Week Twelve- Commentary in Various Works of Nonfiction

Week Twelve- Commentary in Various Works of Nonfiction

Don’t like either the ultra feminine or the ultra masculine myself. I prefer people.” – Letter to Dorothy Sayers  8 May 1955

Thus far, we have explored women in Lewis’s personal life and portrayed in his fictional works. This week, we launch into an in-depth discussion examining women in Lewis’s nonfiction works.

For ease of reading, I have divided the entries into four sections:

Endorsement of Milton’s Hierarchical Conception

Opposition to Feminism

Women as Ministers


Some of the following entries are excerpts from my dissertation: Transformational Leadership in the Life and Works of C.S. Lewis. It may not be used or reprinted without my consent as it possesses an international copyright.

Endorsement of Milton’s Hierarchical Conception

Hierarchy, after the fall of man, exists to restrict man from indulging his evil impulses. Lewis posited a hierarchy reinforces good behavior and punishes those who deviate from these expectations. This is also indicative of the innate sense we have of justice, the sense of Right and Wrong he discussed in Mere Christianity and modeled in Christian scripture. In a biblical sense, God’s position is at the summit of the hierarchy, while humans disperse throughout the body performing various, yet equally important functions:

 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many . . . On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 22-27)

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 In Lewis’s view the only one worthy to rule is God. He is just but also exercises compassion in granting forgiveness of sin. His followers as other parts of the body should rejoice in their position. In a letter to a child correspondent, Lewis reiterated the idea of no little jobs in the hierarchy of Christ:

 A creature can never be a perfect being, but may be a perfect creature – e.g. a good angel or a good apple-tree. Gaiety at its highest may be an (intellectual) creature’s delighted recognition that its imperfection as a being any constitute part of its perfection as an element in the whole hierarchical order of creation…This is an extension of what St. Paul says about the body & the members. A good toe-nail is not an unsuccessful attempt at a hair; and if it were conscious it w[oul]d. delight in being simply a good toe-nail. (100)

 Man in his carnal way cannot effectively rule because he is not benevolent. He has the capacity to abuse power and, in the process, injure and even destroy a nation. Lewis illuminated this view in A Preface to Paradise Lost. In it he argued that Milton’s version of The Fall was similar to St. Augustine and the Church as a whole: “God created all things without exception good, and because they are good . . . Though God has made all creatures good He foreknows that some voluntarily make themselves bad” (66-67). Due to our fallen nature through the introduction of sin, man is unfit to rule one another. Before our fallen natures demanded correction, discipline existed to maintain the natural order. It was the quiet gears upon which ordered life progressed. Lewis wrote that adherence to the greater hierarchy of God and the Hierarchical Concept brought not restriction but liberation before The Fall.

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As a Renaissance scholar Lewis was well acquainted with the cultural milieu of the 16th century. In his work A Preface to Paradise Lost Lewis devoted an entire chapter to exploring the “Hierarchical Conception” as reflected in such Renaissance poets as Milton and Shakespeare. Although scholars like Johnson thought Milton was an opponent of the monarchy because he rebelled against James I, Milton was not coarse and unforgiving. Rather, Milton was a firm believer in the Hierarchical Conception that, as Lewis  pointed out, argued that “degrees of value are objectively present in the universe” (73).

Discipline, while the world is yet unfallen, exists for the sake of what seems its very opposite—for freedom, almost for extravagance. The pattern deep hidden in the dance, hidden so deep that shallow spectators cannot see it, alone gives beauty to the wild, free gestures that fill it, just as the decasyllabic norm gives beauty to all the licenses and variances of the poet’s verse . . . The heavenly frolic arises from an orchestra which is in tune; the rules of courtesy make perfect ease and freedom possible between those who obey them. (81)

However, because men are fallen, discipline post-Eden must correct our wicked nature. Extended to spirituality, it suggests the rewards of obedience. Lewis reinforced this point in his early fiction. In A Pilgrim’s Regress Wisdom coaches the protagonist John on the installation of rules: “A man says, ‘I have finished with rules: henceforth I will do what I want’: but he finds that this deepest want, the only want that is constant through the flux of his appetites and despondencies, his moments of calm and of passion, is to keep the rules” (96).

