"New Learning and New Ignorance"
from English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
by C. S. Lewis

24th of July, 1990

A week ago, I picked up a book by C. S. Lewis in a used book store. I'm very fond of Lewis's works and have most of his stuff, but this is one I hadn't read before – English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. It is volume 3 of a twelve-volume series, the Oxford History of English Literature (Clarendon Press, 1954).

I first saw the book, dipped into it, and hastily put it down again, in my college days. Since I am now a professional writer, I find it more interesting than I did then, but I am particularly interested in the introductory chapter, which I missed the first time. This is entitled "New Learning and New Ignorance," and I am going to give some extracts from it in this and the following few notes.

It is a stage-setting chapter, intended to give the reader some background in the mind-set of 16th-century England. Lewis, it turns out, is good at history of ideas. Besides this chapter, he wrote a book on the medieval worldview, The Discarded Image, intended to give background to students of medieval literature. I first read it in undergraduate school and later, in graduate school, was pleased to find it used as one of the required texts for a course on the history of ancient and medieval science.

Some of the ideas covered in "New Learning and New Ignorance" are:

I'd recommend that you rush out and buy the book, only I'm not sure where you'd find it – except that there was a second copy in that bookstore, Sunapee Depot Books, at the junction of routes 11 and 103, between Sunapee and Newport, New Hampshire.


Heliocentrism – So What?

Lewis gives evidence that the shift from the old, Ptolemaic, geocentric cosmology to the new, Copernican, heliocentric cosmology made very little difference to anyone but the scholars immediately involved, and crept up on the public mind slowly – just barely starting the job in the 16th century:

It comes naturally to a modern to suppose that the new astronomy made a profound impression on men's minds; but when we look into the literary texts we rarely find it mentioned. The idea that it produced a shock comparable to that which Darwin gave the Victorians or Freud to our own age is certainly mistaken. Nor are the reasons hard to find. In the first place it must be remembered that the De Revolutionibus (1543) of Copernicus put forward only a theory; verification, at the hands of Kepler and Galileo, came only at the end of our period, and general acceptance later still. And secondly, humanism, dominant in mid-sixteenth-century England, tended to be on the whole indifferent, if not hostile, to science. It is an English humanist, a classical pedant, who in Bruno's Cena delle Cenere (1584) still thinks that Copernicus can be dismissed with an airy gibe from the Adagia of Erasmus. Even where the new theory was accepted, the change which it produced was not of such emotional or imaginative importance as is sometimes supposed. ... For ages men had known, and poets had emphasized, the truth that earth, in relation to the universe, is infinitesimally small: to be treated, said Ptolemy, as a mathematical point (Almagest, I. V). Nor was it generally felt that earth, or Man, would lose dignity by being shifted from the cosmic centre. The central position had not implied pre-eminence. On the contrary, it had implied, as Montaigne says (Essais, II xii), "the worst and deadest part of the universe," "the lowest story of the house," the point at which all the light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity. The position which was locally central was dynamically marginal: the rim of being, farthest from the hub. Hence, when any excitement was shown at the new theory, it might be exhilaration. The divine Cusanus (1401-64), who was an early believer (for his own, metaphysical, reasons) in earth's movement, rejoiced in 1440 to find that she also is "a noble star" with her own light, heat, and influence (De Docta Ignorantia, II. xii).

What proved important (and that slowly) about the new astronomy was not the mere alteration in our map of space but the methodological revolution which verified it. This is not sufficiently described as a change from dogmatism to empiricism. Mere empiricists like Telesius or Bacon achieved nothing. What was fruitful in the thought of the new scientists was the bold use of mathematics in the construction of hypotheses, tested not by observation simply but by controlled observation of phenomena that could be precisely measured. On the practical side it was this that delivered Nature into our hands. And on our thoughts and emotions (which concern a literary historian more) it was destined to have profound effects. By reducing Nature to her mathematical elements, it substituted a mechanical for a genial or animistic conception of the universe. The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colours, smells, and tastes. (Kepler at the beginning of his career explained the motions of the planets by their animae motrices; before he died, he explained it mechanically.) The result was dualism rather than materialism. The mind, on whose ideal constructions the whole method depended, stood over against its object in ever sharper dissimilarity. Man with his new powers became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold. This process, slowly working, ensured during the next century the loss of the old mythical imagination: the conceit, and later the personified abstraction, takes its place. Later still, as a desperate attempt to bridge a gulf which begins to be found intolerable, we have the Nature poetry of the Romantics.

