The Parthenon And The Optative Essay

March 19th – 26th

The following is part of a weekly series reflecting on the life of C.S. Lewis. This is done by summarizing various events or happenings during his lifetime for the noted week and may include significant events related to him after his death.

Highlights from over the years in Lewis’s life this week include one of the most significant events in his personal life and three books getting published that were very different from each other.

As just noted it was during this time frame that a profound event happen in Lewis’s life. On the 21st in 1957 Joy Davidman became Mrs. Lewis, but it was for the second time! The first wedding occurred during the month of April and will be discussed later at that week’s time, but you can likely guess a key difference by my underscoring the fact that the one this week was an ecclesiastical ceremony. At the time Joy was in the hospital near death, thus the ceremony was done there. Father Peter Bide married them, but prior to this he prayed for her recovery from cancer.

The three books that came out during this week are The Last Battle, the final Narnia story, his first ever book,Spirits in Bondage and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Rehabilitations and Other Essays. Going in order of the date, The Last Battle is the first to discuss. It was published on the 19th of March in 1956 (just ten months after The Magician’s Nephew had been released). It’s the only book in the collection that wasn’t dedicated to anyone and on the cover of the first edition it also had the phrase “A Story for Children” on it. Many readers of this final story have commented how Lewis’s depiction of heaven is most fully developed here. The book was very well received and even won the Carnegie Medal in Literature.

On the 20th in 1919 Lewis had his first book ever published. Spirits in Bondage is a very small volume of poems published while he was only 20 years old, but many were written when he was just sixteen or seventeen. When initially released it was under the pseudonym of Clive Hamilton and was in a period of Lewis’s life when his primary goal was to be known as a poet. It is also a time when he wasn’t a Christian. Under present copyright law in the U.S. the text is now in public domain and can be freely obtained online here.

The last book released this week was on the 23rd in 1939 and was Lewis’s first collection of various shorter works. It is a collection of essays on English literature. Nearly all of them had not been published before.Rehabilitations and Other Essays is out of print now, but was one of the works that showed Lewis’s understanding of his professional field. Many were reprinted later in Selected Literary Essays.

Speaking of shorter works, there were several published in a variety of publications over the course of this week. First, “Dogma and the Universe” appeared in The Guardian on the 19th in 1943 and there was a second part (“Dogma and Science”) appearing the following week on the 26th. Both parts are available in God in the Dockunder the initial title. This essay shows (among other things) Lewis’s familiarity with Modern Physics that was seeing many changes over the two decades before his article was written. The piece deals with a frequent objection (seen even more today) that because the Christian faith has beliefs that do not change (“dogmas”) how can it deal with the fact that “human knowledge is in continual growth”? Lewis also cautioned that even though there are some aspects of scientific theories support Christianity we shouldn’t rely too heavily on them because theories change.

Next, “The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version” is a piece that was actually first given as a talk on the 20th in 1950. Lewis spoke at the University of London on that date and later that year a booklet of the talk was published. Within his talk Lewis notes one should be careful to distinguish five (increasingly direct) ways the Bible has impacted or influenced literature. They are: 1.) Source, 2.) Quotation, 3.) Allusion, 4.) Vocabulary and 5.) Literary influence.

“Must Our Image of God Go?” initially appeared in The Observer on the 24th in 1963. It was a response by Lewis to an article published just the week before by Bishop Dr. John Robinson’s article that was called “Our Image of God Must Go.” The Bishop’s piece was actually a summary of a book he had written that year. Lewis’s reply starts by underscoring a key point made by the Bishop that was a false assumption. Lewis states that a “belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven” was “long abandoned.”  The essay is available in God in the Dock.

Another talk on the BBC, “Let’s Pretend,” was done this week that is mostly known as being a part of Mere Christianity. But it was also that same day, the 21st in 1944, that two more broadcast were recorded. The ones recorded were “Is Christianity Hard or Easy” and “The New Man” (the latter being the only surviving program.) In this week’s program he spoke of each of us continually putting forth an effort to be like Christ before finally noting that we don’t really do it in our own strength. This section also contains a quote that has one of my early favorites, “Surely what a man does when his is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is?”

