Religion & Liberty Online

Lovers of Truth: C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe

The great Christian apologist, scholar, and novelist C.S. Lewis died 60 years ago today. Among his many memorable exchanges was one with philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe. The legacies of both would inform the faith and intellectual contributions of generations to follow.

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It was a night that would live in infamy. The great debater and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was defeated by a woman—and a young Roman Catholic upstart philosopher at that.

Except that’s not quite what happened.

The indefatigable Stella Aldwinckle, chaplain of women students at Oxford University, had convinced 28-year-old Elizabeth Anscombe, a research fellow in philosophy at Somerville College, to come speak at the Socratic Club.

Aldwinckle, described by Lewis student John Wain as a formidable, crop-haired woman,” had founded the club six years earlier to answer the need for Oxford to have an “open forum for the discussion of the intellectual difficulties connected with religion and with Christianity in particular.” But first she needed a don or other senior member of the university to support the club. She asked Lewis, relatively fresh from atheism himself and just beginning his apologetics work on radio and in print. Lewis’ response was enthusiastic: “This club is long overdue! Come to coffee in my rooms on Tuesday, and we can talk it over.”

The first meeting was on Monday, January 26, 1942, at 8:15 p.m. Dr. R.E. Havard, a close friend of Lewis’ and a fellow Inkling, presented the paper, “Won’t Mankind Outgrow Christianity in the Face of the Advance of Science and Modern Ideologies?” Sometimes a second speaker would offer a response before the president opened the discussion to the rest of those in attendance. Even after the Monday evening meetings officially concluded at 10:30 p.m., the conversations would often continue informally into the night.

The club met during the high point of Lewis’ apologetics work. Over the next few years, as World War II climaxed and drew to a close, Lewis broadcast the talks that would become Mere Christianity. The Abolition of Man came out in 1943, and the first edition of Miracles was published in 1947. Several classic Lewis essays began as papers delivered to the club, such as “Is Theology Poetry?” and Bulverism, or The Foundation of 20th-Century Thought,” and were later collected in God in the Dock and The World’s Last Night. The club would continue strong until February 1955, when Lewis moved to Cambridge and the philosopher Basil Mitchell was elected the new president. Over the next few years, its weekly meetings continued but attendance declined until it finally drew to a close in the summer of 1972, nine years after Lewis’ death.

Lewis wrote of the need for the club in the preface to the first Socratic Digest (1942-43): “In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility.” Whereas at the Socratic, “At the very least we helped to civilise one another.”

Aldwinckle had chosen well: her own energy and organization combined with Lewis’ generosity, wit, and adeptness in intellectual sparring made for a dynamic team. If nothing else, students could come to watch Lewis give a good show and then leave with something to think about.

Lewis was not the only heavy hitter to grace the debate marquee. As befitting Oxford, some of the greatest philosophers and writers of the day spoke and sparred at the Socratic. E.L. Mascall, the venerable Anglo-Catholic theologian, took part, sometimes opening the discussion himself or participating as one of the questioners; at one event, he discussed “Rational Existentialism” with novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Dorothy Sayers, Lewis’ good friend and a translator, mystery novelist, and Christian apologist, was so impressed by the club that she immediately tried to start a London branch (which never got off the ground). Christopher Dawson presented on “Christianity and Humanism with Western Culture,” with a response by I.T. Ramsey. Scholar J.N.D. Kelly spoke on The Gospels: History or Legends?”

“We never claimed to be impartial,” Lewis wrote:

But argument is. It has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours. Worse still, we expose ourselves to the recoil from our own shots; for if I may trust my personal experience, no doctrine is, for the moment, dimmer to the eye of faith than that which a man has just successfully defended. The arena is common to both parties and cannot finally be cheated; in it you risk nothing, and we risk all. [Preface for the first Socratic Digest, 1942–43]

Indeed, sometimes the discussions were between interlocutors on completely different sides of a question, such as Anglican priest Austin Farrer discussing “Did Christ Rise from the Dead?” with Jewish mythologist Robert Eisler. Lewis himself debated philosopher C.E.M. Joad on the claims of Christianity in January 1944.

