By Paul T. Corrigan, Ph.D.
Originally appearing digitally on The Writing Campus.
Errors in writing may irk and confuse readers, imply ignorance or negligence on behalf of the author, and have unintended consequences in the real world. For these reasons, many teachers feel compelled to try to “cure” students’ writing of errors, often by prescribing heavy doses of red ink. I am grateful for the thankless efforts these teachers make to help students become clearer, more accurate writers. But I bear bad news. There is no cure for errors in student writing. We need to be absolutely clear on this. Short of not writing, students will continue to err, no matter what we do.
But—let me hasten to add—this bad news is also the good news. When we abandon the notion that there is or should be a way to stop students from misspelling words and misplacing commas, we can move past the frustration we may feel and the frustration-based teaching strategies we may resort to upon encountering the thousandth error in a stack of student writing. When we accept with Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsfordthat “mistakes are a fact of life” and “a necessary accompaniment to learning,” we can adopt a balanced, developmental approach to promoting accuracy and precision in student writing.
For just such an approach, I propose the following principles and practices for thinking about and working with errors in student writing for teachers of writing, both in composition and in the disciplines. These recommendations stem from my experience teaching writing, from conversations I’ve had with others who use or teach writing in their courses, and from a good bit of reading on writing pedagogy. (For those wanting to read further on handling error, I particularly suggest Nancy Sommers’s fine book Responding to Student Writers, John Bean’s excellent chapter on “Dealing with Issues of Grammar and Correctness,” and Joseph M. Williams’s classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error.”)
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The Dawn of the Modernist Antihero:
An Existential Analysis of Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
By Sarah Dunlap
Out of the darkness of post-WWI American society’s disillusionment, the Modernist antihero arose to challenge the idealistic values embodied in the traditional hero archetype. Although Romantic heroes like Heathcliff and Victor Frankenstein laid the groundwork for society’s acceptance of the Modernist antihero, the antihero motif only gained success after World War I, which rendered American society skeptical of human morality. Consequently, society turned to the antihero to fulfill their craving for a realistic human hero, one capable of achieving goodness but flawed, such as any human being. To fulfill this desire, the writers of the mid-twentieth century replaced the hero archetype with the Modernist antihero, as exemplified by Hemingway’s characters Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, 1 who symbolize American society’s questioning of traditional heroic qualities and their own existential individuality. In Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes subverts society’s constructs and standards through his despair, solipsism, multifaceted sickness, and emasculation and, thereby, enters the realm of the antiheroic.
THE SOCIOPOLITICAL CLIMATE OF THE MODERNIST ANTIHERO
Following World War I, the “sense of psychic bafement and of esthetic barrenness” that each war-torn country experienced varied in severity; however, renowned poet and critic Louise Bogan argues in her essay “Modernism in American Literature” that American society felt the post-war disillusionment greatest of all (99). Society’s bleak outlook led many American writers, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Dos Passos, to adopt in their writing the existential attitude frst proposed by Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Although they were not philosophical thinkers of the same vein as Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, American authors created the existential novel by the late 1940s, which motivated the French existential thinkers Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir to embrace the novel as a valid vehicle for conveying their ideas (Bruneau 66, 67). Satre and de Beauvoir adopted this American convention, as evident in Satre’s Nausea and de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, because such novels, according to de Beauvoir, reconcile the “objective and the subjective, the absolute and the relative, the timeless and the historical” with “the primordial gushing-forth of life in all its concrete, particular and temporal verity” (qtd. in Bruneau 66). As a direct result of this blending of novel and philosophy, the existential novelists, both American and French, created protagonists whose “existence is no longer a life, but a fate” (Bruneau 67). Te attitude toward human existence became, as Faulkner articulates in Te Sound and the Fury, that of anguish due to indeterminate, uncontrollable fate—“humankind is a problem of impure properties carried tediously to an unvarying nil: the stalemate of dust and desire” (119). Tus, as American authors grew increasingly discontent with the outward illusion of optimism and the inward feelings of disenchantment, these writers developed the existential “hero”—aimless, morally bankrupt characters—to complete their existential novels. 2
CHARACTERISTICS OF AN EXISTENTIAL BEING
Facticity. Te concept of facticity, or one’s external view of his or her factual self, forms the core of existential philosophy. Since both past and present selves guide this third-party view of self, the choices that one made in the past dictate one’s present state of being, and they formulate one’s identity (Crowell). In any present moment, one is—that is, exists—but that existence is always understood in light of one’s past. Consequently, in that present moment, individuals are not truly being because that present existence depends upon the past. In a reversal of sorts, if an individual’s present circumstances are unstable, his or her past can shif, and as selfood is tied to past existence, then one’s present existence is also unstable (Crowell). 3
Authenticity. While facticity seeks to illuminate one’s sense of identity as connected to the past and present, authenticity explores what one is “supposed to be”—the awareness that one must create his or her “manner of being a self ” (Crowell). In creating self, the individual has the choice to strive for a unique, truly authentic self or a self that is a replica of society’s standards. 4 However, if one chooses to allow society to shape one’s being, then the individual denies authenticity and its subsequent freedoms (Crowell). Instead, one merely performs an inauthentic lifestyle.
Angst. Amid one’s choice of self, angst and dread arise. According to the thinking of Heidegger and Satre, angst, or anxiety, is a mood into which one falls in accompaniment with self-understanding and an awareness of individual freedom (Crowell). While one may fall into such a mood, his or her anxiety signifies the individual’s freedom, albeit rooted in an “existential solipsism,” as Heidegger poses (Crowell). While choices of freed authenticity may lead to angst, when in a state of anxiety, one loses one’s sense of self as tied to the world and that which is practical and moral. Separated from his or her factic self, the individual is released from any roles and practices that are societal constructs, and rather than possessing an external facticity, the individual sees himself or herself in the first-person. Thus, the individual achieves transcendence, or “goes beyond what simply is toward what can be,” and obtains freedom (Crowell). 5
Dread. However, due to an individual’s deep connection to human society, particularly established as a child through parental rearing, a newly freed being experiences dread for his or her existence, which exists within the fallout between the socially conditioned self and the freed self. Due to this crisis and resulting dread, the freed individual views existence in terms of nothingness, and society’s roles and practices become absurd (Crowell). Such a recognition of self and society leads to existential despair, which, unlike psychology’s denotation, is a constant feeling, much like an itch. Even when the freed individual feels happy, despair looms in the background, posing the question “So what?” constantly.
