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The Torch of Civilization: C.S. Lewis on War and Peace


The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.


Recent disturbances in the Middle East, along with calls for military intervention by Western powers, have stimulated new debate between pacifists and those who espouse a "Just War" theory. In Christian circles, where an apt quotation by C. S. Lewis lends a great deal of authority to one's opinion, it should not be surprising to hear Lewis cited by both sides on this issue.

Those who find very little justice in the world's wars, who see instead the suffering and privation they cause, are apt to remember Lewis's own harrowing account of his combat experiences in Surprised by Joy (pp. 193-196). They may also remember the poignant scene in The Last Battle where one of the hated Calormene soldiers, Emeth, turns out to be a sincere seeker of the Good, one whose noble deeds in the name of Tash are reckoned to him as righteousness by Aslan, and accepted as the means for his redemption. But those who view at least some wars as a necessary expedient may respond that The Last Battle, after all, takes its title from who literally take up arms to combat evil. These may also recall Lewis's remark that "If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful" ("Conditions" 326).

In surveying remarks scattered throughout Lewis's essays and letters, one can find proof-texts for both hawks and doves; but ultimately Lewis seems to assert that war and peace are not nearly the opposites that we suppose them to be. In addition, he asks us to consider the conflict within individual souls every bit as carefully as we seek to avoid conflicts among nations.

Not surprisingly, many of Lewis's most developed meditations on the subject come during World War Two, beginning almost immediately after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. In the same week that England declared war on Germany, Lewis offered a Lincoln-esque caution to his brother Warren about glibly supposing that God was on "our side":

In the litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was "Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause... When I met [the reverend] in the porch, I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous a point on which He may have his own view... I hope it is quite like ours, of course: but you never know with Him (Letters 324-25).

When Lewis penned these words, Warren, a retired army major, had already been recalled to active duty, and it appeared for a time that Jack might be called up as well. Even though he was 40-years old and an established Oxford don, he was among those English males between the ages of 18 and 41 still classified as eligible for conscription. Having already served in one European war, Lewis confessed to a friend that he dreaded the idea of donning his uniform yet again:

My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years. Military service, to be plain, includes the threat of every temporal evil; pain and death, which is what we fear from sickness; isolation from those we love, which is what we fear from exile; toil under arbitrary masters which is what we fear from slavery: hunger, thirst, and exposure which is what we fear from poverty. I'm not a pacifist. If it's got to be it's got to be. But the flesh is weak and selfish, and I think death would be much better than to live through another war (Letters 320).

Lewis had good reason to feel anxious about the prospect of entering the service again. Born in Belfast in 1898, he could have avoided military duty in World War I as an Irish citizen, but since he had been attending English schools since the age of nine, he felt it his duty to serve the country that had become his adopted homeland. After only four weeks of instruction in the Officer Training Corps, Jack was sent to the front lines in France late in 1917. After a few weeks there, he was hospitalized with a bout of trench fever. When he was discharged from the hospital, he immediately returned to the front lines, where three months later he was wounded in three places by an exploding shell that killed the sergeant standing next to him (Sayer 72-73). Lewis was to carry these experiences with him the rest of his life, including a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest which was not removed until the next war, in 1944, when it seemed to be working its way dangerously close to his heart.

As it turned out, Lewis's anxiety in 1939 about being recalled to active duty was needless. Rather he was assigned to duties on the nightwatch in Oxford as part of the Home Guard. He felt a bit ridiculous making his rounds from 1:30 to 4:30 in the morning with a rifle on his shoulder, comparing himself to constable Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing (Letters 356). But he valued the time spent with men from other occupations and he enjoyed walking in what he called the "silent, dewy, cobwebby hours of the morning" (Lady 78).

Actually, what became Lewis's main contribution to the war effort was talking, not walking. In the late thirties Lewis was becoming increasingly known for some of his witty and provocative writings on religion and ethics, and late in 1940 the Chaplain-in-Chief of the RAF asked him to travel to bases throughout Great Britain to give inspirational lectures. At first it was assumed that these lectures would be required of pilots and their crews, but Lewis objected to what he called "regimented religion," which he thought would only harden people's hearts against what he might have to say (Letters 359).

Unlike many academics, Lewis had a tremendous gift for communicating sophisticated ideas in a popular idiom and it was not long before was invited to give similar talks on the BBC, a series which became immensely popular. Several witnesses have reported that during the war, even in London pubs crowded with soldiers, once the sounds of crisply enunciated words started coming across the wireless in Lewis's bass voice with just a hint of Irish brogue, the place would fall silent (Sayer 158).

