Old Western Man: C.S. Lewis and the Old South


I write not as an expert to tell you of my thought but to explain a particular concept of Lewis’s and my own application of it to the Old South. Almost everyone knows something about C.S. Lewis as a writer of extremely readable children’s books (about the land of Narnia that can be entered through the back of an old wardrobe) and as a witty and brilliant defender of orthodox Christianity.

Lewis has also been called the Apostle of the Skeptics. Those who have read his little book, The Great Divorce or his Space Trilogy know something of his faith as well as his brilliant imagination, while his Experiment in Criticism suggests Lewis the profound scholar. And the devastating little book The Abolition of Man has a direct bearing on my present topic. It is C.S. Lewis as prophet: a grim warning of where we may be heading and the role of our schools in taking us there.

Lewis was an Oxford don. He first came to Oxford as an undergraduate—his education interrupted by service in the First World War. He had, before he came up to Oxford, read more widely and deeply than most of us do in a lifetime. At Oxford he first read (studied) what is called “Greats,” which is, first, classical literature in Greek and Latin, and then the rigorous study of philosophy from the ancients to the moderns—with a severe examination in each. He then read English literature and was examined in that. A “FIRST” in those examinations at Oxford has been likened to a Phi Beta Kappa key—and Lewis won three FIRSTS. No other word fits this achievement but awesome.

When I was at Oxford in the ’50s, I was privileged to know him, and we came to be friends as those who have read by book A Severe Mercy will know. After I went down from the University, we corresponded and met from time to time.

A Professorship at Oxford (there are no assistant or associate professors) is a very distinguished honor indeed, for there is but one professor of each subject. Despite deep friendships among the dons, Lewis also had bitter enemies—because I believe, of hostility to his outspoken Christian faith. Oxford never gave him that honor—a professorship—but Cambridge did; and so Lewis left Magdalen College, Oxford, for, as it happened Magdalene, Cambridge. To my abiding regret, I was not in England and could not be present when he delivered his inaugural address in a packed hall. But that lecture in 1954 which is not widely known defines Old Western Man. It is a look at history by a great literary scholar. History, some think, is a bore; but one may reflect on the truth that the opposite of historical awareness is—amnesia.

The title of Lewis’s address is De Descriptione Temporum—a look at Time, the very stuff of history: time and its divisions. Lewis was a splendid speaker— lucid, witty, brilliant, and, above all, powerful. He could hold an audience spellbound, as he did this one: Cambridge dons and undergraduates, as well as a considerable contingent from Oxford crowding a large lecture hall.

The chair that Cambridge had created for him was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and Lewis pointed out that the title indicted the decline of the traditional antithesis between the two periods. We have all, he went on, been educated to believe that there are two great divides in Western history, two chasms that cut across it: the Fall of Rome along with the Christianizing of Europe is the first; and the second is the Renaissance.

Not so, says Lewis. Neither one is the Great Divide; there is a greater one. But before considering that, let us look at the two traditional ones, beginning with the lesser one, the Renaissance.

Two Traditional Divides

The Renaissance, first of all, despised the Medieval, just as every new age despises that one preceding. The early-twentieth century scorned the Victorian Age—its architecture, its prudishness, its indoor plants were held up in ridicule. So the Renaissance saw the Middle Ages as a time of darkness. Unable to see the architectural miracle of Chartres Cathedral, they labeled it Gothic, that is, barbaric, because it lacked Roman columns. They were blind to the power of Aquinas or Dante. An older historian spoke of Copernicus as “the first light in the darkness,” and a turn-of-the-last century student wrote that Thomas Wyatt was one of the first men “who scrambled ashore out of the great, dark, surging sea of the Middle Ages.” No one would write such things now. And yet the Renaissance was a new age—a significant shift in direction. For the wise men of classical times, there was a desire to see things as they are and to conform the soul to that reality. The medievals enlarged things as they included Christ’s Revelation of God but still sought to conform to all of reality. But the Renaissance began the effort through the twin studies of science and magic (the high noon of magic was not Medieval but Renaissance) to conform reality to man.

