The statues on the Liberty Walk honor people who vindicated the West’s system of ordered liberty through politics or war. Now, it’s time for a new statue, honoring someone who taught us what to do with that liberty: C.S. Lewis.
Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. At the age of 15, he became a committed atheist, but was reborn and became a Christian in 1931, thanks to the efforts of close friends including J.R.R. Tolkien.
Many remember him best for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” his apologetic works like “Mere Christianity,” and his theological essays.
Hillsdale students often hold his books on philosophy in even higher regard. Thinkers as diverse as Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss hailed one such book, “The Abolition of Man,” as one of the most important of the 20th century.
Lewis wrote “Abolition” in the context of the great moral and spiritual crises that erupted during and between the World Wars. He argued that the modern world’s relativism and thirst for power created disorder in souls which could leave men incapable of resisting evil.
“And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation —we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible,” Lewis wrote. “You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Ideologies like communism and fascism threatened civilization itself and modern progressivism was averse to fighting back. Lewis saw that the Western man was in danger of forgetting that mankind was created in the image of God and the moral duties which accompany that truth.
Lewis believed human liberty is a good in and of itself. But he also believed a Christian living in a free regime must sanctify that liberty by dedicating his labor to God.
A sentiment like that animates our institution to this day. In 1853, our forerunners placed a Bible in the cornerstone of what became Central Hall. They inscribed it with a simple prayer: “May earth be better and heaven be richer because of the life and labor of Hillsdale College.”
Lewis expressed a similar hope in a sermon to a group of anxious Oxford students about a month after World War II began. He urged his audience to remember that the Christian’s duty is to offer his labor in service to God, especially in times of great crisis.
“All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not,” Lewis said. “Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials.”
For Lewis, and for Hillsdale College, education prepares citizens for liberty. We are not training to be men without chests, participants in the modern world’s ongoing attempt at the conquest and transformation of human nature. Instead, we are training for lives lived in liberty for the glory of God.
At Hillsdale, through our shared project of liberal education, we strive to reverse the process of “liberation” by which the men of the West lost their chests. In turn, we endeavor to recover souls ordered toward the transcendent — toward the vision Lewis described in his scholarship and writings.
Without some version of that vision, a society will fall into disorder and eventually lose its liberty. Lewis ardently fought to restore knowledge of the holy and remind men of their purpose. That is a legacy worth honoring.
Winston Churchill, whom we immortalized on our Liberty Walk in 2004, said, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” With our new chapel under construction, Hillsdale College is applying Churchill’s aphorism and directing her gaze up to the heavens.
A statue of Lewis near the chapel will direct our Liberty Walk the same way — reminding us what liberty is for.