What Can C.S. Lewis’s Sublime Waterfall From His “Abolition of Man” Teach Us Today?


Post by Nathan Rinne

If I say the “waterfall is sublime” is that an “authoritative statement”? What makes it so?

Maybe we should back up…

What is authority? Maybe we can agree that it is inextricably tied up with concerns about responsibility, knowledge (know-that and know-how), trust, and truth.

That said, is it ultimately something outside of us or inside of us? That is eventually where the question leads.

I’m an academic librarian by vocation, and I get the impression that most every librarian I know thinks that authority ultimately rests “in the receiver of information,” as Bill Badke puts it. In spite of a couple scholarly papers I’ve written against the popular idea among my colleagues that “Authority is constructed and contextual” (see here and here), it seems that even those appreciative of my work calling this into question ultimately think that the statement is problematic but that its “true enough” that they can live with it.

They can’t. None of us can. Because ultimately, truth and Truth gets the final vote. Truth is, in part, that which is the case, is not individualistic, and can create new understandings between us.

To this end, I offer you the following exploration/defense of C.S. Lewis’s sublime waterfall illustration, which I posted today on my academic librarian blog. Even if you think you can dismiss Plato, you nevertheless can’t dismiss Lewis’s important example.

Making the case from reason alone.


In arguing that there is truth that we all know (see the last few posts on my academic librarian blog, here [“When truth is disregarded, authority weakens”], here [“Aristotle at the library: why philosophy won’t go away”] and here). I recently said, following C.S. Lewis’s classic example from his masterpiece The Abolition of Man, that “we know that waterfalls are sublime — not only that they produce ‘sublime feelings’ in us”*

In response to that statement a librarian colleague said this is Platonic because I am implying that “abstractions have objective reality. Such as the idea that waterfalls are objectively sublime.” (they go on to say “To many of us, our sublime feelings are subjective; they are not a sign of innate sublimeness in whatever evokes those feelings.”)

I will admit that this response, coming from another librarian who also thinks that the phrase “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is lacking, caught me off guard. Is this necessarily a Platonic statement? If so, why? Could it just as easily be an “Aristotelian” statement?

My NeoPlatonist** friend, Dr. Eric Phillips, said the following in response:

Aristotle was a Platonist to a point, but he went renegade on the question (related to your question) of the separability of the Forms from Matter. His emphasis on the Forms in Matter, and even his insistence that they had to be contemplated in this way, both helped NeoPlatonism to improve on Platonism, but if NP hadn’t also insisted on the transcendence of the Forms, it wouldn’t have been Platonism.

…what’s really at stake in your question about Sublimity-or-sublimity is objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Aristotle was just as much an Objectivist as Plato was. Intellectual content (Form) is in the things already, and is discovered there by the Intellect of the observer. But Plato’s Objectivity is transcendent, thus hardier and more naturally anchored in the Mind of God, as we see in NP.



… my instinct when it comes to the academy… is to stay away from NeoPlatonic assertions… because Aristotle does not deny the forms, but puts them in matter. Here, it just seems to me that one is able to start from our experiences, as existential and historical and evidence-oriented beings, and work from there…

My major concern is that all the classical philosophies seem to get neutered when historicism is understood or experienced as somehow compelling… See, e.g. https://reliablesourcessite.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/5-short-philosophical-reflections-from-hope-to-despair/

 Dr. Phillips:

That’s not a reason to favor Aristotelianism to NeoPlatonism, because NP also holds that we discover the Forms within the objects of our perception. But NP doesn’t end there.


Yes, that makes sense. It also might make sense then that people consider me to be talking about Platonism, when, in my own mind, I am simply trying to point out that persons cannot stop consistently assuming stability in many of the things in the world of which we speak — even trans-culturally and trans-historically. I don’t even mention transcendent realities (like Forms that exist somewhere outside of us in another realm).


Do you have a view then about reasons why a person might immediately assume Platonism? Is it because all of us — or perhaps, intellectuals more generally — believe that we all must, from the get-go — be operating from a systematic understanding and/or narrative that we try to convert others to and others try to convert us from?***

Dr. Phillips:

I think people are making the jump to Platonism because they assume Aristotle is one of their own, although he isn’t. …secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them. Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Plotinus… father of NeoPlatonism


Why do they assume Aristotle is one of their own? Are they assuming too much devotion to empiricism in Aristotle (at the expense of a belief in real Essences/Forms)? In other words, they have a post-Ockham view of Aristotle?****

secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them.

By this, do you mean they have put all of the focus on his storied empiricism, and gladly lost the other part?

Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

Because he is barely empirical by their standards, and is the Evil Essentialist par excellence. Right?

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Well, PoMos say there is no truth, and hence this kind of activity is all about power. I do tend to think that we as human beings can’t stop stating what is true about the world and want others to agree with us. We certainly think that there are some things that simply can’t be right and we should be able to convince/persuade others not to believe them. Not everyone necessarily would force everyone to believe what they believe if they could though!

Dr. Phillips:

Yes, you understand me on all three of your questions. Modernists and Postmodernists are used to being on “Team Aristotle” when the annual Plato-v-Aristotle football game comes around, so often all they remember about him is that he was an empiricist and he did science. But to the extent that he was an empiricist, he offers testimony of how empirical observation can discover Form. And they don’t usually think of it in these terms, but they discover Form through empirical observation too. It’s just important to the atheists among them that there not be any Mind higher than theirs with which they might have to compete in understanding that Form and processing its implications. And to say that Form is transcendent is to say that there is such a Mind. (The Prime Mover is not nearly so threatening, because all It does is draw things to develop their own innate potential, whatever that is.)


What I find really interesting here though is how Rebecca Goldstein seems far less frightening to atheistic types than Thomas Nagel (and his Mind and Cosmos). Maybe this goes to show, however, how Platonism — updated and revised by Goldstein — is not so threatening (just like you say Aristotle is not threatening). But maybe NeoPlatonism is? [See, for example, this article that I wrote, “The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers,” exploring this topic].

Dr. Phillips:

I don’t know Goldstein except what I just read in your article, but yeah, Old Platonism is definitely less threatening to atheists, because there’s no explicit Hypostasized Intellect, World-Spirit, or One-Beyond-Being. I do think that’s where the system leads, though, if you follow its internal logic. Forms are ideas, and ideas are thinking, and thinking is what a mind does.

Attempting to appropriate Plato while avoiding his God-talk.





*In a library technology conference presentation I made in 2014, I said the following about C.S. Lewis’s approach:

In his brilliant and more or less non-religious book, The Abolition of Man, Lewis basically contended that the [modern scientific and technological mindset] (not his language) had the power to “abolish” man. He made his argument that Western civilization was destroying itself by using a few simple sentences from an English textbook for middle school students.

In this textbook, Lewis points out that its authors, when talking about a waterfall, are careful to point out that we cannot say that the waterfall is “sublime” in itself – that is, intrinsically – but we can say that the waterfall provokes sublime feelings in the one who observes it. Lewis first of all points out that as regards feelings, the word “humble” is a more apt description and from that point on he is off to the races. He spends some thirty pages arguing convincingly that this simple move on the author’s part – where an objective goodness and beauty outside of the human being has been denied – has disastrous consequences for our lives together. In one of Lewis’ more memorable lines he states: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

**Of NeoPlatonism vis a vis Platonism, another learned friend says: “In broad strokes….Aristotle was a Platonist. Plotinus and Proclus mediated classical Platonism and Aristotelianism to a significant extent, such that while Neoplatonism is similar enough to classical Platonism to warrant its moniker, it is dissimilar enough that most of the perennial criticisms of Plato don’t stick to it.”

*** Listen from around 14:30 for a couple minutes: http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/zero-squared122-lacans-television/ I almost want to say: “Monsieur Lacan, I see what you are saying. Well, my ‘master discourse’ (patriarchy!?) assumes various good hierarchies in nature and society and the belief that we are all human beings who share much horrific and beautiful common ground.”

**** The endgame of Ockham’s approach where universals  are not connected to things, but concepts (prior to Ockham, universals are distinct from, but inextricably linked to stable forms):

“Ontological individualism undermines not only realism but also syllogistic logic and science, for in the absence of real universals, names become no more than signs or signs of signs. Language thus does not reveal being but conceals the truth by fostering a belief in universals. In fact, all universals are merely second or higher-order signs that we, as finite beings, use to aggregate individual entities into categories. These categories, however, do not denote real things. They are only useful fictions that help us make sense out of the radically individualized world. They also, however, distort reality. Thus, the guiding principle of nominalist logic is Ockham’s famous razor: do not multiply universals needlessly. Every generalization takes us one more step away from the real, so the fewer we employ, the closer we remain to the truth.” (Michael, Allen Gillespie. “The Theological Origins of Modernity.” Critical Review 13.1 (1999): 1-30. ProQuest. 20 Apr. 2015, italics mine)

With Ockham, any sense of “natural teleology” is dulled by his denial of forms and the purely mechanistic science made thinkable by it. “Being is not intrinsically good but is value-free; fact and value are separated.” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 100)

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