Besides encouraging people to think about God during the war years, Lewis also offered his speculation about what the devil might think of all this. His Screwtape Letters, published in 1942, present letters of advice from a senior devil to a junior tempter, who is working for the destruction of a human soul. When the war breaks out, the novice devil, Wormwood, is enthusiastic about all the diabolical possibilities it presents. But Screwtape, his infernal mentor, tries to calm him down: You say you are "delirious with joy" because the European humans have started another of their wars... For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul and it has gone to your head. Did the patient respond to some of your terror-pictures of the future? Did you work in some self-pitying pictures of a happy past some fine thrills in the pit of his stomach were there? You played your violin prettily, did you? Well, that's all very well, Wormwood, but remember duty comes before pleasure... Let us think therefore how to use, rather than how to enjoy this European war (Screwtape 29, 31).

After warning that wartime conditions may build up human souls as well as destroy them, Screwtape urges Wormwood to push his "patient" (as he calls the human) to one extreme or the other:

Consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them fast asleep. Other ages such as the present one are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them (Screwtape 40).

Screwtape goes on to apply this advice to Wormwood's assigned "patient":

Whichever side he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of the partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him into the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the "cause" and his [faith] is valued chiefly for the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of Pacifism. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades mean more to him than prayer and sacraments and charity, he is ours and the more "religious" on those terms the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here (Screwtape 42-43).

Wormwood tries to act on this advice, priding himself especially on how much hatred against the Germans he has engendered in the heart of his British "patient." But again, his hellish supervisor pours cold water on his enthusiasm (if one can do such a thing from where Screwtape resides), advising his junior devil not to concentrate the patient's malice on some distant target like the Nazis, but to stir up as much resentment and misunderstanding as possible with the people he actually comes into contact with every day his family, colleagues, and neighbors.

In the end Screwtape and his operative Wormwood fail, for the patient remains a believer and is killed in an air raid while in a state of grace. So it is Wormwood who ends up facing all the torments he was hoping to inflict on his "patient." The Screwtape Letters appeared serially during the early years of the war, doubling the circulation of the magazine in which they were published. When collected in book form in 1942, the letters became the first of Lewis's many best-selling works.

Screwtape's frequent reference to each tempted human as a "patient" sounds rather clinical, but actually Lewis borrows this concept from the Middle Ages. In The Discarded Image he explains that one of the most persistent habits of the medieval mind is what he calls the "Principle of the Triad," the sense that two things often need "some wire, some medium, some introducer, some bridge a third thing of some sort" in between them (43-44). Often this relationship of three may be defined as agent mean patient, one acting, one being acting upon by way of an intermediary. Between the king and the commons are the nobility; between reason and the appetites, sentiment; between God and humans, first Christ and then nine ranks of angels (74). In this view, humans are most often patients, acted upon by God, the means or instruments of divine agency. But, of course, Satan has his own agents like Screwtape and Wormwood, who seek to turn humans into a very different kind of patient.

For Lewis a key moral issue was not simply how we should act, but also whom we allow to act upon us. One of his favorite lines of poetry, which he quotes in That Hideous Strength, is from Charles Williams's Taliessen through Logres: "All lies in a passion of patience, my Lord's rule" (194). For Williams, as for Lewis, the patience referred to here is not just a willingness to let time pass, but a willingness to submit to divine agency, and to resist the malign influence other forces, those who would promise freedom to the Self as the means of ensuring its bondage.

Just as Lewis emphasized that war does not alter the fundamental challenges facing the human soul, he also stressed that a state of war does not radically alter the social conditions under which humans habitually live. At the outbreak of World War Two, there were those who questioned whether institutions of higher learning should remain open at all during this time of national crisis. Lewis was asked to speak in the autumn of 1939 concerning the place of the university during the conflict. His talk, delivered at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, has been become a classic on the subject. Called "Learning in Wartime," it has a great deal to say to those of us fortunate enough to pursue learning in peacetime.

Lewis began by posing the question that was on everyone's minds that day:

A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students you will be expected to start making yourselves into ... philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, and historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we indeed how can we continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns? (Weight 43).

Lewis explained first to his church audience that a similar question of priorities had already confronted them: "I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero is not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell" (43) If humans are, as Christians believe, advancing every moment to either heaven or hell, how can they spend any fraction of their time on comparative trivialities such as literature or art, mathematics or biology?" Lewis pointed out to his listeners that if they had already found justification to pursue their studies with such momentous questions hanging over them, then they had already gone a long way in validating the scholarly enterprise: "If human culture can stand up to that," he noted, "it can stand up to anything" (Weight 44).

