Like Plato, C.S. Lewis believed that the human soul was made up of three parts — the head (the rational, reason-driven part of you), the belly (your appetites and base instincts), and the chest (the seat of virtue-seeking sentiments and well-tuned emotions). In order for your head to make your decisions, particularly the decision to live a virtuous life, rather than your decisions being driven by your belly, the head needs the aid of the chest, of right feeling.
A few months ago, we had Michael Ward on the show to talk about why C.S. Lewis felt that modern life was making “men without chests.” Today, I talk to a guest who can shed light on what Lewis thought was needed to build that chest back up. His name is Louis Markos and he’s a professor of English, as well as the lecturer of the Great Courses course: The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis. At the start of our conversation, Lou gives us some background on Lewis’ life, including his conversion to Christianity, and how the nature of that conversion influenced his thinking on how to pursue virtue more broadly. We then talk about Lewis’ philosophical argument for there being a universal moral order, and why the chest is so vital for staying grounded in it. We spend the rest of our discussion unpacking the three ways Lewis believed the chest could be “educated”: reading stories and myths, rejecting “chronological snobbery” to learn from the past, and developing friendships that inspire excellence.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Louis’ Great Courses course: The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis
- The books Louis has authored
- AoM Podcast #723: Men Without Chests With Michael Ward
- AoM Podcast #430: Why You Need to Join the Great Conversation About the Great Books
- AoM Article: The Power of Conversation — A Lesson From C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
- AoM article on Plato’s view of the tripartite nature of the soul
- AoM series on Norse mythology
- AoM Article: Don’t Take Your Marching Orders From Your Belly
- AoM Podcast #178: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings Mastermind Group
- The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by James George Frazer
- The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
- The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
- The Chronicles of Narnia — The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
- The Book of Virtues by William Bennett
- AoM Article: The Winston Churchill School of Adulthood — Cultivate a Nostalgic Love for History
- AoM article on C.S. Lewis’ advice on overcoming the “horror of the same old thing”
- AoM articles and podcasts on friendship
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now, like Plato, CS Lewis believed that the human soul was made up of three parts. The head, which is the rational reason-driven part of you, the belly, which is your appetites and base instincts, and the chest, the seat of virtue-seeking sentiments and well-tuned emotions. In order for your head to make your decisions, particularly the decision to live a virtuous life rather than your decisions being driven by your belly, the head needs the aid of the chest, of right feeling. A few months ago, we had Michael Ward on the show to talk about why CS Lewis felt that modern life was making men without chests. Today I talk to a guest who can shed some light on what Lewis thought was needed to build that chest back up. His name is Louis Markos, and he’s a professor of English as well as the lecturer of The Great Courses course, The Life and Writings of CS Lewis.
At the start of our conversation, Lou gives us some background on Lewis’s life, including his conversion to Christianity and how the nature of that conversion influenced his thinking on how to pursue virtue more broadly. We then talk about Lewis’s philosophical argument for there being a universal moral order and why the chest is so vital for staying grounded in it. We spend the rest of our discussion unpacking the three ways Lewis believed the chest could be educated: Reading stories and myths, rejecting chronological snobbery to learn from the past, and developing friendships that inspire excellence. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/educatingthechest.
Alright. Lou Markos, welcome to the show.
Lou Markos: Hey, thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: So you are an expert on the life and works of CS Lewis. You’ve written several books about his works. You’re a professor of English, where you teach a lot about CS Lewis, and Tolkien as well. You did a Great Courses lecture about CS Lewis. That’s how I discovered you. I’m curious, like what drew you to spending your academic career studying the works of CS Lewis?
Lou Markos: Okay, now I gotta tell you Brett, I’m 57 years old. So when I was in graduate and undergraduate school, there were no classes on Lewis or Tolkien. I mean, nobody did that. That was just a life-long love that I had. Interestingly, I grew up and came to know Christ in the Greek Orthodox church. But in high school, our priest, who used the phrase born again Christian of himself… This is back in the ’70s and ’80s. He actually gave us, when we graduated from one level of Sunday school to the next, a copy of Screwtape Letters and a copy of Mere Christianity. And so it was always something I was interested in. It’s something I always read on my own. But again, nobody offered classes in it. And then The Teaching Company, The Great Courses, brought me out to do a series on literary criticism, what was called Plato to Post-modernism. And they really liked it. And they said, “We want you to do another series. What can you do?” And I said, “Well, what about Homer?” “That’s already been done.” “What about Greek tragedy?” “Already been done.” “What about Roman history?” “Already… ” Everything was done. And I said, “Well, I always liked CS Lewis.” And they said, “Do it.” So I went home and spent an entire year re-reading every single thing by CS Lewis, taking notes all over the place, reading secondary sources, just kind of made myself an expert.
