John F. Kennedy, CS Lewis, and Aldous Huxley all died on November 22, 1963, fifty years ago yesterday. The Federalist has a nice article on the juxtaposition of the first two luminaries. Naturally, the assassination of a president received much more attention than the death of an admittedly quite famous Cambridge academic. He had graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1947 and his book sales were remarkably high. Huxley is most famous for his dystopian novel Brave New World, which explores the potential of a future where capitalism has given us everything we want, and what we want enslaves us. However, in hindsight, it may be Lewis who is the most significant figure of them all in terms of influence. Author Stella Morabito writes,
The coincidence of JFK and C.S. Lewis dying on the same day gives us a lot to ponder. Many people mourned and adored Kennedy for his worldly glory, his seemingly superhuman qualities – brilliance, style, good looks, and being “Mr. Camelot” himself. By contrast, Lewis, the stodgy looking medievalist at Oxford, would have been the actual specialist on the legends of Camelot, and the enchantment it holds for us. But Lewis also might have reminded all who mourn that they are really yearning for something else: an eternal glory.
Kennedy, whatever his popularity at the time, entered a half century of semi-divine status. He was revered and loved. His Camelot metaphor maintained a mythical hold on the American imagination, at least in terms of its memory of him. Lewis’s popularity waned after his death, but revived in the 1970s due to various developments within American Protestantism as well as a resurgence in interest in his Narnian children’s stories, widely regarded as the finest children’s stories of the twentieth century. Since then his fame has only grown. In 2011, the British Royal Mail released eight stamps, each celebrating a mythical character from British literature. Two were dedicated to Narnia characters, Aslan and the White Witch. It’s not just his influence but his wisdom and intellectual respectability that have received additional attention.
The fact is that so many of Lewis’s insights on human folly and the nature of evil are in brisk circulation, very readable, compelling, and potentially life transforming to whomever may stumble upon them.
While Huxley’s dystopian future was imaginatively frightening, it is Lewis’s analysis that has been much more prescient:
And today people are more frequently consulting Lewis’s 1943 lecture “The Abolition of Man” because it’s so breathtaking in its prescience. In it Lewis warns about the debunking of objective reality in education, which amounts to the mocking of virtue and honor. This opens the door to abuses in technologies that doom our humanity. So we end up clamoring “for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.” He illustrates the irony and madness of it all with this splendid line: “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
He makes the identical point in his dystopian novel That Hideous Strength, which has often been compared to Huxley’s for its critique of modern social engineering.