‘I still find his thought terribly helpful’
Letters to and from Mary Midgley on C. S. Lewis, 1996–1998 and 2006–2007
Mary Midgley’s letters appear in bold type.
Hand-written letters appear in italics.
Footnotes and other explanations appear like the present text in small, bold and dark green type.
Utrecht, 24 July 1996
Dear Mrs Midgley,
It is a few years ago that I first came across a book by you, Science as Salvation. You quickly became one of my favourite writers: after that first title I read The Ethical Primate, Beast and Man, Wickedness, Evolution as a Religion, and parts of Heart and Mind and Animals and Why They Matter. I would very much like to explain my enthusiasm for these books in some detail – their style seems so me the perfect fulfillment of George Orwell’s ideal as expressed in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ – but for the moment I will confine myself to the following question.
Two months ago I was in Oxford where, during a meeting of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, I had a brief conversation with Professor Andrew Linzey of Mansfield College. When I heard about his field of study, I asked if he knew you or your books, which of course he did. When I told him that I was translating Lewis’s The Abolition of Man into Dutch, he said you had published an article about this book in Third Way ‘a few months ago.’
I have since been trying to trace this article, but I am still not sure that I have found it. When I phoned Third Way last week, the lady who helped me could only find – in this year’s March issue – an article called ‘Pi in the Sky’, which she sent to me. It is a piece in which you do quote Lewis and in which references to The Abolition of Man could certainly have found a place, but it cannot be what Mr Linzey meant if what he said was at all correct. Could you tell me if there is any such article as he mentioned, and if there is, could you please provide me with a copy of it? Not only would I have the pleasure of seeing what one of my favourite writers says on one of my favourite books; I would perhaps also find passages to quote on the cover of my translation of The Abolition of Man. Such quotations might help persuade prospective readers that this little book is even more relevant to the present time than to the time when it came out. This at least is what I think. If you think the same, I would be delighted if you could help me in the way I have in mind – or, perhaps, in some other way. I look forward to your reply.
P.S. – I have recently submitted to a Dutch publisher the idea of translating The Ethical Primate or some other book by you into Dutch. Which one would you recommend?
Newcastle on Tyne, 29/7/96
Dear Arend Smilde,
Thank you! I’m sorry to say that I never did write that article – I’m afraid Andrew Linzey has mixed me up with someone else. And, though I am very fond of C. S. Lewis, I’ve never even read that book either. But if you want a few words for the cover of your book, I could give you a general comment, as follows –
‘Unlike most prophets, C. S. Lewis doesn’t get out of date. Like a good wine, he improves with time & and he can safely be exported into other languages. It is good that he is reaching The Netherlands. He will surely be understood & enjoyed there as he deserves.’
Will this do?
Very good luck in any case –
Utrecht, 9 February 1997
Dear Mrs Midgley,
First of all let me thank you – although half a year late – for your reply when I asked you about your non-existent essay on C. S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man. The short general comment you gave on Lewis proved useful when I wrote a foreword to my translation of that little book, which will come out shortly. What will perhaps be more interesting to you is that my idea to translate The Ethical Primate has been accepted by a Dutch publisher. I will see him next week to find out if he will let me translate it.
I discovered your books because I work in an academic bookshop and because C. S. Lewis is one of my favourite writers. Of course I can’t afford to open every book that passes through my hands, but the title Science as Salvation and its subtitle made me suspect that this one might contain quotations from Lewis. So it was to check this that I first opened one of your books. I have by now read quite a few of them and enjoyed them probably more than I will ever enjoy other books on similar subjects.
In doing so I have become all the more interested in what you might have to say on Lewis. Supposing you do have anything you think worth saying on the subject, I wonder whether this could be made into an essay or any other type of publication. Although much is and has been written about Lewis, I suppose there would be no real problem getting a product of your pen published.
You may well ask what I imagine such a product to be. In a very general way, I think you might have interesting things to say on why Lewis (as you wrote to me) ‘unlike most prophets, never gets out of date’ and ‘like a good wine, improves with time’. Surely part of the answer to that general question is that he never tried to be in step with his time. But more particularly, he does not seem to have paid the slightest attention to the new kind of philosophy that emerged during his lifetime – and which you call your own ‘native kind of philosophy’ (Wisdom, Information and Wonder, page 23). I always wonder to what extent this particular piece of ignorantia might be called docta. It will be difficult to make any positive assertions on such an essentially negative phenomenon, yet if the attempt is to be made at all, you seem to me the right person to do so.