And then I did this series, and it did so well that it led to a cover article in Christianity Today. And that led to my first book, Lewis Agonistes. And so I’m just constantly reading and writing book reviews of everything on CS Lewis. And I love being a Lewis scholar because it means I speak for every denomination out there, every kind of group, for classical Christian schools. And even though I now am a Baptist. I would call myself an Evangelical, I really think of myself as a mere Christian in the sort of tradition of CS Lewis. And Brett, most strong believers nowadays will tell you that CS Lewis is one of their role models. But I’m a lucky guy. I get to have him as a double role model ’cause I’m an English professor. And so, he’s been my role model as an English professor as well as a Christian and an apologist and a lover of literature. And so, he’s influenced me in so many different ways. And I’ve been able to speak in Oxford several times and publish books and whatnot. And it’s just… The riches of Lewis are inexhaustible. Tomorrow, I’m driving up to Shreveport, Louisiana to do an entire weekend on CS Lewis for an Episcopal church because there’s so much richness in here. And Lewis is not only a great model as a writer but as a person as well, and maybe we’ll talk about that. So, I kind of came to it from a different direction, but it’s been something that’s drawn together so much of my faith and my career and all the things that I do.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned when you were in college there weren’t any classes about CS Lewis or Tolkien. Has that changed? Are there now… Are they taken seriously?
Lou Markos: Oh, yes. People now… Oh, yeah. People now can get PhDs writing a thesis on CS Lewis. I hear from a lot of those people all the time. Okay, you know Lewis answered every single letter that he was sent, and the collected letters of CS Lewis is 3500 pages of small print. I’m not a snail mail guy, but everybody that emails me gets an email back. And I do a lot of correspondence, and I hear from a lot of people that are taking classes and writing a thesis and the books that are coming out. It’s just wonderful. It’s just an embarrassment of riches, as they say. And of course, I myself teach a class in Narnia. I teach a class on The Lord of the Rings. And I also teach a class on Lewis’ss apologetics. We look at his non-fiction, and we study that as well. And again, there’s so much there that we need to hear in our day and age. And of course, a lot of people still, the scholars, look down on Lewis. But I’ll tell you this Brett, I’m somebody who teaches the great books from the Greeks to today. And the more you study the tradition, the more you know your Homer and Virgil and Dante and Milton and Greek tragedy and Shakesperean tragedy, the more you know philosophy, the more you will respect CS Lewis because he carries the entire Judeo-Christian Greco-Roman legacy in his bones. And so, the more I learn, the more I respect Lewis and see how much he has synthesized and brought together for us.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about Lewis’ss early life and how it influenced or may have influenced his later thought and work. He was born in Ireland. A lot of people don’t know that. He was Irish. In 1898. When he was about nine years old, his mother died. Did this early death of his mother shape Lewis’s thinking and work later on in his life?
Lou Markos: It was devastating for him. And like you said, almost everybody takes for granted Lewis as British or English, but he is Irish. He grew up in Belfast. Now, today we call that Northern Ireland because it’s two places. But back then it was still one place, but there was lots of civil war going on. And the amazing thing about Lewis that I respect so much is even though he grew up in the Church of England and was a Protestant, you never see any sort of anti-Catholicism in his work. And that would be easy because he saw the struggles and the fights between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland. But he stayed away from that. But it’s important that he grew up in Ireland ’cause I think it increased his imagination. He did have an Irish nanny who told him stories. His parents were big readers, and there were books everywhere. And he and his brother Warren, he was three years older, were allowed to read anything. They created fantasy worlds.