Self-definition. If one chooses to transcend what is, his or her project becomes self- definition, which may take on different forms including the withdrawal into self or the desire to aid society, as seen in many antiheroes. Trough the project, the person alone, apart from any other entity, must make choices concerning his or her morality and mode of existence. Te individual can behave however he or she chooses, and thus, no universal moral code exists; rather, a personal moral code exists within each being (de Beauvoir). 49 Thus, existence becomes subjective, and ethics become ambiguous. However, understanding one’s fundamental project, or basic existential choices, “gives shape to an individual life” (Crowell). 6 Yet, the self-reflective process necessary for understanding one’s project becomes uncertain when angst and dread arise in the individual.
Solipsism. A direct side-effect of anxiety and despair is solipsism. While solipsism can vary in form, ranging from arrogant self-absorption to alienation, the form that is relevant to the study of existential antiheroes is that which results in the freed, self-recognizing individual retreating into himself or herself due to the anxiety surrounding their present freedom. According to Heidegger’s thinking, this retreat “yields the existential figure of the outsider, the isolated one who ‘sees through’ the phoniness of those who […] live their lives complacently identifying with their roles as though these roles thoroughly defined them” (Crowell). Consequently, the realized individual becomes “the socially marginal other in relation to their own society” (McCallum 100). However, the social marginality is self-imposed due to their existential, self-identifying choice.
STAGES OF EXISTENTIAL DEVELOPMENT
Although scholars typically view the ideas of existentialism discussed above as interconnected concepts, in the modernist antihero they function as quasi-stages in the develop of the character’s self-identity. Because an antihero’s life, spanning from birth to death, is rarely covered in entirety in a work of literature, most often it begins at the inception of the antihero’s project—he or she realizes that their factic self is wanting and, in response, the antihero chooses to live authentically, pushing against the grain of society and producing dread within his or her self, which affects the morals of the project. Although threads of this existential progression can be observed in Romantic antiheroes like Heathcliff, 7 the stages are most visible in the Modernist antiheroes, particularly in the character of Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s famous Lost Generation expatriate whose emasculated facticity leads to his existential attitude. When read through the lens of existentialism, the war represents Jake’s unrealized self. Te end of the war implies that he has realized his freedom; but his castration, a direct effect and constant reminder of the war, signifies that, while he is free, he has entered a state of despair with its subsequent feeling of nothingness.
He realizes that despite his newly found freedom, he can never contribute anything of value to society because he does not align with its construct of masculinity. In this, his factic confusion and despair, Jake becomes the ideal existential antihero, one filled with the uncertainty and moral questioning of his generation, within and without the text.
JAKE’S FACTICITY & INAUTHENTICITY
Just as facticity forms the core of existential thought, so too it comprises the bulk of Jake’s existential struggle. While Jake recognizes his inner freedom as the events of the novel unravel, his traumatic past, the inextricable dictator of his self, leaves him with an unstable facticity and renders him unable to exist and function in society. Jake’s understanding of masculinity, a strong factor in his facticity, is linked to his past—in the way his parents raised him, for example—and thus, when his impotence prevents him from fulfilling the traditional masculine role, Jake’s facticity is shaken. While he cannot create a self that replicates society’s ideal man, he desires to, and therefore, he performs an inauthentic lifestyle. When readers meet Jake, he is in a state of factic confusion: he lives an inauthentic life but desires freedom—the freedom he already realized. 8
Jake’s despair, incited by his unstable facticity and inauthentic existence, renders him aimless in both life and social purpose. While he holds a job as a newspaper writer, and even finds the work enjoyable, Jake feels the absurdity of his existence and the phoniness of society thoroughly when apart from his work. Readers first come to understand Jake’s despair in the third chapter when he and the prostitute Georgette discuss the war. After drinking Pernod and two bottles of wine, Georgette asks Jake how he acquired his sickness, to which he only ofters, “I got hurt in the war” (Hemingway 24). Jake drops the topic of the war, when Georgette refers to it as the “dirty war,” yet he notes to himself that, had their conversation continued, they would have “agreed that it was in reality a calamity for civilization” (Hemingway 24). To Georgette, who felt the effects of the war but lacks firsthand experience with the devastation, the war is an annoyance, an unfair aspect of life. However, to Jake, who lived amid the devastation and was castrated by it, the war is an end-all—the destroyer of “normal” human life and society. If a single war can destroy everything Jake assumed to be constant, then in his eyes, society’s constructs are absurd and life is nothingness.
Jake’s despair is further evidenced in his apathetic behavior. When Jake socializes with his friends, such as at lunch with Robert Cohn or at a Pamplona bar with Bill Gorton, he yields to the wills of his partners with little resistance. While drinking together one afternoon, Cohn begs Jake to go to South America with him, saying that “All my life I’ve wanted to go on a trip like that” (Hemingway 17). Jake states that he has no desire to go to South America because such a trip is “too expensive” and that he like Paris better (Hemingway 17–18). And after a little more begging from Cohn, the trip proposal ends inconclusively. However, six chapters later, without any further discussion about the trip, Cohn writes to Jake, holding him “to the fishing-trip in Spain we had talked about last winter” (Hemingway 75). While Cohn’s persistence on a trip overall remains, the destination and Jake’s will to refuse do not. Just after Cohn’s letter, again without further discussion, readers see Jake arranging for his secretary to be in charge of his work when he “shoves of to Spain the end of June” with Bill Gorton and a plan to meet up with Cohn (Hemingway 75). Similarly, while Cohn is begging Jake to travel to South America with him, Jake devises a plan to get rid of Cohn so that he can return to work. Jake notes to readers that taking friends who visit his office down to the café for a drink is “the best way to get rid of [them] […] Once you had a drink all you had to say was: ‘Well, I’ve got to get back and get some cables of,’ and it was done” (Hemingway 19). But as Jake pulls his trick on Cohn, Cohn asks if he can “come up and sit around the office,” and to readers’ surprise, Jake welcomes him up without hesitation (Hemingway 20). But the prime example of Jake’s apathy arises in his alcoholism. 9 Near the end of the novel, when Jake is overwhelmed with his present company of friends, he tells Bill that he feels “low as hell” (Hemingway 225). To solve Jake’s “damn depression,” Bill suggests he drink more absinthe. Although Jake tells Bill that he feels “like hell” after every drink he consumes and that absinthe “won’t do any good,” Bill offers Jake round after round of absinthe, and Jake accepts each one until he becomes “drunker than I ever remembered having been” (Hemingway 225–26). While Jake’s indifferent behavior, seen in his social interactions and alcoholism, is inconceivable for some, it is fitting for his view of existence.
Due to his despair and weak will, Jake errs toward a solipsistic view of society. 10 As a traumatized intellectual alive and struggling for existence in the expat society of post-WWI, Jake is a member of the “Lost Generation,” although he prefers to float on the outer. 11 Because the Lost Generation and its café society lifestyle cannot reasonably support the inconsistencies of the dominant culture, its members create their own society, as evident in the relationship between characters like Jake, Brett, Mike, and Cohn, among others. As scholar Sara Lennox explains, the post-WWI artist-intellectuals find acceptance and affirmation “only in the small group of the similarly disaffected, those whom Brett might describe as ‘one of them’” (83). 12 However, despite the acceptance that the society of the Lost Generation provides for some, for others like Jake, they still “feel their isolation and alienation keenly” (Lennox 83). Consequently, Jake thrives, or feels most existentially present, when in solitude and suffers, or feels society’s phoniness most acutely, when in social settings.
In Chapter Tree, after Cohn leaves, Jake ventures into a dancing club “in the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève” (Hemingway 27). There, he encounters Robert Cohn once again, and Cohn noticing that Jake is out of sorts, asks him what the matter is. Jake replies, “This whole show makes me sick is all” (Hemingway 29). This nausea is induced by his generation’s behavior, which includes his friends’, and even his own, actions. As Jake discovers in Pamplona, his friends’ obsession with alcohol, money, antagonism, and sex disgusts him. Just as the horde of the Lost Generation expats in the Parisian bar sickens him, spending extended periods of time in the company of his friends sickens him as well. In a few of his reactions to his friends’ reckless behavior, Jake states that he hates Robert Cohn and initiates a fist-fight with him; he becomes frustrated with Brett’s sexual promiscuity, 13 although he internalizes this feeling; and he grows annoyed with Mike’s constant requests for loans, quipping, “the hell you did” when Mike announces his newest debt (Hemingway 186, 193; 187; 192, 195). Although his sickness results from the behavior of many people in his circle, he takes pleasure in seeing others verbally hurt Cohn specifically, presumably as a sort of emotional release. Jake admits that when socializing with his friends, he “[likes] to see [Mike] hurt Cohn,” but he wishes Mike wouldn’t because “afterward it made me disgusted at myself ” (Hemingway 153). And when their behavior seems too much “like some bad play,” he damns his friends and his generation—Cohn, Mike, Brett, and even the whole population of women (Hemingway 153, 193, 195).
While Jake experiences this sickened response to his friends’ behavior, the end result is internal withdrawal. When the group’s Pamplona vacation climaxes with Jake and Cohn’s fight, a feeling of heaviness—as if he is carrying a “phantom suitcase” filled with his “football things”—overwhelms Jake (Hemingway 195–96). This sensation continues until he is truly isolated: alone and asleep in his room (Hemingway 198). As Lennox notes, “In the world of Te Sun Also Rises a certain human satisfaction may be gained in retreat from human society” (Lennox 84). Thus, the only solution to Jake’s sickness becomes withdrawal into himself, into that “existential solipsism” about which Heidegger writes.
While a select group of like-minded individuals only deepens Jake’s solipsism, Lennox points out that many isolated individuals, like Jake, find salvation in romantic love—“the union of two autonomous individuals for the purpose of exploring together their possibilities for subjective growth” (Lennox 83). Yet, such love, with its sexual component, is an impossible solution for the physically sick, the impotent, Jake, and therefore, the idea of a relationship with Lady Ashley, the woman he loves, also sickens him. To save himself from the pain that is his love for Brett and the isolation that is Brett’s rejection of his love, Jake further withdraws inside himself, as evidenced when he damns Brett and women as a whole (Hemingway 153). Thus, because the society of his generation, the society of his personal friends, and the love of one woman sickens him, Jake willing enters into solipsistic isolation, which deepens with each additional level of human connection that he rejects.
Beyond inciting Jake’s solipsism, this motif of sickness is essential in understanding Jake’s self-defining project and overarching antiheroism. Tree levels of the motif exist: The first is Jake’s impotence. On the large scale, the war castrated Jake—it claimed his manhood and rendered him useless in the eyes of society and, as he is conditioned by society’s traditional gender constructs, his own facticity. On the second level, which deals with the whole of society and the select society of his peers, Jake finds the collision of disillusioned minds and false façades nauseating, as discussed previously. The third level is Jake’s disgust with his own self. Upon realizing the pleasure he derives from his friends’ pain, particularly Mike’s abuse of Cohn, Jake explains that “it made me disgusted at myself ” (Hemingway 153).
As his logical next step in his self-directed disgust, Jake becomes aware of his moral code, saying, “that was morality; things that made you disgusted afterwards. No, that must be immorality” (Hemingway 153). Through his sickness, both physical and emotional, Jake realizes his conflicted selfhood and morality, which positions him closer to defining his life project but also closer to antiheroism.
Despite Jake’s flaws, he possesses a certain vision that distinguishes him from his peers but enables him to function amid the phoniness of society and the recklessness of his Lost Generation. While Bill, Brett, Cohn, Mike, and his other peers are disillusioned and obsessed with sex, alcohol, and money, Jake “is more stable emotionally and more pragmatic than his coterie of reckless people” due to his work, his passion for sports, and his concern for his close friends (Neimneh 83). When he psychologically deteriorates in social settings, Jake understands that he can regain balance by engaging in one or all of these areas. 14
First, Hemingway contrasts Jake’s apathy when in society with his sense of use when working. Te morning following the chaotic night at the dancing club, Jake wakes up and walks to the Boulevard des Capucines where his office is located. On his walk, Jake confesses his pleasure for such a simple yet meaningful task, as well as his connection to the professional members of society. His consistent use of descriptive adjectives like “fine” and “pleasant” convey his unusually optimist attitude: “It was a fine morning…All along [the sidewalk] people were going to work. It felt pleasant to be going to work” (Hemingway 44). While the Lost Generation, which Jake’s age, trauma, and existential questioning assigns him to, sickens him, Jake is motivated and spirited when linked to traditional society by a shared purposed.
Moreover, Jake finds a model for his personal purpose in sports, particularly bull-fighting. Jake’s fascination with bull-fighting stems from the intense focus of the bulls, which inspires a drive within himself. While watching a bull-fight, Jake observes the bull’s sense of purpose despite distraction: “[Te bull] charged straight for the steers and two men ran out from behind the planks and shouted, to turn him. He did not change his direction and the men shouted… and waved their arms…and the bull drove into one of the steers” (Hemingway 144). Te bulls also attract Jake’s fascination because the fights symbolize Jake’s masculine predicament. In a bull-fight, the steers, castrated bulls, represent Jake, a castrated male, and thus he is the object of the virile male’s destruction, as pictured by the bull.
By observing the bull-fights and analyzing the bulls’ methods for achieving their purpose, Jake believes that despite his injury, he can mimic their tactics and, therefore, gain the appearance of a healthy, physically whole male.
Beyond the bulls’ drive, Jake also observes the devotion of the fighters, such as Pedro Romero. Jake admires the bull-fighters’ aficion, or passion, and he himself becomes an aficionado, much to the fighters’ surprise and Montoya’s delight (Hemingway 136). As Shadi Niemneh suggests, Jake regards the bull-fighter’s mission—“honestly risking one’s life as the bullfighter does in the ring without trying to evade what might become”—as “an avenue for heroism” (84). Within this mission, Jake observes purpose, order, bravery, earnestness, self-control, and integrity, all the qualities which he believes to be traditionally male and “untouched by the destruction…left after the war” (Neimneh 84). Thus, to Jake, the solution to his self-defining project is heroism and determinism through the model of the bull-fighters and the bulls.
Despite possessing this respectable vision, Jake Barnes still remains antiheroic, albeit largely due to the war. As Neimneh rightly asserts, Jake is an unfortunate “product of the wasteland of modernity [….] Such a sick world robs men of their masculinity and, by contrast, demoralizes women” (Neimneh 85). In terms of his existential project, Jake’s castration, which includes the psychological and physical deprivation, arouses dread within him. According to Freud’s theory of trauma and the uncanny, even the threat of being castrated “excites a peculiarly violent and obscure emotion” (Freud 7). If this is true, then the actual act of castration is devastating to Jake’s existential project, preventing him from arriving at self-identity. Furthermore, the three levels of Jake’s sickness deny him the chance to be a true hero: he is physically fawed; he breaks society’s social codes regarding human connection; and he lacks identity. He is physically, humanly, mentally, and spiritually antiheroic. While some of the aspects that comprise Jake’s antiheroism are beyond his control, his despair, his solipsism, his multifaceted sickness, and his emasculation position Jake well into the realm of antiheroic. As long as he is sick, disillusioned, questioning, and emasculated, Jake cannot attain traditional heroism. Yet, should Jake take hold of his long searched for path to self-realization and existential freedom, transcending his circumstances and his society, the possibility of redemption is very much alive in Jake.
But, as Jake and Brett drive away, thinking of what their future together could have been, the question that lingers is will Jake become the uncommon hero or remain the antihero?
1 Just as Jake Barnes is the paradigm of the Modernist antihero, Lady Brett Ashley is the paradigm of the Modernist antiheroine. Likewise, as Jake embodies the ideology of masculine existential philosophy, such as put forth by Jean-Paul Satre, Brett embodies that of feminine existential philosophy, as defined by Simone de Beauvoir. Throughout this article, endnotes concerning Lady Ashley and the thoughts of de Beauvoir, will accompany the discussion of Jake Barnes and the masculine approach to existentialism.
2 Many women who were discontent with their limited state during this period believed that they must conform to the behavior of their male counterparts in order to exist fully. Due to this, such females who adopted male behavior were recognized by society as transgressive or deviant, meaning that they violated the traditional female role. As Herman Rapaport explains, “how women are expected to dress, in what they are expected to be educated, how they are expected to function as wives, mothers, workers are all predicated on assumptions about what a woman is supposed to be in terms of social roles” (47). When these transgressive females appear in literature, they become antiheroines because, while readers may empathize with them, they do not fulfill the mold of an orthodox heroine.
3 Because the traditional female role came into question during WWI, destabilizing society’s definition of femininity and women’s facticity, much of the literature from this era presents a complicated view of women. Although the female role was beginning to change, critic David Simmons states that “the novel remained predominantly masculine . . . [because] the counterculture was predominantly white and male” (Simmons 17). The women that are portrayed are overwhelmingly hysterical and insane or overtly masculine. These overtly masculine females enter the realm of antiheroic because they contradict the traditional view of women as hysterical, controlling, and un-intellectual representatives of confining domesticity. Through these extreme portrayals of women, an interesting discourse on patriarchy’s fears regarding women during this modern era, arises and is usefully analyzed through de Beauvoir’s feminist existentialism, which like the masculine existentialism was gaining a presence during the post-WWI era.
4 In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway is meticulous about clearly conveying society’s confusion and concerns toward gender roles. Upon the first reading of Lady Brett Ashley, readers will notice immediately, though superficially, that she rejects the social norms for women because of her physical appearance and the manner in which she constructs her persona. When Lady Ashley enters the plot structure for the first time, Jake refers to her only as Brett—“With them was Brett” (Hemingway 28). If Hemingway had ended the thought with those words, readers would assume Brett to be male However, to clarify, he adds a sentence of social and symbolic significance: “She looked very lovely” (Hemingway 28). From those words, readers understand that Brett is female, and moreover, one to whom Jake is attracted. Thus, the immediate impression of Lady Brett Ashley is one of gender ambiguity—she is female but her name, and the circumstances of her entrance, implies her tendency to adopt masculine behavior for the purpose of equality.
