Friday, October 30, 2020

1: 1914

From the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen, C.S. Lewis was taught by a private tutor named William Kirkpatrick.

Lewis devotes a whole chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, to Kirkpatrick, who he calls “the Great Knock”. He builds him up into a mythical figure—a Dickensian eccentric, an arch-rationalist and a formidable teacher. “Hammer of priests and kings, true lineage of Rousseau, Hume and Voltaire”, says Lewis. (He had a notion of writing his autobiography in blank verse, in the manner of John Betjeman, but thank goodness he abandoned it.) Prof. Kirk in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has been called an affectionate portrait of Kirkpatrick: although what the old freethinker would have thought about being made a mouth-piece for Lewis’s Christian trilemma can only be imagined. 

Lewis’s account of his first meeting with Kirkpatrick is pretty well known. Lewis, who grew up in Ireland, made a comment about the Surrey landscape, and Kirkpatrick insisted that he defend it logically. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?” It seems to have been a good little lesson in dialectic. First you define your terms (Lewis couldn’t) and then you must define your premises (Lewis didn’t have any) and then you show how you got from one to the other (Lewis couldn’t). Lewis had been making small-talk: Kirkpatrick was hoping for a syllogism. “By a wild landscape I mean [X]; my evidence about Surrey included [A], [B], and [C]; since [X] does not follow from [A], [B] and [C] I formed the expectation that Surrey would not be wild.” But it was a strange response to “The landscape here is wilder than I expected.” Kirkpatrick thought that philosophical dialectic was the only possible mode of discourse. 

There is nothing wrong with reasoning; with arguing; and with expecting a pupil to have facts and evidence to back up his point of view. But Lewis claimed that Kirkpatrick was a “purely logical entity”. And he seems to think that logic and emotions are incompatible. (This was before Star Trek.) Lewis’s father had warned him that Kirkpatrick was the sort of teacher who might put his arm around a boy or even kiss him on the forehead, which Lewis would have hated. Having been forced to define his terms while chatting about the scenery, Lewis says that Kirkpatrick putting his arm around a boy was no more likely than Kirkpatrick standing on his head. But is it not possible that Kirkpatrick treated his older pupils in one way, and his younger pupils in another? Lewis was not a child, but a very clever young man who had been badly served by the English public school system. Kirkpatrick could see he had the potential to be a brilliant academic. So very probably he treated Lewis like a grown-up because that was how Lewis wanted to be treated. It is very telling that Lewis thinks it impossible that you could love logical argument and also give a child who needed comforting a little hug. 

Kirkpatrick was, incidentally, the only person ever to call Lewis by his first name, Clive, rather than by his self-chosen nickname, Jack. 

Lewis takes it for granted that logic and reason must always take the form of argument; and describes arguments with Kirkpatrick in violent, martial terms. In his ridiculous poem, he portrays Kirkpatrick as a jousting knight. 

“He drove with lance in rest and loud Have-at-thee on the foe...
Oh Attic nights. And rigour of debate!
Shrewd blows. Parry and thrust. No quarter.” 

In Surprised by Joy, he compares arguing with him to boxing: 

“After being knocked down sufficiently often I began to know a few guards and blows, and to put on intellectual muscle. In the end I flatter myself I became a not contemptible sparring partner.” 

Arguing with Kirkpatrick was like being hit; but he didn’t mind. He rather liked it. Half a century later, he compared arguing with his wife to a fencing match. He sometimes deliberately argued badly because he loved it when she beat him. 

Kirkpatrick claimed not to have any opinions. Lewis says that a friend, who presumably thought that it was bad manners for chaps to argue about politics and that they should agree to differ, carelessly said that they just looked at things from different angles. Kirkpatrick jumped in: 

‘What do you mean? Are you asking me to picture Liberals and Conservatives playing peep-bo at a rectangular Fact from opposite sides of a table?’ 

Obviously, the speaker did not have a clear and distinct idea of what he meant by “angle”: he was just using a colloquial expression. But Kirkpatrick’s analogy is very telling. 

There are Facts. There are observers. And Facts look different depending on the observer’s point of view. I perceive the table as a trapezium with angles of, say, 45 degrees and 135 degrees because I am standing to the left of it. You perceive its shape differently because you are standing to the right. “Agreeing to differ” or “having an opinion” implies that my view of the table and your view of the table are equally valid and there is nothing more to be said. But by the application of reason—by having an argument—we can work out that the table is, in fact, rectangular and that the angles are, in fact, 90 degrees. When Kirkpatrick said that he had no opinions he was claiming that he has used reason to get beyond his own perspective and sees reality as it really is. If he was a liberal, that was because liberals are the ones who have worked out that tables really are rectangular. If you had shown him the error in his reasoning he would have changed his conclusion. 

Kirkpatrick was an atheist. When he died, Lewis was shocked to hear that he asked to be cremated without any ceremony or memorial. So he would presumably have claimed that atheism was not the perspective from which he looked at the table, but the table itself. For Lewis, to be a Christian meant deciding that dear Kirkpatrick had been wrong about the most important thing in the universe. Some people might have said “My tutor’s logic turns out to not be the whole story: for some questions you have to go by spiritual intuition”. Lewis, on the other hand, maintained that Christianity was true according to Kirkpatrick’s logical methods. He spent much of his life trying to win the argument with his long dead mentor. 

It is very striking that the analogy Kirkpatrick drew—the one which stuck in Lewis’s mind—came from geometry. 

And the word C.S. Lewis used to describe Kirkpatrick’s teaching methods was elenchos. 

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