I think animae motrices are "moving souls," but they might be "living movers." Either way, you get the idea.

Modern popular science often tells us that relativity and quantum mechanics have abolished the clockwork universe that was being born in the 1500s. But, just as it was only starting to be born then, it is only starting to die now.

Not Another Bloody Continent!

Lewis points out that the discovery of the New World was basically a disappointment, not just for Columbus but for everyone.

The new geography excited much more interest than the new astronomy, especially, as was natural, among merchants and politicians: but the literary texts suggest that it did not stimulate the imagination so much as we might have expected. The aim of the explorers was mercantile: to cut out the Turk and the Venetian by finding a direct route to the east. In this the Portuguese had succeeded by circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean; Vasco da Gama reached Malabar in 1498. Columbus, a man of lofty mind, with missionary and scientific interests, had the original idea of acting on the age-old doctrine of the earth's rotundity and sailing west to find the east. Lands which no one had dreamed of barred his way. Though we all know, we often forget, that the existence of America was one of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe. Plans laid and hardships borne in the hope of reaching Cathay, merely ushered in a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us. Foiled of Cathay, the Spaniards fell back on exploiting the mineral wealth of the new continent. The English, coming later and denied even this, had to content themselves with colonization, which they conceived chiefly as a social sewereage system, a vent for "needy people who now trouble the commonwealth" and are "daily consumed with the gallows" (Humphrey Gilbert's Discourse, cap 10). Of course the dream of Cathay died hard. We hoped that each new stretch of the American coast was the shore of one more island and that each new bay was the mouth of the channel that led through into the Pacific or "South Sea." In comparison with that perpetually disappointed hope the delectable things we really found seemed unimportant. In Virginia there was "shole water wher we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had beene in the midst of some delicate garden"; a land "so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them"; a king "very just of his promise"; a people "as manerly and civill as any of Europe," most "gentle, loving and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason," living "after the manner of the golden age," But that was all rather beside the point; nothing but "a good Mine or a passage to the South Sea" could ever "bring this Countrey in request to be inhabited by our nation" (Hakluyt, vii 298-331). Hence the desperate attempts of Pert (1517), Hore (1536), Willoughby (1553), and Frobisher (1576-8) to find either a North-West or a North-East passage. Judged in the light of later events the history of English exploration in the sixteenth century may appear to modern Americans and modern Englishmen a very Aeneid: but judged by the aims and wishes of its own time it was on the whole a record of failures and second bests. Nor was the failure relieved by any high ideal motives. Missionary designs are sometimes paraded in the prospectus of a new venture: but the actual record of early Protestantism in this field seems to be "blank as death."

This has made me wonder what we may be overlooking in our own frontiers. For instance, are we too disappointed that Venus and Mars do not have jungles and canals?

An American Archetype

Here's Lewis on an odd contribution of the Age Exploration to the history of thought:

There is, however, one respect in which Ameria may have affected not only imaginative but even philosophical thought. If it did not create, it impressed on our minds more strongly, the image of the Savage, or Natural Man. A place had, of course, been prepared for him. Christians had depicted the naked Adam, Stoics, the state of Nature, poets, the reign of Saturn. But in America it might seem that you could catch glimpses of some such thing actually going on. The "Natural Man" is, of course, an ambivalent image. He may be conceived as ideally innocent. From that conception descended Montaigne's essay on cannibals, Gonzalo's commonwealth in The Tempest, the good "Salvage" in the Faerie Queene (VI. iv, V, vi), Pope's "reign of God," and the primeval classless society of the Marxists. It is one of the great myths. On the other hand, he might be conceived as brutal, sub-human: thence Caliban, the bad "Salvages" of the Faerie Queene (VI. viii), the state of nature as pictured by Hobbes, and the "Cave Man" of popular modern imagination. That is another great myth. The very overtones which the world "primitive" now has for most speakers (it had quite different ones in the sixteenth century) are evidence of its potency; though other causes, such as evolutionary biology, have here contributed.

Hobbes's state of nature is the one in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short." The old connotation of "primitive" is rather like the one we now have for "original," that is, something like "purest, most genuine."

