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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had reason to remember C.S. Lewis’s sermon, “Learning in times of war” And I’ve blogged about it. The events of the past week have prompted me to reconsider the article and my comments, as both are very relevant to our current situation, so I will republish my comments from March 2020.

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The September 11 attacks occurred while I was still a new law professor, and they sparked a major crisis of conscience. What was I doing thinking about the finer points of administrative law or property-based environmental protection when there was so much at stake? What was I doing to help keep people safe and secure?

A colleague recommended I read it “Learning in times of war” A sermon given by C.S. Lewis in the fall of 1939. It was an excellent suggestion. Although I do not share Lewis’s faith, I found him both comforting and inspiring, which was just what I needed at that moment.

The current situation has prompted me to reconsider Lewis’ sermon, and I thought I would recommend it to our readers. Like Lewis’s thought generally, the sermon is steeped in his faith, but I think it has something to offer believers and nonbelievers alike—or at least I hope so.

Here’s how it starts:

A university is a community that seeks to learn. As students, you are expected to make yourself, or begin to make yourself, into what the Middle Ages called scribes: into philosophers, scholars, scholars, critics, or historians. At first glance this seems strange during a great war. What’s the point of starting a task that we don’t have much chance of finishing? Or, even if we are not interrupted by death or military service, why should we—nay, how can we—continue to attend to these quiet occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in danger? balance? Isn’t it like fooling around while Rome burns?

Here is a brief part of Lewis’s answer.

. . . I think it’s important to try to see the current disaster from a real perspective. War does not create an entirely new situation: it simply worsens an existing humanitarian situation such that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge. Human culture has always had to exist in the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are wrong when we compare war to “normal life.” Life was never normal. Even those periods which we think of as the most peaceful, such as the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer examination, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties and emergencies. There were no reasonable grounds for postponing all purely cultural activities until some imminent danger could be averted or some glaring injustice be corrected. But humanity has long chosen to ignore those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and they would not wait for the right moment that would never come. Athens under Pericles left us not only the Parthenon, but also, remarkably, the funeral oration. The insects chose a different line: they sought first the material well-being and security of the hive, and were supposedly rewarded. The men are different, they put forward mathematical theorems in besieged cities, make metaphysical arguments in condemned dungeons, tell jokes on the gallows, discuss the latest new poem as they advance to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not a skill. that it
Our nature.

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