Lewis went on to say that their present circumstances did not create such a novel predicament as they might assume:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would have never begun. We are mistaken when we compare war to "normal life." Life has never been normal. Even those periods we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They propound theorems in beleagured cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss poetry while advancing on the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature (Weight 44-45).

As can plainly be seen, Lewis greatly admired those who insisted on pursuing matters of the heart and spirit, even under conditions where basic survival could not be taken for granted. It should come as no surprise that his letters home from the trenches in World War I made little mention of conditions there or of his wounds, but are instead filled with literary opinions and urgent pleas to send books like The Mill on the Floss and, of all things, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (Sayer 72-73). And in the next war, Lewis wrote to his brother who was on active duty in France: "While waiting for the bus outside Magdalen [College]I saw a sight I'll bet you've never seen an undergraduate whom I know approaching with a live falcon on his wrist. It had a leather hood and was quite a gaily colored bird. Blessings on the man who while waiting to be called up for a first class European war is exclusively intent on restoring the ancient art of hawking." (Letters 329)

Such an attitude did not appear to Lewis as frivolous or escapist. As he explained further in "Learning in Wartime":

I believe our cause to be, as human causes go, very righteous, and I therefore believe it to be a duty to participate in this war. Thus we have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive sense live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering unto Caesar that which of all things most emphatically belongs to God: himself (Weight 47).

Lewis continues by arguing that for some the learned life is itself a duty as sacred as that of saving lives. He recognized that in a war like the one they were fighting, the battle was not only against powerful armies, but against the powerful ideas that had helped mobilized those armies. He said that even in wartime, "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." And he argued for history as well:

"We need an intimate knowledge of the past not because the past has anything magic about it but to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age" (Weight 50-51).

Lewis argued that the preservation of civilized ideals is an end in itself and needs no other justification: "One of the most dangerous errors is that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of the planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination and civilization in history books, only because sea and savagery are to us less interesting" (Rehabilitations 80).

Lewis defined civilization as "the realization of the human idea," going on to explain that "Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, and conversation are the end, and the propagation of the species merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes the potentiality for leisure, for amateurishness, which is man's prerogative:

Man is the only amateur animal; all others are professionals. They have no leisure and they do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating, she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing, she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping, she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for it they could speak they would all of them all day talk nothing but shop" (Rehabilitations 82-83).

Lewis ended his lecture "Learning in Wartime" by warning the young scholars in front of him about three dangers as they began their studies in the middle of a war. The first of these is excitement, the tendency to concentrate on what was happening in the war rather than upon their chosen studies. "There are always plenty of rivals to our work," he explains: "We are always falling in love, or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve knowledge are those who seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come" (Weight 51-52).

The second danger Lewis warned about is frustration, a feeling that we shall never find time to finish so might as well abandon the project. Lewis advises, "Never, in peace or in war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by those who take their long-term plans somewhat lightly and work from moment to moment To his church listeners, Lewis added, "It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received" (Weight 52).

The third danger is fear. War threatens us with death and pain. But Lewis says it is not really a question of life or death, "only a question of this death or that a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later." (Weight 53) How goes on to explain that war does not offer such a radical change in the human condition than we might at first suppose:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 percent of us die and the percentage cannot be increased. Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason that cancer at sixty or paralysis at 75 do not bother us is that we forget them. All schemes of happiness centered in this world were always doomed to final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows (Weight 53).

Lewis concluded his remarks on a note of enduring relevance for all those who believe that, in war or in peace, that the life of the mind must ultimately be rooted in the life of the spirit:

If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls at some times, the life of learning was in its own small way one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still" (Weight 53-54).


Letters of C. S. Lewis. Revised and Enlarged Edition, ed. by Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. "The Conditions for a Just War," in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970.

The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

"Learning in War-Time," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.

Letters to an American Lady, ed. by Clyde Kilby. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967.

"Our English Syllabus," in Rehabilitations and Other Essays London: Oxford University Press, 1939.

The Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1960.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955. Sayer, George. Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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David C. Downing "'The Torch of Civilization': C. S. Lewis on War and Peace." The Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal, Spring 1999.

Republished with permission of David C. Downing.

The Author

David C. Downing is Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 1999 David C. Downing

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