During the 1940s, emotivism had been gaining in prominence. Emotivist ethics are a kind of anti-ethics: as one of its most famous and key proponents, A.J. Ayer, put it, ethical judgments are emotional valuations only, and hence nonfactual and meaningless. The statement “Stealing money is wrong,” wrote Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), “has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition that can be either true or false.” For Ayer, the realm of morality was disconnected from the “real world.”

Ayers ideas took Oxford by storm, and ethics as a philosophical discipline continued its decline. Later, Richard Hare would develop this line of thinking and adjust it: for Hare, statements of value werent meaningless, but they were reflections of the principles one held, and one was responsible for living out ones principles. However, there was still no way to argue that a certain act was evil.

Such ideas could only be possible in a world that had separated “fact” from “value/opinion”—a world that is still very much with us—and that treated nature, both human and nonhuman, as so much raw material to manipulate and upon which to impose meaning. Lewis would point his philosophical guns at emotivism and its near relations in his 1943 masterpiece, The Abolition of Man. 

G.E.M. (or Elizabeth as she was more familiarly known) Anscombe—a cigarette-smoking (she’d later take up cigars instead), trouser-wearing philosophy tutor from Somerville College who also happened to be “one of the most formidable thinkers of her time” (Alan Jacobs) and who would become the foremost translator of Wittgenstein’s work into English—was also a staunch opponent of emotivism. Indeed, she was a devout Roman Catholic, and had been since she converted in her teens. By 1948, she had been married to fellow philosopher Peter Geach for seven years; their oldest child, Barbara, was five years old.

Though Lewis enjoyed the company of sharp and intelligent women like Dorothy Sayers, poet Ruth Pitter, and his future wife, Joy Davidman, he and Anscombe never formed a friendship, though they were Oxford colleagues and could enjoy a dinner together in the company of mutual friends. We don’t know what would have happened had they encountered each other more frequently, which, given their busy lives, and especially Anscombe’s commitments to her work and family, was not likely.

The discussion on February 2, 1948, that would become legendary in Lewisiana was remarkable perhaps in part because it was not as entertaining and straight-up thrilling as many another discussion wherein Lewis, a “master of instant riposte” (Walter Hooper), could go at it with someone on the “other side.” Anscombe and he were on the same team—she a fiercely committed Catholic, he a self-described “old-fashioned, square-rigged C. of E.” It was remarkable also that it put Lewis on the defensive. The young Anscombe was a bit like Lewis’ old tutor Kirkpatrick: she was exceptionally concerned with air-tight logical and philosophical integrity. Hence, she decided to focus her paper on what she deemed a weakness in one of Lewis’ arguments against their common enemy of philosophical naturalism.

This was Anscombe’s way: to lay into those with whom she agreed, to critique those on her “team” more so than the other side. Glibness was her bane, and anything she perceived as slick argumentation was repellent to her. Few could be said to be more serious or honest; she held herself to the same rigorous standards. “Bad arguments for the truth should be refuted,” she once told her daughter, the philosopher Mary Geach Gormally.

In Miracles, Lewis had argued that belief in reason’s validity does not square with the belief that human thought—belief itself—was the result of nonrational causes. Anscombe believed that Lewis had confused belief with grounds for a belief, and also that Lewis had confused irrational and nonrational causes: in her words, I am going to argue that your whole thesis is … specious because of the ambiguity of the words ‘why,’ ‘because,’ and ‘explanation.’”

Indeed, Anscombe’s philosophical focus placed her in an exceedingly well-placed position to critique Lewis’ argument. Causation had been one of Anscombe’s central concerns since her teenage years. During the same period as when she was reading the lives of the English Catholic martyrs, she came upon the statement, “Anything that comes about must have a cause.” She thought this needed a good proof, so she tasked herself with finding an adequate one. Years later, she had come up with several, but none of them satisfied her. Meanwhile, she had been received into the Catholic Church. Though much of her philosophical work would interest nonphilosophers, Mary Gormally has noted that Anscombe “was also interested in the sort of problems which only strike philosophers as problematic.”