Humanism vs Medieval Latin

The 16th century was the dawn of "humanism" – not "secular humanism," but a new interest in "the humanities," the revival of classical learning. Lewis was a romantic, very proudly so, and his real focus of study was medieval literature, which he loved. So it isn't surprising that he just doesn't like the humanists much, though he does try to be fair in his assessment of them:

The humanists did two things, for one of which we are their endless debtors. They recovered, edited, and expounded a great many ancient texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. We must, indeed, remember that many Latin authors had never been lost; Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, Claudian, Boethius, and many others were as familiar to Dante and Chaucer as they were to Ronsard and Jonson. We must also remember, as modern scholars have shown, that a real knowledge of the ancients was not nearly so common among sixteenth-century authors as their writings would at first lead us to suppose. Quotations are often at second or third hand. But it remains true that we owe nearly all our Greeks, and many of our Latins, to the humanists: also a prodigious advance in philology and textual criticism. ...

Lewis feels the humanists are responsible for some modern pieces of "chronological snobbery":

The difficulty of assessing this new temper which the humanists introduced lies in the fact that our educational system descends from them and, therefore, the very terms we use embody humanistic conceptions. Unless we take care, our language will beg every question in their favour. We say, for example, that they substituted "classical" for "medieval" Latin. But the very idea of the "medieval" is a humanistic invention. (According to Lehmann it is in 1469 that the expression media tempestas first occurs.) And what can 'media' imply except that a thousand years of theology, metaphysics, jurisprudence, courtesy, poetry, and architecture are to be regarded as a mere gap, or chasm, or entre-acte? Such a preposterous conception can be accepted only if you swallow the whole creed of humanism at the same time. ... If we took for our criterion the implicit (as distinct from the expressed) judgement of posterity, we should arrive at a startlingly different result. The medieval philosophy is still read as philosophy, the history as history, the songs as songs: the hymns are still in use. It would be hard to think of one single text in humanists' Latin, except the Utopia, of which we can say the same. Petrarch's Latin poetry, Politian, Buchanan, even sweet Sannazarus, even Erasmus himself, are hardly ever opened except for an historical purpose. We read the humanists, in fact, only to learn about humanism; we read the "barbarous" authors in order to be instructed or delighted about any theme they choose to handle. Once we cease to let the humanists' own language beg the question, is it not clear that in this context the "barbarous" is the living and the "classical" is the still-born?

Lewis also says the humanists are responsible for the accidental linguicide of Latin:

It could hardly have been anything but still-born. It is largely to the humanists that we owe the curious conception of the "classical" period in a language, the correct or normative period before which all was immature or archaic and after which all was decadent. ... When once this superstition was established it led naturally to the belief that good writing in the fifteenth or sixteenth century meant writing which aped as closely as possible that of the chosen period of the past. All real development of Latin to meet the changing needs of new talent and new subject-matter was thus precluded; with one blow of "his Mace petrific" the classical spirit ended the history of the Latin tongue. This was not what the humanists intended. They had hoped to retain Latin as the living esperanto of Europe while putting back the great clock of linguistic change to the age of Cicero. From that point of view humanism is a great archaizing movement parallel to that which Latin had already undergone at the hands of authors like Apuleius and Fronto. But this time it was too thorough. They succeeded in killing medieval Latin: but not in keeping alive the schoolroom severities of their restored Augustanism. Before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb.

So I guess this is why we no longer teach Latin in school with any great regularity, and why French took the place of the international language of culture, followed by German as the international language of learning, followed by English as the general "esperanto" of the world.

Humanism vs Medieval Philosophy – the New Ignorance

The humanists hated not only medieval Latin, but the whole medieval academic establishment – that is to say, scholasticism.

