Friday, October 30, 2020

3: The Socratic Club

The essay on Bulverism was presented to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944.

The Socratic Club was an Oxford student society. Despite its name, it wasn’t a club for people studying Greek philosophy or the works of Plato: it existed specifically to debate the case for and against Christianity. The student who started the club stuck up a hand-written notice inviting “all atheists, agnostics, and those disillusioned about religion or think they are” to come to the common room for a little chat. Astonishingly, quite a number turned up. The university rules required that student societies be sponsored by a member of faculty, and the Socratic Club rapidly became C.S. Lewis’s baby. 

The club was named after Socrates because it wanted to promote Socratic debate—elenchos. It was dedicated to the proposition that truth was adversarial. The best way of finding out if God existed was to get a Christian and an atheist together and watch them have an argument. Lewis says that he honestly tried to find credible opponents; and a number of Big Name Atheists—Jacob Bronowski, Iris Murdoch, J.B.S Haldane and C.E.M Joad—spoke at the club. But Lewis came to see it in gladiatorial terms. This wasn’t a mutual inquiry after truth. This was an “arena” in which Lewis either “wiped the floor” with his opponent, or else was himself “obliterated”. He talks about “coming under fire” from the atheists and dealing with the “recoil” of his own arguments. And he thinks that the debates are dangerous: “you [atheists] risk nothing: we [Christians] risk all.” 

We do not have a complete record of what C.S. Lewis said on this particular evening. Lewis’s essay was reproduced in the Socratic Digest: but only the first section, running to some 2,000 words, is printed in full. The rest of the speech is summarised by the editor, presumably from contemporaneous minutes. Other Socratic Club papers run to about 6,000 words, so what we have is the first 15 minutes of a 45 minute speech. Bulverism, then, is not much more than an introductory joke. Lewis would not have stood up in front of a university debating society simply to explain that the arguments ad hominem and petitio principii are logical fallacies. 

Lewis is doing what he always does. He starts out talking about something apparently trivial; and gradually peels off the layers until we see that he has really been talking about the meaning of the universe or the end of the human race. In Mere Christianity he starts out talking about two men arguing over a seat on a bus and ends up talking about Natural Law and the existence of God. In the Abolition of Man he starts out talking about a silly English textbook which conflates factual accuracy with artistic merit and ends up talking Natural Law and the existence of God. 

There is nothing wrong with this as an approach to popular apologetics. “I saw two men arguing on a bus yesterday, and do you know it made me stop and think...” is a better lead-in to talk about ethics on the wireless than “Since the dawn of time philosophers have wondered where our sense of morality comes from...” Proper philosophers do it too. Socrates once sat down in a market place and asked a slave boy a series of very simple questions. From his answers, he demonstrated (to his own satisfaction) the transmigration of souls and the existence of perfect forms. 

The questions were questions about geometry.

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