5 Like her existential male counterparts, de Beauvoir’s feminist existentialism holds the view that human individuals, both male and female, are free. They have the choice to recognize their self-identity on their own terms, leading to their freedom of self, or to understand their identity through societal terms, leading to an inauthentic life. However, in their freedom, individuals are divided into two parts: facticity and freedom. Te factic division of a person, which recognizes one’s ties to society—their learned morality, their gender, their race, etc.— constrains freedom by influencing, or even dictating, the manner in which the individual must behave. However, the freed division of an individual is subjective and deep within the being.
6 For women, trapped in patriarchal society, the concrete ends become their own bodies. According to de Beauvoir’s theory, women are Others in the patriarchal world, and thus can never attain true freedom. In order to be recognized as equal, which is different than same, she must adopt the ways of men (Bergofen). However, this choice, which is a concrete project, limits her freedom, because she must define her existence in accordance with other human beings, particularly men; whereas, men are free to define themselves in a solipsistic way (Bergofen). Nevertheless, de Beauvoir asserts that women are complicitous in this situation. Women feel a bond to human beings innately, while men feel no such allegiance (Bergofen). When women respond to this sense of unity, they limit their freedom as well. Either choice—conformity or suppression—results in the female’s loss of absolute freedom, according to de Beauvoir. However, by appealing to others to join in the female project for justice, women “validate [themselves] and [their] values” (Bergofen). De Beauvoir explains, “When this happens, I must recognize the other’s freedom and affirm the bond of humanity that ties us to each other (qtd. in Bergofen). In this understanding, women are able to reject the need to conform to patriarchy in order to exist and accept their proclivity for the human bond, thus becoming truly free as their male counterparts. In existential philosophy, revenge becomes a historical moment because although it occurs in the present, it is tied to a past experience. As long as the individual seeks revenge, the stage before the action of revenge is completed, he or she is chained to a past moment, and thus, the individual is not free; they exist in the absurd. However, while a revenge-seeking individual may believe that he or she will be free once the project of revenge is complete, one is haunted by the consequences of their project and, therefore, are not free, just as when they sought revenge. Because Heathcliff’s existence is chained to revenge, he exists inauthentically. While he seeks revenge, he denies freedom, and when he completes his revenge, he is haunted by its consequences, and thus, drifts in the chasm between past and present. In this, and in his solipsism and despair, Heathcliff exhibits the quasi-stages of existentialism.
8 Like Jake, Lady Ashley is also factically confused. However, her confusion manifests in her gender performativity. Lady Ashley adopts certain behavior that is traditionally masculine, such as alcoholism and dress, and rejects the conventional feminine regard for marriage and love. She adopts these behaviors to promote her equal status with her male peers, but she maintains a childlike Other view of herself, which self-negates any equality.
9 The first form of masculine behavior that Lady Ashley models, in order to participate as an equal within male society, is that of alcoholism. As Robert Penn Warren once noted, through the characters’ actions and dialogue, Hemingway creates a “secret community” of individuals “‘who have resigned from the general community, and who are strong enough to live without any of the illusions, lies, and big words of the herd’” (qtd. in Crowley 45). Te most notable aspect, and the initiation rite, of his “secret community” is alcohol, or one’s ability to consume incredible amounts of alcohol and remain only “a little drunk…just enough to be careless” (Hemingway 29). Because the secret community, which is composed entirely of males, forms around alcohol, Lady Ashley must likewise become an alcoholic in order to be accepted into the group. Consequently, she is known by all to be an alcoholic so much so that when she appears sober, Jake inquires, “Why aren’t you tight?” (Hemingway 29). In reply, she announces her resolution to change her alcoholic ways, but in the same breath, she orders herself another drink: “Never going to get tight any more. I say, give a chap a brandy and soda” (Hemingway 29). As the tale progresses, readers come to understand that Lady Ashley not only uses alcohol to establish her equality with men, but also to numb the dissonance that she feels over her conflicted gender performativity.
10 While Jake’s alienated sense of solipsism drives him to reject the people who comprise society, Lady Ashley rejects society’s traditional institutions, namely love and marriage. In the fourth chapter of The Sun Also Rises, while the two circle around their love for one another, Jake states that he finds love to be an enjoyable feeling, yet Lady Ashley declares it to be “hell on earth” (Hemingway 35). Lady Ashley experiences love as a burden because she recognizes that it limits her freedom. In feminist existential terms, Lady Ashley desires her project, the concrete ends that measure her existence, to be a relationship with Jake Barnes. However, as a realized being, she sees the futility in a relationship with Jake. Besides the limitations resulting from Jake’s impotence, Lady Ashley recognizes that the patriarchy tied to a traditional relationship will limit her inner freedom—her ability to construct her own moral code and to find her existence apart from any other human being. Thus, she avoids such a relationship with Jake, although she loves him and desires to be near him.
11 One of the epigrams that accompany the novel is Gertrude Stein’s quote, “You are all a lost generation,” which is followed by a verse from Ecclesiastes. As scholar Shadi Neimneh suggests, these epigrams reveals the novel’s commentary “on an entire generation destroyed by war” (Neimneh 83). This term, like T.S. Eliot’s hollow men, reveal the condition of modernity’s culture and society. Those like Jake and his peers were lost to “the futility of sex, alcohol, and violence” (Neimneh 83).