My theory – which your insights may or may not confirm – is that Lewis’s failure to ‘go analytical’ was, partly at least, a practical endorsement of what you call ‘large-scale thinking.’ It remains to see (but I can’t make out) whether he wasn’t merely careless on the small scale. I just now happened to read a fine passage in Chesterton which I copied out on the end leaf of your Wisdom, Information and Wonder:
Any common Imperialist can have large ideas so long as he is not called upon to have small ideas also. Any common scientific philosopher can have small ideas so long as he is not called upon to have large ideas as well. But great poets use the telescope and also the microscope. (‘A Dead Poet’, in All Things Considered, 1908)
If you think you do have a clear idea of where Lewis stands on the scale here referred to, yet for purposes of writing about it you may still feel a need for more detailed suggestions or directions – which I would of course be happy to supply to the best of my ability. It would probably be wise first to find a place to publish your essay (or whatever). I am aware that the whole enterprise may well be quite out of the question for you. I am submitting the idea to you because, whatever happens, books and articles on Lewis will continue to appear (more than ever perhaps in 1998, Lewis’s centennial year) and I would be delighted to see that at least some of these could compare with Lewis’s own writings.
I hope to hear from you again.
With kind regards,
[postmark 16 Feb. 1997]
Dear Mr Smilde,
Thank you – what an interesting letter. I’m very glad to hear that you are trying to translate me into Dutch, nobody’s done that so far I think – I hope it works.
About C. S. Lewis – I’ll bear your suggestion in mind. Perhaps I’ll read The Abolition of Man. My reading of him so far has been patchy, but I constantly find him relevant & useful. Your question about his non-response to Analytic Philosophy is very intriguing. My first thought is that it is explained by disillusionment with the previous phil. fashion, namely Hegelian Idealism. As he says in Fern-Seed & Elephants (in Christian Reflections) he was much struck by the sudden disintegration of this approach, having ‘lived under this dynasty’. This was surely an eye-opening experience, revealing the thinness & superficiality of academic fashions when they are detached from everyday life. (I’ve discussed this passage myself in Wisdom, Information & Wonder p. 103). So it would prepare him to treat the succeeding fashion with some detachment. If he had been in Cambridge, perhaps, all the same, the influence of Moore, Russell & Wittgenstein might have struck him as worth his attention. But in Oxford that wave arrived later & through less colourful personalities – more as a mere negative cleansing.
I don’t clearly remember whether he ever does refer to it, but certainly not much if at all. You’d certainly think that A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth & Logic (1936) would have been noisy & influential enough to rate his attention. I bet he did look at it. But I suppose he ignored such things, partly from the quite proper inattention to unreal academic fashions already mentioned, & partly also from the much less respectable dismissal of modern developments that led him to ignore or oppose poets like Eliot & Auden. He ought not to have ignored Ayer because A. did have an influence on the general public. So, just as it was worthwhile to put Hegelian Idealism in at the end of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Ayer (& Russell & Popper) were relevant to the scientism of Weston in Out of the Silent Planet. So I think he was a bit careless.
It’s certainly odd to think that CSL & Gilbert Ryle were inhabiting the same college for most of their academic careers...
On the whole, the reason why he doesn’t date surely is indeed his neglect of fashion – his concentration on things that really mattered, both to him & to other people, instead of responding, as academic phils. constantly do, to what somebody else has just written. I’ve said a bit about this in W.I.W. & some more in my last book, Utopia, Dolphins & Computers (Routledge 96) a chapter out of which I enclose (in an earlier form)* because it bears on this problem. I think academic books are getting worse all the time in this way! Anyway, thank you again.
P.S. I see that I haven’t really answered your proposal. The point is hat I don’t see how an essay can really be written round this negative fact – that L. didn’t bother with analytic philosophy. There are many positive facts about him that deserve attention. But mostly they centre on religious matters where I don’t feel much at home. He often is relevant to my thinking because he deals with matters broadly psychological – affecting the relation between our thoughts & our feelings – & is uncommonly realistic about them. I often have occasion to quote him because he’s picked a question up by the right end – mentioned something important about our motives & attitudes to life & thought. But I don’t see a uniting thread – apart from the general question about how one should philosophize – which I have dealt with in the 2 books just mentioned – W.I.W. & U.D.C.
But I will indeed have a look at T.A.O.M. & see whether anything emerges.
* ‘Homunculus Trouble, or, What is Applied Philosophy?’, Journal of Social Philosophy XXI, No. 1, Spring 1990, pp. 5–15.
Utrecht, 10 April 1997
Dear Mrs Midgley,
Soon after your last letter to me I finally got the job of translating The Ethical Primate, and I have by now finished a draft of the first two chapters. I must say it is quite a challenge to preserve as much as possible of the wonderful ease of your style. At this early stage I thought it might be useful if I submitted a few questions to you in order to find out whether I am generally on the right track. I enclose these on separate sheets and since I never asked beforehand whether this is at all welcome to you, I can only hope that you have time and attention to spend on them.
It was very interesting for me to read a fuller statement of your ideas about C. S. Lewis. I hope that my suggestion to read him for what he is worth philosophically still seems workable. What you tell me has not quite removed my suspicion that you may have things to say about Lewis that would be worth printing. I do have to admit that his ignorance of analytical philosophy, as a merely negative fact, is not a suitable subject for an essay. But why not elaborate your point that Lewis often seems to be an example of how one should philosophize? I am not at all sure that more uniting threads need to be seen (or construed) in order to make this worthwhile. What I am hoping for is a candid ‘technical’ assessment of Lewis as a thinker by someone who is eminently qualified for such a task, who likes him sufficiently to think the task worthwhile, and who is not committed to defending or condemning his religious position. In terms of your metaphor on page 19 of The Ethical Primate, one might say that both the ‘lawyer’ and the ‘client’ in Lewis were very strong personalities: but were they on speaking terms? Or who spoke loudest?
In his early days Lewis once praised David Hume for the ‘clarity, ease, humanity and quietness of his manner’ and called it ‘the proper way to write philosophy’ (diary entry of 14 June 1924, as published in All My Road Before Me). Since you tell me that your reading of him is ‘patchy’, you may not know the two pieces of which I am enclosing photocopies for you. ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes’ seems to me one of his most philosophical pieces; the ‘Reply to Professor Haldane’ may interest you because your own work contains so many replies to Haldane’s or Haldane-like ideas. I also enclose fragments from two of Lewis’s published letters; they contain early instances of his scepticism about philosophy and of the way he experienced what you called the ‘homunculus trouble’ as a literary scholar.
By the way, I know one place where Lewis mentioned Gilbert Ryle: in his Cambridge inaugural lecture of 1954 (‘De descriptione temporum’, in Selected Literary Essays). Ryle there briefly figures in a list of pairs of opposites intended to illustrate the gap between modern times and previous times. Even if you don’t know that lecture, you will still guess that Lewis took sides with the pre-moderns. It is certainly odd that Ryle and he were in the same college for so many years, but would you agree that almost all the oddity was in fact on Lewis’s side?
With best wishes,
Newcastle, May 14 
Dear Arend Smilde
I am sorry for the delay in answering your questions. You will understand this when I tell you that my husband became ill early in April & has since died. – Looking at your letter, I see that I did do some work on it before things got difficult. It seems sensible to send you what I have done – I’ve chopped off the rest & put it aside to deal with shortly, when I have time.
I haven’t yet managed to look at what you sent of C. S. Lewis’s, but I’ll be glad to do so now – nor have I thought about the questions you raise. – But I have been struck (in another connexion) by the fact that J. L. Austin as well as Ryle was at Magdalen along with Lewis – I think both parties must have systematically ignored each other, mustn’t they? What a pity.
All the best & I really will get back to the matter.
Utrecht, 30 May 1997
Dear Mrs Midgley,
After your very quick responses to both my previous letters I already suspected that something must be wrong. Please accept my sympathies on the death of your husband, even though they can only be of the remotest kind. I feel privileged to have received a reply at all in these circumstances, and I will certainly not send you any more questions on The Ethical Primate before I know that you have dealt with the first batch of them. I am enjoying my work on this translation and have by now advanced past page 100.
I am delighted to see that you haven’t quite stopped thinking about Lewis yet. If the subject proves inspiring enough for you to write about it, that might be a good start for the kind of publication which I am vaguely planning to submit (as an idea) to either Oxford or Cambridge University Press: a collection of essays to celebrate Lewis’s centenary in 1998. I could already muster two or three contributions, and four would perhaps be enough. (I do know, though, how difficult it is to be really interesting for a publisher.)
The mutual ignorance of Lewis and his philosophical colleagues at Magdalen is surely amazing; but now that you have pointed this out to me, I wonder if your own Oxford days have left you with any recollections of Lewis. – But I see that I am now really starting to continue my previous letter, which I did not intend to do.
Yours, with best wishes,
[Utrecht, 7 July 1997]*
Dear Mrs Midgley,
The TLS article** which I enclose was only recently brought to my attention. Thinking of my proposal that you write something about C. S. Lewis and your reaction so far, I thought this piece surprising enough to send it to you. The surprising thing for me was not so much the views expressed here, for they are pretty nearly my own, but the fact that I found them expressed in such a place and manner.
