Learning in Wartime
This week's blog post has been written by University Chaplain, Revd Dr Harriet Harris.
"A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or 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 should 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?"
C. S Lewis, ‘Learning in Wartime’, Autumn 1939
When Russia invaded Ukraine, in February 2022, a student from the University of Edinburgh abandoned their studies to go and fight, feeling the compulsion that defending against Putin’s aggression is what had to be done, and that working for a degree had lost relevance.
This is a dilemma that C. S. Lewis addresses in a sermon to students, ‘Learning in Wartime’, which he preached at the University Church in Oxford at the outbreak of World War Two.
Many of us will know C. S. Lewis best from his Chronicles of Narnia for children, and perhaps his Space Trilogy science fiction novels. Some will know him as a literary critic. And some will know him for his Christian broadcasts and writings, which he began to undertake during the Second World War.
Lewis had fought in the First World War, drafted during his studies in Oxford. He experienced trench warfare, wounding, the loss of close friends, depression, and homesickness, which, he stated, provided further bases for his then atheism. He returned to his studies after the war and went on to become a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. Under the influence of his friends, including JRR Tolkien, he also became, in his own words, a struggling, dejected and reluctant convert to Christianity.
He tried to re-enter military service in the Second World War, in order to instruct cadets, but was declined. During the War, he remained tutoring in Oxford, took in evacuees, accepted the invitation to make the radio broadcasts that became his well-known book Mere Christianity, and joined the Home Guard.
In his sermon ‘Learning in wartime’, Lewis asks how any of us can think it worthwhile to begin what we probably cannot finish, or to engage in tranquil or flippant activities when there is life-and-death urgency at hand.
This blog summarises his responses to this question, not as a substitute for reading the sermon itself (it is easily accessible online), but to provide ballast to the worthwhile nature of our continuing to learn, create, and do what we do, even when there’s a war on.
Lewis begins by pointing out that humanity is always facing crises in ways that war amplifies.
"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 never have begun."
He has in mind not only that we lurch from wars, to disasters, to tyrannies, but that we at all times have before us the question of our eternal destiny. It is part of our nature, he suggests, to create, reason, and laugh in the midst of pending disaster: to ‘propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb [our] hair at Thermopylae.’
"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 came."
It may seem frivolous and selfish to think of anything but the war, but it is not so. It may seem frivolous and selfish to think of anything but the salvation of souls, Lewis adds, but it is also not so. We may indeed have to die to save others, or die for our country and our freedom, but these are not what the whole of our lives are for. Moreover, if you ‘suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better….: if you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.’.
Let us not throw down our intellectual weapons just when they are most needed against our enemies: ‘Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.’
We also need knowledge of the past, and of other places, because otherwise we have nothing to set against our current situation.
What Lewis most wants to say to the students before him is: ‘do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is.’
He admits to his own nerves and emotions being rattled by the war, so he provides for himself and his students three mental exercises; ‘defenses against the three enemies which war raises up against the scholar.’
Three mental exercises against wartime enemies
The first enemy: ‘excitement – the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work.’ Favourable conditions never come for doing our scholarly work, Lewis says. Those who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it even when the conditions are unfavourable.
The second enemy: ‘frustration -- the feeling that we shall not have time to finish.’ It is ever so. The present is the only time in which any work can be done or any grace received. ‘Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man [sic] who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment "as to the Lord". It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.’
The third enemy: fear, because war threatens us with death and pain. Lewis does not encourage stoic indifference, but a very grounded reality. War does not increase the chance of death or even of painful death. He does not mention maiming, destruction, separation, starvation, rape, torture, but he welcomes the shattering of any illusions we might have had that humanity is building heaven on earth. We need to be disillusioned in order to be real. We can, however, continue to hold that for some people at some times the life of learning is in its own small way an appointed approach to Divine reality. And if we find ourselves for the time-being with the skills and resources to be in a place of learning, and are not called away from that, this is where we are to carry out our activities.
A note to all readers:
To support the Guerilla Peace for Ukraine initiative, and share solidarity, vigilance and hope for Ukraine, with others in Scotland and around the world, please visit the website and plant a sunflower on the map: