The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: Not Wholly in Vain
James V. Schall, S.J. - 02/25/09
war memorial


With no forethought, one evening, I pulled from my shelf a very large tome. I opened what was the third volume of C. S. Lewis’ Letters, to page 1390, to be exact. This page number gives one some idea of the massiveness of Lewis’ correspondence. This third volume alone contains 1737 pages. But here was a very short letter, dated Christmas Eve, 1962. Lewis complained of the hassle of Christmas, but wanted to send Tolkien at least a “warm greeting.”

In the last line of this letter of but eight lines, Lewis cited Augustine who, supposedly, said that “Christmas presents are diabolical.” I anxiously hope this judgment is not true. For if it is, Schall certainly has received many a “diabolical” gift on this day, gifts invariably received with gratitude and given with good will.

One wonders what Augustine had in mind? Probably that Christ is the only real Gift. Our many “gifts” somehow divert our attention from the main Gift. A more benign way to see gifts is that, in them, we try to imitate, in our own small way, the enormous Gift given to us, the one that we associate with Christmas itself. Who was it who said that the only way you can really keep your life is by giving it away? A gift is not a gift unless it is given away. There is no higher metaphysic than this, than the recognition that only by giving away what we are and have do we keep.

But the sentence in this letter that particularly struck me was in the first paragraph: “All my philosophy of history hangs upon a sentence of your own: ‘Deeds were done which were not wholly in vain.’” The adverb “wholly” in this sentence literally leaps out at you. We cannot help but realize that many of our deeds do have something of the “in vain” about them. Aristotle had warned us of the consequences of a world in which everything was “in vain,” with no purpose, no origin, and no relations.

As a reader of Tolkien, of course, I had seen this memorable sentence before. In fact, the editor of the Letters gives the text in a footnote. It is from The Fellowship of the Ring (Bk. I, ch. 2). It reads: “There was sorrow there too, and gathering dark, but great valour; and great deeds that were not wholly in vain.” The “great deeds” are to be seen against the background of real “sorrow” and of the “gathering dark.”

Much doom comes into our souls while reading Tolkien. It is only alleviated by the glimmer of hope that arrives in us when we realize that some of our deeds are not wholly in vain. A purpose is found even within us that points our deeds beyond ourselves. Even the smallest and most insignificant of us makes a difference.

“Valour” is the determination not to be defeated by the sorrows of our lot. They too have become redemptive. “Valour” does not just let the “gathering dark” happen, at least not without a fight, not without hope. An individualistic and self-autonomous age will think little but one’s self is worth standing up for. A noble age remembers that the distinction between right and wrong is a real distinction, nothing arbitrary about it. It is found in the nature of things. Its recognition is what differentiates souls and states from one another.

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