(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)
In C.S. Lewis's introduction to Athanasius's "On the Incarnation," he has this to say about reading books from other time periods.
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
I propose here to represent one of the "books of the future" in relation to Lewis's own writings, and Tolkien's as well. Only, making it easy on myself, I will write just a long blog post of the future rather than a whole book. (Though this post is now long enough almost to qualify as a book.) The subject I want to address is death, and specifically voluntary death.
Both Lewis and Tolkien believed with some firmness that the great danger concerning man and death lay in man's being too afraid of death and too opposed to death rather than being pro-death or attracted to death. Again and again, in their letters, in their fiction, in their glosses on their fiction, and in reported comments, they teach an acceptance of death and the goodness of "going gently into that good night" as a way of accepting the will of God and avoiding hubris--a kind of vitalistic clinging to life that is (as they view it) contrary to accepting our human nature.
This emphasis leads to a romanticizing of death and even to flirting with a "death with dignity" concept, as well as a problematic horror of the disabilities of old age.
Some of the relevant comments in Lewis's work are quite harmless. For example, in The Magicians' Nephew, the Witch tries to tempt Digory to take an apple that will make him immortal. This particular temptation bounces right off Digory:
Which is okay as far as it goes.
"No thanks," said Digory, I don't know that I care much about living on and on after everyone I know is dead. I'd rather live an ordinary time and die and go to Heaven."
More jarring when you stop to think about it is Jill's rather ruthless comment on death and old age in The Last Battle:
"Even if we are killed. I'd rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a bathchair and then die in the end just the same."
Well, then! This is realistic dialogue put into the mouth of a girl of Jill's age (she's supposed to be in approximately her early teens), but it gives one a bit of a jolt to suspect that Lewis himself expects the reader to take it as a gallant and admirable sentiment (willingness to die in battle for Narnia!) as opposed to an expression of casual bigotry from the young to the old, an expression of disdain for the value of the lives of those disabled by old age. Heaven forbid that one should get "old and stupid" much less having to go about in a wheelchair!
Lewis's description and idealization of the Hrossa in Out of the Silent Planet (Lewis's contribution to the ancient genre of utopia literature, by the way) makes the same point: Acceptance of death is good. Resistance to death is bad and a sign of demonic influence. The rational creatures on Mars were apparently intended to be mortal and even short-lived from the outset; death was not (it seems) a punishment for sin--a literary idea found in Tolkien as well, which I'll discuss below. When Mars (the planet the Hrossa live on) became cold long ago in its history, so that more of them would die and more quickly than before, their angelic guardian was concerned only because Satan would make them fear death rather than peacefully, happily accepting it:
Many thousands of years before this [says Oyarsa, the angelic planet guardian],...the cold death was coming on my harandra. Then I was in deep trouble, not chiefly for the death of my hnau [rational creatures]--Maleldil [God] does not make them long-livers--but for the things which the lord of your world [Satan]...put into their minds. He would have made them as your people are now--wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it. Bent counsels would soon have risen among them...[These included the apparently sinful (!) idea of making space ships and traveling to other planets, which Lewis regards as inherently wrong in opposition to accepting the death of one's whole species.] By me Maleldil stopped them. Some I cured, some I unbodied [executed]....[O]ne thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace."
At this point, Weston, the villain of the book, bursts out, "Defeatist trash!" I suppose that if you feel that there is something...weird about regarding death and even extinction of the whole race as something good and no problem, you are also a villain like Weston.
In Oyarsa's analysis, the fear of death is the root of all evil. This is (I have to point out) not a teaching found anywhere in the Bible, nor a truth of reason. Indeed, it is quite rational to fear death, and St. Paul calls it "the last enemy."
Lewis so romanticizes the peaceful acceptance of death among the hrossa that he told one correspondent that he deliberately made their birth rates below replacement to show that they are not only happily accepting their own personal deaths but also the death of their whole race.
I admit I made the birth rates among the Hrossa a bit too low: but of course you must remember that I was picturing a world in its extreme old age--like an old man tranquilly and happily proceeding to his end. (Letter to Martin, July 10, 1957, Letters to Children, p. 70)
To be fair, in the next book, Perelandra, the characters on Venus are far more like Adam and Eve, and it is clear that death will come to them only if they sin and will be a curse. Ransom is very anti-death and tries to convince the Green Lady that death has a "foul smell." So Lewis is not entirely consistent in his literary approach.
In general, though, the notion of acceptance of death as a high-minded norm is Lewis's more common theme. It is sounded again in a letter to a friend where he treats voluntary death as a noble act, one that few people would undertake if the option were available.
