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Charles Williams on Truth and the Scholar

Relativism’s denial of truth is clearly undercutting the educational mission of our schools and universities.  However, the English author Charles Williams (1886-1945) portrays in his novels two subtler and interrelated dangers to the scholar who is not properly aligned to the truth.  These dangers are dishonesty with regard to facts in his field and an inadequate motivation for his studies.   Both represent a failure to love.  

The military historian Lawrence Wentworth in Williams’s Descent into Hell [1] is an example of academic dishonesty.  He is involved in a scholarly dispute over an apparently minor detail concerning a battle during the War of the Roses.  Wentworth determines that his opponent Aston Moffatt “could not be right. …  In defense of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence” (p. 39).   In contrast to Moffatt, whom Williams describes as a “pure scholar, a holy and beautiful soul who would have sacrificed reputation, income and life … for the discovery of one fact,” Wentworth has “identified scholarship with himself,” and has thus made his reputation more important than truth (p. 38).

This seemingly minor failure reveals Wentworth as one who does not want to conform his thoughts to reality but rather to conform reality to his desires.  The result is that he loses touch with reality, preferring to live in a fantasy of his own creation.  For example, he finds that Adela Hunt, to whom he is attracted, loves another man.  In his mind he creates an imaginative Adela Hunt, totally pliable to his desires, and begins to prefer this phantasm to the real woman.

Williams writes that Wentworth “had never, in any possible sense of the word, been ‘in love’” (p. 36).  Love frees us from bondage to our selfishness.  It delights in a reality outside of itself, whether that reality is truth or other persons.  Wentworth wants the world to serve his desires.  When it doesn’t, he creates his own world, attempting to isolate himself from all others.  However, external reality continues to impinge upon his fantasy world like the fires of hell.  In the end Wentworth is damned, “drawn steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circle of the void” (p. 222), the ultimate fate of those who will not love.

In The Place of the Lion[2] a young doctoral student named Damaris Tighe is writing a dissertation on the medieval theologian Peter Abelard.  She represents a scholar whose motivation for study is inadequately related to a passion for the truth.  Her desire is to advance in her career.  She is similar to Wentworth in that she sees external events and other people as interferences to her ambition.  She seeks to control her surroundings and limit the demands of personal relations in order to find peace.  Williams comments, “Peace to her was not a state to be achieved but a supposed necessary condition of her daily work, and peace therefore, as often happens, evaded her continually” (p. 96).

Tighe is troubled by two apparently unrelated matters.  First, because she did not help Quentin Sabot, who had been terrorized by a lion,[3] she is plagued by visions of his frightened face.  Second, connected with those visions is Abelard’s phrase, “Truth is always in the thing.”[4]  She agonizes over Abelard’s philosophical assertion because she is unable to see how “religion and metaphysics” have anything to do with the moral demand to help another human being.

In contrast to Lawrence Wentworth’s, Damaris Tighe’s is a story of redemption.  She has not totally cut herself off from the truth.  Even though she won’t admit it to Anthony Durrant, her romantic interest and the hero of the novel, she acknowledges to herself that she was wrong not to have helped Quentin Sabot.  She also continues to have the capacity to speak the truth.  When Anthony urges her to come with him to London and states that she owes him that much, Damaris is tempted to claim that she didn’t owe him anything, which is not true.  Instead, she bluntly states, “I don’t see any reason to go to London, thank you.”  That honest response is “the beginning of her salvation,” (107) according to Williams.

The fact is that Damaris Tighe never falsified evidence, as had Wentworth.  She honestly sought to discover the historical thread of thought that connected Abelard and Plato.  Her failure is not to take seriously the actual quest of these philosophers to discover the universal truths that govern reality.  She neither loves the truth or others.  However, when she realizes that the universals are invading her world, she is able to see her error and helps Quentin Sabot.  She begins to act in love.

Williams’s two novels demonstrate the importance of the unimportant.  Lawrence Wentworth is damned by fudging on a miniscule historical event.  Damaris Tighe is saved by honestly saying that she sees no reason to go to London with Anthony Durrant, even though she should have.  In life the crisis moments for our souls rarely occur with earthshattering and heaven-parting accompaniment.  They are generally the tipping point of habitual small moral failures which reach a critical mass from which there is no turning back.  The student who has been cheating on tests senses that he ought not to do so but feels that one more time won’t matter.  In a conversation a young woman who seeks to use others in relationships is faced with the choice to speak honestly what she feels and lose a relationship or continue to lie in order to keep it.  Like Elijah hearing God in the still small voice, often the crucial events of our lives are hidden in the commonplace.

Since both of Williams’s characters are scholars, he has much to say to the academic world.  The most obvious is that the scholar ought to be honest and seek to conform his thoughts and theories to the evidence.  Of course, the current relativistic strain that denies all objectivity conveniently removes this moral restraint on scholarship and ultimately separates the scholar from the truth.

Even more fundamental to scholarship and the educational enterprise as a whole is Williams’s belief that the world, created by God, is charged with spiritual realities.  Such a universe is a moral universe.  In a moral universe academic dishonesty is surrender to spiritual forces that consume the soul of the mendacious scholar.

Furthermore, in such a spiritual world, a scholar who merely seeks to arrive at a limited truth in his field is not adequately related to the truth, whether that truth be how the archers lined up in the Battle of Agincourt or the reason for the disappearance of the dinosaurs.  In a world created by God the truths of detail are connected to the overarching truths of the universe and ultimately to the God who is the Truth.

The Damaris Tighes of the world ignore the ultimate realities of life.  They are akin to those whom Augustine of Hippo calls the curious.  Such a scholar has a “keen desire to know,” but only asks “about things which do not concern him.” The truly studious “has a strong desire to know such things as contribute to the liberal nurture and equipment of his soul.”[5]

The Damaris Tighe scholars and the universities that they inhabit reduce truth, insofar as they still hold to truth at all, to “facts” unconnected to one another and the larger realities of the universe.  Not only do they become unable to communicate with one another across their various academic disciplines, but devoid of faith in a God who has created the universe and governs the history they study, they also fail to see any relationship between their life’s work and the health of their souls and those of their students.

At the dawn of the universities in the early thirteenth century, Hugh of St. Victor wrote,”This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, … namely, to restore within us the divine likeness ….  The more we are conformed to the divine nature, the more do we possess Wisdom, for then there begins to shine forth again in us what has forever existed in the divine Idea or Pattern, coming and going in us but standing changeless in God.”[6]

Until we as a society and the universities that play so important a role in shaping our society return to a vision of the truth as wisdom that restores the human soul to its wholeness as the image of God we shall continue on the destructive course that we are so rapidly following.  A thoughtful and prayerful reading of Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams would be a good place for a scholar to begin the arduous task of repentance and returning to He who is the Truth and Wisdom.

[1] All quotations are from Charles Williams, Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rep. ed. 1972).

[2] All quotations are from Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rep. ed. 1972).

[3] The lion, by the way, is no ordinary one, but the archetype of power that has been drawn into the ordinary human world and is devouring the souls of men.  See my post “C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams on Christ the Lamb and the Lion” for a fuller explanation of The Place of the Lion.

[4] By the way, this quotation is actually from Abelard’s Hymns from the Paraclete, which shows how serious a scholar Williams was.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, The Usefulness of Belief, section 22.

[6] Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon, Book II, chapter 1.

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