultured elite. Lewis warns that theocracy is the least of our worries. Charientocracy, on the other hand, is the world in which we live.

Finally, readers might be surprised to find that Lewis addressed the question of aliens from a theological perspective in this book in his essay "Religion and Rocketry." His broader point is that every generation promises a new discovery that will destroy Christianity. All of them have failed and the search for life on other planets is no different. Theologically speaking, Lewis is really helpful on this question and the essay isn't as silly as it might at first sound.

Overall, of course you should read this book and I highly recommend it. Its Lewis. Below you will find a doodle of the titular essay "The World's Last Night."

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