So far as the common reader was concerned, the humanists' attack on romances was not, in the sixteenth century, very successful; their attack on medieval philosophy had more serious consequences. Here again we must beware of false simplifications. We must not picture a straight fight in which humanism, with the new science as its ally, rebelled against "the tyranny of Aristotle." Humanists were seldom, even by accident, allied with scientists; scientists did not always despise scholasticism; Aristotle and scholasticism are sometimes in opposition. In reality the humanists' revolt against medieval philosophy was not a philosophical revolt. What it really was can best be gauged by the language used. Your philosophers, says Vives (De Causis, I), are straw-splitters, makers of unnecessary difficulties, and if you call their jargon Latin, why then we must find some other name for the speech of Cicero. "The more filthie barbarisme they have in their style (si quam maxime barbare spurceque loquantur) the greater theologians they doe account themselves," says Erasmus (Moriae Encomium, cf. also Letter 64). "Calle ye Thomas Aquinas a doctor?" said Johan Wessel, "He knew no tongue but Latin and barely that!" ... These are not the terms in which a new philosophy attacks an old one: they are, unmistakably, the terms in which at all times the merely literary man, the bellettrist, attacks philosophy itself. No humanist is now remembered as a philosopher. They jeer and do not refute. The schoolman advanced, and supported, propositions about things: the humanist replied that his words were inelegant. ...

The war between the humanists and the schoolmen was not a war between ideas: it was, on the humanists' side, a war against ideas. It is a manifestation of the humanist tendency to make eloquence the sole test of learning; embittered (if not partly caused) by the fact that in the universities of that age the teachers of eloquence usually had less secure and lucrative posts than their enemies. ...

In the field of philosophy humanism must be regarded, quite frankly, as a Philistine movement: even an obscurantist movement. In that sense the New Learning created the New Ignorance. Perhaps every new learning makes room for itself by creating a new ignorance. In our own age we have seen the sciences beating back the humanities as humanism once beat back metaphysics. Man's power of attention seems to be limited. One nail drives out another.

It was the humanists who put the question "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" in the mouths of the Schoolmen, I believe, as a satiric example of their hair-splitting.

The Humanist Pose

More of Lewis on sixteenth-century humanist attitudes, especially toward the Middle Ages:

Whatever else humanism is, it is emphatically not a movement towards freedom and expansion. It is the impulse of men who feels themselves simple, rustic, and immature, towards sophistication, urbanity, and ripeness. In a word, it is the most complete opposite we can find to the Romantic desire for the primitive and the spontaneous. The metaphor of "broken fetters" which some have used to describe the revival of learning is emotionally misleading. The desire was for order and discipline, weight, and decorum. ...

This desire to be very "adult," as we now say, had some unfortunate consequences. The qualities which the humanists admired are, of course, to be found in Latin literature, even if less exclusively and continuously than they supposed. But few qualities are less suitable for imitation. Elevation and gravity of language are admirable, or even tolerable, only when they grow from elevation and gravity of thought. To imitate them directly is to manufacture a symptom. The trouble is not that such manufacture is impossible. It is only too possible: even now any clever boy can be taught to write Ciceronian prose. The gestures and accents of magnaminity, laboriously reproduced by little men, clever, meticulous, primed with the gradus or the phrase-book, nervously avoiding what is "low," makes an ugly spectacle. That was how the humanists came to create a new literary quality – vulgarity. It is hard to point to any medieval work that is vulgar. When medieval literature is bad, it is bad by honest, downright incompetence: dull, prolix, or incoherent. But the varnish and stucco of some neo-Latin work, the badness which no man could incur by sheer defect of talent but only by "endless labour to be wrong" is a new thing.


Humanistic culture, as I have already said, was overwhelmingly Latin. A real understanding of humanistic taste shows that this was inevitable. Greek was given much "mouth honour," but only the minor Greek authors (Plutarch, Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, the Anthology) were really relished. Greek will not take the hard, high polish which was what the humanists principally cared for: it is too supple, sensitive, and intimate. You can hardly be marmoreal in Greek. ...

I am unwilling to end this short account of the humanists on a note of condemnation. Despite the immense harm they did, despite their narrowness, their boasting, and their ferocity – for it is a strange delusion that represents them as gentle, amiable, and (in that sense) "humane" – our debt to them can never be cancelled. If we must now judge that, in the very act of discovering some classics, they introduced a subtle falsity of approach to them from which we took centuries to recover, yet we so judge only from a reading of texts which the humanists themselves first gave us. If their manners were often like those of giants, so were the labours.

Like I said, it is clear that, in this quarrel, Lewis sides with the (pre-Humanist) Scholastics and the (post-Humanist) Romantics. I'd love to read the reviews this book got.

