Civility in C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien

By Abromaitis, C. N. Sue | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Civility in C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien

Abromaitis, C. N. Sue, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Civility In C. S. Lewis And J. R. R. Tolkien

As the final action in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is about to occur, the vicious murderer, the Misfit, says of Christ's rising from the dead: "... if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness ..." At the very end of the story, he says, "It's no real pleasure in life." (1) O'Connor places into the mouth of her character a concept that flows from her conviction that if there is no God, then all is possible and permitted to the autonomous man, an idea that Dostoevsky has characters in various works say in one form or another. The Misfit's last remark undercuts the notion of any possible joy from this "meanness," this incivility. On the contrary, there is no joy, no pleasure, in vice.

That men without faith in a personal and loving God have no virtue has societal ramifications. Civilization is only possible if its members see themselves in an organic relationship with their fellow men. Without such a vision, power becomes the base for society; civility is ephemeral; and joy is non-existent.

The OED in its definition of civility begins by contrasting it with barbarity; the editors then define civility as "Behavior proper to the intercourse of civilized people; ordinary courtesy or politeness, as opposed to rudeness of behavior; decent respect, consideration." Inescapable in this conception of civility is moral absolutism and philosophical realism. Expressing the idea that civilized behavior is "proper" and "decent" and assuming that these are knowable qualities lead one to acknowledge a standard independent of the subject. That standard is the Natural Law.

The assumption that there is an objective standard of morality, a natural law available to all men and necessary for humans to eschew barbarism and rudeness, is implicit in the lives and fiction of Lewis and Tolkien. Neither Lewis nor Tolkien accepts relativism and utilitarianism as bases for living. Moreover, both men engage in that on-going generational project in which the next generation is taught these objective standards. Tolkien's letters, particularly to his sons Michael and Christopher, reveal his conviction in concrete terms. Throughout his judgments his Catholicism is apparent. (2) He tells Christopher (29 November 1943): "the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men." (3) His belief in the fall of man and the resulting sinfulness that permeates mankind and its works explains Tolkien's opposition to anyone's seeking power, his rejection of the possibility of utopian schemes of government, and his defense of freedom. (4)

Unlike C. S. Lewis, Tolkien did not write apologetics nor give sermons in which his ideas, so clearly expressed in his letters, were a matter of public discourse. However, in his essay, "On Fairy-Stories," (5) Tolkien lists four qualities of fairy-stories that he thinks peculiar to them: fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation. In his examination of recovery he makes explicit his philosophical realism, even as he denies any philosophizing:

      Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a
   re-gaining--regaining of a clear view. I do not say "seeing things
   as they are" and involve myself with the philosophers, though I
   might venture to say "seeing things as we are (or were) meant to
   see them"--as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to
   clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed
   from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity--from
   possessiveness. (6)

In this praeteritio, Tolkien is saying that reality and truth exist and that it is our duty to see and conform to them. His anti-solipsism and his assumption of a universal Natural Law, like his aesthetic practice, are based on his religious convictions.

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