I’ve already told you (September blog) how in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Lewis explains to us who the Humanists of the ‘Renaissance’ were. Remember the paradox of the Humanists? They aimed to restore the Latin language to its classical purity but only succeeded in killing the living Latin that was the esperanto of Europe; in Lewis’s brilliant words, ‘before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb’.
In the same section of his Introduction, ‘New Learning and New Ignorance’, Lewis also introduces us to the real Puritans, and throws us a number of paradoxes about them.
The first paradox is that ‘puritan’ in the sixteenth-century sense has practically no relationship to its modern meaning. ‘By a puritan the Elizabethans meant one who wished to abolish episcopacy and remodel the Church of England on the lines which Calvin had laid down for Geneva.’ The purity involved was that of church organization, not personal morality.
The second paradox is that when you get clear what Humanists and Puritans really were, you find that ‘the puritans and the humanists were quite often the same people’ and ‘even when they were not, they were united by strong common antipathies and by certain affinities of temper’. ‘Humanist and puritan both felt themselves to be in the vanguard, both hated the Middle Ages, and both demanded a “clean sweep”. The eagerness to smell out and condemn vestiges of popery in the Church and the eagerness to smell out and condemn vestiges of “barbarism” in one’s neighbour’s Latin had, psychologically, much in common,’ says Lewis.
The third paradox relates to the modern concept of puritanism. Lewis tells us that ‘every shade of Christian belief whatever…then had traits which would now be called “puritanical”’, but more remarkable, notable defenders of (and martyrs for) the old faith, like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, ‘had these traits in a much higher degree than most Protestants’. Lewis says further that ‘nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants.’ ‘They were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them.’ Thomas More wrote that a Protestant was one ‘dronke of the new must [new wine] of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte’; he said that Luther ‘spiced al the poison with libertee’. And again, ‘I could for my part be verie wel content that sin and pain all were as shortlye gone as Tyndale telleth us.’ Lewis summarizes: ‘Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true.’