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C.S. Lewis and the dead end of mere reactionism

He saw the dangers then, and we must recognize the same dangers now


C.S. Lewis Wikimedia Commons

C.S. Lewis and the dead end of mere reactionism
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The Pilgrim’s Regress was the first book C.S. Lewis published as a Christian. It is perhaps also his least understandable, if not his least read. Still, for those with the patience, it offers relevant wisdom for today’s cultural challenges. One of those insights is the danger of reactionary ideology descending into savagery and violence.

Modeled after John Bunyan’s more famous The Pilgrim’s Progress, Lewis’s book tells his own story of conversion to the Christian faith, using the literary form of allegory. But instead of the more universal characters of Worldly Wiseman and Giant Doubt, in this story Lewis offers up characters like “Victoriana” and “Sigismund Enlightenment.” Instead, Lewis’s characters are from the world of the academy. They stand for schools of thought and ideologies.

Many of the characters in The Pilgrim’s Regress are too specific, referring to individuals. They were big when Lewis was in school but no longer. A few, however, are true archetypes. They represent ideas that made their mark on history and whose influence is still with us. Several of these have to do with politics, especially Marxism and fascism.

As Lewis’s “Pilgrim” works through the Enlightenment, he meets “three pale men.” These three are a traditional but hollow churchman, a classical academic who doesn’t believe in classical ideals as genuine truth, and a “humanist” who believes that the values of the Enlightenment can be “self-supporting” without any spiritual or religious soil underneath. These three men are all reacting against modernity in different ways. Still, none of them represents a true solution to the modern challenge.

So far, Lewis’s presentation is interesting as far as it goes, but probably only to a certain kind of reader. But the big takeaway comes in the following chapters. As each of the three academic reactionaries complains about modernity, a man named “Vertue” interrupts them to warn them about the danger that waits at the end of their path. If they keep moving “north,” the scenery will become mountainous, rocky, and full of caves. The only inhabitants are dwarfs, the main varieties of which are “black shirts” and “red.” The black-shirted dwarfs, Lewis’s editors tell us, are fascists. The red dwarfs are explicitly given the name “Marxomanni.” In other words, Lewis is warning us that early 20th-century reactionary thought will eventually lead to two main options, fascism and Marxism. If this wasn’t enough, Lewis added one more layer. “They are all very fierce and apparently quarrel a good deal,” he says, “but they all acknowledge some kind of vassalage to this man Savage.” The dwarfs work for someone more powerful.

In our day, modernity is still a problem. And many people, especially academics, are taking a second look at late 19th and early 20th-century reactionary thought as a possible solution.

“Savage” is described as a terrifying man, “almost a giant.” He is dressed in old Norse garments. He quotes Wagner, alludes to Nietzsche, and offers food, drink, and violence. Religious people are to be pitied, he says. Their belief in a “Landlord” who hands out rules and offers the promise of a blessed future is understandable but untrue. Instead, the only truth is “Heroism.” This heroism is also described as “Master-Morality, or Violence.” This mindset admits the tragic condition of the world and offers no fairy-tale escapes. Importantly, Savage tells us that the reactions of false traditionalism or post-Enlightenment Humanism are only halfway houses. “The rot in the world is too deep and the leak in the world is too wide. They may patch and tinker as they please, they will not save it. Better give in. Better cut the wood with the grain. If I am to live a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.” Savage’s only redemption is the fame of a legacy, the redounding echoes of greatness.

The “Three Pale Men” each have different reactions to Savage. The traditionalist churchman is immediately attracted to him. The Humanist is viscerally turned off. The Neo-classicist academic dismisses the whole thing as a dream.

The Pilgrim’s Regress came out in 1933. World War II was still six years away. Many intellectuals of the time were positively sympathetic to the dwarfs of the north. Marxism was and remains an acceptable ideology of the academy, but fascism cast its spell, at least partially, over men like G.K. Chesterton and Ezra Pound. Lewis, to his great credit, knew better. He was able to see the end of the path.

In our day, modernity is still a problem. And many people, especially academics, are taking a second look at late 19th and early 20th-century reactionary thought as a possible solution. Marxism, incredibly, has evaded cancellation all along, but now German Romanticism and even varieties of fascist thought are also being re-evaluated.

Situations like these—like ours—are why The Pilgrim’s Regress is worth the hard work after all, at least for the kinds of readers who might be attracted to reactionary movements and ideology. If we recall Lewis’s own biography and churchmanship, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to suggest that he was himself attracted to this danger. But he saw beyond it. He saw its dead end.

With his help, we can too.


Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Ind. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute. Steven is married and has three children.


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