C.S. Lewis on the Right of Private Judgment

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S.Lewis masterfully challenged T.S. Eliot’s position that “the best contemporary practicing poets are the only ‘jury of judgment’ whose verdict on his own views of Paradise Lost he will accept.” Lewis pulled on Eliot’s thread of logical fallacy in what is one of his most beautiful polemics. One of the fascinating things about Lewis’ argument with regard to authorial intent of poetry, is that it runs similar to the argument that the Reformers made with regard to the interpretation of Scripture. The Reformers were being told that they could not interpret Scripture because they were not infallible. While the Scriptures are not “of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20-21), we as creatures of God have been given “the right of private judgment” regarding whether someone’s interpretation of Scripture is correct or not. We find this principle taught with regard to the Bereans, who, the Holy Spirit tells us, “were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word [from the Apostle Paul] with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:10).

Contra the Roman Catholic church, which denies men the “right of private judgment,” the Reformers fought for freedom of conscience and the right of each person to search the Scriptures diligently to see if what they were being taught was biblical or not. Rome insists that the church has infallibility of interpretation. Rome teaches that the Pope can speak infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra. Lewis’ argument against Elliot can equally be applied to the Roman Catholic church’s position on epistemology. For example, the Roman Catholic system is built on the assumption that fallible men cannot understand an infallible Bible without a living infallible interpreter. Rome then argues that the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is the Pope because he is the only said infallible being (and only when he speaks ex cathedra). Here, Rome’s premise is self-defeating. They cannot tell Protestants that they are wrong based on the Protestants own fallibility since all of their own bishops and archbishops are fallible as well. After all, if their premise is correct, then we know that they don’t know what they claim to be true is the truth at all? In fact, even if a Roman Catholic went to his bishop and the bishop told him what he believed to be the correct interpretation of Scripture and tradition concerning justification, it wouldn’t change the fact that the bishop is himself  fallible. Furthermore, he studied under fallible men. So for instance, did his bishop study under Rudolf Schnakenberg, Joseph Ritzmyer or Karl Rhaner? Certainly that would affect his interpretation. There are legions of Catholics throughout the world who disagree with one another.

To be fair, one may argue that according to Rome’s doctrine of infallibility your bishop could go straight to the Pope (as the only supposedly “living infallible being”) to gain the right interpretation of Scripture. But, even if your bishop went straight to the Pope, and then came back to you with an answer, you could not be sure that you have understood him correctly  because you’ve learned your interpretation from other infallible men. Even if you went straight to the Pope and asked him 50 questions concerning the biblical teaching on justification you still could never assert that you have personally gleaned the right interpretation of Scripture, because you are personally fallible. Rome’s position should land everyone in absolute skepticism.

Now, we certainly agree that all men are fallible. We believe that the Pope is fallible too!  We believe in Sola Scripture. It, and no other man save Jesus, is the only infallible interpreter of the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The Holy Spirit, being the Spirit of Jesus and the author of Scripture, enables His people to understand it correctly as they search it out humbly and prayerfully (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). The Scriptures alone contain the only infallible interpretation of Scripture. Every man, woman and child has a God-given ‘right of private judgment’ and is called to diligently search out the Scriptures to see whether what they are taught is right or not. We are all to search out the authorial intent of the Holy Spirit.

So…to return to Lewis and poetry. Enjoy his thoroughly intriguing argument for the “right of private judgment” of poetry:

A recent remark of Mr Eliot’s poses for us at the outset the fundamental question whether we (mere critics) have any right to talk about Milton at all. Mr Eliot says bluntly and frankly that the best contemporary practicing poets are the only “jury of judgement”* whose verdict on his own views of Paradise Lost he will accept. And Mr Eliot is here simply rendering explicit a notion that has become increasingly prevalent for about a hundred years–the notion that poets are the only judges of poetry. If I make Mr Eliot’s words the peg on which to hang a discussion of this notion it must not, therefore, be assumed that this is, for me, more than a convenience, still less that I wish to attack him quâ Mr Eliot. Why should I? I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison,trivial.

