Nero’s True Tragedy

C. S. Lewis had been asked to put the Second World War and education in perspective. How could the life of the mind thrive in the face of war? How could Europe, do anything that was not directly related to defeating the Nazi evil sweeping the continent? Does education still have a place? How can the study of mathematics, and biology, and literature, and the arts justify itself in the face of the consuming drive to end the evil menace of the German blitzkrieg? Every nation in every age has to grapple with such questions in times of national defense but, if one is a Christian, there are other issues that become even more important, more focused when the death looms large on the horizon.

On October 22, 1939, just 7 weeks after the start of the war, Lewis, the professor, was tasked to put such questions in a particularly Christian perspective. The occasion was an invitation to assume the pulpit at the Evensong service at St. Mary the Virgin, the Oxford University Church. The quotes below come from that message:

“. . . to the Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.”

C. S. Lewis in “Learning in War-time”
from The Weight of Glory, 20

Oct 22, 1939, just 7 weeks after the beginning of World War II

“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.”

p. 21

Lewis was trying to help his audience think Christianly about not just the life of the mind but all of human endeavor against the background of the 100 percent certainty that all of us are going to die. NO ONE gets out of here alive. The immanence of war makes death more memorable but not more likely.

“Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chances of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it.

If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.”

“Learning in War-time”
in The Weight of Glory, 31

Essentially then, Lewis had a dual focus in this message. One was to defend the importance of continued study at the university, even during a time of war. Study is still valuable, especially, he argued, if done according to 1 Corinthians 10:31, that is, “the glory of God. But his second focus was distinctively Christian and evangelistic. “Think about where you stand with God. Believe in Him now; entrust yourself to Him now. It is the only moment you know that you will ever have.” Nero could fiddle as Rome burned. He could act like it was of no concern of his. But it was all just an act, a delusion. One day he would have to face His judge. We all will. Do not go to that audience without Christ as your Savior.


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