Have you ever thought what it wd. be like if (all other things remaining as they are) old age and death had been made optional? All other things remaining: i.e. it wd. still be true that our real destiny was elsewhere, that we have no abiding city here and not true happiness, but the un-hitching from this life was left to be accomplished by our own will as an act of obedience & faith. I suppose the percentage of di-ers wd be about the same as the percentage of Trappists is now. (Letter to Dr. Warfield Firor, October 15, 1949)
This is a place where our perspective from the future is useful--as indeed it is useful on this whole subject of death. We actually now have many stories of supposedly "good" deaths, carried out by people who have had an ominous diagnosis and want to retain control by controlling the time of their death. There are happy-happy stories about how they gather their families around them and even have going-away parties. Priests are even being pressured to give them last rights just before they become "voluntary di-ers." Holland is even considering extending assisted suicide to those who merely "feel their lives are complete"--something that we pro-lifers see as dystopian but that bears a surprising similarity to Lewis's "voluntary di-ers," whom he regards as especially good Christians. It also resembles Tolkien's Numenoreans, about which more in a moment.
We now know that there is nothing particularly utopian or spiritual about choosing the time of your death and dying voluntarily. What looks to those who haven't lived in a world of assisted suicide like Christian renunciation looks to those who have fought the culture of death like an act of extreme human control-freakishness. "I will not allow myself to become disabled, a burden, unhappy, undignified. I will choose and bring about my own death sooner than that."
One could say, truly enough, that none of these passages in Lewis's letters or books actually touch explicitly on suicide or voluntary death in our own real world.
One explicit mention I know of is Puddleglum's statement in The Silver Chair that suicide is not "allowed," though the context even there is that Puddleglum is saying (rather disturbingly) that suicide would be "the best thing we could do" as self-punishment for accidentally eating talking stag!
Lewis did explicitly tell Sheldon Vanauken that he must not commit suicide after the death of his beloved wife Davy and even hinted that doing so might create an "unbridgeable chasm" between him and his wife--an implication that suicide, which Lewis called in that letter "disobedience," would cause damnation. (A Severe Mercy, p. 210)
But the most striking of all of Lewis's comments on the subject of death and suicide is recounted by a former student, Charles Wrong, in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, p. 111.
About suicide: "You know, there's nothing to condemn it in the Bible, in the Old or the New Testament. I think it must be a pagan idea; comes from Plato. I accept it purely on authority. But I remember once I said to a doctor that I didn't see why the incurably sick shouldn't be gtiven release from pain; and I remember what he said: 'You've had no clinical experience, Lewis. Like most of the people who talk like that, you're in robust health. You'll find that it's hardly ever the incurably sick who want to be released, whatever the pain is like. It's their families who hate to see them suffer, and can't stand the emotional strain (or, of course, the worry and expense), that start saying, "Doctor, he mustn't be allowed to suffer--far better to put him out of his misery".'"
Wrong recounts this conversation as having happened on August 8, 1959, when he ran into Lewis in Oxford. Lewis's wife's cancer was in remission at the time, and Lewis sounds like he was in a particularly joyful mood as a result. (The cancer was found to have returned that October.)
This is an interesting set of comments indeed! Lewis apparently accepts that suicide is wrong, but solely on the basis of Christian "authority," though that authority isn't Scripture, which he emphatically points out says nothing on the subject. Presumably he means something like Christian tradition. Even there, he guesses that the tradition itself was influenced by pagan ideas, such as Plato's (partial) condemnation of suicide. He is saying that he had temporarily expressly endorsed euthanasia as "giving release from pain" in conversation with Havard, his doctor friend who wrote an afterword to The Problem of Pain and whom he is presumably referring to here. Havard responded with a point that is legitimate as far as it goes, a point that has been made in recent years by pro-lifers. Wesley J. Smith talks of "putting people out of our misery," which is what Havard is talking about. Nonetheless, even there, the objection is not one of absolute principle but a cautionary prudential point that voluntary euthanasia often ends up not being at the will of the patient himself but of his relatives. Lewis evidently accepted both what Havard said on the prudential side as well as the Christian prohibition on suicide. But his heart seems to have been on the side of the nobleness of peaceful, chosen death and the relief of being able to give and accept release from pain into death at the end of one's life. And for that matter, his reason, since he accepts the wrongness of such things purely on authority rather than as a matter of the natural light.