* I kept only a hastily hand-written copy of this letter
** Stephen Logan, ‘In defence of C. S. Lewis’, Times Literary Supplement, 21 February 1997
Utrecht, 31 August 1997
Dear Mrs Midgley,
I finished my first draft of The Ethical Primate in Dutch yesterday. As I got on I liked the book more and more, and although I had of course read it all before, I was absolutely delighted with the last few pages. I look forward to the job of revising and correcting my text, for which I have exactly four months left. In order to know how I can best proceed now, it would be useful for me to know if you are able to supply any more answers to the questions I sent you earlier this year. If you aren’t, I suppose I could still – and indeed should still be able – to produce a satisfying translation; but your directions would surely often be useful as well as very interesting.
What is also interesting is an article which this week’s Economist happened to carry about Darwin, animals and ethics.* I enclose a photocopy for you.
Looking forward to any reply from you,
* ‘Darwin revisited’, The Economist, 30 August 1997
[Postcard, dated 4 Sept. 1997]
Thankyou – Yes – I will be away till the end of next week at a conference
(in Denmark!) but after that I can surely see to these questions. I’m so glad you’re still happy about the book – I’ve just been reading The Abolition of Man, & I agree that it’s first-rate – I wish I’d known about it earlier – I think the title is unfortunate – ? – somehow gloomy & mysterious – I never expected the clear, balanced answer to current mistakes that it actually contains.
All good wishes, Yours, Mary Midgley
After the above postcard of 4 September 1997, more letters followed on the translation of The Ethical Primate until 22 January 1998, when Mrs Midgley concluded the last of these as follows:
I’m glad that you’re attending to Lewis. As I think I told you, I very much liked The Abolition of Man, & am likely to say something about it somewhere.
Very best wishes,
In the spring of 1998, Mary Midgley published a short essay on her friend Irish Murdoch (1919–1999), the novelist and philosopher. I never saw this essay until 2006, when my interest had been revived by reviews of Midgley’s book The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir. The piece on Murdoch appeared in The Philosopher and can be found on the Internet. It opens as follows:
Bright moonlight flooded down St Giles’s as Iris and I, just ceasing to be undergraduates, stumbled home to Somerville at the end of an exhausting evening in the June of 1942. Our recent exams had exhausted us for a start. But, on top of this, our kind tutor had invited us, as a special treat, to dine with two highly distinguished contemporary sages and we had been listening attentively all the evening to their distinguished opinions. ‘So finally,’ I asked, ‘what about it? Did we learn something new this evening?’ ‘Oh yes, I think so,’ declared Iris, gazing up at the enormous moon. ‘I do think so. X is a good man and Y is a bad man’. At which exact but grotesquely unfashionable judgement we both fell about laughing so helplessly that the rare passers-by looked round in alarm and all the cats ran away.
Iris, however, has never minded being unfashionable. That is what makes The Sovereignty of Good so good - what makes it, still, one of the very few modern books of philosophy which people outside academic philosophy find really helpful. It shares that distinction with C. S. Lewis’s little book, The Abolition of Man, which shoots with equally deadly aim at the same target. Both books effectively debunk the colourful, fantastic screen of up-to-date ideas inside which we live - a screen which, despite a lot of surface activity, has not actually changed much since they were written.
Utrecht, 28 September 2006
Dear Mrs Midgley,
You may remember my name from the time when I asked your opinion of C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man in 1996 and then translated your Ethical Primate into Dutch in 1997. What inspires me to write you again is the TLS review of your book The Owl of Minerva – a review dated 26 April which I found on the Internet the other day. This piece not only made me look forward to reading that book but at once revived my old interest for anything you might have to say on C. S. Lewis. I translated about ten more of his books and he has continued to fascinate me in the past ten years.
Quite possibly you already told me everything which you felt you could responsibly say on the subject ten years ago. The point is that the TLS review makes me curious to know whatever things you might have to say even in the way of vague memories of what you knew or heard about him (or read or indeed saw of him) in the 1940s and ’50s or whenever, of opinions you remember having had or having heard others express – never mind what value you now attach to such opinions. I imagine, for example, that your friendship with Elizabeth Anscombe might be one source of a few such memories. Of course, I would also be highly interested to have, once more and perhaps in more detail than previously, your considered or re-considered opinion of Lewis.
