Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

  Master of the Quiet Style  

November 25, 2003

Forty years ago, on November 22, 1963, I was as shocked as billions of other people by the murder of John F. Kennedy. I didn’t even notice the passing of another man the same day, whose name at that time I barely knew: the English writer C.S. Lewis.

But within a few years, Lewis was my favorite modern writer, and he has remained so. He is best known as a Christian apologist, but he was also a literary scholar of great distinction as well as an immensely popular writer of science fiction and children’s stories.

Lewis’s books sell even more copies now than they did during his lifetime, and all of them are worth reading and rereading. He wrote with deceptive simplicity on a wide range of subjects, never flaunting his wide-ranging learning but only appealing to the reader’s common sense. His unfailingly reasonable tone is not only deeply persuasive but, in the long run, endearing.

Lewis would have deprecated the personal adulation he has received, but he brought it on himself. To read him for any length of time is to love and trust him. In that respect he is rather like George Orwell, another modern master of plain English prose. But where Orwell was sharp and spiky, Lewis was gentle and generous.

Lewis once wrote an essay on Orwell that strikes me as exactly right: he said that Animal Farm is a better book than Nineteen Eighty-Four in large part because its four-legged characters seem “more human” than the featherless bipeds of the latter novel. The essay is so fair-minded and appreciative that you’d never guess that the anti-religious Orwell had rather nastily attacked Lewis in print.

[Breaker quote: The powerful simplicity of C.S. Lewis]Lewis generally ignored public events, disliked and avoided newspapers and radio (though he was a huge success in his own radio broadcasts), and seldom wrote about politics. Yet he made some profound remarks about modern politics, because his scholarship had taught him how deeply Western man’s basic assumptions had changed since ancient and medieval times.

Even during World War II, Lewis saw that the differences between Fascist, Communist, and democratic regimes were essentially superficial — a point he made with great tact in his little wartime book The Abolition of Man. All three types of regimes had at bottom repudiated what earlier men had recognized as fundamental moral law, otherwise known as “natural law” or (as Lewis called it, using the ancient Chinese term) the Tao.

For modern man, Lewis pointed out, law is nothing but human will, and the state is free to make law as it pleases, without moral limits. Older traditions had believed that human law must conform to a higher law, but that sense was being disastrously lost in the modern world. The modern state was therefore “incessantly engaged in legislation.” Old inhibitions on politics were gone.

Lewis said all this not in a tone of angry diatribe, but in detached observation. It was simply a matter of fact. He thought it was urgent to realize the implications of modern prejudices, which were constantly inculcated by public education; but instead of denouncing these prejudices, he quietly showed how the modern schoolboy is subtly “conditioned” to take one side in a controversy which he has not even been taught to recognize as a controversy at all.

Lewis had a genius for exposing such implications with calm precision. It wasn’t his style to use indignant slogans like liberal bias. He simply reminded the reader that modern men made certain assumptions about which there was room for more than one opinion, and about which earlier men had taken very different views.

That was why he always urged his students at Cambridge and Oxford to read old books: not because the old books were necessarily right, but just because they showed that our modern assumptions were far from universal. For Lewis the past was a source of mental liberation.

It’s the very modesty of Lewis’s style that makes it powerful. He never seems to be trying to impose his views on the reader; he only seems to offer them for consideration. But he does so with logic, wit, analogy, courtesy, and apt quotation. His method is less the flat statement than the quietly irresistible rhetorical question. Sweet reason was never sweeter.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

small Griffin logo
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address:

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer
Archive Table of Contents

Current Column

Return to the SOBRANS home page.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 


SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

Reprinted with permission
This page is copyright © 2003 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.