A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“Remember that, as I said, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less… You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping… You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either (p. 93).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Wisdom is more like the wind than a rock. It is something with movement to be experienced rather than a static entity to be possessed. The wind changes things. Rocks sit. Rocks can be collected, stored, and brought out whenever the owner likes. The wind can be harnessed, but it is subject to no man.
These parallels seem relevant to Lewis’ observation that a prerequisite to knowledge is living in the right direction. When someone is living in the right direction, wisdom is like the wind at their back building upon the momentum of character. When someone is living in the wrong direction, wisdom is like the wind in their face making each step more difficult and souring the entire journey.
Yet we only acknowledge this is true when we are living in the right direction. Someone with the wind in their face is convinced the wind is “against” them even when it is blowing in the direction they should be going. Their direction obscures their ability to determine friend and foe; assistance and hindrance.
This leads to Lewis’ point about sleep and sobriety. It requires a certain condition in order to be able to accurately perceive a problem. Consciousness is required in order to know unconsciousness (i.e. sleep). Soberness is required to know unsoberness (i.e., drunk). Wisdom is required to know unwisdom (i.e., foolishness). Holiness is required to know unholiness (i.e., bad).
To the fool everything seems wise, except wisdom. Hence, wisdom becomes a term void of meaning. Then because nothing works, everything becomes permissible. When someone suggests wisdom as the solution to folly, they are rejected as absurd because they dare to suggest the “worst” approach to fix the mess made by the “reasonable” ones.
When one is headed in the wrong direction, both good and bad lose all meaning. Without these categories of thought it becomes impossible to accurately know yourself or make consistently good choices. Life becomes random and meaningless.
Meaning becomes a joke that is too painful to tell. It is like a starving man trying to joke about good. The subject so offends his condition that the joke (even if true) offends his condition and highlights his pain. For someone without an accurate and effective sense of right and wrong, “should” becomes a subject (even if real) that offends their sinful condition and highlights the darkness in which they live.
So what do we take away from this reflection? Wisdom is something that we surrender to, not something we collect. We place our life in the flow of its current or we try to fight against the current and create directionless turbulence surrounding our life. With that turbulence, the disruption of wisdom, it becomes impossible (apart from God’s grace and our surrender to it through repentance) to regain any meaningful sense of direction. Let us never forget the ripples of destruction when we try to define good and evil for ourselves (Gen 3:5).