But when his mother died, he was nine, he was almost 10 years old, it devastated him. He was always closer to his mother than his father. And he prayed. I mean, he grew up… He was in the Anglican Church. But when his mother died and he prayed and prayed and nobody seemed to hear, and then his father sent him off to boarding schools that he absolutely hated. One of them was run by a man who later was basically declared insane and incarcerated. And all of these things slowly moved Lewis away from his early faith until he rejected it altogether and became an atheist and wanted nothing to do with it. But the seeds had been planted and they would bear fruit later on in his life.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, he embraced atheism early on in his life, and it was basically that experience of losing his mother and just experiencing a hard life and not feeling any divinity there. Also, what a lot of people don’t know about Lewis, along with JRR Tolkien, is they both fought in World War I, which was a war that made a lot of people jaded and cynical about life. How did that experience of fighting in World War I shape Lewis’s worldview?
Lou Markos: It really did. Now, by the time he went there, he was already an atheist. And he said with pride, “Even when the fighting was the worst, I never deigned to pray.” By which he was saying there can be atheists in foxholes is what he’s sort of saying. But there is one thing he did like from the war. He didn’t like the waste of it and all that sort of stuff. But it did increase his sense of camaraderie, of the importance of male friendship. And hopefully we’ll talk about this and the art of manliness. It showed him this idea of sort of, “We few, we happy few, against the world.” Now, like a lot of people that fought in World War I, he didn’t really talk about it much afterwards. But it certainly shaped him. He saw the evil that happens. How we can lose any sense of a common sense of decency and morality. Tolkien was the one who fought at the famous Battle of The Somme. Lewis was in Arras, France, which wasn’t quite as bloody, but still was very bloody.
Lewis probably would have died in the war if he had not been injured by what we call friendly fire. And he actually carried shrapnel in his bones from the Riez. Something that people don’t know about Lewis, as an Irish citizen, Lewis could have gotten out of the draft. And he was not a manly person in the sense of a soldier and whatnot. He was very fumbley, he wasn’t very good at sports. But he felt that it was his duty to be a part of this. And so he could have gotten out of it, but he went. But it’s only because he fought in World War I that he got into Oxford. Lewis was absolutely brilliant at anything having to do with literature or philosophy or history, but he was terrible at math and terrible with numbers. And he never would have passed the sort of British version of the SAT. But because he was a veteran when he came back, they waived the math test. And he got into Oxford and proved to be one of their best students of all time. Won what they call a triple first, which is very rare. And so World War I actually helped to secure him a place in Oxford where he went on to learn the things he did and to influence the world.
Brett McKay: What did he study at Oxford?
Lou Markos: Well, what you study… There’s this sort of program that you do there. And basically it focuses first on languages. So, it’s very heavily based not only on Greco-Roman literature, but Greek and Latin and learning. You learn Old English. You learn Middle English. Of course you learn French and whatnot as well. But he studied all the ancients. He studied ancient and up to modern philosophy. And he also studied the literature from Chaucer until about the Romantics and Victorians. So, he was well-versed in literature and language and philosophy. And he almost might have become a philosophy professor, but there was a problem with the job and he went back and did another one in literature. And thank God he did that, because Lewis is a literary writer who is sort of informed by philosophy. That’s one of the things that makes him so great. If he had been a philosophy writer informed by literature, I don’t think he would have had the impact that he had. Literature really was his first love, and he saw the world through that lens. But he was grounded enough in philosophy that he could write a book like The Abolition Of Man, which is a great philosophical work as well as literary and apologetic.
Brett McKay: When he was at Oxford, this is when he met Tolkien?
Lou Markos: Yes. Yeah, when he was there. Now, he had had a private tutor before, a man named Kirkpatrick. He was nicknamed The Great Knock because he was an atheist, and he was what’s called an empiricist. “If I can’t see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it, it doesn’t exist. All I want is facts. All I want is logic.” He’s sort of a modern day David Hume. Now, he was an atheist, and Lewis was an atheist. And this guy Kirkpatrick trained him, not only in languages but in logic. And he made Lewis’ss mind absolutely systematic and logical. But here’s the wonderful story, Brett. When later on Lewis became a believer, he did not throw away what the atheist Kirkpatrick had taught him. Instead, he took all of that logic and reason and rhetoric and he baptized it. And it’s one of the reasons why he is such a great apologist. He didn’t throw out what he learned, but he allowed God to redeem it.