The Early Puritans

Lewis has some very illuminating things to say about the puritans. (At least I found it illuminating.) As many of you may already know, they did not start out as the quintessence of stuffiness:

Puritanism, as I have defined it, splits off from general Protestantism in the second half of the sixteenth century. Stow traces the word 'puritan' to about the year 1567. Originally coined by certain Anabaptists to describe themselves, it came to be used as a hostile term (though they sometimes accepted it) for those Protestants who believed that the Elizabethan Church was insufficiently reformed and wished to make her more like the Protestant churches on the continent; especially like that of Geneva. The puritans were so called because they claimed to be purists or purifiers in eccesiastical polity: not because they laid more emphasis than other Christians on "purity" in the sense of chastity. ...

Lewis then gives a capsule summary of puritan theology, mostly but not wholly sympathetic:

... On the Protestant view one could not, and by God's mercy need not, expiate one's sins. Theologically, Protestantism was either a recovery, or a development, or an exaggeration (it is not for the literary historian to say which) of Pauline theology. ... In the mind of a Tyndale or a Luther, as in the mind of St. Paul himself, this theology was by no means an intellectual construction made in the interests of speculative thought. It springs directly out of a highly specialized religious experience; and all its affirmations, when separated from that context, become meaningless or else mean the opposite of what was intended. Propositions originally framed with the sole purpose of praising the Divine compassion as boundless, hardly credible, and utterly gratuitous, build up, when extrapolated and systematized, into something that sounds not unlike devil-worship. The experience is that of catastrophic conversion. The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from a nightmare into ecstasy. Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness. Never again can he "crow from the dunghill of desert." All the initiative has been on God's side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately they need not. ...

For it must be clearly understood that they were at first doctrines not of terror but of joy and hope: indeed, more than hope, fruition, for as Tyndale says, the converted man is already tasting eternal life. The doctrine of predestination, says the XVIIth Article, is "full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons." But what of ungodly persons? Inside the original experience no such question arises. There are no generalizations. We are not building a system. When we begin to do so, very troublesome problems and very dark solutions will apppear. But these horrors, so familiar to the modern reader (and especially to the modern reader of fiction), are only by-products of the new theology. They are astonishingly absent from the thought of the first Protestants. Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes. In a single sentence of the Tischreden Luther tosses the question aside for ever. Do you doubt whether you are elected to salvation? Then say your prayers, man, and you may conclude that you are. It is as easy as that.

The first opponents regarded puritans as Pollyannas and wishful thinkers:

It follows that nearly every association which now clings to the word 'puritan' has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them. On the contrary, Harpsfield (in his Life of More) describes their doctrines as "easie, short, pleasant lessons" which lulled their unwary victim in "so sweete a sleepe as he was ever after loth to wake from it." For More, a Protestant was one "dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte" (Dialogue, III.ii). Luther, he said, had made converts precisely because "he spiced al the poison" with "libertee" (ibid. III.vii). Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true; "I could for my part be verie wel content that sin and pain all were as shortlye gone as Tyndale telleth us" (Confutation). They teach and use "more sensual and licentious living than ever did Makomet" (ibid. IV.ix). ...

"Makomet" is an archaic spelling of "Mohammed." So much for the ideology of the puritans. The next note discusses the puritans and the rest of western Christendom at work in politics.

Church and State

Historians have sometimes expressed puzzlement over the relative ease with which the English drifted away from Rome under Henry VIII (excepting a few martyrs like Sir Thomas More). Lewis explains, at least partly, what made the shift so easy.

