His tolerance, then, for opinions he thought mistaken cannot easily be derided as facile or woolly. Rather, it can be attributed to his belief that “my own eyes are not enough for me” (An Experiment in Criticism). He knew that he needed other perspectives to supplement, relieve, and correct his own. And this big-hearted attitude was not just a persona he adopted for professional purposes; it informed his closest friendships too.

C.S. Lewis & the Art of Disagreement

C.S. Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel.

His tolerance, then, for opinions he thought mistaken cannot easily be derided as facile or woolly. Rather, it can be attributed to his belief that “my own eyes are not enough for me” (An Experiment in Criticism). He knew that he needed other perspectives to supplement, relieve, and correct his own. And this big-hearted attitude was not just a persona he adopted for professional purposes; it informed his closest friendships too.

 

C.S. Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. Truth was ultimately at stake, and truth mattered to him…

As a fellow of one of the colleges at the University of Oxford, I have the responsibility of being senior member (faculty supervisor) of two student-run societies, the C.S. Lewis Society, a literary and theological discussion group, and Oxford Students for Life, a group that aims to promote a culture in which the unborn, the disabled, the terminally ill, and other vulnerable minorities have a place.

In recent years, the pro-life group has discovered how deeply people at Oxford disagree not only with its viewpoint but also with its very right to exist and hold meetings. On one occasion, the group had permission to stage a debate on abortion rescinded at just a few hours’ notice because of a threat of disruption from students who objected to their college hosting such a discussion.

On another occasion, the opposition was subtler. We were interrupted halfway through a meeting and advised by a college official to draw the curtains so that the female Member of Parliament addressing us on gender-selective abortion should not be visible from the quad. Our opponents outside the room felt it would be easier if we were required to hide ourselves from them, rather than that they should avert their eyes from us.

The other society of which I’m faculty supervisor, the C.S. Lewis Society, has experienced no such run-ins with these opponents of free speech on campus. But I mention the Lewis Society because Lewis is a helpful example to consult when considering how to interact with people one disagrees with in an academic environment.

Pugnacity

Lewis relished disagreement and debate. George Watson, who attended Lewis’s lectures at Oxford and later worked alongside him at Cambridge, recalls how “Lewis was a Christian conservative from around the age of thirty, which is to say before I knew him; and since I am neither one nor the other, there was never any question of doctrinal influence. If I was not exactly a friend, still less was I a disciple. That in no way altered my sense of admiration and affection…. We both thrived on dissent…. The best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague, he did not ask or expect me to share his convictions.”

Another student, Derek Brewer, remembers how Lewis would sometimes say, in the course of a tutorial, “I couldn’t disagree more!” but not in a way that indicated he was offended or that Brewer was somehow unjustified in holding an opinion Lewis considered mistaken. He did not indulge in “moralizing exclusiveness,” Brewer observes. Though they often differed, this led to a “fruitful dichotomy of attitudes,” not to a chilling of their pedagogical relationship.

Lewis’s aim, so W.J.B. Owen avers, was to help his students make their points better, not principally to change their views so they accorded more nearly with his own. The nonsocialist Lewis selected John Lawlor for a scholarship to Oxford (Lawlor recollects), despite having “my clamantly socialist papers before him.”

And as with living students, so with dead authors: he was open-minded to authors whose work he considered morally objectionable (e.g., Marlowe and Carlyle) and never told his students not to read them. “There was nothing paranoid about him,” says Brewer.

Roger Poole observes how this open-mindedness reflected not just a personal moral preference but also a deliberate intellectual strategy in Lewis’s approach to the study of literature. Literary criticism was not a quantifiable skill; it couldn’t be “modularized.” Therefore, a lot of dialogue was needed, with many diverse perspectives: “He kept on enquiring, both of himself and of his hearers, how it could be learnt about, entered into or existentially grasped.”

“Rational convictions were what he sought,” Brewer remarks. “He was always ‘thinking for his life,’ to use the phrase he once used approvingly of Professor Gilbert Ryle, the great Oxford atheist philosopher of his day.”

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