In Praise of the Particular

On why content matters and why I am not writing a book about prayer as a "human" phenomenon, but rather as a culturally specific art. Lewis is talking here about the problem of reading Milton:

"How are these gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion [my emphasis--FB], we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

"I held this theory myself for many years [me, too--FB], but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes [as, for example, in much contemporary biopsychology; yes, there is an L.C.M. but did we really ever doubt that?--FB]. But I have come to doubt whether the study of this mere L.C.M. is the best end the student of old poetry can set before himself. If we are in search of the L.C.M. then, in every poem, we are tempted to treat as the most important those elements which belong to the L.C.M. which remain when we have finished the stripping-off process [as, for example, in thinking about poetry in praise of the Virgin Mary, motherhood or virginity as such because "all women" can identify, at least potentially, with such states--FB].

"But how if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem [or prayer--FB] we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief....

"Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries.... I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them....

"To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work 'in the same spirit that its author writ' and to avoid chimerical criticism.

"It is better to study the changes in which the being of the Human Heart largely consists than to amuse ourselves with fictions about its immutability. For the truth is that when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being. To take an example from a simple matter, human eating, when you have abstracted all that is peculiar to the social and culinary practices of different times and places, resolves itself into the merely physical. Human love, abstracted from all the varying taboos, sentiments, and ethical discriminations which have accompanied it, resolves itself into something capable of only medical treatment, not of poetical.

"Logicians will perceive that the fallacy of the Unchanging Human Heart is one more instance of the L.C.M. view of the universal--the idea than an engine is most truly an engine if it is neither driven by steam nor gas nor electricity, neither stationary nor locomotive, neither big nor small. But in reality you understand enginehood or humanity or any other universal precisely by studying all the different things it can become--by following the branches of the tree, not by cutting them off....

"In order to take no unfair advantage I should warn the reader that I myself am a Christian [me, too--FB], and that some (by no means all) of the things which the atheist reader must 'try to feel as if he believed' I actually, in cold prose, do believe. But for the student of Milton [or devotion to Mary--FB] my Christianity is an advantage. What would you not give to have a real, live Epicurean at your elbow while reading Lucretius?"

--C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), pp. 62-65.

End of apologia, back to the substance of prayer.


  1. Thank you, FB. I am working on a blog post about what museums are (or are not)--an argument that exasperates me, but occurs over and over again. "But in reality you understand enginehood or humanity or any other universal [read, museums] precisely by studying all the different things it can become--by following the branches of the tree, not by cutting them off...." This is very apropos. Why do people forever want to draw boundaries walling things out (or in)? It is like the Sneetches with stars on or off their bellies. They only define themselves by contrast to others.


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