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Learning in Quarantine

March 19th, 2020 | 7 min read

By E. J. Hutchinson

For my students

On 9/11, I was a senior in college. It was my birthday, in fact. After sleeping in (as I said, it was my birthday), I came downstairs in my off-campus apartment. I couldn’t find anyone. It was a ghost town.

As it turned out, my roommates were in the next apartment, watching commercial jets flying into skyscrapers. Overnight, the world had changed.

The coronavirus feels similar, only in slow motion. Whether it is in reality, time will tell.

A day or two before 9/11, I went to a lecture on totalitarianism and the carnage of the wars of the twentieth century. The speaker predicted that this would never happen again. We had learned our lesson.

A day or two after 9/11, I went to a lecture on C.S. Lewis’s sermon “Learning in War-Time” (originally called “None Other Gods: Culture in War Time”), preached at Oxford in the fall of 1939 in the shadow of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War and later included in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. As I recall, the lecture had been planned before 9/11, but its relevance was suddenly as subtle as a sledgehammer. We had not learned our lesson.

We are once again in a similar situation, but this time the enemy is even more viscerally one of flesh and blood: the sour grapes of a virus that has set the world’s teeth on edge. My institution, like many others, has suspended its in-person classes. And the question can easily arise: Why bother learning? People are dying. More people are going to die. Reading a book seems to be at best a ridiculous self-indulgence, at worst a repudiation of trying at least to do something useful.

On that score, what Lewis had to say in 1939—mutatis mutandis, ceteris paribus, and all the rest of it—has something to say to us now. For he had to face the same question. Given Hitler, given Mussolini, given all of it, why go to school? How can one justify it? “Is it not like fiddling,” Lewis asks, “while Rome burns?” The way in which he responds to this question is at once incisive and illuminating.

The first thing he does is to set the war, and the way it might make one radically rethink his priorities, against a deeper, broader, and more cosmic backdrop. That is to say, the drama of life occurs in the midst not only of temporal concerns like war or disease, but also of eternal ones, namely heaven and hell. Everyone is on his way to one or the other. Thus “every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.” The last enemy is not one of flesh and blood.

This is not to say that the war is completely unimportant, but rather that it is not–cannot be–the most important thing. Lewis is not attempting to be callous or to perform what is known on Twitter as a “Jesus juke.” His point is that “[i]f human culture can stand up to that [i.e. the question of one’s eternal destiny], it can stand up to anything.” If we think that culture and learning are important even when taking the last things and eternity into account, then they are a fortiori important when taking earthly calamity into account.

After all, war and disease do not create death where there was no death before. We were already mortal. What they do instead is “simply [to] aggravate the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” And if we waited to “search for knowledge” until we had solved the problem of death, “the search would never have begun.”

When we think about death, we realize that “[l]ife has never been normal.” For death is the ever present abnormality that taints everything, even in the best of times. To repurpose Melville–but only slightly–it “touch[es] all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge.” Men have never waited for the ideal moment to pursue culture and learning. The ideal moment will never come; for the ideal moment is an illusion. Whereas insects seek “material welfare” first, Lewis says,

Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss, the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

We seek knowledge and beauty, Lewis claims, because we are made to do it. We cannot not do it.

But what if this is only a product of our fallen nature? And perhaps it is still selfish, given that the world, too, is fallen; perhaps we should only be concerned about the salvation of souls. Lewis’s response is twofold.

First, even if that accusation were true and no one should do anything but evangelize, that’s not going to happen. Human beings are still human beings, and they will still do what they naturally do. There is that scene in King of the Hill in which Hank says to the Christian rocker who wants to use music only for preaching, “Can’t ya see ya aren’t makin’ Christianity better, you’re just makin’ rock ‘n roll worse?” What Lewis is saying is similar: “If you attempted…to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better.”

Second, the accusation rests on a specious opposition between the “spiritual” and the “secular.” “It is clear,” Lewis remarks, “that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities.” It simply directs them to a new end. As the apostle Paul says, “Do all things to the glory of God.” Grace restores and perfects nature. It does not obliterate it. There is therefore “no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such.” The life of the monk is not “more spiritual” than the life of the factory worker.

There is an error on the other side, too, however, and that is the idea that it is the work of culture and learning that is the more spiritual. Lewis has a word here that all who work at Christian liberal arts institutions need to hear:

I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious — as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most antiChristian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds.

The life of the scholar is not “more spiritual” than the life of the factory worker.

Where, then, does the truth lie? It lies, as Aristotle might say, in the middle. Everyone has a vocation. Some are called to one kind of work, some to another. And the vocation of the student is to study. How do you know if that is your vocation? Well: Are you enrolled in college? Then that is your vocation.

And if it is your vocation, it is also your duty. “If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.” This does not make you, as a student, better than anyone else. It only shows you what your calling is, and you had best leave to others their own calling. As Lewis puts it, “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.”

It is a difficulty that this all sometimes must occur under the shadow of catastrophe. This makes us anxious, and that is not surprising. But Lewis counsels that you “not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament is more abnormal than it really is.” To return to an earlier point, conditions will never be ideal, and “[i]f we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.” But the truth is that “[t]he only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”

Does that mean that conditions now are no more unfavorable than they were two weeks ago? Of course not. That would be absurd. Disease, just like war, “does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them.” Now, we cannot forget death. Now, we cannot ignore it. Now, we cannot hide from mortality and the reality of the human condition.

What then? So be it. After 9/11, I was milling around in what used to be the Student Union on campus. It was packed. The president of the college came by unannounced. This is what he said:

We must go on with our work. We’ve all got a job to do, just like everyone else in America. London continued to function (after it was bombed!). We’re going to act like that, too. We have to have the strength to keep ourselves together. In the meantime, each one of us should do his part.

Now is no different. We must do our work. We must do it in unfavorable conditions. We must do it before the specter of Death’s hooked and gnarled finger. But this is what we must always do. “We must,” Lewis says, “do the best we can.”

E. J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.