Against the Overrating of Ordinary Life; or C.S. Lewis’s Bourgeois Mind

He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. (The Screwtape Letters)

… What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. (Hamlet)

Jake Meador has a thoughtful post up at Mere Orthodoxy distinguishing three models of how Christians should act toward the world: “radical Augustinianism” (a term that explicates with quotes from my piece on Gelasian Dyarchy), “magisterial Protestantism,” and “illiberal Catholicism” (i.e. Catholic integralism). Meador himself is a magisterial Protestant. The magisterial Protestants resemble illiberal Catholics in that they too favor using temporal power (“the magistrate”— hence the term “magisterial”) to further the aims of the Kingdom of God. Meador distinguishes magisterial Protestantism from Catholics by two features: the Protestant doctrine of “vocation,” and the “priesthood of all believers.” I think that both of these doctrines are vulgar, bourgeois distortions of Pauline theology. In this post I want to attack only the first: the Protestant doctrine of vocation.

«The Protestant teaching on vocation,» Meador writes,  «says that all godly callings are equally good in the eyes of Christ and that the call to ministry should not be treated as being somehow superior to a call to work in business or the arts or a trade.» We have here an expression of what is arguably the central idea of Reformation: the radical rejection of the hierarchical understanding of the Christian life, and of reality. It is of a piece with the Reformation’s rejection of counsels of perfection (i.e. the religious life), of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, of meritorious works, in short, as Charles Taylor puts it, “The rejection of the sacred and of mediation.” (Sources of the Self, p. 216)

The Catholic Tradition has always understood that there is a hierarchy of stations in life, because there is a hierarchy of goods. The station of someone who’s time is devoted to the production of ordinary bread is objectively lower than that of one who is consecrated to the offering of subersubstantial bread. Even though they can both set their hearts on the higher gifts, and animate their activity with divine Charity. The one who has a lower station may in fact reach a higher degree of Charity, but this does not change the order of stations. In Heaven, of course, the baker will be higher than the priest if he had greater love, but he will have a definite station, different from that of all the rest of the blessed: one star differeth from another star in glory. The Heavenly City is a strict hierarchy, in which no-one is equal to any one else in station, and they rejoice in their inequality:  «And if the share of John be greater than his own, Peter will again rejoice, for the prime measure of their happiness is neither Peter nor John, but the immeasurable liberality of the divine good.» (Charles de Koninck)

Even in temporal affairs Catholic Tradition agrees with classical philosophy in seeing the necessary support of mere life as servile and instrumental, as being indeed good, but much less that the attainment of the good life in moral and intellectual virtue. Much more does it hold that all temporal goods and cares together are so much less than than the eternal good that there is no proportion. A grain of dust has some proportion of size to the entire universe, but earthly goods have no proportion to heavenly treasure. Hence the delight in earthly things, while not bad in itself, is dangerous to the extent that it deflects our hearts from our true good: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

The Holy Rule of St. Benedict is a perfect expression of the proper attitude that the Christian should have to the things of this world. Proper care is taken in the monastery for earthly activities, but they are given a low valuation in comparison with the primary opus Dei, the liturgical praise of God in the oratory. It is quite false to say (as is sometimes said) that St. Benedict’s emphasis on manual labor is “anti-aristocratic.” Rather, it is aristocratic in the true sense. St. Benedict knows that to be exalted one must humble oneself. His emphasis on manual labor is not based on some supposed “dignity of work,” but rather on the recognition of the need for man, as a bodily being, to recognize his own lowliness, and to humble himself by disciplining the flesh with arduous labor. And St. Benedict is very careful to guard against earthly pleasures that might bring about disorder to the passions. In the text quoted at the top of this post Screwtape mentions the goods of “sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working.” St. Benedict allows his monk to sleep, but they must wake up early; he allows them to bathe, but only seldom; he allows them to eat, but they must regard their whole lives as a Lenten fast; with great reluctance he allows them to drink one hemina a day; as to love-making and playing, it is so obvious to him that they have no place in the School of the Lord’s Service that he scarcely bothers to forbid them; praying is a good on quite a different level, and the greatest scope is given to it; work is commanded, but if a monk takes pride in his craft he is to be deprived of it till he learns humility.