12 Beyond her alcoholism, Brett uses her physical appearance to gain equality with her male counterparts. When Jake notices Lady Ashley enter the bar, he notes that “Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s” (Hemingway 30). Although she dons a skirt, which is traditionally feminine, she chooses one in a more masculine fabric. Furthermore, although Hemingway notes the care that Lady Ashley takes with her hair—“her hair was brushed back”—he also notes that it is cut “like a boy’s” (Hemingway 30). A few chapters later, Brett wears a men’s felt hat, which she pulls down over her eyes (Hemingway 35). Moreover, to emphasize her masculine appearance, Lady Ashley refers to herself as “chap” when in the company of Jake and his friends (Hemingway 29). Tis comparison of Lady Ashley to a boy suggests de Beauvoir’s theory that women, when understood as the Other, revert to the “metaphysically privileged world of the child,” meaning that as children are dependent on their parents to make choices for them, women rely on men to make moral decisions for them. For children, the “world is neither alienating nor stifling for they are too young to assume the responsibilities of freedom” (Bergofen). Likewise, the unrealized woman returns to this mystified state, where she is free from the anxieties of the world. Thus, when Jake describes Lady Ashley’s appearance in terms of a child, his view of Brett as a woman dependent upon men becomes evident. Furthermore, Lady Ashley’s complicity in this view of herself as childlike Other is evident in her choice to wear clothing that showcase her figure. As Jake describes Lady Ashley’s appearance when she enters the bar, he comments that “she was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey” (Hemingway 30). While choice of attire is a woman’s own, Lady Ashley allows her choice to be influenced by patriarchy, or rather her desire to be accepted as an equal with the men who perpetuate patriarchy. Lady Ashley uses her Otherness to convince Jake and the other men to accept her into their group. However, their acceptance does not signify her equality. When she taps into her sexuality, she confirms her role as Other, and blinded by her sexuality, the men never accept her as equal.
13 Throughout the novel, Lady Ashley explores her unrealized project. Rather than committing to one relationship, Brett jumps from one romantic partner to the next in order to preserve her individuality. Breaking society’s proprietary rules means nothing to her because she believes that these actions will lead to her inner freedom. However, her continual search for relationships with men to fulfill her sexual desires only perpetuates her state of unrealized freedom. Yet, through Lady Ashley’s anxiety-filled state of project exploration, Hemingway seeks to prove that a free, or almost free, as in Lady Ashley’s case, project-exploring woman is a danger to men. Her masculinity and self-constructed moral code, which does not align with society’s, emasculates the men with whom she is involved, as seen in Jake and Pedro Romero. Her exploration, which renders her continually unsatisfied, destroys their potential to function within society.
14 Sadly, however, Lady Ashley does not experience this vision that Jake possesses. Rather than fnding purpose or assurance in certain activities or friendships, she attempts to gain fulfllment through romantic relationships, yet those inevitably fail each time. Consequently, Brett becomes a dangerous woman, meaning that her confused facticity hurts those around her, which is most evident in her relationships with Jake Barnes and Pedro Romero. First, because Lady Ashley refuses to commit to Jake due to his impotence and her desire for freedom, she reduces him to a state of gender ambiguity. He becomes masculine only through his outward performativity, like Brett herself. Moreover, although Pedro Romero loves her, her masculinity and unorthodox moral code threatens his traditional nature and potential to be a great bull fighter. In the beginning of Brett’s relationship with Pedro, she is radiant and happy with a sense of fulfillment now that she has someone to take care of (Hemingway 210). However, when Jake meets her in Barcelona following the fight, she admits that she made Pedro leave her. As she tells Jake about the disintegration of her relationship with Pedro, she reveals that he was ashamed of her. Because she did not adhere to the female mold, Pedro’s friends “ragged him about me at the café,” Brett notes (Hemingway 245). As a result, Pedro attempts to make Lady Ashley more “womanly,” asking her to grow her hair out and to marry him so that she could “never go away from him” (Hemingway 246).
However, rather than conforming to society’s standards, even when the man with whom she finds happiness asks her to, she sides with her desire for inner freedom, becoming a dangerous woman. In an exploration of readers’ responses to Lady Brett Ashley, most readers felt that Brett is a dangerous woman “because [Lady Ashley] does not conform to traditional feminine behavior, she is a danger to him [meaning Pedro Romero, who is traditionally male]” (SparkNotes contributors). For these reasons, society, both in the novel and in reality, deems Lady Ashley a transgressive female, and thus, she becomes antiheroic.
Bergofen, Debra. “Simone de Beauvoir.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015, plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/beauvoir/. Accessed 22 November 2016.
Bogan, Louise. “Modernism in American Literature.” American Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2, 1950, pp. 99–111. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3031447. Accessed 13 April 2016.
Bruneau, Jean. “Existentialism and the American Novel.” Yale French Studies, no. 1, 1948, pp. 66–72. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2928860. Accessed 19 February 2017.
Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Te Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016, plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/ entries/existentialism/. Accessed 21 November 2016.
Crowley, John William. Te White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1994. de Beauvoir, Simone. “The Ethics of Ambiguity.” Marxists.org, www.marxists.org/reference/ subject/ethics/debeauvoir/ambiguity/ch01.htm. Accessed 22 Nov. 2016.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Modern Library, 1992.
Freud, Sigmund. “Te ‘Uncanny.’” Imago, translated by Alix Strachey, vol. 5, 1919, pp. 1–21. MIT.edu, web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/ freud1.pdf. Accessed 18 November 2016.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner, 2006.
Lennox, Sara. “‘We Could Have Had Such a Damned Good Time Together’: Individual and Society in ‘Te Sun Also Rises’ and ‘Mutmassungen Über Jakob.’” Modern Language Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 1977, pp. 82–90. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3194157. Accessed 24 February 2017.
McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction: Te Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity. Garland Pub., 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central, seu.on.worldcat.org/ oclc/560046493. Accessed 21 February 2017.
Neimneh, Shadi. “Te Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 46, no. 4, Dec. 2013, pp. 75–90. Accessed 7 February 2016.
Rapaport, Herman. The Literary Theory Toolkit: A Compendium of Concepts and Methods. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
SparkNotes contributors, SparkNotes on Te Sun Also Rises: Lady Brett Ashley; SparkNotes,2003, www.sparknotes.com/lit sun/character/lady-brett- ashley/. Accessed 1 April 2017.
By Alan Snyder, Ph.D.
“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?”
“On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.”
“That’s quite different,” I protested.
“I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.”
The above quote from C. S. Lewis is not one of his best known, yet it speaks eloquently to the issue of a Christian’s responsibility to impact the culture. Should the course of events drift along without a significant influence from those who claim to have the ultimate answers for life? Do we merely stand aside and wash our hands of the various spheres of society: education, business, entertainment, or politics? Or do we attempt to infuse into that society Biblical truth and the morality that flows from that truth?
