A gentleman

An unexpected and most welcome email arrives from an old friend—J. Stanley Mattson, founder and president, the C.S.Lewis Foundation.

John Stanley and I grew up together in the Brooklyn Norwegian-Pentecostal world I have written about frequently in these blogs, and that figures in much of my fiction. A pleasant memory is of the little bookshop in the basement of the church, run by John Stanley’s older brother Ralph, where one might browse before services. It featured a row of C.S.Lewis’s works, Screwtape Letters a favourite title in those days.

C.S.Lewis was for our generation a window on a wider Christian civilisation beyond the foreshortening of our pietistic and tribal sect, a warrant of intellectual seriousness, a passport to other discourses and other horizons. My friend John Stanley moved along the seam thus opened, into the eventual flowering of a calling and a mission.

I’d forgot C.S.Lewis, except for the Narnia craze, when one’s children were little, and the science fiction, and as a character in a literary episode: Tolkien, the Inklings.

Except, too, for a fragment, a mere remark, from years ago, that had nevertheless lodged in my mind.

The late Lionel Rothkrug, whom I have written about before in these posts, a man whose many intellectual and moral virtues did not include irony, much less sarcasm, and who was sometimes spectacularly tone-deaf in ordinary social interaction, once said to me, with an air of making a remark he had considered often and deeply, that the thing about C.S.Lewis was that he was the embodiment of an idea of a gentleman. By which from the context, and from Rothkrug’s general interests, I took him to mean not a universal type, but a specifically English type, an achievement of a specifically English historical experience.

Henry Moore, London, 1941

I decide to read, or re-read, Mere Christianity, a book based on a series of radio broadcasts Lewis made during the war, in which he makes the case for the truth, the inevitability, of Christianity.

He begins these talks with a discussion of the meaning of the word gentleman, observing that while it once meant one “who had a coat of arms and some landed property,” it had now become a useless tag. “A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes.”  Yet Lewis in this very passage has floated a definition of what it might mean to be a gentleman, beyond the technical one. “To be honourable and courteous and brave,” he says. What is wrong with that? Why is that useless? Perhaps because Lewis does not wish to persuade us to be gentlemen; he wishes to persuade us to be Christians. Perhaps because this reticence about one’s virtues is precisely what it means to be a gentleman.

Then comes this extraordinary passage, which I quote in full:

Some people draw unwarranted conclusions from the fact that I never say more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But surely my reason for not doing so is obvious? To say more would take me at once into highly controversial regions. And there is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake.

Risibly quaint? Faintly camp?

At its heart is a distinction, however, that gets us as close as we are likely to get to whatever my friend Rothkrug thought he saw in Lewis as the type of a gentleman. Namely, an implicit distinction between, on the one hand, opposing a set of ideas as false and, on the other, gratuitously offending another person to whom those ideas are not only core beliefs, but ones that may anyway touch on something universal, even something essential to any worthwhile idea of civilisation.

The English classic this brings to mind forcefully is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The better-known First Part, with its dungeons and giants and sloughs, together with the meditative and gentle Second Part, in which the great adventure of Christian is revisited and commemorated by his grieving wife and children, now themselves pilgrims in a tamed and civilised landscape, wrapped in a more tolerant, more collective, less combative sense of Christian character and purpose. In each case, the ostensible scheme—rational apologetic in Lewis, extended allegory in Bunyan—is overshadowed, even subverted, by an acute psychological depth, a self-knowledge that persuades as genuine life, an account of morality and responsibility rooted in continuity of consciousness, of experience, of passage from ignorance to knowledge, from immaturity to maturity, within a life and across generations. To be honourable and courteous and brave.