We must, at all events, take care not to assume that a sixteenth-century man who lived through these changes had necessarily felt himself, at any stage, confronted with the clear issue which would face a modern in the same circumstances. A modern, ordered to profess or recant a religious belief under pain of death, knows that he is being tempted and that the government which so tempts him is a government of villains. But this background was lacking when the period of religious revolution began. No man claimed for himself or allowed to another the right of believing as he chose. All parties inherited from the Middle Ages the assumption that Christian man could live only in a theocratic polity which had both the right and the duty of enforcing true religion by persecution. Those who resisted its authority did so not because they thought it had no right to impose doctrines but because they though it was imposing the wrong ones. Those who burned as heretics were often (and, on their premises, logically) eager to burn others on the same charge. When Calvin led the attack on Servetus which ended in his being burnt at Geneva, he was acting on accepted medieval principles. A man's beliefs, like is actions, were to be ruled by his Betters. What began in Henry VIII's time was not an encroachment by these Betters on a sphere hitherto free, but a quarrel among the Betters themselves. And all Betters, whether secular or spiritual, had an authority of divine origin: disobedience was sin as well as crime. What we should now call "Church" and "State" were (by our standards) deeply confused. Even western Christendom as a whole had never achieved an agreed definition of the relations between pope and emperor; Henry's England, as it split off, inevitably retained the dual nautre of the parent mass. Thus Henry's claim to the Supreme Headship of the English Church first came before the ordinary layman in a very curious form. Up till 1534 you could be burnt by your mayor or sheriff on the findings of an ecclesiastical court: by the act of that year your burning required the king's writ as well. It is rather hard to demand that even the pious layman should have leaped to arms in defence of his right to be burnt without royal permission. He was, in any case, well used to quarrels between his masters. They had always been at it, Pope against anti-Pope, Papalists against imperialists, clergy against laity (semper clericis infesti, as Convocation noted in 1487), secular clergy against friars, English clergy against interference by foreigners from Italy. The common man might have – I think he had – a conscience and a religion; a conscience much burdened by his own unchastity, profanity, or deficiency in alms-giving, and a religion deeply concerned with the state of the crops and the possibility of making a good end when his time came. But the great controversies were too hard for him. And he was not directly faced either with pope or king; squire and parson, parents and neighbours, an itinerant preacher on one or the other side, were the immediate factors in his problem. We may well believe that such a man, though baptized in the Old Religion and dying in the New, did not feel he had, in any clear sense, either committed apostacy or undergone a conversion. He had only tried to do what he was told in a world were doing what he was told had been, according to all his Betters, the thing mainly demanded of him.

Three cheers for democracy and the separation of Church and State, say I. I often think Dante was right – the emperor Constantine was a well-meaning spiritual disaster.

The Calvinist Counter-Culture

Then there's the interesting revelation that the Reformation in general and puritanism in particular were the New-Age/Counter-Culture/Bohemian movements of their day:

Modern parallels are always to some extent misleading. Yet, for a moment only, and to guard against worse misconceptions, it may be useful to compare the influence of Calvin on that age with the influence of Marx on our own; or even Marx and Lenin in one, for Calvin had both expounded the new system in theory and set it going in practice. This 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. Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity, and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong. It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries. It appealed strongly to those tempers that would have been Marxist in the nineteen-thirties. The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. When hard rocks of Predestination outcrop in the flowery soil of the Arcadia or the Faerie Queene, we are apt to think them anomalous, but we are wrong. The Calvinism is as modish as the shepherds and goddesses. ...

We must distinguish a hard core of puritans and a much wider circle of those who were, at varying levels, affected by Calvinism. But a certain severity (however seriously we may take it) was diffused even through that wider circle, in the sense that denunciation of vice ebcame part of the stock-in-trade of fashionable and even frivolous writers. Perhaps nothing in our period is so surprising to a modern as the readiness with which a Lyly, a Nashe, or even a Greene, will at any moment launch out into moral diatribe of the most uncompromising ferocity. All our lifetime the current has been setting towards license. In Elizabeth's reign it was the opposite. Nothing seems to have been more saleable, more comme il faut, than the censorious. We are overwhelmed with floods of morality from very young, very ignorant, and not very moral men. The glib harshness is to us a little repulsive: but it won applause then as easily as attacks on Victorianism, romanticism, or nostalgia in our own century.

I suppose if you go back far enough, anything must have been "the latest thing." I think the puritans must have started the mounting wave of stuffiness that crested in the Victorian age, in reaction to which the 20th century has spent so much adrenalin and not a little blood.

Comment from Jon Callas:

I find this fellow amusing, but he really does seem to have an axe to grind. His metaphor comparing the Calvinists and Puritans to the Left is quite apt, but so would a metaphor comparing them to the currently fashionable strain of Christianity that sees devil-worship at every corner and solicits funds on television is also apt. Possibly even more apt.

Reply: But it's a good axe.

If Lewis has an axe to grind, the name of the axe is "Beware of unconscious historical stereotyping." It seems to me a very useful lesson for a historian to teach. And he does put a consumer-warning label on it:

"Modern parallels are always to some extent misleading."
And explain the pedagogical motive:
"Yet, for a moment only, and to guard against worse misconceptions.... This 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."