The twentieth installment of what is better known as material found in The Great Divorce was published on the 20th in 1945. It is the last half of the twelfth chapter of that book. The story picks up with the characters introduced at the end of the previous week’s segment. A lady is talking to a dwarf ghost even though it was a (larger) Tragedian who was speaking. The Tragedian is trying to get pity from the lady because he has a warped understanding of love. The interaction is continued in next week’s episode.

Being a self-confessed dinosaur in the world of modern instincts, C.S. Lewis was, and is, therefore, refreshingly relevant. Already in 1944, his views on education were so well rooted in reason and experience that they were wonderfully out of date.

When I wrote last week on the glory of work, I had today’s blog post in mind. I thought: If I could ignite in you a love for the glory of work, maybe you would agree with Lewis about the relationship between the labor of learning to read, and the sweet fruits of good reading.

When I say “learning to read,” I mean more than the ABCs. Language is an inexhaustible thing. We are learning to read all our lives. And the better we learn to read, the more we see and feel. Great writers become guides into great truth and great joy — if we have learned to read. And, of course, the book with the deepest, highest, broadest, vastest vista of truth and beauty is the Bible. We’re never done learning to read it well.

It Takes Work

In 1944, Lewis published an essay called “The Parthenon and the Optative” — a very dinosaur-like title. It was an echo of one of Lewis’s disillusionments with the modern view of education. It was a defense of the truism that it takes work to learn how to read well. And it’s wonderfully worth it.

A teacher was grading the papers of students in the classics. Looking up from the “milk-and-watery” papers, he said, “The trouble with these boys is that their teachers have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.”

You get the idea, perhaps. The Optative is a mere, lowly, prosaic, boring grammatical mood of Greek verbs. The Parthenon is the magnificent, exciting, architectural capstone of Greek culture. The point is this: There’s no shortcut to a great appreciation of great things. The students’ writing about the Parthenon was “milk-and-watery” because they took a short cut.

Here’s what Lewis says about the situation.

Ever since then I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least a chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in “Appreciation” and ends in gush. (Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, HarperCollins, 2000, 444)

Skip the Work?

Everything in my personal experience, and my knowledge of human nature and human language, makes me believe Lewis is right. All we did in Mrs. Adams’ seventh-grade English class, that I can recall, is diagram sentences. We did it again when I was 22 — all the way through the Greek of Philippians, when I was in seminary. Tedious. Demanding. Inglorious — like studying equations to see what weight the arches can bear in the Parthenon.

The modern resistance to this kind of discipline and tedious work to master grammar and paradigms and syntax is that it’s a spoiler. The kids don’t enjoy it. It puts them off. Solution? Skip the work, and show them pictures of the Parthenon, and give them oral snippets from the Iliad and Odyssey.

Lewis responds,

[This way] teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can’t construe. . . . It plays havoc with the very distinction between truth and error. (444)

The Help We Need

But what about the people who say their appreciation of architecture was cut short by the pains of geometry and their experience of literature was soured by the rigors of grammar? Lewis ends his essay with this:

Of course we meet many people who explain to us that they would by now have been great readers of poetry if it had not been “spoiled for them” at school by “doing” it for examinations of the old kind. It is theoretically possible. Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. Perhaps they would have been strategists or heroes if they had never been put into Officer Training School. It may be so: but why should we believe that it is? We have only their word for it; and how do they know? (446)

Right. And I would add this. Great teachers are gifted to sow the seeds of joyful outcomes among the rigors of the painful basics. Students need help to see that swallowing a lot of sea water may need to precede the joy of surfing. Bruised knees may need to go before the pleasures of bicycling. And the optative may need to precede great poetry about the Parthenon.


This post is also available in Arabic and Spanish.

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