Each of the nineteen essays in Present Concerns is packed with wisdom that can profitably be taken in little chunks over time and meditated upon over a steaming hot cup of tea or an even bigger pint of ale, perhaps even with a pipe pinched between one’s teeth, as Lewis surely would have it.
Present Concerns by C.S. Lewis (160 pages, Harper Collins, 1986)
Most of us think of C.S. Lewis as a Christian apologist, perhaps the most influential of the twentieth century. Others know Lewis as the creator of the world of Narnia or of the Ransom trilogy of space novels. Some of us remember being swept away by the brilliance of his The Abolition of Man or have found solace in his books like A Grief Observed or The Problem of Pain. Some know him as a brilliant medievalist and seeming master of nearly everything that was ever written. Fewer of us, I think, realize how concerned Lewis was with the events of his own day and the intellectual currents underpinning the politics of the twentieth century. But, the gift I wish for the imaginative conservative this season is the gift of Lewis’ charming, witty and often brilliant observations of the political and social trends of the modern age.
If Plato brought philosophy down from the heavens to dwell on earth and Joseph Addison brought it into the pubs to dwell among average men, then Lewis is the master barman dispensing wisdom with his pints and clearing away the intellectually empty glasses as he does. In his words are insights that strike his patrons as if they should always have known them and yet which settle in the mind as brilliant and new.
Walter Hooper brought together a series of Lewis’ short “journalistic” essays in a little book called Present Concerns, which seems to be known to few beyond Lewis devotees and yet which should be known to everyone concerned with the intellectual shape of the modern age.
Here we have Lewis defending chivalry in ways reminiscent of Edmund Burke in his own famous passage about a wardrobe. We see Lewis’s warning about making equality into an ideal that transforms everywhere it seeps, even beyond politics and the law. Here is Lewis’ challenging us by saying that democratic education should not be the education we want, but an education that might actually preserve democracy. Will it, in the end, be the teacher’s pet or the unruly kid in the back of the room who saves the Republic? Then we find Lewis warning that a free people must be on guard against bureaucrats who will use emergencies to regiment and control our lives.
Though most were written more than seventy years ago, many of them strike the reader as having been written this very morning over a stiff cup of tea and the morning news feed. “We have lost the invaluable faculty of being shocked,” Lewis warned in 1945. And here we find personal guidance as Lewis tells us about how our childhood feelings toward bicycles helps us understand nearly all the other phases of our lives.
There are nineteen essays in Present Concerns and almost all of them just a few pages long. But each is packed with wisdom that can profitably be taken in little chunks over time and meditated upon over a steaming hot cup of tea or an even bigger pint of ale, perhaps even with a pipe pinched between one’s teeth, as Lewis surely would have it.
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