It's true that both the comparison with Marxists and the comparison with extremist conservative Christians are apt. But they are made in different directions, and so serve different pedagogical purposes.

The comparison between puritans and the religious right is apt because the religious right is, in fact, the heir of 16th-century puritanism, in direct teacher-to-student descent, and they still resemble each other in many features of doctrine and attitude. The comparison is based on internal similarities and ancestry. It's like comparing a horse's leg to that of an eohippus's.

But the comparison between puritans and Marxists is apt because they occupy analogous positions in their respective eras. Both are daring, revolutionary, and "the very latest thing." The comparison is based on external, relational similarities. It's like comparing a bat's wing to a dragonfly's.

The comparison Lewis is disallowing is between the social role of puritanism in the 16th century and the social role of puritanism today (or in more recent periods than the 16th century). Unlike the religious far-right of today, the 16th-century puritans were not a reactionary force, or more starchy than their contemporaries and adversaries, is Lewis's thesis.

The Puritan Humanist

What has been said above about the intellectual character of puritanism is quite consistent with the fact that an extreme puritan could reach a position which left hardly any room for secular learning or human reason. It is a paradox which meets us more than once in the history of thought; intellectual extremists are sometimes led to distrust the intellect. But in its earlier stages puritanism went well enough with rigid logic and with humanism. Humanist and puritan both felt themselves to be in the vanguard, both hated the Middle Ages, and both demanded a "clean sweep." The same youthful intransigence characterized both. 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 neighbor's Latin had, psychologically, much in common.

I think we've all run into this psychological type long after the 16th century shuffled off this mortal coil, to quote one of its better authors.

Enter Stage Left, Twirling Moustache and Gloating

Here is where cultural history facinates me – it turns out that one of our commonest literary stereotypes is not immemorial, as I had supposed:

The new type of villain which we meet in Elizabethan drama is an image of some interest. ... The cunning villain is so useful to dramatists and has so long been part of their stock-in-trade that we tend to take him for granted. But the typical villains of medieval literature are not often cunning. They are seldom cleverer than the good characters. Herod is not a politician, but something between a buffoon and an ogre. Ganelon is a traitor and Mordred a tale-bearer but neither is particularly subtle. The devil himself is usually "an ass": Marlowe's and Milton's are new. The archetype in the medieval mind seems to have been a story like Jack the Giant Killer, in which the good, clever people beat the strong, stupid, "outrageous" ones. The situation between Lancelot and Meliagrance (Malory, XIX.vii), where the hero's very goodness makes him gullible, is not typical. On the Elizabethan stage it is. Machiavelli may have helped to make it so, but the exigencies of plot may have had more to do with it. Side by side with the new villain a far more disquieting, but temporary, novelty appeared. The older type of villain starts up as hero. Tamburlaine is Grendel, Herod, and Giant Blunderbore all in one, but the author seems to me to be on his side. The play is a hideous moral spoonerism: Giant the Jack Killer.

It is difficult to decide how far the new villain represents a real change in outlook and how far he springs from dramatic convenience.

The foil of the clever villain, the gullible hero, makes me wonder if this dramatic development is a piece of moral decay. I think it suggests to many people that sin is suave and sophisticated, while virtue is stupid. This can either be used as an excuse to be sinful (it's the smart thing to be) or an excuse to be stupid (too much cleverness is suspect, and mere goodness will win out over it).

On the other hand, the clever villain is a useful warning, both to the gullible (don't suppose you are safe) and to the clever (don't suppose you are in the right). So probably the development is simply neutral.

The Renaissance of Macho
The Foundations of the Stiff Upper Lip

I was facinated to learn that the tradition of suppressing emotion (most evident in male WASPs) seems to spring from humanist emulation of the ancient Romans:

In ancient and medieval literature, as in ancient and medieval life, there is no inhibition about tears. Achilles wept, Aeneas wept, the Roman legionaries wept, Hrothgar wept, Roland wept cum chevaler gentil, and Lancelot, to his lasting glory, wept like a beaten child at the healing of Sir Urre (Malory, XIX.xii). In Shakespeare a male character seldom weeps without apologizing for it: "his eyes will tell tales of him," "nature her custom holds, let shame say what it will," he "had not so much of man in him" as to restrain his tears. Something, of course, must be allowed for the needs of the stage: because the actor cannot really weep at will, he must say something to let the audience know that he is supposed to be weeping. But that is not the whole explanation. Puttenham expects "high-minded" persons (the adjective is significant) to turn away their faces when they weep (Art of English Poesy, III.xxxiv). Milton half apologizes for Adam's tears (Paradise Lost XI.494 et seq). And the change about tears is only symptomatic of something larger. ...

