Learning in War-Time
A sermon preached by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) at Oxford in 1939 at the
commencement of World War II
(Lewis offers his thoughts on the pursuit of education and culture in
times of warfare and national crisis from a profoundly Christian perspective.)
". . . I think it important to try to see the present calamity in
a true perspective. The [terrorism] 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 [people] had postponed the search for knowledge
and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.
We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life
has never been normal. Even those periods which 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 wanted
knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that
never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly,
the Funeral Oration. The insects have "chosen" a different line:
they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive,
and presumably they have their reward. [People] are different. They propound
mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments
in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem
while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.
This is not panache: it is our nature. . . .
[Terrorism] makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded
as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They
thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined
to think they were right. All the animal
life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were
always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise [person]
can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the
sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come
to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture,
they are now shattered. 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, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered
to God, 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."