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Lewis in the Silver Chair

Another of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes (partly available here) is from his Narnia book The Silver Chair, when the Emerald Witch has several of the good guys–the Prince; Puddleglum, a Marsh-wiggle; Jill; and Eustace Scrubb–captured underground and under a magical spell. The Witch tries to make them believe there is no Narnia, and no Aslan (the Jesus-figure)–no world above, no sun, no lions.

It did not ablaze much, but a very sweet and drowsy smell came from it. And all through the conversation which followed, that smell grew stronger and filled the room and made it harder to think. Secondly, she took out a musical instrument rather like a mandolin. She began to play it with her fingers — a steady, monotonous thrumming that you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. This also made it hard to think. After she thrummed for a time (and the sweet smell was now strong) she began speaking in a sweet, quiet voice.

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? . . . There is no land called Narnia.”

“Yes there is, though, Ma’am,” said Puddleglum. “You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.”

“Indeed,” said the Witch. “Tell me, I pray you, where that country is?”

“Up there,” said Puddleglum, stoutly, pointing overhead. “I – I don’t know exactly where.”

“How?” said the Queen, with a kind, soft, musical laugh. “Is there a country up there among the stones and mortar on the roof?”

“No,” said Puddleglum, struggling a little to get his breath. “It’s in Overworld.”

But the witch’s magic eventually dulls their minds:

“No. I suppose that other world must be all a dream.”

“Yes. It is all a dream,” said the Witch, always thrumming.

“Yes, all a dream,” said Jill.

“There never was such a world,” said the Witch.

“No,” said Jill and Scrubb, “never was such a world.”

“There never was any world but mine,” said the Witch.

“There never was any world but yours,” said they.

She has them almost persuaded that they are dreaming up things–making up the “sun” from lights; “lions” from cats; making up an “Overworld”, when there is only one world, the Witch’s underground world–when Puddleglum shoves his bare foot in a fire, so that the pain helps rouse him from the spell:

The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete. But Puddleglum, desperately gathering all his strength, walked over to the fire. Then he did a very brave thing. He knew it wouldn’t hurt him quite as much as it would hurt a human; for his feet (which were bare) were webbed and hard and cold-blooded like a duck’s. But he knew it would hurt him badly enough; and so it did. With his bare foot he stamped on the fire, grinding a large part of it into ashes on the flat hearth. And three things happened at once.

First, the sweet, heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

Then Puddleglum says this to the Witch:

“One word, Ma’am” he said coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Now this is obviously meant to show how important faith is, among other things. I am not really convinced by it in a theological sense, though it is a good effort. What I like about it is how well it meshes with my view of libertarian ethics, and regular ethics for that matter. I believe there is something to the Humean idea that you can’t derive an ought from an is. All oughts are in a sense hypothetical: based on a choice to be ethical in the first place. The battles over morals are battles between those who have chosen the civilized path, and those who are criminal, animal-like–outlaws. You can’t ask why someone wants to be moral, any more than you can prove that it is moral to choose to live (as Rand argued, the choice to live is amoral; this choice is the foundation of all other morals–so in a sense, Rand’s ethics was hypothetical, as alluded to in Harry Binswanger’s article Life-Based Teleology as the Foundation of Ethics). But the sort of drive or sense of why someone does choose the moral and civilized life, I find expressed and echoed in the Lewis passage above. And either you get it or you don’t.

To me the passage also expresses why God’s existence really cannot matter too much for moral truths; why standards of good and evil are outside God; why the idea that God is a “source” of morals and rights is confused, and just an extension of legal positivism back one level. The legislature cannot by decree make murder evil; nor could God; which is not to impugn God but to declare that some things are objectively evil–are at least, are seen so by those who choose to distinguish between good and evil, by those who prefer peace, cooperation, and civilization, to violence and depradation.

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