The Fall of Rome—that immense Empire stretching from Syria to London—along with the spread of Christianity—has far greater claims to be the Great Divide. And yet Latin, a living, developing language, remained the language of the educated and the language of the universal Church. Men read Virgil (oddly enough, it was the Renaissance in its fascination with the really dead, classical Latin that killed the living Latin.) Still, Lewis says, the claim of the Fall of Rome with the enormous shift from Paganism to Christianity to be the Great Divide would have to be allowed if he did not know of a far greater Divide.

The Great Divide

To take first that enormous and seemingly irrevocable shift from Paganism to Christianity, we have seen a greater—the de-Christianizing of Western society. “Dechristianization,” says John Paul II, “weighs heavily upon entire peoples and communities once rich in faith and Christian life. . .” It is still incomplete, of course, just as there were lingering pockets of Paganism in the disintegrating Roman world. But one often hears today of “post-Christian.” And we’ve all heard references to our returning to paganism. That, at least, is nonsense. We are not about to see a President struggling to slit the throat of a milk-white bull in front of the Capitol as an offering to the gods or grave Senators spilling libations on the floor of their chamber. To say we are returning to Paganism from Christianity is rather like saying that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. Paganism like Christianity was a devout belief in divinity—something beyond and above man. Thus, the shift from Paganism to God Incarnate, great as it was, was a lesser shift than this: from God Incarnate to Man himself.

This alone is vast enough to indicate a greater Great Divide than the Fall of Rome. And there is more, much more. But before considering other aspects of this Greatest Divide, we should locate it in time. Lewis puts it at about the time of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott at the end of the eighteenth century and a little way into the nineteenth. And those who lived before the Great Divide are those he calls “Old Western Man.” But, like the long-drawn-out Fall of Rome, this later, Greater Divide is gradual. Old Western continued in unaffected areas. Lewis himself is, he says, an Old Western Man. And some who consider this may be Old Western Man. As we look further at the Great Divide, the reader will perhaps decide about himself.

Since science is one of the things that is changing the world, it might be thought that the Great Divide ought to be earlier with the general acceptance among the educated of the thought of Descartes and of scientists like Copernicus. But the effects of such ideas were delayed. Science, in Lewis’s words, was “like a lion cub whose gambols delighted its master in private [and which] has not yet tasted man’s blood . . . Science was not the business of Man because Man had not yet become the business of Science.” But when Watts makes his steam engine, and Darwin begins to monkey with Man’s ancestry—and Freud not so far ahead—the lion will be out of his cage. It is when the many are affected, not just the few intellectuals, that the Great Divide occurs.

Somewhere between us and Jane Austen’s Persuasion in 1816 runs the chasm between Old Western Man and New Western Man—the Great Divide. Old Western Man feared and worshiped his gods, accepted axiomatically what Lewis in The Abolition of Man calls the Tao or Natural Law, and, if Christian, believed in the Revelation of God Incarnate. Almost a definition of Old Western Man. New Western Man—well I shan’t attempt to define him, but as we consider the post-Divide developments, perhaps he will appear. This much, though, is I think certain: Seneca and Dr. Johnson, though separated by 18 centuries, have more in common that Dr. Johnson and Freud, less than a century later.

Let us consider what the Great Divide actually divides in terms of the six (and only six) aspects of any society: political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, aesthetic. (The initial letters make the word PERSIA.)

Politically, what we used to call “rulers” we now call “leaders.” In the past the aim of rulers was to keep the people quiet, getting on with their lives; now it seems to be whipping up feeling—appeals, drives, campaigns. A vast computerized bureaucracy penetrates our lives and fortunes as no government of the past ever did. Where once we asked rulers for justice and incorruptibility, we now want magnetism or charisma. And a shadow in the future, if ever it comes (which God forbid!), may be government by scientists and psychologists—adjusting us to like it.

Economically, above all the coming of the machine. Where once we wanted government to defend us from enemies, foreign and domestic, and we paid taxes for those purposes, now we expect everything from government; jobs, relief from poverty, health care. Government is spending trillions it doesn’t have. And money without its intrinsic value—not gold.

Socially—well, I hardly need to mention the word. The family in decay—that rock-hard institution of Old Western Man. Marriage itself breaking down: multi-marriages or, so to speak, serial polygamy. Or no marriage at all. Social morality is all but dead. And for good or ill—since Lewis’s lecture—a change that would be almost unbelievable to Old Western Man, a change as great as any in all history: feminism. If feminism (unisexism) is here to stay, it will be overwhelmingly the greatest social change of all time, equal to the coming of the machine. Overwhelming change and very possibly overwhelming error, too. Socially, there is no question that it is the Great Divide.

