The Great Divide

Lewis delivered a radio adaptation of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature giver, at Cambridge on November 29, 1954. Here are some excerpts from that radio message.

“TO STUDY THE PAST does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own marketplace, but I think it liberates us from the past too.”
I don’t think we need fear that the study of a day and period, however prolonged, however sympathetic, need be an indulgence in nostalgia or an enslavement to the past. In the individual life as the psychologists have taught us, it’s not the remembered past, it’s the forgotten past that enslaves us. And I think that’s true of society. To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own marketplace, but I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually without knowing it enslaved to a very recent past.…
The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors—whether as themselves Christians they welcomed it, or like Gibbon deplored it as humanistic unbelievers—a unique, irresistible, irreversible event. But we’ve seen the opposite process. Of course, the unchristening of Europe in our time is not quite complete. Neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say, that while as all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, for us it falls into three, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.
This surely must make a momentous difference. I’m not here considering either the christening or the un-christening at all from a theological point of view. I’m thinking of them simply as cultural changes. And when I do that, it seems to me that the un-christening is an even more radical change than the christening. Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with the post-Christian. The gap between those who worshipped different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who don’t.…
I find it a bit hard to have patience with all those Jeremiahs in press or pulpit who warn us that we are relapsing into paganism. What lurks behind such prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows simple reversal, that Europe can come out of Christianity by the same doors she went in, and find herself back where she was. That isn’t the sort of thing that happens. A post-Christian man is not a pagan. You might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past.…
I’ve said that the vast change which separates you from old western has been gradual and isn’t yet complete. The chasm is wide, but people born on opposite sides of it can still meet. Of course, that’s quite normal in times of great change. I myself belong far more to that old western order than to yours. I’m going to claim that this, which in one way is a disqualification, is yet in another a qualification. The disqualification of course is obvious. You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur really dragged its slow length into the laboratory, shouldn’t we all look back as we fled? What a chance! To know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled, what noises it made. And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then though I’m sure his lecturing technique would leave a lot to be desired, shouldn’t we almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modern anthropologist could never have told us? Of course he’d tell us without knowing he was telling. One thing I know, I’d give a great deal to hear any ancient Anthenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase, unknown to him, might just show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years. Well, some of us oldsters already stand before the modern world much as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native text that you must read as foreigners. It is my settled conviction that in order to read old western literature aright, you must learn to suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature. And because this is the judgment of a native, an old westerner, I claim that even if the defense of my conviction proves to be weak, the fact of my conviction is an historical datum to which you should give due weight. That way, when I fail as a critic I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not for myself but for all other old western men whom you may meet, I would say use your specimens while you can. There aren’t going to be very many more dinosaurs.
By C. S. Lewis

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #7 in 1985]

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