by Michael Paul Cartledge on April 16, 2020

This piece originally appeared at The Hedgehog Review, a journal of The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

This piece also appeared on Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s weekly roundup of excellent conservative thought in Spring 2020.

“Learning in War-time,” a lecture delivered by C.S. Lewis at Oxford University in October 1939, just after England entered World War II, begins with a provocative—and timely—question: Why should anyone focus on the life of the mind when individual and societal survival is threatened? 

Lewis proposes that, in reality, “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…[therefore] if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” When he fought in World War I, Lewis had observed that soldiers in the trenches did not spend their time solely, or even mostly, thinking about or talking about the war. When faced with suffering, Lewis argued humans respond with wit and creative expression. We bury our dead with eloquent orations. In other words, a time of crisis is not the time to reduce the human person to its biological needs, as severely threatened as those needs may be. 

His challenge to anyone who values the life of the mind during a crisis is “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’s face it: Even in times of crisis, we are going to spend part of our day thinking about something other than that crisis. Lewis is challenging us to be thoughtful about what it is we should think about when we choose not to focus on the crisis at hand.

Continue reading at The Hedgehog Review.