Religiously, no question either. The de-Christianizing.

Intellectually, one of the greatest changes is the onset of ideology—everything else subordinate as a world force. Killing in the name of ideology. We have touched on the lion—science—getting out of his cage, and on Darwin, and Watts’ steam engine. The machine. TV and the computer. The machine permeates our lives. Here again the change is so enormous as to leave no doubt about the Great Divide. Not only does it alter our very lives; it alters our language. For instance, the word new. When it comes to cars or TVs, the new is usually better, but not in other areas—the “new morality” is very likely worse. Yet we’re taught to salivate at new. What was once admired as permanence is now called stagnation. And primitive, which in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary suggested “pure” or “formal,” now suggests the obsolete or crude. If we slipped through a time-fault into the eighteenth century, our plain English and their plain English might have very different connotations. Needless to say, feminism is also altering the English language for the worse; they would insist that Lewis say Old Western Man “or Woman.”

Aesthetically, the last of the six aspects, is marked by change as great as the others. Aesthetically, our brave new world is almost unrecognizably different. In the visual arts, no previous era has ever produced work so shatteringly and bewilderingly different and obscure as that of the Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Picasso. And in the art that Lewis loved best, poetry and literature, the change is as drastic. It is simply untrue to say that all poetry was when new was as difficult as ours. Alexandrian verse was difficult because it required learning; but if you got the learning, it was perfectly intelligible. John Donne’s dark conceits had one meaning which he could have told you. There was never anything like The Wasteland. Six learned men in poetry, discussed T.S. Eliot’s “A Cooking Egg” for an hour, and no two of them agreed on its meaning. And the poems—or as I call them, prosems by “prosets” who have followed Eliot—there seems no link at all with the great tradition of poetry. Apart from different languages a reader of Homer would understand Beowulf and Catullus and Spenser would understand each other, or Shakespeare and Virgil.

It is, I think unarguable that we have been looking at The Great Divide in the history of the West, which is really the history of the whole world. It is strange, the smallest continent, Europe, has been the most dynamic ever since the Greeks, all the world wanting what the West has. Almost unimaginable change.

Now, the reader has C.S. Lewis’s 1954 argument for The Great Divide in De Descriptione Temporum with a few updatings of mine, such as the drastic change that is feminism, which he was spared. The argument is for me totally convincing. He concluded the lecture by saying that he is a representative of Old Western Man and reads their texts as a native. But Old Western Man, he says, is not going to be around much longer, and thus, he may be of value as a specimen, if not otherwise. After all, he says with a smile, if a dinosaur dragged its slow length into the lecture hall, would we not look back even as we fled? So that’s what the creature looked like!

He was done. Thunderous applause. And people went about the university for weeks saying “I’m a dino —are you?”

Old Western Man and The Old South

What C.S. Lewis has given us is nothing less than a radically new way of looking at the past that supplants or, at least, supplements all other ways. The reader, mindful of my title, may be prepared for me to see the Old South as Old Western Man. And so I do. But General Lee and the War Between the States were in the second half of the nineteenth century, 50 years after Jane Austen: the machine—the Industrial Revolution—already darkening the skies. Nevertheless, I do maintain the Confederacy was Old Western Man. We need, I think, to see the South—and the War—in larger terms relating to all of Western civilization.

Lewis, quite rightly, puts the Great Divide in the very early nineteenth century; it was then that England, which led the way in the age of steam, began to be dominated by the machine, yet, of course, large pockets of England and Scotland remained unaffected, not to mention Europe and America, though it was not long before Germany and New England began to industrialize. France was a special case; it had been torn by the fury of the Revolution, followed by Napoleon and defeat. Unlike the U.S. War of Independence, the French Revolution was the child of the intellectual’s so-called Enlightenment (religiously, the Endarkenment), which prepared the way for the Great Divide; and it seems to me that the people of France were, in a way, the first to cross, or be driven across, the Great Divide. And there, too, was resistance, in particular the heroic and doomed last stand of the Vendee where the people took arms under their nobles and priests. In France, the Vendee was a last stand of Old Western Man.