And again, he was this great person, and he was in and teaching in Oxford. And he met Tolkien ’cause he’d been brought over to Oxford, and both of them were very, very committed not only to literature but to language. I mean like literally learning Greek and Latin and Old English and all of these things. Very grounded in that. More so than Americans are today. And they found that even though at this point Lewis was still an atheist, Tolkien was a very committed Catholic, but they shared a great love for Norse literature, for the sagas, for the heroes, all the Ragnar. All of that stuff, he loved it.
And Tolkien was a great starter of groups. He’d been part of a group called the TCBS. He always wanted groups of male friends that got together and thought and tried to bring society up, to focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful. And when he met Lewis, Tolkien had already started a club called the Coalbiters or the Kolbitars. And it was called that because the Vikings would sit so close to the fire when they told stories, it would be like they were biting the coals in the fire. Anyway, the role, or the reason for being, of the Coalbiters or Kolbitars was to get together and read all the Norse sagas in the original Old Norse. And, finally, they disbanded the group because they had read through all of them. But they got together, and Lewis knew a lot of those languages… And, again, there was a sort of love of manly courage, of duty, of responsibility, all of this sort of stuff, but with a flare for the literary. So these are like kind of literary soldiers, if you will. And that cemented their friendship. But again, Lewis was still not a believer. Now slowly, through the intervention of a man named Owen Barfield, Lewis slowly became a theist, a believer in God. But he did not yet believe Jesus was God. What was stopping him?
Well, Lewis, like myself, was a lover of mythology. I just wrote a book on mythology. A lover of all that. And he was a big fan of a book called The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Frazer was the Joseph Campbell of his day, a comparative mythologist, a comparative anthropologist who would look at all the different stories of all the different tribal groups and try to make comparisons between them. And Frazer came up with a character who would eventually be known as the Corn King. And it turns out that throughout ancient cultures and ancient religion, there’s a certain archetypal character who keeps popping up. A sort of son of the god who comes down to Earth and does these great things and is usually killed violently but returns seasonally. Now, it’s not exactly the same thing as the death and resurrection, it’s more of a seasonal myth. He’s called the Corn King because when a British person says corn, he means wheat. Right? ‘Cause there was no corn. Corn came from here, from the New World. But the Corn King is a sort of mytho-legendary figure whose constant cycle of life and death and rebirth gives fruition to the Earth, makes the corn grow.
Now, if you are a Greek, you call your corn king Adonis or Bacchus. If you’re Egyptian, you called him Osiris. If you’re Babylonian, you call him Tammuz. That name appears in the Bible. If you are Persian, you called him Mithras. If you are a Norseman, you call him Balder. All of these stories. Now, Lewis just took for granted that Jesus was just the corn king version of the myth that the Hebrews had. And then one day when Lewis was 32 years old, right in the middle of his life, he had a long night stroll with Tolkien, another man, too, named Hugo Dyson. And they were walking along Addison’s Walk. If you ever go to Oxford, visit Magdalen College and walk around this beautiful tree-lined walk called Addison’s Walk. And as they walked around and around late into the night, they were discussing this very issue. And Tolkien had said, “Jack.” That was Lewis’s nickname. “Why is it that you love these stories, but when it comes to Jesus, then you lose interest?” And, “Well, it’s just a myth. What do I care about some rabbi who died 2000 years ago?” And then Tolkien said the words that changed Lewis’s life and, I would argue, changed the 20th century. He said, “Jack, did you ever wonder maybe the reason that Jesus sounds like a myth is that he was the myth that became fact, the myth that became true.” And that changed Lewis’s life.
About a week later, Lewis embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior because he realized that, “Wait a minute. How is it possible that this same myth, this same yearning, the same desire, pops up all over the world? It only makes sense that the creator who created all of us put that desire in all of us. And if that’s true, doesn’t it make sense that when that God enacts, historically, his salvation story, that he will do it in a way that lines up with the pagan yearning.” Because Brett, all Christians understand that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament law and prophets. But he was more than the Jewish messiah. He is the savior of the world. And so, I believe, as did Lewis and many others, that Jesus not only fulfilled the law and prophets of the Old Testament, He fulfilled the highest yearnings of the pagans. It must be so, Brett, because if Jesus came and only spoke to the Jews and had nothing to do with the yearnings of the pagans, it would seem as if a foreign god had invaded the world. And it is that, that beautiful literary moment, that not only brought Lewis back to faith, I mean the Jung faith, but really made him a Christian. It also allowed him to re-access his love of myth and archetype and legend. Because you see, when he was an atheist, he was starting to adopt this modernist view of, “We gotta throw out the Middle Ages. We have to throw out all these myths and legends and fairy tales and be rational and logical.”