The letter to Vanauken shows that Lewis took the Christian prohibition on suicide quite seriously, as he would, but he does not seem to have felt or seen its wrongness, and the death-accepting defeatism and resignation (sorry to sound like the evil Weston) of Out of the Silent Planet is a good indication of where his mind and heart were at. (Interestingly, some dialogue in Out of the Silent Planet also reflects his acceptance of the idea that earth is headed for severe overpopulation and that this is a result of a disorder in human sexuality. The hrossa's low birth rates enable them to avoid overpopulation as well as bringing about voluntary extinction, which is seen as a good.)
J.R.R. Tolkien's letters and work show an interestingly similar approach to the subject of death to Lewis's, though I don't know of any place in non-fiction where Tolkien expressly touches on the general wrongness of suicide or euthanasia. In The Lord of the Rings, Denethor's despairing suicide by burning himself to death is condemned in the strongest possible terms, with special horror focusing on his attempt (fortunately unsuccessful) to take with him his sick and unconscious son Faramir. Gandalf's words are quite clear:
"Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death," answered Gandalf. "And only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death." The Return of the King, p. 157
But as an indication of Tolkien's general attitude toward voluntary death, this is not as straightforward as it might seem. For overall, Tolkien's mythos is that his "high men," the men of Numenor (from whom Denethor is descended) actually can naturally "order the time of their own death." (Though not by self-immolation!) Death, in fact, is said to be the gift of God to them, and the fear of death and desire to avoid it (as with Lewis's hrossa) is the greatest danger.
The wicked Numenoreans, says Tolkien, became consumed with "the desire to escape death" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 155), and by it they fell by trying to go to the land of the immortals in the hopes of gaining immortality thereby. Tolkien is quite explicit that death is not a curse in his fictional mythos:
...[In the mythos of the story] [m]en are mortal by right and nature....It might or might not be 'heretical', if these myths were regarded as statements about the actual nature of man in the real world: I do not know. But the view of the myth is that Death--the mere shortness of human life-span--is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man's nature. The attempt to escape it is wicked because 'unnatural', and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of time. Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a change in attitude to it: fear, reluctance. A good Numenorean died of free will when he felt it to be time to do so. (Letter to Fr. Robert Murray, S.J. November 4, 1954, Letters, p. 205, footnote, emphasis added)
Yes, this certainly would be heretical if made as a statement about matters in the real world, since it expressly denies what Christian doctrine affirms--that human death is a curse and a result of the Fall. Perhaps realizing this, Tolkien "walks back" these comments in a different letter draft from 1958; there he says that this idea that death is not a curse is only the point of view of the time-weary and immortal elves (pp. 285-6) and that the mythology is not necessarily inconsistent with the idea that death is ultimately a curse and a result of an earlier human fall. But this is unconvincing and, in fact, the view Tolkien described to Fr. Murray is the consistent view of his published writings.
In the appendix to The Lord of the Rings that tells the story of Arwen and Aragorn, Tolkien pictures precisely the act of voluntary death when it is carried out by Aragorn. It involves simply lying down in the House of the Kings where the kings are entombed and accepting death willingly in old age. There is some revealing dialogue between Aragorn and Arwen, who tries to dissuade him.
"Would you then, lord, before your time leave your people who live by your word?" she said.
"Not before my time," he answered. "For if I will not go now, then I must soon go perforce. And Eldarion our son is a man full-ripe for kingship."
"Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady, I am the last of the Numenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep."
Aragorn's diction, of course, is far different from Jill's reference to getting "old and stupid" and "going about in a bathchair," but the sentiment is quite similar. "Unmanned and witless" is clear enough. And Aragorn is suggesting a false dichotomy. He could abdicate from his kingship and cede his throne to Eldarion without dying. Many aging kings have done precisely that, abdicating in favor of a vigorous son and heir.
Because Tolkien is a very great literary genius, he makes it believable that this is right for Aragorn to do, as indeed it is allowed in the world he has built. He even concedes something to the tension between that mythos and the real world by having Arwen say, "[I]f this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive."
As a good Catholic, Tolkien would presumably have opposed all forms of suicide and euthanasia in our real world. But as with Lewis, there is the tendency to idealize as a "good death" a death that is not only foreseen but personally chosen and timed.
Both Tolkien and Lewis walk a narrow path between the Christian notion of renunciation and acceptance of the griefs of this world and a pagan notion that death is better than debility and dishonor. As Christians, they both had a good deal of latitude and even encouragement to advocate the way of renunciation. Nor do I want to say that fear of death can never spring from a lack of faith (though it does not necessarily spring from a lack of faith) or that clinging to life can never be done in a wrong way. For that matter, strictly unethical means of clinging to life (e.g., embryonic research to try to find cures for disease) have grown up in our own time alongside of the glorification of chosen "death with dignity."
