Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Prey for the Propagandist

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.
–The Abolition of Man

Lewis identified another danger of the secular humanist approach to education:  by failing to give pupils something substantial and real to hold to, we starve them of meaning.  While this is often billed as a defense against liars, propagandists, and hucksters, in reality it pushes students toward one of two general expedients, both of which result in a state of mind very vulnerable to manipulation.

In context, Lewis is once again talking about the removal of “sentiment” and “meaning” from language, but his principle is applicable on a much broader scale.  I would argue that experience generally tells us that humans need “Truth” in order to reach their fullest potential.  Perhaps I am speculating too much, but it seems to me that “Truth” in this sense of the term entails not only correct information about the world around us and our place in it–truth with a little “t”–but also the meaning and significance behind those truths.  It is the recognition of that greater meaning that gives us the capital “T”.  Those who learn truth without meaning are never really fulfilled by what they discover. Those who cling to meaning without truth are just as hollow, grasping at ghosts only to watch one after another slip through their desperate fingers.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis was dealing with the former:  those who believed that they could teach truth devoid of higher meaning.  Then, as now, the secularist hoped to be able to cut away all the layers of feeling that he or she found objectionable to get to the “root” of issues.  They believed that after they had stripped away all the “sentimentality” and “superstition” that there would be something left underneath that they could call “real” quite apart from a dependence on anything beyond pure naturalism.

They discovered quite the opposite.  When they re-interpreted everything from a naturalistic, humanistic point of view, there was nothing left of value to stand on.  Transcendent meaning was lost by default.  The more they learned, the more hollow their knowledge became.  They clawed their way to the top of the proverbial mountain, and found, at the peak, Solomon waiting for them:

The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said in my heart,
“This too is meaningless.”
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!

–Ecclesiastes 1:15-16

In philosophical desperation, they tried to create meaning on their own by claiming the right to define reality itself.  The result was a radically self-centered approach to life typified by existentialism and, later, postmodernism.  It was self-worship, really, and it ended as all false religions do, in failure, grief, disgust, and betrayal when the idol (humanity itself) was revealed as simply not up to the task:

Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here.  We haven’t let anyone take us in.  The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.

–The Last Battle

The problem with both ends is that with no reliable route to discover what they so desperately need–Truth–people are prone to latch onto a personality, a movement, or an ideal that promises to fill the aching hole in their souls.  People full of truth without meaning will beg for something to come in, energize, and make sense out of their knowledge for them. People trying to seize meaning by sheer authority and willpower will want to know that what they believe is not only convenient, but right.

Anyone in such dire epistemological straits is, in short, perfect prey for the well-trained propagandist.  When we educate (ourselves, our children, or others) we must do so intending to introduce “Truth” and not merely collections of fact or sentiment.  In the end, it is the only sure defense.

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Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on September 16, 2012, in Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Meditations, Social Commentary. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Ok, I definitely read that title as: “Pray for the Protagonist,” which has an entirely different meaning. More on topic, certainly our current generation of students has not benefited our culture from being steeped in post-modern nihilism and relativistic philosophy. Lewis saw that coming, at least.

  2. For more on Lewis’s teaching on truth, its relation to meaning, and its relevance, see the chapter on that topic in REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: ESSAYS IN EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHY (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), where you will discover that Brian is spot on. You can order it at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

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