And so I love this story, Brett, as an English professor because, sadly, there have been a lot of Christians in the 20th century who, when they became believers, felt they had to throw out all of that magic and fantasy and Harry Potter stuff. Not Lewis. It was his Christian faith that allowed him to re-access his wonder and imagination and love of virtue.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show.
Yeah, I wanna dig into this idea a little bit more because this idea of embracing myth and story, it was important to Lewis not only in the Christian context but in the more universal context of seeking the virtuous path in general. Which is… Lewis called this virtuous path, he called it the Dao or the Tao. And we had your colleague Michael Ward on the podcast a few months ago.
Lou Markos: Oh, great.
Brett McKay: To talk about the book where Lewis delves into the Dao. It’s called The Abolition Of Man. This is a philosophical work. It’s not fiction. It’s not apologetics. And in the book, he’s making this universal, philosophical case that there’s a universal moral order that he calls the Dao. And he says if we start to step outside this moral order, you start to become less human, hence the title of the book. It’s the abolition of man, right? Humanity gets abolished. Does this theme of stepping out of the moral order, making us less human, does this pop up in Lewis’s stories and fiction?
Lou Markos: It really does. It’s in The Abolition Of Man, but it’s all of these different places. See, Lewis understood that there is a universal law code. We may wanna deny it. But we know that what he called the Tao, the universal moral, ethical, cross-cultural code, it is there and it’s written in our conscience. And you know what? Again, in some ways Europe was even more secular or liberal in the middle of the 20th century. And yet, even though so many of them were relativists, we still had this thing called the Nuremberg trials. And that’s when they put the Nazi war criminals on trial. Now Brett, think about this. The only way you can have something like the Nuremberg trials is if you are accepting, whether you realize it or not, number one, that there is a real good and evil out there that’s not just tied to one culture or another.
That there is a real ethical code of right and wrong, number one. That you must believe that the Nazis knew that code and still broke it anyway. Now, if you could convince me that the Nazi criminals did not know they were doing wrong, they would not put them in a prison. They would have put them in an asylum. Right? You understand? They would have been innocent by reason of insanity, and they would have been institutionalized. They wouldn’t have been let free. But we need to understand that people know the Tao exists. Here is my simple definition of the Tao. The Tao is the way you expect other people to treat you. We all know that it exists, but we try to push it away and not listen to it. Here’s the problem as Lewis explains it, and he’s borrowing from Plato. Plato talks about there’s three parts to our soul, and he links it to our body. There is the head. There is the chest. And there is the belly.
The head represents rational man, the side of reason, the side that wants to do what is right. The belly is the visceral, appetitive side, the side that says, “I want. I want.” What Freud would call the Id. Now, in a direct fight between the head and the belly, the belly is going to win every time. It will overwhelm the head. Our lower passions and instincts will overwhelm the head. That’s why we need the chest. For the chest, that’s where the Tao is. That’s where our stories of heroism reside. That is the place of virtue, the place of manliness and courage, if you will. And the head can only defeat the belly if the chest comes to the side of the head and fights alongside it. Look, if I am a soldier and I am at my post and the enemy is coming at me, pure logic is not gonna keep me at my post. The head alone is not gonna do it. I can run through categorical imperative. It’s not gonna work.
You know what’s gonna keep me there? It’s the chest. It is the virtuous action. It is the patriotism. It is the part that makes us human. That is what is gonna keep us there. And the way we used to build the chest in children was by telling them stories. For us, stories of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. For the Romans, the great Roman republican heroes like Cincinnatus and these other people that fought and died and laid down, that gave the last bit of honor for themselves, laid it down. And Lewis tries to give us characters and places like Narnia who need to learn the importance of courage and fight. And by the way, while I’m talking, I love that I’m talking from The Art of Manliness. You guys are doing a great job. And my son and his friends listen to your podcast all the time.
