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C. S. Lewis on Why “School Stories” and Media Distortion Are a More Deceptive Fiction Than Fiction

“Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t,” Mark Twain reflected on the osmotic balance of truth and fiction, which has long fascinated famous authors.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis — he of great insight on the motives of duty and the secret of gaiety — articulates with extraordinary astuteness the counter-intuitive truth about fact vs. fiction, increasingly timely in today’s opinion culture where we need, more than ever, the critical thinking necessary for teasing apart agenda and opinion from truth.

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of Literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories*. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’ … To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author’s point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (what is harder) his belief.

* See Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, which seeks to teach children how to fight myth with science.


C. S. Lewis on the Secret of Happiness in a Letter to Child

“A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair.”

Although it may be a slim collection, C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children (public library | IndieBound) shines with the enormity of Lewis’s compassion and wisdom in responding to fan mail from his young readers, often imbuing his correspondence with a kind of subtle but profound advice on life, delivered unassumingly but full of wholehearted conviction.

Adding to his insight on duty and “the three things anyone need ever do” is this beautiful response to a boy named Hugh, who asked for a definition of “gaiety,” in a letter dated April 5, 1961.

A creature can never be a perfect being, but may be a perfect creature — e.g. a good angel or a good apple-tree. Gaiety at its highest may be an (intellectual) creature’s delighted recognition that its imperfection as a being may constitute part of its perfection as an element in the whole hierarchical order of creation. I mean, while it is a pity there sh[oul]d be bad men or bad dogs, part of the excellence of a good man is that he is not an angel, and of a good dog that it is not a man. This is the extension of what St. Paul says about the body & the members. A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair; and if it were conscious it w[oul]d delight in being simply a good toe-nail.

Half a century later, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown articulated a similar sentiment, making an eloquent case for the gifts of imperfection, and Alain de Botton cautioned us that these ideals we contort so hard to conform to may not even be our own. Perhaps at the end of the day “gaiety” is simply the ability to be our own imperfect being and fully inhabit its beingness.


C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy

“The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.”

C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy

“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former,” wrote the great French philosopher Simone Weil shortly before her untimely and patriotic death as she contemplated the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations. “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.” Nowhere do we muddle these two notions more liberally than in our treatment of democracy and its foundational principle of equality — a basic right to be conferred upon every human being, but also something the upkeep of which demands our active participation and contribution.

That’s what C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) examines in a superb 1943 essay titled “Equality,” originally published in The Spectator three days after Weil’s death and later included in Present Concerns (public library) — a posthumous anthology of Lewis’s timeless and timely journalistic essays.

C.S. Lewis (Photograph: John Chillingworth)
C.S. Lewis (Photograph: John Chillingworth)

A generation before Leonard Cohen contemplated democracy’s foibles and redemptions, Lewis writes at the peak of WWII as history’s deadliest and most unredeemable failure of democracy is sweeping Europe:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s notion of democracy as the “politics of the brokenhearted,” Lewis expands upon his counterintuitive case for equality:

I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent… Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.

In a passage of chilling poignancy and timeliness today, as we witness tyrants rise to power by playing to people’s craving for supremacy as a hedge against insecurity and fear, Lewis writes:

There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. That is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.

Just as true generosity lies in mastering the osmosis of giving and receiving, true equality, Lewis argues, requires the parallel desires to be honored and to honor. He writes:

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian.


Every intrusion of the spirit that says “I’m as good as you” into our personal and spiritual life is to be resisted just as jealously as every intrusion of bureaucracy or privilege into our politics. Hierarchy within can alone preserve egalitarianism without. Romantic attacks on democracy will come again. We shall never be safe unless we already understand in our hearts all that the anti-democrats can say, and have provided for it better than they.

Complement Present Concerns with Lewis on why we read, the essence of friendship, what it really means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, his ideal daily routine, and the key to authenticity in writing, then revisit Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy.


C.S. Lewis on Why We Read

How great books both change us and make us more ourselves.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her gorgeous contemplation of why we read. A century earlier, Kafka asserted in a memorable letter to his childhood friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Indeed, the question of what books do for the human soul and spirit stretches from ancient meditations to contemporary theories about the four psychological functions of reading. But hardly anyone has articulated the enchantment of literature more succinctly yet beautifully than C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963), a man deeply invested in the authenticity of the written word.

In his 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism (public library), he considers literatures’s immense power to expand our inner worlds:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

In broadening our individual reality, Lewis argues, great books also manage to contain and console our most overwhelming emotions:

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Complement with Lewis on true friendship, what it really means to have free will, his ideal daily routine, and the secret of happiness.

Thanks, Terry


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