On C.S. Lewis and Anthroposophy

The Golden Blade, 1976, p. 95-97

Charles Davy’s article on Lewis reminds me that quite a number of English anthroposophists, impressed by some of his writings, have divined a perplexing link between them and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Parts of the planetary novels, some of his poems, the Abolition of Man, the Discarded Image may be cited as examples, and the knowledge that two or three of Lewis’s close and respected friends were deeply committed anthroposophists has played its part in strengthening the impression. It is an impression that is sharply contradicted by much else that Lewis wrote, for example on the subject of religion and of Christianity in particular, as well as by his explicitly detached and indeed hostile attitude to Anthroposophy itself as he understood it.

This last is, I feel, something Davy has understated. He writes: “Probably Lewis had heard from friends something of Rudolf Steiner’s account of the great sweep of evolution… but it was alien to him. He may have thought that for anyone to claim such far-ranging knowledge of Divine purposes was presumptuous folly. …” I would have put it much less cautiously. He had heard, and he did think.

To any anthroposophist, or anyone else who is sympathetically inclined to what I will call – loosely and for present purposes only – ‘that way of thinking’, I would offer the following advice. If you are anxious to make a fruitful contact with the mind of C. S. Lewis, reverse the natural order. Do not begin with the resemblances you find there to your own way of thinking, and then start worrying about the differences. Begin by assuming total divergence and then enjoy, appreciate and benefit by the unexpected resemblances. For the divergence goes much deeper than opinions; it goes to the very texture of Lewis’s thought.

This is not really a matter to be handled briefly, but two observations may help. It comes naturally to us to think of many, perhaps most things in a certain mode of thought for which the only possible name appears to be ‘polarity’; that is to say, of opposites which nevertheless interpenetrate each other, of antagonists who are nevertheless co-operating, and so on. That whole mode of thinking was entirely alien to Lewis’s temper. I am not sure that it was even intelligible to him; so that, if you tried to base any argument or description on it, he would assume you were merely bemusing yourself with sentences that had no meaning. It is inevitable that most of the great questions that have exercised the mind of man should strike differently upon a mind that thinks in that way and upon one that is unwilling or unable to do so: for example, the relation between light and darkness, between good and evil, between spirit and matter, between freedom and necessity, and one must add, I think, between life and death.

Again, anthroposophists and of course many others begin by assuming that human consciousness, and indeed the world in general, is in the process of evolution or development. Lewis emphatically repudiated this view; for instance in the essay “Historicism”, to be found in the volume Christian Reflections. And he went farther than most in doing so. Without being ‘historicists’ in general, many people, both within and without the Church, take it for granted that Christianity differs from other religions precisely because it is historical. But Lewis will have none of this, at least if the word “historical” is to be taken as smuggling in any notion of development in time. Again, it is the whole structure of his mind that is in issue. It is not simply an opinion about history. For if you examine Lewis’s writings as a whole, you will find extraordinarily few references to the notion of process, or development or growth, in any context – any number on the other hand to the notion of cause and effect. We understand its utterances best if we remain aware that the working of that mind, as apart from the imagination behind it, was somehow innately inorganic.

I have made two observations, but I think myself that at a deeper level they are one and the same. Or we can make them the base of a sort of surveyor’s triangle, directing us to a point still farther back that gives rise to both, and is probably not formulable in words at all. Either way, the more clearly we apprehend it, the less obstruction there will be to our enjoyment of Lewis and the more fruitful our contact with that richly furnished and very powerful mind of his, which has slashed through so many wishy-washy ‘modernisms’ in religion and elsewhere and rescued so many from inanity in doing so. It can be a very fruitful contact indeed. If for instance we are interested in self-knowledge, not only the lofty level of Gnothi seauton but also at the more humdrum and everyday one of eliminating minor self-deceptions – as we well may be, since world-wide Movements have been wrecked before now on persistent endeavours to cultivate the former without attending to the latter – then there is nourishing provender in plenty to be found in the Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, the Great Divorce and elsewhere.

But we shall also find ourselves freer and happier in our enjoyment of the other Lewis; not now the moralist and mordant Christian apologist, but the joyous delighter in myths and maker of them. We shall no longer bother ourselves too much about what he believed. Lewis held that imagination has nothing to do with knowledge. We hold that, although it is not knowledge, it is a step towards it and may develop into Inspiration and Intuition – with which he would have nothing to do. But the point is that he had imagination (which is not quite the same thing as talking about it) and with it a wonderfully firm intuition of the imaginal substance of myth and fantasy themselves.

We shall perhaps welcome this all the more warmly for its coming to us across the gulf of divergence. And if, in the skilful uses his fancy makes of a scholar’s acquaintance with some of the literature of Neoplatonism, we notice here and there a specially penetrating touch that is due to his having heard a little, and read less, of the wisdom of Rudolf Steiner – well, all the better.

Owen Barfield