And they’re so excited about it, they’ve started their own group called The New Knighthood where they get together and call each other to virtuous actions. So I’ll just shout out my son. His name is Alex, and his friends are Gardner and his friend Josiah. And we need this because if we give up on the chest, if we just become passive people, our head is gonna be overwhelmed by our belly, by our base instincts. And Lewis teaches us what it means to be a hero when we read, especially, the Chronicles of Narnia and see these child heroes. I mean, it’s amazing. There’s one called The Magician’s Nephew, where the hero, Digory, has a mother back home in London who’s dying of cancer. And Digory basically is the nine-year-old CS Lewis, whose mother is dying of cancer.
And when he comes to Narnia, he makes a big mistake and he brings evil into Narnia. And Aslan the lion gives him a chance to make up for that mistake, and he sends him on an incredible quest like for the Holy Grail. “You’re gonna go to this hidden garden, and you’re gonna pluck me an apple and bring it back. And we will use this to heal the wounds.” Well, he gets there, and he plucks an apple, and he puts it in his pocket. When all of a sudden, he meets the character who will become the White Witch. And she tells him, “This apple you’ve plucked is the apple of youth. I’ve eaten it, and now I know I will never die or grow old. Digory, use that apple, eat it. And you will become like me, powerful, and we will rule this land.” But Digory says, “No. I’d rather live a normal life and die and go to heaven.” He resists that temptation. But then the witch says, “Okay, if you won’t use the apple yourself, take it home with you to London and give it to your mother, and she will be well again.”
Now, I’d be hard-pressed to read an adult novel, where an adult has to make that difficult decision. But Digory knows it would be wrong, he knows his mother would tell him it’s wrong to steal and do that, he must do the duty that has been given. And although it pains him, he takes the apple back to Aslan who uses it to plant a tree of protection, that protects Narnia, for hundreds and hundreds of years. And then, from the tree, Aslan plucks an apple gives it to Digory and says, “Bring it home. It will not give your mother eternal life, but it will heal her.” We need heroes like that, who will do what is right, not the ends justify the means, but will have courage and virtue instilled in them.
Brett McKay: So yeah, I think a lot of Lewis’s fiction was geared towards educating that chest, like, helping people… Yeah, develop a chest, have a good response, like have the appropriate response when they experience the good, the true, the beautiful. But as you said, he chose to do this, he could have done just wrote these essays, non-fiction essays, to persuade… Philosophical essays, but instead of doing that, he chose children’s stories like Narnia, sci-fi stories in a space trilogy, he embraced Nordic myth… I mean, so, why go that route, instead of just being explicit in saying, “Here’s what you’re supposed to do”, in some sort of philosophical treatise?
Lou Markos: Because throughout history and including the Bible, stories have been used to instill virtues, we all love story. The meta narratives, they call it, the great story. We have creation, fall, redemption, reconciliation and glorification. And Lewis understood that when you use a story, you are speaking to the whole man, you need the whole person, rational and emotional, logical and intuitive. I mean, Jesus taught by telling stories, what we call the parables, because we identify with the story and we live in the story and it becomes a life lesson that is incarnated in us. You know what? A lot of homeschoolers use a book called The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, he used to be the head of… The Secretary of Education. And that was a great book, The Book of Virtues. But the funny thing is, if Bennett had written that book a 100 years ago, people would have been like, “Duh! We know it.”
But no, by the time we get to Bill Bennett, our civilization has forgotten that you build up a chest by telling stories. And so, he wrote that book and he took the virtues like courage and he tells stories, some from Greek and Roman mythology, some from the Old and New Testament, some from ancient history, Rome, some from American history, some from legends. And because it’s through the stories, we not only learn how to embrace virtue, but it also teaches us how to avoid vice. Brett, the best way to teach your children the dangers of lying, you can give them a philosophical treatise on lying, or you can tell them the story of the boy who cried wolf. I told my son that story many times. And I remember that story being told to me and that story has taught me the danger of lying more than anything else, because it’s in a story with real characters, it’s not just an esoteric abstract thing. Lewis is making it real and making it concrete.
Brett McKay: And something people often don’t appreciate about Lewis and Tolkien is that, these guys, they sort of rehabilitated children’s literature. Before that time, children’s literature was looked down upon a sort of low brow, Dick and Jane type stuff. These two made it into a legitimate literary genre.