The mode of feeling (for it was hardly a mode of thought) which I am refering to was closely connected with the spirit shown in Vives' praise of the Latin language. It was the humanist response to the moral philosophy of the ancients. ... The new theology by its insistence on the distinction between faith and works, between the regenerate and the merely virtuous life, helped to disengage the concept of morality as such, morality as something other than religion. Hence Donne (Sermon LXXV) speaks of "Philosophy and morall constancy" as a "Meteor that hangs between two worlds," above the carnal and below the spiritual life. At the same time the humanists, disinclined for prolonged and serious thought, yet anxious for "wisdom" if it could be had at an easier rate, turned naturally to that kind of "philosophy" or "moral constancy" which embodies itself in striking attitudes, anecdotes, and epigrams. In the ancients, especially in Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius (the Golden Legend of paganism) they found materials for building up their picture of high, antique virtue and the heroically moral man. The word 'philosopher,' without losing its old meanings, comes also to mean one who can "endure a toothache patiently."

... They desired something far loftier, something as highly exalted as the magician, the prince, or the elect, the "right prudent and valiant man," not only above tears (that, of course) but above all dependence on fortune. Thus the Stoic sapiens, far more than the Aristotelian megalopsychos, is the image really potent in Elizabethan, and in much later, literature. He is (like Chapman's Clermont) "gladly obedient" to anything "the high and general cause" may lay on him; he regards the world (like more than one Shakespearian character) merely as a stage; he is content (like Guyon) with what Nature needs; a king over himself (like Milton's Christ and Dryden's Almanzor): undazzled by worldly splendors (like Dryden's Leonidas): indifferent (like Addison's Cato) to the success or failure of his own actions. Far from desiring fame, he rather prefers obloquy. Coriolanus (II.iii.53) would prefer the rabble to forget him: Milton's Christ regards the vulgar as judges "of whom to be disprais'd were no small praise" (Paradise Regained III.56). He is indifferent to death. He lacks no divine attribute (once more, like Coriolanus) save eternity; and that is one which really does not matter. His mind (like Satan's) is its own place. He is as free as Nature first made man. He is more an antique Roman than a Dane.

All these attitudes can be paralleled from ancient texts, Stoic or Cynical.... They yield an image which influenced the English poetic mind very deeply.

This is obviously the foundation of the 19th-century Gentleman in particular as well as of the general stoic side of WASPiness.

I notice a rough correlation between the nations that went Protestant in this time and the ones most affected by Stiff Upper Lip. Is it perhaps because the Protestants were more thoroughly divorced from the traditions of the medievals? Or are both Protestantism and lip-stiffness things that appealed to the Norse/Germanic/"cold-water" cultures? I dunno.

Comment from Wook Lee – "The Oriental Stiff Upper Lip":

Earl, it's interesting to see the origins of the western stiff upper lip, so I guess it's appropriate to inject the eastern version as well.

At least for Koreans, a stoic temperment was the ideal of the aristocratic Korean male. I think it had it's roots in Confusianism, but I can't vouch for it. I do know that the yangban or aristocracy of the Yi dynasty thought it proper for males, especially heads of families, to avoid extremes in emotional expressions of happiness or sadness or anger, et al. The Yi dynasty lasted from the 15th to the end of the 19th centuries, so the time period seems to be similar to that of Puritanism.

That this attitude is an expression of Confusianism makes for an even stronger analog. I don't know if there was a period before the Yi dynasty in which emotion was more acceptable, but if there were, the parallel would be quite striking.

Reply: East Meets West (and both bow stiffly)

Yes, the parallel is very strong, since both Confucianism and the old Roman sentiments revived by the 16th-century Humanists centered around the behavior appropriate to civic leaders and statemen. Perhaps in both cases it goes back to "don't let the troops see how scared you are, or we'll have a rout on our hands."

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011