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Scholar David Downing  argued that the society of Malacandra echoed medieval ideas of God and hierarchy. As previously mentioned, Lewis’s reflection of the hierarchical concept inhabited the pages of his science fiction trilogy. Downing, in the essay collection C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy (Bruce Edwards, editor), commented on the significance and philosophical origin of this passage.

 In A Preface to Paradise Lost Lewis argues that ‘the Hierarchical conception’ dominated Western conceptions of order—cosmic, political, and moral—from Aristotle to Milton. With God at the top of the great chain and unformed matter at the bottom, everyone and everything had a natural station, ruling over those below, obeying those above. (25)

 In the first book of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Dr. Ransom shares impressions of Earth with the creatures of the planet Malacandra that kidnapped him. Dr. Ransom discusses the “human history—of war, slavery and prostitution” (102) to which the intelligent creatures respond,

 ‘It is because they have no Oyarsa [Head Angel],’ said one of the pupils. ‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,’ said Augray. ‘They cannot help it,’ said the old sorn. ‘They must be ruled, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau [people] and hnau by eldila [angels] and eldila by Maleldill [name of the Malacandran God]. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair—or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it—like a female trying to beget young on herself. (102)

 Some may find it repugnant that Lewis would claim that wives are subordinate to husbands (as he posits in “Membership”). In fact, evangelical culture is rife with debates over complementarian versus egalitarian marriage in the Church. However, Lewis claims that such structure is sculpted by God’s design and this divine organization is no excuse for domestic tyranny. Men rule their homes as God rules the church. Men should exercise wisdom and compassion, desire truth, and deliver discipline. Any man acts contrary to this teaching is abusing his responsibility as spiritual leader. There are moments when we must adhere to this hierarchy. Lewis writes in “Membership”:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live. Even in the life of the affections, much more in the Body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” It is like turning from a march to a dance…We become, as Chesterton said; taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel” (170-171)

I must reiterate that Lewis is not saying that women are “lesser than” men just because they must obey men; they simply occupy diverse but equally important roles. Lewis and the Bible he faithfully read every day say nothing about inherent value associated with gender.  Perhaps our socialization has been historically traditional, but certainly I, as a modern female, do not bristle when such a design is discussed (and I thrive in what most would consider an egalitarian marriage and trust my husband’s leadership). The portrayal of women, even in modern culture, still heavily relies on stereotypes and embellishments. Most women are not opposed to the responsibility associated with their roles, rather to culture’s insistence that all women must conform to (and never deviate from) a specific standard which does not consider their individual talents and abilities. Although many may successfully argue that the women’s movement has made great strides, it can often be difficult to detect in the modern Church, where vestiges of aggressive and unnecessarily restrictive interpretations of the Bible are woefully extant. Some of these interpretations wrongly grant men a license to be habitually cruel, cynical, and intimidating. That is tyranny, not leadership (Trust me, I have a leadership degree!).

For more information on how life was at The Kilns (with wife Joy), read Doug Gresham’s Lenten Lands and excerpts from his Collected Letters.

Opposition to Feminism

When Lewis discusses mixed gender discussions in “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought” that the “Emancipation of Women” is not “a bad thing in itself” but rather intrudes upon male social life by changing the climate from casual conversation to competition:

In modern social life the sexes are more continuously mixed that they were in earlier periods. This probably has many good results: but it has one bad result. Among young people, obviously, it reduces the amount of serious argument about ideas. When the young male bird is in the presence of the young female it must (Nature insists) display its plumage. Any mixed society thus becomes the scene of wit, banter, persiflage, anecdote – of everything in the world rather than prolonged and rigorous discussion on ultimate issues, or of those serious masculine friendships in which such discussion arises. Hence, in our student population, a lowering of metaphysical energy. The only serious questions now discussed are those which seem to have a “practical” importance (i.e. the psychological and sociological problems), for these satisfy the intense practicality and concreteness of the female. That is, no doubt, her glory and her proper contribution to the common wisdom of the race. But the proper glory of the masculine mind, its disinterested concern with truth for truth’s own sake, with cosmic and the metaphysical, is being impaired. (63)