Early Americans, from the colonial era through the Civil War, at least, rarely questioned the need for Christian beliefs to be proclaimed publicly. These Americans used a phrase for this: they called it liberty of conscience. That phrase, while never disappearing entirely from public dialogue, nevertheless now takes a secondary place to another term: pluralism. Many who use the word pluralism might mean the same as the earlier phrase, but the newer perspective is inherently different, if understood in the context of our times. This essay will dissect these two distinct philosophies, then turn to C. S. Lewis for his insights on a Christian’s role in the public realm.
Liberty of Conscience
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote an essay on property in 1792 that covers the broad spectrum of that word. Madison says property goes beyond external material possessions and embraces internal properties as well. “Man,” Madison argues, “has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.” Further, “He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Among those internal properties given by God, Madison singles out the conscience. He declares, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property; . . . [there is] no title to invade a man’s conscience which is more sacred than his castle.” Man’s liberty to follow his conscience, under God and before government, in Madison’s view, is a cornerstone in a society that operates under the principles of a free government.
This foundational belief in liberty of conscience as understood in early America rested on a belief that truth exists. Yet because each man has his own conscience before God, each must be given liberty to find the truth; it cannot be imposed upon anyone, especially by government fiat. Government’s sphere of authority extends to actions only, not to one’s personal beliefs. In such an arrangement, all, regardless of beliefs, are at liberty to voice their opinions in the public square and try to influence the culture and government policies toward what each considers the proper standards, particularly in establishing societal norms for morality.
A country such as the United States is made up of diverse peoples, most of whom are not Christians. Neither can they be forced to accept the Christian way because that would violate liberty of conscience. All historical attempts to “create” Christians by force have only bred hypocrisy. Christians and non-Christians live under the same government. They all have the same rights, and liberty of conscience must be respected.
Consciences, though, can be educated and influenced. Christians, whose liberty of conscience is just as sacred as that of non-Christians, should be free to influence others toward the Christian worldview. All societies have standards. Christians can voice their views on what society’s standards ought to be and use all legitimate educational and political means to promote those standards for their country. Non-Christians are free to do the same.
Noah Webster, the most prominent educator in early America, underwent a Christian conversion in 1808 at the age of fifty. He sought to disseminate Biblical principles in society through his textbooks and his landmark dictionary, in which he incorporated Biblical examples of word usage and short sermonettes on key words such as “religion,” “education,” “democracy,” and “freedom.” One of his endeavors was to help establish a college to train indigent young men for the ministry. It was called Amherst. When the cornerstone for Amherst College was laid on 9 August 1820, Webster gave the opening remarks and declared that Amherst would “aid in the important works of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.” Webster was giving voice, via education, to the Christian message, intending to improve his nation thereby. He, and others like him, had liberty of conscience to speak and act on their beliefs.
Another testimony to liberty of conscience and the need for Christians to speak to the culture comes from Charles G. Finney, one of the premier evangelists of the antebellum era. Finney is not known primarily for his commentary on politics and government, but he did have some robust observations with respect to Christians’ obligation to take part in politics. Finney himself was a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery and refused to take the position of professor of theology at Oberlin College until the trustees agreed to allow women and free blacks to attend class with white males.
In his Systematic Theology, Finney makes the case for Christian political participation, explaining that God requires civil government, and that in a representative government such as America’s, “every man having a right to vote, every human being who has moral influence, is bound to exert that influence in the promotion of virtue and happiness.” Christians, Finney continues, must “exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God.” Finney connects inextricably politics and religion when he says, “In a popular government, politics are an important part of religion.” Separation of church and state did not mean separation of Christian beliefs from influence in government. He concluded that Christians “are bound to meddle with politics in popular governments, because they are bound to seek the universal good of all men; and this is one department of human interests materially affecting all their higher interests.”
In response to the argument that Christians should avoid all political connections and attempts to influence legislation, Finney replied that Christians should promote “wholesome government.” Why should Christians leave it to the wicked to decide what the laws should be? “It would be strange that selfish men should need the restraints of law, and yet that Christians should have no right to meet this necessity by supporting governments that will restrain them,” he argued.
Post-Civil War America experienced a worldview revolution. The Biblical framework that informed most citizens gradually receded. The term “liberty of conscience” also receded, and that new word, “pluralism,” became more commonplace. To be fair, many people probably thought the terms were synonymous, but there was a shift in definition that corresponded to the shift in worldview, until a full-blown pluralistic philosophy finally emerged. How does it differ from liberty of conscience?
Basically, pluralism has developed into a different concept altogether, while maintaining a superficial resemblance to liberty of conscience. The cornerstone for modern pluralism is moral relativism. Those who advocate pluralism usually don’t believe in absolute truth. That starting point is a radical break from the past. In theory, pluralism claims that all views receive equal treatment, that all are equally valid. This raises the question, of course, of how inherently contradictory viewpoints can be equally valid. The answer many offer is that each person has his own truth, and that it is wrong, in this postmodern world, to declare anyone’s truth as invalid.
Despite the assurance that all views will be treated with respect, beliefs based on Christian faith, which maintain an absolute standard of right and wrong given by God, naturally run counter to pluralism’s main premise. If Christian morality is what one promotes, it declares anything contrary to that morality to be sinful. Here is where the theory of pluralism breaks down. Those who stress the tolerance of pluralism attack the absolutism of Biblical morality. Those who believe in the Bible’s moral worldview often are accused of being intolerant. We see this playing out in the policy realm with societal acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, with an addendum lately on the “rights” of those considered to be transgendered. Those who oppose this new morality and view it as simply the old immorality are marginalized, or at least the attempt is made to marginalize them. The champions of tolerance have decided they will not tolerate Biblical morality.
The college campus has become a hothouse for the weed of intolerance. We now have a mania for “safe spaces,” we’re warned against using “trigger words” that might offend, and we’re told that certain viewpoints will not be tolerated on the campus—all in the name of a tolerant pluralism. Even more incoherent is the denunciation of Christian influence because it is “trying to legislate morality.”
