Learning in Coronatide: C. S. Lewis on Going Back to School

“Is It Not like Fiddling while Rome Burns?”

Todd Brewer / 8.27.20

On October 22, 1939, C. S. Lewis climbed up to the pulpit of the University Church of St. Mary in Oxford to preach about “Learning in Wartime” at the start of the school year. France and the United Kingdom were at war with Germany, and Poland had just been conquered. The day before, many of the students in attendance were required to register for the draft. The times were bleak, to say the least. While there are many differences between wartime and a pandemic, the view Lewis takes on how to proceed in the bleakest of hours is instructive for us as what seemed like a quick turnaround has become a more prolonged struggle.

In the midst of global upheaval of a different kind, when everything around us feels so uncertain, if not dangerous, something as simple as education can seem to be a trivial matter by comparison. This is precisely the question with which he begins his sermon:

What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

For that matter, how can we reasonably worry about anything except the pandemic? Why get married, have kids, build a house, or go to school when the future is so uncertain. It’s a fair question to ask, but one that rests upon an overly optimistic view of “normal’ life. Wartime, for Lewis, is not an anomalous time to live, an exception to the rule (we might say “unprecedented”).

The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates 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. If [people] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

The operative words in quarantine life have been “pause” and “delay.” Everything is put on hold until the coast is clear. Lewis might view this as a waiting for a certainty that will never come, an illusory desire for control over what cannot be mastered. Waiting for life to resume, we fail to notice that life is still happening. Taking a risk in such times, whether it be sending your kids back to school or visiting your parents, is enough to make one feel guilty. But life has never been ideal, and those waiting for a return to “normal” may never emerge from their bunker (even after a vaccine).

As Lewis sees it, the danger of quarantine life is not inactivity, but listless activity that amounts to nothing. A gap-year may feel like a gracious allowance to many. What we might actually do with that extra time is a mixed bag (Tiger King, anyone?). For Lewis, the frustration and restlessness we probably feel now is not a sign that we should immediately return to pre-pandemic activities, but a symptom that we have perhaps squandered the time we have been given.

If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

Would Lewis have socially-distanced and worn a mask? Certainly. For him, the duties of wartime necessity must be engaged. But he also cautions against an obsessive fixation on potential threats which precludes other worthy aspirations.

[W]e may have a duty to rescue a drowning man and, perhaps, if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn lifesaving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention — so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim — he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

In our times, the requirements of social distancing and mask-wearing are essential, but these are not a reason to get up in the morning. Staying alive is not a reason for living. The coronavirus has paused many aspects of our routines and vocations, while simultaneously providing new strictures within which to (yes) flourish. Whether it be in person or a hybrid classroom, education can still be one of many joys given to us. Being safe during coronatide is a social responsibility, but it doesn’t give us joy like the laughter of children, the voice of a old friend on the phone, or learning a new language. If the power goes out, we could sit in the darkness and stare at the lightbulb, but lighting some candles and playing a board game would be way more fun.

Our lives may have been altered, but God remains the unchanged. Grace does not wait for the perfection conditions, but comes to us when we least expect it. As Lewis reminds us, “The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.” This time we have now is such a gift. God does not follow social distancing guidelines: his gifts remain and he pursues us still — even during a pandemic.

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5 responses to “Learning in Coronatide: C. S. Lewis on Going Back to School”

  1. Heather says:

    CS Lewis sure had a gift. Thanks for highlighting this sermon from 1939. And your conclusion is just as powerful as his sermon.

  2. ceej says:

    You posted this at the perfect time for me. Really getting tired of corona (as if I weren’t already). What a slog. But I love this language from Lewis: “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” And this from you: “Waiting for life to resume, we fail to notice that life is still happening.” Nicely said.

    I’ll admit to being suspicious about Lewis’s remark about not being a monomaniac. I wonder if that’s not how we actually should be. That’s where I become thankful for Jesus, and his monomania for lifesaving. Because I just want to watch tv

    • Todd Brewer says:

      CEEJ – I think the association between Jesus and pool lifeguards as a go-to sermon illustration post-dates him. An updated analogy for us might be something like a high school hall monitor. Good to have, but prone to zealotry….


      • ceej says:

        Makes sense. The hall monitor seems a fitting image for ‘the times.’ There is also the issue of people who THINK they are saving lives but are really flattering themselves, or just making things worse. That, too, seems pretty contemporary.

  3. […] Learning in Coronatide: C.S. Lewis on Going Back to School by Todd Brewer, Bird.com. “For Lewis, the frustration and restlessness we probably feel now is not a sign that we should immediately return to pre-pandemic activities, but a symptom that we have perhaps squandered the time we have been given.” […]

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