There are a couple of aspects with this passage that modern women may find troubling. First, there is a false impression of female intelligence at play here. How does one determine the intelligence of a female just by simply glancing at her? Why do men assume that they must change to “softer” topics in order to entertain women? This appears to be more of a social defect in individual males than a “bad effect” of the emancipation of women.  Lewis seems to believe this adjustment is quite natural, that beautiful women render the male tongue (and the male brain) inoperable. The woman may not wish to “impose” on the conversation by her presence alone.

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Modern women will most likely take offense with Lewis’s claim that women are too “concrete” to discuss “cosmic and metaphysical” ideas. However, we must consider that Lewis is speaking many decades ago. I am not one to blame historical context, but we cannot simply dismiss that Lewis developed in the male-dominated culture of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century with no mother (just nurses). This essay was composed in October of 1946, before he began long and thoughtful correspondences with women AND met and married Joy Gresham.

Lewis did not have a problem with expanding opportunities for women, but he felt that too much liberty would threaten marriage. Lewis is clear in That Hideous Strength that males and females both possess the power to sabotage a relationship (as both Mark and Jane nearly do). I have mentioned in an earlier post that Jane considers leaving Mark because he is too focused on his own career and neglecting his marriage. As Mark drifts away, Jane drifts away under the auspice of desiring independence and bucking tradition. What Jane truly desires, however, is to heal her relationship. She wants to run away and inspire Mark to chase her, not in a selfish way but in a desperate effort to elicit concern from Mark. At the end of the day, she still honors the marriage vow and deeply wishes to reconcile. Lewis points out that full independence is contradictory to marriage. Marriage requires one to make corporate decisions about the direction of a family. Marriage requires a mutual consideration of time and attention towards the spouse and when applicable, children. Total and complete independence, in the context of marriage, may lead unpredictably into the divergent path of selfishness. If one wishes to be completely independent (either male or female), the simple solution is to remain single. Relationships require compromise from both individuals. Lewis is not suggesting that Jane surrender her intelligence, rather she must become a helpmate for her husband who is neck-deep in the corruption of a scientific organization. By being a helpmate, she must also submit to his leadership. Mark now knows that his previous decisions were quite disastrous and that his role as husband demands much more time and attention than he initially perceived. For more on Lewis’s expectation of marriage partners, read “Eros” in The Four Loves.

In “Equality”, Lewis admits that women must be emotionally available in order to be erotically receptive:

Men have so horribly abused their power over women in the past that to wives, of all people, equality is in danger of appearing as an ideal. But Mrs. Naomi Mitchison has laid her finger on the real point. Have as much equality as you please – the more the better – in our marriage laws: but at some level consent to inequality, nay, delight in inequality, is an erotic necessity. Mrs Mitchison speaks of women so fostered on a defiant idea of equality that the mere sensation of the male embrace rouses an undercurrent of resentment. Marriages are thus shipwrecked. This is the tragicomedy of the modern woman; taught by Freud to consider the act of love the most important thing in life, and then inhibited by feminism from that internal surrender which alone can make it a complete emotional success. Merely for the sake of her own erotic pleasure, to go no further, some degree of obedience and humility seems to be (normally) necessary on the woman’s part. (19)

 Lewis makes clear that women are in danger of “shipwrecking” relationships. He is operating on the assumption that feminists have fostered a disdain, a “resentment” which becomes an obstruction to a sexual relationship. Please note the use of semantics: “Feminist” is a term which has altered greatly in the nearly sixty years which have lapsed since the composition of this essay. Lewis is speaking strictly from experience and literature of the day. In my observation, the term has changed; in the evangelical sense, it has been “softened” and typically means “not aggressive or discriminatory toward women”. These linguistic shifts cannot be understated, as they lend us great clarity of the perspective from which Lewis is speaking. Lewis, in many senses, feels sorry for the difficulties women face in culture and relationships in the essay “We Have No Right to Happiness”:

A society in which conjugal infidelity is tolerated must always be in the long run a society adverse to women. Women, whatever a few male songs and satires may say to the contrary, are more naturally monogamous than men; it is a  biological necessity. Where promiscuity prevails, they will therefore always be more often the victims than the culprits. Also, domestic happiness is more necessary to them than to us. And the quality by which they most easily hold a man, their beauty, decreases every year after they have come to maturity, but this does not happen to those qualities of personality – women don’t really care twopence about our looks – by which we hold women. Thus in the ruthless war of promiscuity women are at a double disadvantage. They play for higher stakes and are also more likely to lose. I have no sympathy with moralists who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness. These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity. (519).

Women as Ministers

On this account, we must again defer to the beliefs and traditions of Lewis’s overarching culture as well as his interpretation of scripture. According to 1 Timothy 2:11-12,  A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Lewis promoted the opinion that women could serve in various realms of church life, but the leader must be male. “I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses. I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people” he writes in “Women As Priestesses?” from God in the Dock. He mentions that many women performed important tasks in the Bible, but were still prohibited from pastoral duties: “One man had four daughters who all ‘prophesied’, i.e., preached. There were prophetesses even in Old Testament times. Prophetesses, not priestesses” (459).

Lewis clarifies in a later passage:

We are short of priests. We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to belong he power of men alone.  No one among those who dislike the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning, and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many other professions, put on the same footing as men? (459)

 Lewis seems almost apologetic in his argument. He is not blind and deaf to the fact that some corrupt, malevolent men make terrible leaders. However, to essentially swap positions and place women above men does not correct the error:

It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege, or the burden, which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. that is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dance classes; not that the ballroom should henceforth ignore the distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter. (461)


If you checked a dictionary for this term, you probably didn’t find it. What is Bulverism? Lewis, in fact, created this term. Paul Ford defines it as, “the process of suggesting that another person’s reasoning cannot be trusted or respected by calling attention to that person’s motivations…rather than arguing the merits of the issue” (125). Lewis provides the genesis for this idea in his appropriately titled essay “Bulverism” from the collection God in the Dock:

…you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall. (485)

Notice that this initial example is Bulverism deriving from misconceptions of  gender. Essentially, Bulverism is a last-ditch effort to continue an argument when one has been proven incorrect. It signals that the argument was fundamentally flawed and the only way to maintain discussion is to accuse the opponent of a tainted reasoning.  For Lewis, the problem with accusing one of being subjective is that it NEGATES all arguments (Lewis actually calls subjectivity a poison).  For example, nearly any point can be disputed if you reason out possible malignant motives (i.e. “He is just saying that because he grew up in a poor household” or “She is just saying that because she didn’t have a father growing up”). Truth becomes relative and perspective takes precedence over fact. This is tricky indeed.  This perception is the fertile soil from which moral relativism is nurtured. One wishes for a specific outcome and dismisses the opponent’s argument because he/she is subjective. Lewis writes:

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally the Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both side. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines o the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology. (486)

Thus, one can simply dismiss another’s argument on the grounds that it originates from an individual who endorses a different philosophy. If one is a conservative, this does not mean that every idea which originates from a liberal is corrupt (and vice versa).

Lewis even plants examples of such a logical fallacy in The Chronicles of Narnia. Paul Ford mentions such an instance in The Magician’s Nephew.

Polly, in MN, is not the conventional turn-of-the-century girl. She has made a cave for herself with packing cases, is independently exploring her attic, and keeps treasures that include ‘a story she was writing. Uncle Andrew, the evil magician, is a blatant sexist: He says that morality is for little boys and servants and women and people in general. Later, when Digory’s defense of basic right and wrong gets through to his uncle, Andrew recovers with a perfect Bulverism: You only say that because you were brought up among women and learned this natural morality from old wives tales (391)

Therefore, gender does not automatically invalidate information. Lewis even illustrates in his children’s stories that women possess strength of reason and that the old, sexist attitudes are incorrect.

The last post, which is a wrap-up of the series, is up next week. Will you join me?