Lou Markos: They did. It is very important now, it’s important to realize that when they were born, if you go back to 1890s, back then was a golden age of children’s literature. People did take it serious back then, that’s the age of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s the time of Beatrix Potter, it’s the time of George McDonald’s beautiful stories, it’s the time of Alice in Wonderland, it’s the time of Wind in the Willows. I mean, this was a golden age. But, once you get to World War I… And you kinda mentioned this before, but people start becoming jaded and cynical. “No, no, no, no… All of that fantasy stuff, that’s for kids.” And Tolkien, had this wonderful line, he said that, “All genres are like old furniture, when they go out of style, they put them in the nursery.”
And this is what happened suddenly… I mean, look, some of the great literary masterpieces from Dante’s Divine Comedy to the Fairy Queen by Edmund Spenser, to Gulliver’s Travels. I mean, they’re all sort of fantasy and if you wanna call it, sci-fi, but they’re also for adults, as well as for children. Tolkien and Lewis said, “A book only worth reading by a child, is probably not worth reading at all.” But people gave up, “Nah, it’s cynical, we need to be serious. None of this silly play acting.” Lewis and Tolkien, one day, were taking one of their famous walks and they were complaining that nobody was writing the kind of books they like to read, that crossed over between adult and child and fantasy. And then, Lewis looked and said, “You know what, Tollers?” That was his nick name. “You know what, Tollers? It looks like we’re gonna have to write the kinds of books we want to read.” So, they did it.
Brett McKay: Okay. So storytelling is a… For Lewis is a important part of educating the chest. Another important part of educating the chest is looking to the past and then learning how to appreciate it. And people often forget that besides being a fiction writer and a Christian apologist, Lewis was one of the foremost experts on Medieval History. How did Lewis’s deep understanding of particularly medieval history contribute to his idea of educating the chest?
Lou Markos: He liked to call himself a dinosaur, an old European, who still loved and honored those values. Again, those values of courage. And now Lewis admits, he says, “You know, there are some things that we do better than them. But if we stop reading the past, if we stop learning from the Middle Ages and even the Renaissance and whatnot, then we’re putting ourselves in a little box. But if we can allow the clean air, the breeze, the sea breeze… ” he called it, “That’s blowing through all the centuries to learn us. Then, we will allow the medieval people to remind us of what we’ve forgotten.” So yes, in some ways, we’re more tolerant than the old time, but they were far more courageous, they were far more chaste, they were…
They understood duty. So yeah, there’s some good things that we do today. But we have started to sort of demonize the past, and we refuse to learn from them in any way. We have what Lewis called chronological snobbery. This idea that if it’s newer, it must be better. If we don’t believe it anymore, it must’ve been disproved. And Lewis wanted to go back and revive, crazy enough, chivalry. Lewis said there was something beautiful about the knight in arms, the person who lived by a higher code and lived by a higher standard and tried to be both brave and virtuous and chaste. And he saw something of real value from the time when people sort of understood who they were and took glory in that and took glory in the simple things in life.
When money was not the be all and end all of life. When they respected traditions. When they celebrated the sort of cycles of life. This is something we miss. At least the Catholics, and the Orthodox as well, have a sacred year, a sacred calendar with Saints days and everything. But that’s even being lost. In the Middle Ages, they had an understanding of the sacred year, of the feast and of the fast. They understood that time was sacred. And there was a… It wasn’t that long ago that there were certain foods and fruits and vegetables that you could only get at a certain time of year. Now we can get anything we want anytime we want, and we’ve lost a sense of the specialness and holiness of the seasonal cycle. And that’s something Lewis learned from the medievals as well. So Lewis found much to…
And one more thing I’ll add, too. In the Middle Ages, they read their own great books going back to the Greeks and Romans, but they read them in order to learn from them. In our modern secular universities, even some of the Christian ones, they read ancient books so they can feel superior to them and think how much more enlightened we are. No, no. Back then, when they read Dante or they read Virgil or they read Homer or they read the Bible, they were at the feet of it. And they tried to learn from it how to be a better person. So all of these things, Lewis kind of learned from the Middle Ages and wanted to bring into the modern university.
Brett McKay: How does he suggest overcoming that chronological snobbery? ‘Cause as you said, Lewis would admit, “Yes, there’s some things we made progress in.” So how do you overcome the tendency, “Well, we’re better in this way,” but still try to learn from the past?
