ACW

ACW

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The new black

C. S. Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, as regular readers of this blog will by now be aware, is a tremendous work of literary history. It’s the kind of book that gives you the ‘aha’ experience and makes you feel cleverer.

Lewis is famous for saying that J. R. R. Tolkien ‘had been inside language’. Well, Lewis, for his part, could well be said to ‘have been inside literature’. He knew better than most critics what it felt like to be Milton, or Spenser, or any of a host of earlier writers that most of us have never heard of. He could imagine what it was like to be a person of that age who didn’t write at all. He knew sixteenth-century thought from the inside, with the sympathy of a Christian scholar who shared its fundamental beliefs.

Last month we had a look at some of the historical paradoxes that characterize Puritanism. But what was it like to be a Puritan in the early days of that movement? Lewis gives us a brilliant analogy. It may not resonate with you if you are under thirty and/or unfamiliar with political and social life in the first half of the twentieth century. But it works well if you have some feel for the atmosphere of western Europe during the half century or so when eastern Europe was dominated by Soviet communism.

In short, the influence of Calvin on the sixteenth century was like that of Marx—or even Marx and Lenin combined—on the twentieth. This, says Lewis, ‘will at least serve to eliminate the absurd idea that Elizabethan Calvinists were somehow grotesque, elderly people, standing outside the main forward current of life. In their own day they were, of course, the very latest thing.’ He tells us that we must imagine ‘the freshness, the audacity, and the fashionableness of Calvinism’. ‘It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries.’ It appealed to the same kind of people who would have been Marxist sympathizers in the 1930s, and specifically to young, educated, intellectual, serious, energetic people. Lewis: ‘Youth is the taunt commonly brought against the puritan leaders by their opponents: youth and cocksureness.’


When we recognize the type of person who was won over by Calvinism we are less puzzled that Calvin’s Institutio (Institutes) was so eagerly welcomed. Starting from the original Protestant existential experience of liberation, it builds a system. It extrapolates. And, Lewis says ‘it goes on…to raise all the dark questions and give without flinching all the dark answers.’ He tells us that it is a literary masterpiece, and perhaps for that very reason ‘those who read it with most approval were troubled by the fate of predestined vessels of wrath just about as much as young Marxists in our own age are troubled by the approaching liquidation of the bourgeoisie. Had the word “sentimentality” been known to them, Elizabethan Calvinists would certainly have used it of any who attacked the Institutio as morally repulsive.’

3 comments:

  1. Fascinating. I again realise how wrong my view of the puritans is. I am learning more each month! Thank you.

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  2. Really interesting. Thanks so much.

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  3. Thanks, Edmund - I'd never considered Calvinism from this angle before.

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