The phrase “legislating morality” deserves special mention. The assumption is that morality cannot and should not be legislated. Yet what is a law (or an edict promulgated by a college administration)? Every law is a statement by the community—political or otherwise—declaring certain actions to be wrong and others to be right. Lawbreakers receive penalties. Obviously, these laws are not mere suggestions. Whenever one is dealing with right and wrong, morality is the issue. All laws are moral statements. Even the stop sign on the corner is a moral statement: “Refuse to stop here and you will be penalized. It is wrong to drive past here without stopping because the community has deemed it unsafe to the lives and property of other individuals.” Therefore, it is wrong not to stop.
The idea that morality cannot be legislated masks an agenda: the replacement of Christian principles of government and society with humanistic principles. The majority’s concept of morality always will be legislated; that concept of morality, however, might not be Biblically based. The Christian response is not to force the Christian viewpoint, but it can be a wholehearted attempt to reeducate society in Biblical principles. That’s why the public square exists, to debate the proper standard for a society.
The Lewis Perspective
One might be excused for thinking that C. S. Lewis avoided anything political, since he stated rather consistently that he abhorred politics. That would be an inaccurate assessment. While it is true that he despised the petty politics of his nation, he was always a staunch defender of truth in the public sphere, whether dealing with theological issues or more practical matters of governing. Why write the kinds of books he did if not for the purpose of influencing the society of his day? The Abolition of Man and its fiction counterpart, That Hideous Strength, are only two examples of his attempt to warn people of the dangers of scientism applied to education and government.
Lewis’s tenure as president of the Oxford Socratic Club shows his willingness to openly debate matters with those who were not Christians. He noted the importance, in a university, of Christians breaking out of their shells and interacting with those of different beliefs. Lewis never argued for a kind of pluralistic neutrality in those debates. He was forthright in how they should be conducted: “We never claimed to be impartial. But argument is. It has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours.”
He also knew that the Christian message had to be communicated in every way possible. One does that, he noted, by attacking “the enemy’s line of communication.” He followed this thought with one of his more famous quotes:
What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. . . . It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.
Then came an appeal to put one’s theology into the vernacular in order to truly communicate the message to an unbelieving audience. “I have come to the conviction,” he concluded, “that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.”
Lewis called on his fellow Christians to engage the culture in every possible way. Education was certainly a key component for furthering the Biblical worldview; he called it “only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next.” He expressed concern that the State might “take education more and more firmly under its wing.” By doing so, it could potentially “foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point,” but it still would require people to do the teaching, and “as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers,” he noted optimistically. “And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control.”
Lewis believed in those “free winds of opinion” that could not be controlled by the government, but he did mention the condition: “as long as we remain a democracy.” While he favored a democratic system, which would allow for the free interchange of ideas in the public square, he also offered cautions that democracy, while very important for expressing points of view on policy and the standards by which a society ought to conform, was not a cure-all for society’s ills. He believed in democracy, he said, because he believed in the fall of man. “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.” That was a false grounds for wanting democracy, he asserted. Instead, he came at it from the opposite side: “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.”
Lewis had an exchange on this issue with one of his regular American correspondents, Mary Van Deusen, who had raised the concern about communists infiltrating the government. Lewis responded that that raised the whole issue of one of the problems of a democracy. A democratic form of government, he explained, rested on the will of the majority. What if, he queried, a majority should someday introduce communism, or even devil worship or human sacrifice? How should we respond in such situations? “When we said ‘Govt. by the people’ did we only mean ‘as long as we don’t disagree with the people too much’”? He concluded, “Of course there is no question of its being our duty (the minority’s duty) to obey an anti-God govt. if the majority sets it up. We shall have to disobey and be martyred. Perhaps pure democracy is really a false ideal.”
To forestall that terrible scenario from becoming reality, Lewis encouraged Christian involvement in the public square. When Van Deusen wrote to him about some very good people getting positions in the American government, he was pleased. One of his greatest fears about America, he shared with her, was “that politics were not in the hands of your best types and that this, in the long run, might prove ruinous. A change in that, the beginning of what might be called a volunteer aristocracy, might have incalculable effects.” In fact, Lewis, in another of his essays, comes out strongly in favor of specific political activity with regard to appealing to legislators. While rejecting the idea of setting up a Christian political party, he nonetheless proposed what he called an “interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society” that should operate as a kind of pressure group. If a political party sought the support of this society, it would have to pledge first its support for the society’s goals for the nation. ‘“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s with letters?’ Yes; just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be ‘loyal’ to infidel parties.”
Lewis’s prescription for direct political involvement was the practical side of his approach, but it wasn’t pure pragmatism. All attempts to influence the public square had to be based on God’s absolute moral requirements. In response to the hypothetical question as to whether some kind of permanent moral standard would stand in the way of progress, Lewis replied that without such a standard, no one would be able to measure progress. “If good is a fixed point,” he argued, “it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can approximate or from which they can recede.” Absolute moral standards for society are society’s only hope, he concluded.
Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. . . . If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion.
While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial—virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill. “Vision” is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.
Just how optimistic was Lewis that Christians taking up the challenge of the public square would make any real difference? In an address given at his own Magdalen College during World War II, Lewis dealt with the question of the futility of human endeavor. He wanted to make it abundantly clear that we, as Christians, do our duty, regardless of the success or failure of our efforts. “I am not for one moment trying to suggest that this long-term futility provides any ground for diminishing our efforts to make human life, while it lasts, less painful and less unfair than it has been up to date,” he insisted. Then drawing on an illustration, he continued, “The fact that the ship is sinking is no reason for allowing her to be a floating hell while she still floats. Indeed, there is a certain fine irony in the idea of keeping the ship very punctiliously in good order up to the very moment at which she goes down.” If we are living in a world that is sinking, we nevertheless have an obligation to make it less of a hell than it would be without our influence. He concluded, “If the universe is shameless and idiotic, that is no reason why we should imitate it. Well brought up people have always regarded the tumbril and the scaffold as places for one’s best clothes and best manners.”
As long as a public square exists and Christians are not banned from it, the responsibility to speak out for truth remains. If the Christian worldview and the morality that naturally emanates from it is rejected by the society at large, Christians must remain faithful to God’s command to be His voice, even if the world attempts to drown out that voice.