The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 107-118
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Telos and Existence:
Ethics in C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy and Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge
Jeffrey J. Folks
Within Western culture, narrative literature has always been the means by which people have understood the nature of the human condition and the shape of their lives. Through storytelling, as Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, readers or listeners gain a consciousness of their humanity and an understanding of their cultural traditions. The ethical value of literature lies in its ability to help readers consider, more than they otherwise might, the consequences of their choices and those of others. Most important, ethical reading focuses attention on the particular "shape" and telos of life; it encourages readers to imagine the bounded potential of human existence.
As Christian authors, C. S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor wrote from within an antagonistic cultural context of twentieth-century secular humanism. Within this milieu, Lewis and O'Connor had to assume that many of their readers would, at the very least, respond skeptically to their reassertion of orthodox Christian dogma. In some cases, as in the harsh contemporary reviews of Lewis's work by liberal critics such as Q. D. Leavis or L. C. Knights, the reaction went far beyond skepticism: it reflected an uncompromising refusal to consider the role of spirituality in human existence. In his review of Lewis's Rehabilitations, for example, Knights wrote that Lewis "brings much needed support to those who wish to be confirmed in certain complacent attitudes" (92). Given the [End Page 107] context of philosophical skepticism in which Lewis and O'Connor wrote, it is understandable that they would find it necessary to begin with fundamental matters, such as the ethical implications of the human condition of mortality and the value of the spiritual life over materialism or utilitarianism.
From within the Western tradition of classical-Christian thought, Lewis and O'Connor both viewed human nature and human society as innately corrupt, permeated with human selfishness, ignorance, and destructiveness, and both believed that within this earthly wasteland, human systems of ethics were ultimately ineffectual. Human society could approach an ethical condition only through the redemption of individuals. Since this moral revolution could not rely on collective action, both Lewis and O'Connor are skeptical concerning humanistic theories of ethics. From their point of view, humanistic approaches to ethics invariably devolve into self-interested action since they lack a point of moral reference outside of human nature (in this respect, Lewis and O'Connor write within the Aristotelian and Augustinian tradition in which, as MacIntyre points out in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, an ethics of virtue is contrasted with the ethics of effectiveness). The very tendency of ethical philosophy to revert to moralistic discourse is the result of a human-centered philosophy in which power and ego always come to the fore and must be restrained by social pressure.
At this general level, Lewis and O'Connor are in complete agreement, and we should not discount the importance of how unusual they both were among modern writers in their unwavering defense of an orthodox Christian faith. If for no other reason, their works can be linked because they stood unflinchingly for the same set of beliefs and in opposition to the same intellectuals falsehoods. 1 On a more particular level, of course, some important differences of emphasis or methodology can be detected in their ethical positions. Lewis's valuation of humility (for example, the "duty" for a writer of "being derivative" rather than "original") contrasts with a more pronounced tension between self-effacement and self-assertion in O'Connor's writing. Lewis writes in "Christianity and Literature" that we are "mirrors" reflecting divine light: "'Originality' in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems to be confined to the Father. The duty and...