The Thinking 

A Professor Who Taught Wisdom

August 27, 2012


GREG J. writes:

I have been reading the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. These are as rewarding as any of the books Lewis published in his lifetime, and have the additional interest that always accrues from the experience of reading through a great man’s private correspondence with friends and loved ones. In a letter to his brother, Feb. 11, 1940, Lewis described hearing a lecture at Oxford University from one of his fellow Inklings, Charles Williams, on the subject of John Milton’s Comus. Lewis describes Williams’ treatment of the doctrine of virginity in Milton, and concludes that he was witnessing an all-too-rare instance of a university doing its actual job: edifying its students.

On Monday [Charles Williams] lectured nominally on [Milton’s] Comus but really on Chastity. Simply as criticism it was superb–because here was a man who really started from the same point of view as Milton and really cared with every fiber of his being about ‘the sage and serious doctrine of virginity’ which it would never occur to the ordinary modern critic to take seriously.

But it was more important still as a sermon. It was a beautiful sight to see a whole room full of modern young men and women sitting in that absolute silence which can NOT be faked, very puzzled, but spell-bound: perhaps with something of the same feeling which a lecture on unchastity might have evoked in their grandparents–the forbidden subject broached at last. He forced them to lap it up and I think many, by the end, liked the taste more than they expected to.

It was ‘borne in upon me’ that that beautiful carved room [in Oxford] had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Reformation lectures. I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching Wisdom. And what a wonderful power there is in the direct appeal which disregards the temporary climate of opinion–I wonder is it the case that the man who has the audacity to get up in any corrupt society and squarely preach justice or valour or the like always wins? After all, the Nazis largely got into power by simply talking the old straight stuff about heroism in a country full of cynics and buggers.

 —— Comments —-

Joe Long writes:

I was nodding along at this wonderful piece, before getting to the concluding sentence…

“….After all, the Nazis largely got into power by simply talking the old straight stuff about heroism in a country full of cynics and buggers.”

Wow! Not the phrase I expected from Lewis. At first I wondered if it were a misprint, for “beggar”, but offers:

bugger (n.) …3.Often Vulgar. a sodomite.

4.Chiefly BritishSlang. a. a despicable or contemptible person, especially a man.

And there is the historical fact of the Weimar republic’s notable sexual decadence; that, and stories of SA behavior might well have given Lewis the impression of Germany as a “country full of…buggers.” I can see how a cynic is the opposite of a hero – or at least, of a believer in “the old straight stuff about heroism” – and I can see an overlap between that “nothing is sacred” sort and, well, buggers, sense 3 or 4 or, quite possilby, both. (Note’s prissy modifier: “often” vulgar – thus, apparently, sometimes quite proper).

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