C.S. Lewis – that teacher, theologian, and thinker that we have practically adopted as an honorary Mormon, so often is he quoted in Mormon sources – preached a sermon in the early days of World War II which has been published as “On Learning in War-Time.” It’s long been my favorite of his writings.
Lewis called on university students to keep their wits about them, to concentrate on their studies, and not to allow themselves to be carried away by the excitements of war while they still had the privilege of focusing on scholarship. They had a duty, he said, not only to themselves, but to the Church and to the world in general.
Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.
Christian scholars had a duty, he said, to maintain a life of the mind, even as religious people, and even in the midst of war.
Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and soldiers are still men; the infidel’s idea of a religious life and the civilian’s idea of active service are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line; if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions. …
A cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.
And he discussed the “enemies which war raises up against the scholar” and how to combat them.
The first enemy is excitement — the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.
Somewhere in my storage closet there is a piece of fabric with the line “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable” embroidered on it. Although I never framed it, that line inspired me through years of unfulfilling wage slaving when I would so much have preferred going to school.
Ack. That’s not what I intended to write when I started this. I intended only to note that the editor of Liahona: The Elders’ Journal at the outbreak of an earlier war was very much in sympathy with Lewis’s later thoughts and the need to focus on duty and calling and what mattered most, rather than on the excitement of war. The 8 September 1914 issue of the Liahona carries this editorial:
Remember Your Calling
Now that the European War is on in earnest, it is natural for all to watch eagerly from hour to hour to get the latest news from the seat of battle. We wish, however, to remind the elders to allow nothing to stand in the way of a faithful performance of a full duty toward the children of God in proclaiming the everlasting Gospel unto them. This is the all-important thing for every elder to do. Nothing should divert his mind from his high and holy calling of ambassador of the Prince of Peace.
In the faithful performance of your mission to the world, peace shall finally be established among all men, and nation shall not war against nation any more at all, for an acceptance of the truths which you are divinely commissioned to proclaim shall bring love and harmony to every soul, so that in very deed all the kindreds of the earth shall be one, even as the Father and the Son are one.
Therefore, be not swayed from the course of your important calling.
What excitements distract you from the duties that should receive your greatest attention? How do you keep your mind and your actions focused on what matters most?