Anscombe had made her case; it was time for Lewis to respond. At first, they spent a good amount of time clarifying terms. It’s not unfair to suppose that the discussion likely was above the heads of most people present. 

Ultimately, Lewis responded by returning to his argument, thinking more carefully over his terms, and rewriting the chapter in question in the second edition of Miracles. He also suggested that Anscombe ought to succeed him as president of the Socratic Club (“Of course,” Dr. Havard recounted that Lewis later said to him, “she is far more intelligent than either of us”), though this sort of public position was not to Anscombe’s taste; indeed, she found public lectures far less to her liking than private discussions among colleagues, friends, and students. And though a skilled debater, her method of discussion was very different from Lewis’. Indeed, Lewis colleague George Watson muses that it was his fondness for arguing both sides of a question [that] led, in some quarters, to a reputation for sophistry.” No one could have accused the incredibly intense and earnest Anscombe of dallying in a spirited bout of sparring for the mere fun of it.

Lewis valued not only the thrill, the cut and thrust, of debate, but also the convivial quality of sharpening: friends were comrades-in-arms, and friends would not only press the hard questions out of care and love for each other, but also challenge you to be the best you could be. If an argument could be made stronger, a friend’s task was to strengthen it. If the critique came not from a friend but a colleague, as Anscombe was, it was only meet for Lewis to understand the criticism and to use it to strengthen his argument, as he then did in the second edition of Miracles. 

Anscombe reflected on the event later, impressed that Lewis had rewritten the chapter and had proved to be not as glib as she suspected. Indeed, her exacting standards found her own work to be glibber than she liked as well! 

Anscombe was bemused at the reaction of people to the “debate” between her and Lewis: in a later note, she recognized his “honesty and seriousness”—both qualities she highly prized.

My own recollection is that it was an occasion of sober discussion of certain quite definite criticisms, which Lewis’ rethinking and rewriting showed he thought was accurate. I am inclined to construe the odd accounts of the matter by some of his friends—who seem not to have been interested in the actual arguments or the subject-matter—as an interesting example of the phenomenon called “projection.

Michael Ward, echoing a line from G.K. Chesterton, has noted that Lewis “knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel.” In this, Lewis imitated his hero Chesterton, himself a hugely entertaining public debater as well as good friends with those who really were on the other side of the debate.

One of Lewis’ students, Derek Brewer, remembers that one of his most notable characteristics as a man as well as a tutor was his magnanimity, his generous acceptance of variety and difference, sure of his own standards but tolerant of others, and of others’ ‘failings.’” He did not start out this way; indeed, it was through hard work that he became a generous debater and friend. The scholar and Cambridge literature professor George Watson attests that Lewis was “the best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague.” Lewis “did not ask or expect me to share his convictions,” says Watson, and “if I were ever to be asked what I learned from him, that would be my reply: the art of disagreement.”

Anscombe, too, was an intrepid teacher: students would spend long hours in tutorials with her, and, notes Benjamin Lipscomb, she “liked nothing better than when one of her students challenged her own or Wittgenstein’s ideas.” Indeed, another student and eventual colleague recalled, “If I wrote … anything with which I thought she would agree, she attacked me more vigorously than ever.” Anscombe later supervised the doctoral thesis of Roger Scruton (1973), who would describe her as “perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English.”

Anscombe was fearless in her pursuit of the truth, not only in her work but also in her life. She became well known in 1956 for opposing Oxford’s awarding an honorary doctorate to Harry Truman because of his role in the destruction of innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder,” she wrote. (She coined the term “consequentialism.”) She argued publicly for the Catholic Church’s teachings on life; she and her husband Peter celebrated with champagne when the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was released, and she was arrested twice—once when nearly 70—for blocking the entrance to an abortion clinic.

Anscombe died shortly after giving her husband a last kiss on January 5, 2001, surrounded by family. She was 81. Each of her seven children have grown into practicing Catholics.

When considering how briefly to describe her longtime friend, the atheist philosopher of ethics Philippa Foot wrote in her journal a description that could very well fit Lewis himself, whose passing we commemorate today: “Truthful. A lover of truth.”

Tessa Carman

Tessa Carman writes and teaches in Mount Rainier, Maryland.