The Protestants, however, turn the world upside down. Suddenly, poverty, chastity, and obedience are forbidden as occasions of pride, and a measurelessly inordinate value is put on servile pursuits. The Reformers wanted to increase the piety of the people, but their distorted idea of vocation helped (against their intention) to bring about the secularization of world, the apostasy of the nations. As secularization theory from Max Weber to Charles Taylor and Brad Gregory has shown, the “affirmation of ordinary life” (see especially: Sources of the Self, ch. 13) led (along with some other things, it is admitted) to the the advent of the sophisters, economists, calculators, bureaucrats, Eurocrats, plutocrats, capitalists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, SPÖler, ÖVPler, FPÖler, Greens, Gutmenschen, social democrats, democratic socialists, Fachmenschen ohne Geist, Genußmenschen ohne Herz, atheists, agnostics, deists, unitarians, investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, office workers, usurers, proverb-makers, advertisers, PR men, WarmduscherSitzpinkler, SJWs, gay rights activists, and all the rest of them; the degraded spectacle that the massa damnata of modern humanity has made of itself.

C.S. Lewis was somewhat conflicted about the “affirmation of ordinary life.” The bourgeois, Ulster Protestant in him was constantly contending with the Catholic, aristocratic nostalgia awakened in him by reading the Tradition. Thus he writes the Expostulation: Against too many writers of science fiction:

Why did you lure us on like this,
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building (as though we cared for size!)
Empires that cover galaxies
If at the journey’s end we find
The same old stuff we left behind,
Well-worn Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmartre, or Bethnal Green?

Why should I leave this green-floored cell,
Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,
Unless, outside its guarded gates,
Long, long desired, the Unearthly waits
Strangeness that moves us more than fear,
Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,
Or Wonder, laying on one’s heart
That finger-tip at which we start
As if some thought too swift and shy
For reason’s grasp had just gone by?

On the other hand he has Lucy step into another world and meet a Faun, only to be offered… tea and toast.

Meador quotes an appallingly stupid passage from one of Lewis’s letters:

Newman makes my blood run cold, when he says in one of the Parochial and Plain Sermons that Heaven is like a church because in both, “one single sovereign subject—religion—is brought before us”. He forgets that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem. He has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end.

Lewis must really have known better than this stupidity— he must have known that the Heavenly Jerusalem has no temple because it is all temple, all liturgy. It is that place where the blessed stand in the presence of God and worship Him: there is no ordinary life in Heaven. It is all religion in the sense that it is all adoration and worship. Merely to quote the passage that he cites from Newman in context is to refute Lewis’s petulant protest:

…so far we are distinctly told, that that future life will be spent in God’s presence, in a sense which does not apply to our present life; so that it may be best described as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit. “They serve Him day and night in His temple, and He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them … The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters.” Again, “The city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.” [Rev. vii. 15, 17; xxi. 23, 24.] These passages from St. John are sufficient to remind us of many others.

Heaven then is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like,—a church. For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. These things indeed may be right in their way, so that we do not set our hearts upon them; still (I repeat), it is certain that we hear nothing of them in a church. Here we hear solely and entirely of God. We praise Him, worship Him, sing to Him, thank Him, confess to Him, give ourselves up to Him, and ask His blessing. And therefore, a church is like heaven; viz. because both in the one and the other, there is one single sovereign subject—religion—brought before us. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Sermon 1).

In his heart of hearts Lewis knew this. He knew that Screwtape is wrong: God is not vulgar, and he does not have a bourgeois mind. He is noble, and has an elevated mind. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. And the royal and priestly people whom he has chosen is of an aristocratic mind. They are not to bother unduly with “ordinary life”:

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Of any of the saints it could be said:

Our spoils he kick’d at;
And looked upon things precious as they were
The common muck of the world. (Corialanus)

14 thoughts on “Against the Overrating of Ordinary Life; or C.S. Lewis’s Bourgeois Mind

  1. Excellent post Pater… but, what of Tolkien’s Chestertonian “affirmation of ordinary life”? He understood the Hierarchy of Goods, but also had the true understanding of Vocation. He understood that Man’s true and final home is not in this world, but also that “The love of Arda [this world] was set in your hearts by Ilúvatar [God], and He does not plant to no purpose.” He also understood that while not all vocations equally reflect God’s purpose, nevertheless they all do in someway reflect God’s purpose, and we ought to delight in them because of this, and because of this there is a real “dignity of work”. And to paraphrase the Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, that which is the Monastery to those called to that Vocation, is the Prison to those God has called to another vocation. Then too even Wormwood understands that God asks that these goods be sacrificed at one time or another because God Himself is a Good greater than all of them (and that they be sacrificed for that reason and no other), and also that in true Humility the Monk might delight in his own works as he delights in the work of his brother the Baker, and no more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tolkien is of course quite right that there is a properly ordered affirmation of ordinary life. If I laid it on a bit thick, it is because the “properly ordered” part is usually misunderstood. And indeed, as Belloc liked to point out, the fact that Catholics don’t take worldly stuff as seriously, paradoxically means that they usually have a better time:

      Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
      There’s always laughter and good red wine.
      At least I’ve always found it so.
      Benedicamus Domino!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think even Lewis is more right than you give him credit for, at least in the example you give. It is once one realizes that his life does not depend on “tea and toast” but on God, that one sees tea and toast as they really are, wondrous gifts that in some small part echo the Music of the Holy One, and if we delight in the echoes of the Music it is because the Music so worthy of delight even in its faintest echoes, echoes which give greater honor to the One, than would be given had they never existed. The same I think is true of most of what we call “ordinary life”.
        Just a note on Hierarchy, it seems to me that it is much more complex, in the sense that Peter would honor and be in awe of John the Holy Mystic, but John would honor and be in awe of Peter the Holy Pontiff; or Our Lady honoring and in awe of the beauty and piety of the Angels, while the Angels are honoring and in awe of the beauty and humility of the Queen of Heaven, all reflecting thereafter on the glory of God.
        Finally, it seems interesting that Saint John shows us the vision of the New Jerusalem arrayed in the splendor of the “common muck of the world,” that is “with all manner of precious things,” jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, amethyst, pearls, pure gold. It seems there must be something in this “muck” that the Saints would spurn not, but see in it another facet of the Glory of God.
        Have a very Blessed Feast of All Saints, Pater!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Regarding Chesterton, Tolkein and to a lesser extent Belloc I wonder how much their views were shaped by their surrounding culture? One can ask the same question regarding the early Americanists (like the Carrolls) in the US who placed a great emphasis on the active life. Among English Catholics Dawson is the first to effectively criticize the bourgeois mind.

        I also wanted to commend you for your critique of Lewis. I worry that his thought has become something of a golden calf among Catholics.

        Liked by 1 person

        • One might indeed ask the same question of yourself? (Or of one who despises good things because they are shared by many men (which is the definition of a common good) in fact.) The city (polis) and the farm have always coexisted, so in one sense Dawson’s thesis is unfounded. A peasant can be as “bourgeois” (i.e. materialistic and concerned with wealth) as the burgher, sometimes and in some places even more so.

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    • “‘The love of Arda [this world] was set in your hearts by Ilúvatar [God], and He does not plant to no purpose.'”

      “The martyrs really loved this life, yet they weighed it up. They thought of how much they should love things eternal; if they were capable of so much love for things that pass away…” (St. Augustine, Sermon 344.4).

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Another odd facet of the CI piece is that they take Lewis to be rejecting the medieval doctrine of purgatory when he rejects Moore and Fisher in the 16th century and endorses Dante. This sentence positively makes one stretch one’s eyes: “Rather than helping with a return to a medieval sensibility (note how he criticizes More and Fisher), Lewis, in this instance, finds Newman serviceable for escaping that very thing.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pater Edmund,

    This is a great post, IMO – just a couple tangential thoughts:

    I think that what you call the bourgeoise sensibility of Lewis (which I think Tolkien might share) is a romanticized reaction to industrialization combined with an English obsession with land (and the homeliness that springs up from identification with land). The latter is the result of the English nobility’s attempt to make land-holding seem sacred as a cover for the fact that they stole this land from the Catholic Church. Even those who would like to see land-holding democratized often unwittingly ingest bits of this old PR narrative.

    So, the Protestant inversion of Benedict’s Rule that you rightly point out is connected, at least in England, I think, to the confiscation of Church land. It’s an inversion of the idea that the monks held the land so that they could be self-sufficient enough to practice religion (creating a whole system of creative land use like purgatorial societies in the process). In order to take the land it was necessary to deny the religious purpose of the land.

    Another issue is that Enlightenment thought about manufacturing and agriculture that eventually contributed to industrialization was not as different from modern thought as the romantic reaction claims. Industrialization did not spring unmediated from the “big bang” of Cartesian rationalism. The Philosophes and encyclopedists were interested in proto-versions of ergonomics, maker culture, etc. How to work smarter, ennoble the worker, spiritualize work, etc. Of course the capitalist didn’t necessarily want to invest in these things, so we may never be able to judge the Enlightenment ideas on their true merit. But maybe this is exactly the point: we never get a chance to really judge the thought of a Diderot or a Ruskin or an Illich, only the theory du jour as the capitalists decided it would enhance productivity.

    Without a subordination of the material to the spiritual we will just end up romanticizing practices that are often harmless or even beneficial in themselves but we will still have an obsession with the material, which will just be repackaged into new alienating forms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pater Edmund, how does St Benedict’s command in China 31 to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected” fit into this? I’ve often heard it quoted in favor of the emphasis of the holy in the ordinary?

      Thanks for the excellent food for thought,
      Charles

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  6. Pater Edmund, how does St Benedict’s command in China 31 to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected” fit into this? I’ve often heard it quoted in favor of the emphasis of the holy in the ordinary?

    Thanks for the excellent food for thought,
    Charles

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