I don't want to be anachronistic, and indeed I realize that the Christian teaching against euthanasia and suicide was not preached or understood quite as clearly in England in the mid-twentieth century as it has been since then. Dorothy Sayers, undeniably a Christian, puts an unequivocal endorsement of euthanasia into the mouth of the Dowager Duchess of Denver, generally the epitome of good sense in Sayers's mystery novels. The Duchess's style of speech is always wonderfully convoluted, but the meaning is clear enough on the subject at hand:
"...because, if I'm interfering, you know," said the Duchess, "I had much better be put in a lethal chamber at once, like poor Agag [a cat who has been euthanised]...--and why everybody shouldn't be if they feel like it, I don't know, when they get old and sick and a nuisance to themselves--..." Busman's Honeymoon, p. 352
It is a passing, a very passing, comment, but the fact that the Christian Sayers has the Duchess endorse Euthanasia for All! so casually and as if its rightness is obvious, when the Duchess is supposed to be always right, is quite striking and tells us a good deal all by itself about the climate of the time. Notice again the dismissive reference to debility: "old and sick and a nuisance to themselves." Both the Dowager Duchess and her creatrix, of course, are playing with counters. No one was actually going to put them in a lethal chamber, for that was still a legal world in which doctors could be prosecuted for over-prescribing morphine, a fact well-known to British mystery novel buffs.
As medical advances were moving and something like an early version of transhumanism brewing, Lewis and Tolkien perhaps understandably fixated upon a kind of uber-humanism and vitalism as the great dangers and incorporated this concern into their fictional worlds, making acceptance of death an unequivocally holy and peaceful attitude and the increase of longevity, putting off natural death, a Satanic thing. That this was consonant with their own, and their culture's, difficulty in seeing and feeling the wrongness of at least peaceful suicide and euthanasia was a point that went unnoticed. That it was all too consonant with their culture's casually cruel views of old age and disability was an undeniable blind spot, one that we pro-lifers have had to rid ourselves of in the succeeding decades.
This was, after all, a world in which mentally disabled children were often casually called "monsters" and routinely institutionalized while their parents tried again for a healthy child. Compassion for disability was not a self-conscious value even among many Christians.
It is easy enough for social conservatives to see the past through a golden haze, but many of the worst ideas that have borne fruit in our time were popular among intellectuals a full hundred years ago, especially those concerning death--euthanasia, eugenics and abortion. Moreover, the sophisticated pro-life arguments that have been forged in the crucible of political resistance since then were not as readily available. One of the most important of these is the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means and the distinction between not using extraordinary means of medical treatment and euthanasia. These nuances had yet to be explicitly hammered out in the 1950s.
Lewis, Tolkien, and even Sayers were humane, brilliant, and foresighted Christians, but it should not be surprising that even they had their blind spots, especially given the Christian tradition of renunciation, hope in the next world rather than in this world, and accepting death from the hand of God.
I do not press this dialogue between the present and the past to preen or gloat--"Look how we know better now than they did." Rather, the blind spots of the past can be a cautionary tale to the present, even on the very same issue. The combination of brilliance, erudition, generally humane conservatism, and an over-fondness for death, amounting even to an endorsement of euthanasia, are known in our own time when they are far less excusable.
As I mentioned here several years ago, the much-admired conservative icon Roger Scruton endorsed euthanasia for the elderly. (See Chapter 4, called "Dying Quietly," in A Political Philosophy, 2006.) Scruton's feelings expressed there are eminently British. He shrinks from an out-and-out euthanasia regime, especially if it is involuntary. He proposes instead that the old be gently pressured to shuffle off this mortal coil in genteel ways, such as by not using medications that will keep them alive longer ("medicines," which he mentions repeatedly, are hardly in themselves an extraordinary measure!) or by giving their families permission to give them an overdose of morphine, which the law will then wink its eye at in his ideal world. In this way the elderly will prevent their families from wanting to kill them involuntarily because they are, by their longevity, suffering the "living death of the loveless" (p. 76) and holding on to their own assets, which their heirs are in a hurry to get hold of (pp. 76-77).
