C.S. Lewis is believed by many people to be one of the great intellects of the 20th century. He is also viewed as one of the great rhetoricians of that time.
How can we determine whether someone is a great intellect or great rhetorician?
Let’s take a look at the rhetoric of C.S. Lewis from two of his best-known books to see what we can learn from them.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
Intellect & Rhetoric
Intellect is defined as “a person’s ability to think and understand esp. ideas at a high level” (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary © Cambridge University Press) and “the capacity for rational or intelligent thought especially when highly developed” (Merriam-Webster).
Rhetoric is defined as “the art of speaking or writing effectively” (Merriam-Webster) and “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional technique” (Oxford Dictionary).
Based on those definitions it would appear that C.S. Lewis was both a great intellect and rhetorician.
C.S. Lewis wrote scores of books and essays during his lifetime. While we know Lewis well from such books as Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the most insightful books he wrote is All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis. I like the “Diary” because it is about Lewis as a young atheist in his own words. Lewis wrote in his diary from 1922 – 1927. It was published into book form in 1992.
Another important early work of Lewis while he was an atheist is the poem Dymer (J.M. Dent, 1926). He published the book under the name Clive Hamilton. Lewis published a series of poems under the name Clive Hamilton in 1919 (soon after Lewis returned from fighting in World War I). It was titled Spirits in Bondage (Heinemann). The book was reprinted in 1984 and included as part of Lewis’ Collected Poems in 1994 (Fount Paperbacks). Lewis and his brother wrote as children about an imaginary animal world they called Boxen. The stories were compiled into a book many years after Lewis’ death (Boxen: Childhood Chronicles Before Narnia, Collins, 1985).
Lewis began a journey from atheist to theist and reached that point in 1929 or 1930.
[Alister McGrath wrote in the 2013 biography, C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, that Lewis may have been off by one year in his recollection and may have become a theist in Trinity Term of 1930. He based that belief upon careful readings of Lewis’ books and letters about that time period.]
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy, ch. 14, p. 266).
How did this happen? How did the strong atheist in Lewis give way to theism? Here’s how Lewis recalled it.
“In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises’, as Herbert say, ‘fine nets and stratagems’. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous”. (Surprised By Joy)
Lewis was an avid reader and picked up a volume of essays by G.K. Chesterton –
“I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors.” (Surprised By Joy)
Lewis began attending his parish church on Sundays and college chapel on weekdays –
“… not because I believed in Christianity, nor because I thought the difference between it and simple Theism a small one, but because I thought one ought to ‘fly one’s flag” by some unmistakable overt sign.” (Surprised By Joy)
Lewis became a Christian in 1931 with help from close friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.
Lewis’ first published work as a Christian came two years later with The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (1933). He dropped the pseudonym Clive Hamilton and published under his real name for the rest of his life. Other books that followed included The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936), Out of the Silent Planet (1938 – the first in Lewis’ Space Trilogy),The Personal Heresy A Controversy (1939), Rehabilitations and Other Essays (1939), The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942), A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (1942), Broadcast Talks (1942), Perelandra (1943 – the second in Lewis’ Space Trilogy), The Abolition of Man (1943), Christian Behaviour (1943), Beyond Personality (1944), The Great Divorce (1945) and That Hideous Strength (1945 – the third in Lewis’ Space Trilogy).
We’ll stop with those writings for the purpose of this article, but remember that Lewis continued to write and publish some of the world’s most popular books for another 18 years before his death on November 22, 1963 (the same day that Aldous Huxley died and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated).
It would seem that the sheer volume of Lewis’ writings from childhood to the end of his life and the powerful influence he had as a professor and lecturer speak powerfully to his great intellect.
Five Canons of Rhetoric
So, how do we determine whether any particular speech or writing is good rhetoric? We have the Five Canons of Rhetoric to help us.
Rhetoric has a history of thousands of years and the Five Canons that came from the ancient writings of Greek and Roman orators help guide us to this day in developing and judging good rhetoric.
Invention is the process of finding ways to persuade. Everyone who wants to persuade other people about something they think/believe will go through a rhetoric process. For example, if I want to persuade you that chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream I will begin with “invention.” I will search for ways to persuade you.
Invention is the process of developing the argument. That’s where we look for material, information, statistics, etc., that we’ll use in your presentation. Using the ice cream example – I would learn how ice cream is made, how many gallons of chocolate and vanilla ice cream are manufactured and sold each year, any consumer studies/surveys done about flavor testing, etc., all with the intention of developing a persuasive argument for chocolate ice cream.
The next step in rhetoric is to determine the order in which you will present your argument, whether in writing or speech. This is the structure phase of building a persuasive argument. Outlining is a common way of arranging a paper or talk.
Style is the process of determining how you’ll present your persuasive argument. Stirring emotions will be part of developing the style even as you focus on the logic of the argument. Drafting and rewriting are common ways of developing style for a paper or talk.
Memorizing a speech (or at least major points) is a good way to ensure you’ll present a complete argument. Being able to keep eye contact with your audience is also a great way to keep the persuasion process personal. If you’re writing a paper, being able to remember important things you’ve read or thought about the topic in the past helps bring the most powerful points to bear in your written persuasion.
Delivery is where you present your argument through speech or writing. This can include the choice of words, examples, voice strength, gestures, movement in front of the audience, etc. If I were delivering a speech about why chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla ice cream, I might open a gallon of each for the audience and allow them to “taste” my argument. I might also pour chocolate syrup on the vanilla ice cream to make the point that chocolate makes everything better, even ice cream. 🙂
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In the next part of our series about Rhetoric and C.S. Lewis we’ll look at The Screwtape Letters.
[Image credit: The Wade Center]