The worldwide condemnation of slavery began with the English Evangelicals under Wilberforce in the early nineteenth century, spreading to New England—the Abolitionists—but not to the South. Indeed, it has often been said that the South, at least up to the War of Secession, had not yet entered the nineteenth century. If indeed the Great Divide, as Lewis says, is just after the time of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, it is suggestive that, while the North had turned to the mid-century novelist, Charles Dickens, the South still loved Sir Walter Scott. The long steps toward “modernity” in England and the North and elsewhere hardly affected the deeply agrarian South. But by 1860 the north was well on its way to industrialization—”the dark Satanic mills,” as Blake called them. And the South was still naming towns and streets for Scott’s characters and places—Ivanhoe, for instance, or Midlothian, both in Virginia.

There is little question in my mind but that the War Between the States was a revolution. A Northern revolution: big business destroying the Southern landed gentry. Andrew Lytle (in From Eden to Babylon) says that “before his overthrow, the country gentleman was the most powerful single influence in early American society.” And he says further that “the fall of the Confederacy removed the last great check to the imperialism of Big Business.” There is here more than a slight suggestion that New Western Man was destroying Old Western Man. (As the French Revolution, the Vendee).

It is plain from what C.S.Lewis said about the de-Christianizing of Europe, as well as the French Revolution attempting to destroy the Church, that what follows the Great Divide is anti-Christian. Two years ago Mel Bradford (may he rest in peace) explained why Southern clergymen from Catholic to Baptists were strongly in favor of secession: Not to protect slavery but to protect Christianity by separating from the North, which in their judgement was becoming godless. A comparison of the leaders on both sides is suggestive, and so is a comparison of the South today with the society of the victors today—New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, including the corridors of power. Can we say the Southern clergymen of the 1860’s were mistaken? The South remained, and perhaps still remains, a part of Christendom, while Europe and the North moved toward post-Christian man.

I wonder sometimes if the real hate of the most powerful and influential men of the North toward the South, both in arms and vanquished, wasn’t hate for both the agrarian and the religious values of the South, including the faith in the Risen Christ?

General R.E. Lee is the symbol and the actuality of the South. Oxford taught that he was the greatest general since Alexander the Great because he did so much with so little and because he won the total devotion of his men. But Lee is far more than a brilliant and audacious general. In his simplicity and grandeur he is the best of the Old South—and he is almost incomprehensible to modern sensibility. Like George Washington, he is seen as a “marble man” by moderns, who have no trouble understanding Lincoln or Sherman—both rather modern themselves. But General Lee, never giving way to hate, never blaming anyone else, the simplicity, the strange words that we have lost: words like duty and honor. But an Old Roman would understand them. Lee, I think—and Stonewall and J.E.B. Stuart— are Old Western Man.

The poet, Stephen Vincent Benet, in his splendid and insightful John Brown’s Body, after glowing descriptions of General Lee and his officers, turns to Lee’s army. Let me quote just a half-a-dozen lines.

Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground, . .
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion chambers . . .
Against machines, against the Age of Steam . . .

The unmachined, the deeply religious, ready to follow General Lee to hell and back—and, because of General Lee, they almost won. These men and their great commander are Old Western Man. As a nation, his last stand.

When Lee came at last to Appomattox and the short-lived Confederacy went down, not just to defeat but to non-existence, an Oxford don (like virtually all the Oxford and Cambridge dons, deeply pro-Southern), wrote lines that no one today would write—a drastically different point of view. “No nation rose so white and fair,/ None fell so pure of crime” (Philip Worsley).

I close with a question. As Richard Weaver says so powerfully, the Southern tradition is at bay. Does it still survive? Are we who hold to that tradition Old Western Man? If we are dismayed by multiculturalism, by deconstructionism, by moral relativism, have we any hope of holding onto and of passing on that tradition? I do not know. I cannot precisely define what New Western Man is, though there have been many hints along the way—and C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man offers a grim prophecy. Each of us must decide what he himself is.

I cannot close without saying, as the Cambridge undergraduates did, that I—to no one’s surprise—take my stand as a “dino.” And hope that I and fellow “dinos” can make a difference.

This essay was originally published in Southern Partisan Magazine in 1994.

More