But I shouldn't say too much, too snarkily, about the British here nor even about the fact that Scruton is a non-Christian. Just three years before the publication of Scruton's book, the possibly even more erudite and witty, not to mention Catholic, conservative titan William F. Buckley shocked pro-lifers by using his speech at the first Great Defender of Life dinner for the Human Life Foundation (!) (October, 2003) to endorse euthanasia and, specifically, the death of Terri Schiavo (then still alive), about whose situation he was full of an inexcusable combination of hubris and misinformation. Buckley was not the Great Defender of Life award winner himself. Henry Hyde was receiving the award. Buckley was one of the speech-givers involved in the presentation. The attendees at the dinner, the creme de la creme of the pro-life movement, got an unexpected, condescending lecture that evening. Buckley's speech was a sustained piece of propaganda for loosening our moral strictures against euthanasia.
After mentioning Terri Schiavo’s life in which she had been, says Buckley, “stricken into physical and mental immobility," clearly sympathizing with her husband, he moves back in time to the Karen Ann Quinlan case and seems to deem it unfortunate that she did not die when her ventilator was removed. He says, of her eventual death, “[I] do not doubt that the end was greeted with relief--by everyone.” One wonders how he thinks he knows that. After an allusion to Pope Pius XII’s condemnation of “heroic therapy,” Buckley continues:
Can such thought as gave rise to the factor of moral qualification apply today, a fortiori, to life that goes on, unwelcome by everyone, imposing great strains on the medical community, and strains also on family and beloved friends who need to act as though the insensate person were still with them, an active member of the family, though such is not the case? Exposing surviving loved ones to the sundering emotional drama of living with someone as though alive, though for all sensate purposes dead? ("Ventilating Life and Death: A Symposium: A Question that Begs for Moral Illumination," Human Life Review, Winter, 2004)
After this bit of appalling dehumanization of the cognitively disabled, which he clearly means to apply to Terri Schiavo and Karen Ann Quinlan, Buckley continues pompously,
This is the question I hope the Human Life Review will probe, inviting its superb stable of theologians and journalists to give thought to a question that begs for moral illumination.
Because of course the “superb stable” he smarmily flatters had never done anything like that before the fall of 2003 and needed him to prompt them to do so.
The Human Life Foundation directors were sufficiently taken aback by Buckley's behavior that they didn't include Buckley's remarks in the omnibus collection of the other speeches in the fall of 2003 issue. Instead, like the thinky people they are, they did just what Buckley suggested and convened a symposium, published in the Winter, 2004, issue. This included both Buckley's original remarks and a panoply of responses to them.
This embarrassing incident has mostly been forgotten by the pro-life community, but it was quite a bombshell at the time, and I remember quite well when it happened--when a supposedly conservative icon, selected to speak at a pro-life gala, stood up and haughtily lectured those who invited him for being opposed to euthanasia. It goes to show that we cannot take the solidly pro-life understanding even of high-profile conservatives for granted.
Buckley was clearly psychologically bothered by the same thing that worried the other thinkers (in my opinion better thinkers than Buckley) whom I have been discussing--the feeling of horror and misery at the thought that one, or one's loved ones, could be living on after they have lost what we are inclined to call their dignity.
It is a perfectly natural human feeling to hope wistfully that God will choose to take one to heaven, gently and naturally, in such a way that one avoids the suffering, debility, loneliness, and embarrassment that we associate with old age. Or for that matter, with accident or severe illness. Such a hope is not wrong in itself. Those things certainly are privations. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Being in a wheelchair is being disabled, not "differently abled." Mourning what we lose with age or sickness is legitimate.
It is interesting, though, how easily the desire to avoid suffering and loss can be made to seem to oneself like a noble acceptance of loss: Look at me, I'm willing to die whenever God wants to take me! This world is not my home, and something better awaits! ("That way I won't ever have to wear a diaper, forget things, and be a burden...") It's not as though it is wrong to hope, in the perfect divine plan, to avoid suffering and embarrassment, but we should see this hope for death for what it is--the opposite of renunciation and acceptance.
In a time when the lover-monster Death, the god Thanatos, has so many worshipers, it is important to bring to light our own temptation to embrace Death as a solution to the problem of our own long existence and as an answer to our semi-secret shrinking from those (including ourselves) who suffer.
It is by that door, perhaps even with a gloss of Christian theology, that I believe the temptation will come back, again and again. Not the temptation to cling to life but the temptation to choose death. And not by a legitimate, nuanced, careful decision merely to forego truly extraordinary or even unethical means of treatment but rather by some more diabolical route, disguised as "palliative care" and "letting go."
If the old thinkers whom we rightly admire did not fully recognize that danger in their own lifetime, we can learn from and avoid their blind spots, as we have so often learned from their insights.