No ideas in a vacuum

George Orwell

George Orwell

Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. I was reminded of this while flipping through George Orwell’s collected essays and saw a jab he took at C.S. Lewis in a 1944 issue of the leftist Tribune. His beef was with Lewis’ collected radio talks, Beyond Personality, what eventually became the final portion of Mere Christianity.

Orwell characterized Lewis as enjoying some “vogue at this moment,” which permitted him to offer “chummy little wireless talks.” But Orwell saw these chummy talks and books as subversive. Lewis was a “reactionary”—conservative—and Orwell considered his apologetics as part of “an outflanking movement in the big counter-attack against the Left. . . .”

This perhaps does not rise to the level of great discovery, but it occurs to me that Orwell’s essay is a window through which to glimpse our basic intellectual limits (whether in theology, philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, biology, whatever).

Our ideas are not solely our own. We live in specific contexts and react to things in those contexts. What’s more, we usually have very little awareness of how dependent upon our context we truly are for what we assume to be true. My context includes living in Nashville, Tennessee, being married, having kids, being Christian, being Caucasian, being 34-years-old, balding, enjoying books, working for a publisher, driving a stick-shift, liking Tom Petty, and a million other particulars that uniquely form the matrix in which I live my life. That context conditions my thoughts and also limits them. (I, for instance, have no idea what it’s like to be a 54-year-old Muslim woman in Somalia.)

George Orwell had a context too, of course. He was a socialist at a time when fascism had ravaged Europe and was quick to see it wherever he looked, including in Lewis’ “chummy little wireless talks.” His context shaped his thoughts. To purposefully belabor the point, Lewis also had a context, and it shaped his views as much as Orwell’s affected his. But much of their contexts overlapped; they lived at the same time and interacted with the same problems and issues. And like mine, their contexts had built-in limitations.

Lewis himself helps us understand this in his famous (also 1944, by the way) introduction to St. Athanasius’ book, On The Incarnation. “Every age has its own outlook,” he writes. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Why? Because “All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.” He could have easily used Orwell’s name there.

The problem is that every period ends up sharing “a great mass of common assumptions” and contemporaries (or locals, etc.) have trouble thinking beyond those assumptions. Lewis offers one help: “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries [different contexts with different assumptions] blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books,” in his case then one by the great Alexandrian bishop Athanasius. (As Lewis suggests, future books would be great too, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t stock them yet.)

Old does not equate to good or right, of course. People were just as prone to follies and fumbles in the past. But, as Lewis says, they were prone to different ones than our own because their thinking was conditioned by different contexts. In a sense, it comes down to an application of crowdsourcing: “Two heads are better than one,” says Lewis, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

We can use ideas from different times and places to check our own. The trick is being aware enough of our contexts so that we can see the need to look outside them in the first place.

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About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.