Lou Markos: First of all, it takes humility. And another way to do it… And this is how Lewis puts it, and I love that. He says, “Rather than study the medieval knight from some sociological or anthropological perspective, why don’t you try putting on his helmet and look at the world through his visor?” In other words, let’s extend our sympathetic imagination and try to see the world from their point of view. And we have really lost that today. People, all they wanna do is judge the past and cancel culture and all of that sort of stuff. And they refuse to extend any kind of humility or attempt to, again, see it from their point of view and understand it. So this is why we need to read what they wrote and study, and not just read about them but go back and read the primary material.
Now, most of us don’t know Latin or Greek anymore. You can at least get a good English translation and read it. Okay, Lewis would have preferred the original languages, okay. But that’s okay. Let’s read it and discuss and be willing to maybe even change our belief and our activity because of a great book that we’ve read. Because Screwtape, The Devil, says, “What they’ve done in Modern World is instill the historical point of view.” And what the historical point of view is, is when you read any ancient book, you ask all sorts of questions about it, but you never ask, “Is what the ancient author wrote true?”
Brett McKay: So besides looking to the past, besides storytelling, another way Lewis thought you could educate the chest was friendship. What role does friendship play in that?
Lou Markos: Lewis and Tolkien were what I call apologists for friendship. Lewis wrote a famous book called The Four Loves. And the four loves are Eros, erotic love, Philia, friendship, Storge, affection, and then Agape or Caritas, God’s love. And Lewis made a point in that book, and Tolkien would agree with this, that nowadays people talk a lot about Storge or affection ’cause we’re all romantics and we love that. And a lot of people talk about Eros or erotic love because we’re all Freudians, right? And we’re all into instinct, and we’re all into sentimentality. But friendship has been left out. And friendship was extremely important to the medieval and ancient people. Do you know that in Aristotle’s book, Nicomachean Ethics, he devotes two whole chapters to friendship. That’s more than all the other four classical virtues put together.
And Lewis explained that the ancients, and also the medievals, they sought friendship as the highest thing. It made us like the angels because Eros and Storge, affection, those are things that were kind of controlled by our instincts. Even the animals have that. But only human beings have friendship. It’s something that raises us above the animals, makes us almost like that. And Lewis and Tolkien were all… They were part of a group called the Inklings. And they got together and… Okay, the Inklings were all Christians, but it wasn’t a Bible study. It was a literary group where they got together and read out loud the works they were writing, things like The Space Trilogy or The Lord of the Rings.
And a lot of them, like Lewis and Tolkien, were writing genres that were looked down on. And so by getting together and reading, they were encouraging each other. Now, that doesn’t mean they were a mutual congratulations society. They were tough critics on each other, but that’s because they wanted them to be better. And that friendship gave them the courage to stick out in an age that would beat down the things that they believed in. So we need friendship. We need, like my son Alex, the New knighthood. We need groups that will bond together.
Brett McKay: Well Lou, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Lou Markos: Well, the best thing is go to amazon.com and type in my name Louis Markos, L-O-U-I-S-M-A-R-K-O-S. It’s a Greek name. And go to my Amazon author page. I’ve got 22 books on the Amazon author page. Some of the ones… From what we’re talking about today, people will enjoy Lewis Agonistes: How CS Lewis Can Teach Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World. One that I really enjoy is called On The Shoulders Of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. One of my newest ones is called The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes. But I got a lot of stuff about Lewis and Tolkien, a lot of stuff about literary criticism and literary theory. But it’s all undergirded by this desire to seek after virtue.
Also, if you go to YouTube and type in Louis Markos, I’ve got a YouTube channel. I’ve got a lot of free videos that I put up there, if you wanna look for them. And again, we need to take back the culture. We need to take back our friendships. We need to learn how to be good friends. We need to learn what it means to be courageous. And we need to not focus everything on presidential politics. We need to make changes in our local community. And we start by building fellowships that will help be salt and light in the world.
Brett McKay: Alright. Well, Lou Markos, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Lou Markos: Thanks so much. I had a great time.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Louis Markos. He’s the author of several books on the life and works of CS Lewis. He’s also the lecturer of The Great Courses course, The Life and Writings of CS Lewis. Check that out. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/educatingthechest, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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