Let us consider what would follow if we took Mr Eliot’s view seriously. The first result is that I, not being one of the best contemporary poets, cannot judge Mr Eliot’s criticism at all. What then shall I do? Shall I go to the best contemporary poets, who can, and ask them whether Mr Eliot is right? But in order to go to them I must first know who they are. And this, by hypothesis, I cannot find out; the same lack of poethood which renders my critical opinions on Milton worthless renders my opinions on Mr Pound or Mr Auden equally worthless. Shall I then go to Mr Eliot and ask him to tell me who the best contemporary poets are? But this, again, will be useless. I personally may think Mr Eliot a poet–in fact, I do–but then, as he has explained to me, my thoughts on such a point are worthless. I cannot find out whether Mr Eliot is a poet or not; and until I have found out I cannot know whether his testimony to the poethood of Mr Pound and Mr Auden is valid. And for the same reason I cannot find out whether their testimony to his poethood is valid. Poets become on this view an unrecognizable society (an Invisible Church), and their mutual criticism goes on within a closed circle which no outsider can possibly break into at any point.

But even within the circle it is no better. Mr Eliot is ready to accept the verdict of the best contemporary poets on his criticism. But how does he recognize them as poets? Clearly, because he is a poet himself; for if he is not, his opinion is worthless. At the basis of his whole critical edifice, then, lies the judgement “I am a poet.” But this is a critical judgement. It therefore follows that when Mr Eliot asks himself, “Am I a poet?” he has to assume the answer “I am” before he can find the answer “I am”; for the answer, being a piece of criticism, is valuable only if he is a poet. He is thus compelled to beg the question before he can get started at all. Similarly Mr Auden and Mr Pound must beg the question before they get started. But since no man of high intellectual honour can base his thought on an exposed petitio the real result is that no such man can criticize poetry at all, neither his own poetry nor that of his neighbour. The republic of letters resolves itself into an aggregate of uncommunicating and unwindowed monads; each has unawares crowned and mitred himself Pope and King of Pointland.

In answer to this Mr Eliot may properly plead that the same apparently vicious circle meets us in other maxims which I should find it less easy to reject: as when we say that only a good man can judge goodness, or only a rational man can judge reasonings, or only a doctor can judge medical skill. But we must beware of false parallels.

(1) In the moral sphere, though insight and performance are not strictly equal (which would make both guilt and aspiration impossible), yet it is true that continued disobedience to conscience makes conscience blind. But disobedience to conscience is voluntary; bad poetry, on the other hand, is usually not made on purpose. The writer was trying to make good poetry. He was endeavouring to follow such lights as he had–a procedure which in the moral sphere is the pledge of progress, but not in poetry. Again, a man may fall outside the class of “good poets” not by being a bad poet, but by writing no poetry at all, whereas at every moment of his waking life he is either obeying or breaking the moral law. The moral blindness consequent on being a bad man must therefore fall on every one who is not a good man, whereas the critical blindness (if any) due to being a bad poet need by no means fall on every one who is not a good poet.

(2) Reasoning is never, like poetry, judged from the outside at all. The critique of a chain of reasoning is itself a chain of reasoning: the critique of a tragedy is not itself a tragedy. To say that only the rational man can judge reasonings is, therefore, to make the merely analytical proposition “Only the rational man can reason,” parallel to “only the poet can make poetry,” or “only the critic can criticize,” and not at all parallel to the synthetic proposition “only the poet can criticize.”

(3) As regards a skill, such as medicine or engineering, we must distinguish. Only the skilled can judge the skilfulness, but that is not the same as judging the value of the result. It is for cooks to say whether a given dish proves skill in the cook; but whether the product on which this skill has been lavished is worth eating or no is a question on which a cook’s opinion is of no particular value. We may therefore allow poets to tell us (at least if they are experienced in the same kind of composition) whether it is easy or difficult to write like Milton, but not whether the reading of Milton is a valuable experience. For who can endure a doctrine which would allow only dentists to say whether our teeth were aching, only cobblers to say whether our shoes hurt us, and only governments to tell us whether we were being well governed?

Such are the results if we take the position in its full rigour. But of course if it is only meant that a good poet, other things being equal (which they often are not), is reasonably likely, in talking about the kinds of poetry he has himself written well and read with delight, to say something more worth hearing than another, then we need not deny it.1

C.S. Lewis Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942) pp. 9-11

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