With very best wishes,
Newcastle on Tyne, 14 October 2006 (e-mail)
Dear Arend – How nice to hear! Well, I’m afraid that I haven’t a lot to say that can be any use about this, but you’re welcome to what I do remember. I thought he would be mentioned more often in the index to the Owl book because he certainly has been very important to me, but there is only one entry. If you look at the index to any of my other books, and the indexer hasn’t been asleep, I reckon you will find me quoting him.
I do remember when I first encountered him. Some time early in the war I was sitting at my father’s desk telephoning (that was where the single telephone was), when I noticed a newspaper on the desk. It was the Guardian (then, a church newspaper) and it contained one of the Screwtape Letters. I started reading it and was fascinated at once. My parents were so too, and we read the rest of them with delight, and then the Science Fiction books, which I think came out at that time. I went on reading him whenever I could (including The Allegory of Love), and I hoped that he would make the whole business of Christianity intelligible to me. This didn’t actually happen, but I got a great deal from him about the whole relation of thought to life, particularly about the things that go wrong with the intellectual life.
When I was a graduate student at Oxford after the war he was busy there running the Socratic Club, but by then I was rather off Christianity and I didn’t attend it. I did once go to St Mary’s to hear him preach and I thought that his sermon was good, but I can only remember one remark, namely – ‘One hundred percent of us are going to die anyway. That percentage can neither be increased or diminished’. Elizabeth Anscombe certainly used to talk about him sometimes but usually with indignation because she thought he was oversimplifying things. As a Catholic convert she was of course suspicious of Anglicans anyway as halfway hesitaters, but she also knew about the authorities that he mentioned and she thought he misrepresented them. You have probably heard about a famous meeting of the Socratic Club where she disputed with him and seems to have shown successfully that he was indeed oversimplifying – I think he was being overconfident about how far Christianity can be proved by reason. He is said to have become a bit less bullish about this afterwards.
I can easily believe that he had got a bit spoilt by the uncritical admiration he got at the Socratic. But I still find his thought terribly helpful, centring on the Screwtape Letters. There’s a kind of penetrating honesty there that is really uncommon, isn’t there? I’ll be most interested to hear anything more that you have to say about him.
I’m busy now trying to make sense of Intelligent Design (!!), but maybe after that I’ll think about some more memoirs. All the best anyway – Yours – Mary Midgley.
Utrecht, 31 July 2007 (e-mail)
Dear Mrs Midgley,
Our last contact, about ten months ago now, came almost ten years after what was our last contact then. At the end of your e-mail of 16 October 2006 you said (rashly perhaps, but flattering enough to me) that you would be “most interested to hear anything more that I have to say about him” i.e. about C. S. Lewis. [...]
[However,] I have always hoped not so much to tell you what I have as to hear what you have to say on Lewis. In the course of our correspondence, first in 1996-1998 and then briefly last year, you have actually said enough about him for it to be interesting for anyone interested in Lewis. You have moreover explained that it is really all you have to say on him. I would therefore ask you permission for simply publishing our correspondence on my website. It would then be one of the items listed on www.solcon.nl/arendsmilde/cslewis/ reflections. There it will certainly be found and read by many of those who may have some use for it.
Hoping to hear from you again,
Newcastle on Tyne, 3 August 2007 (e-mail)
Dear Arend – How nice to hear from you! Yes, I certainly have no objection to your putting that correspondence on the Internet, if you think anybody will be interested in reading it.
I still haven’t got anything special to say about C.S. Lewis generally – I think this is because some aspects of his thought appeal to me so much more than others that I really wouldn’t want to judge him as a whole. (This diversity struck me very much in reading his biography – I think by Humphrey Carpenter?) I just take what suits me from him and leave the rest – which, I think, is what he often did himself.
I’ll probably be getting back to the God topic shortly, and may therefore think some more about Lewis, because I’m working on the bizarre ‘scientific’ atheism that is now being propounded by R. Dawkins, Dennett and others. I got into this via some work on ‘Intelligent Design’ theory, to which it is relevant. I send a small article which shows how.
All very best wishes anyway – Yours – Mary Midgley
Utrecht, 5 August 2007 (e-mail)
Dear Mrs Midgley,
I do think there will be people interested in what you say about Lewis. If it isn’t terribly much, the fact of it being not much is in itself interesting. It throws some light not otherwise available on Lewis’s stature and activities in Oxford in the 1940s. Also, your description of Lewis being not like an ordinary writer but like wine that gets better in the course of time is worth publishing.
I will be interested in whatever you write on “the God topic”. I am reading and have nearly finished a book by Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century: and it is astonishing to see how much of these battles both for and against spuriously scientific revolutions in our world-picture have been fought and apparently decided long before I was born and indeed long before you were born!