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I Go to Die with Odin: C.S. Lewis and Death

Last week (on November 22) marked the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. Lewis is perhaps best known for his “Narnia” books, and after that as a writer of apologetics. As I remember his life I recognize that the subject of death was one that Lewis was intimately familiar with. His mother died of cancer when he was only a child. As a young man he fought in the trenches of World War I where grisly and sudden death was a daily reality. When he returned from the war he found himself in an almost empty university, a cold reminder of how an entire generation was nearly annihilated in that great conflict. He lived to see his father die, also of cancer, as well as the beginning and end of World War II where bombings and rocket attacks meant that your own death, or the death of a neighbor, was always close at hand. His marriage late in life was cut tragically short when his wife Joy died slowly of cancer, just as his father and mother had. His book “A Grief Observed” shows us that he understood well the pain and suffering of losing a loved one. If anyone can claim to know about death then Lewis certainly can.

Knowing this makes Lewis’s beliefs about death all the more striking. I have been born and raised in a culture where death is the greatest evil possible. Our goal is to extend the human life as far as possible. Billions of dollars are spent on medical research, and hundreds of billions more on medical expenses. Wealthy individuals such as Google’s Larry Page are founding organizations whose sole purpose is to cure death itself. Futurists speak of a time when we will be able to download our brains into robots in order to achieve cybernetic immortality. Space enthusiasts dream of the day when the human race will spread to other planets in order to preserve the human race from disaster. Everywhere there is fear that humanity will destroy itself finally and completely, whether through nuclear war, pollution, or some kind of human concocted super plague. From an early age we are taught the life is a struggle for existence, and we grew up watching movie villains justify their actions as “survival of the fittest.” Certain activists warn of the perils of overpopulation and propose strict reproductive controls. Everywhere you look people are warning that, if we don’t act now, the human race will be destroyed.

This is the culture I live in and was raised in. It came as a shock then when I came across an essay of Lewis’s titled “Is Progress Possible?” Lewis begins by recalling another essay recently published where it was speculated that someday mankind may be forced to travel to another planet to survive. “In ‘Possible Worlds’ Professor Haldane pictured a future in which Man, foreseeing that Earth would soon be uninhabitable, adapted himself for migration to Venus by drastically modifying his physiology and abandoning justice, pity and happiness. The desire here is for mere survival. Now I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.”

This statement floored me. I had been working until that point under the cultural assumption that the survival of the species was an unchallengable good. Yet here Lewis says, in no uncertain terms, that mere survival is “a contemptible ideal.” After the initial shock passed I realized that I agreed with him. Lewis was, essentially, saying that it would be better for the human race to die as men then to live as monsters. He was sticking a sword in that utilitarian ideal that the good of the many outweighs the needs of the few. It is better instead for the many to suffer and retain their goodness, their morality, their humanity, then to sacrifice those things in exchange for survival. As an ethic it doesn’t exactly align with the times. But I have since adopted it as my own.

Another aspect of Lewis’s philosophy of death is simply recognizing the fact that death is inevitable. In his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” which was written not long after the first atomic bombs were used in combat, Lewis writes “do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”  The point is clear. No matter what we do we will die in the end: therefore how we live our life matters far more than how long we can stretch it out. What’s more is that the human race is similarly destined to come to an end someday, regardless of your religious beliefs. The Christian believes that this universe will come to an end when Jesus returns and the final trump is sounded; but even the most stringent atheist scientist can tell you that life in the universe is doomed either way, as Lewis is quick to point out. “The astronomers hold out no hope that this planet is going to be permanently inhabitable. The physicists hold out no hope that organic life is going to be a permanent possibility in any part of the material universe. Not only this earth, but the whole show, all the suns of space, are to run down…If nature is all that exists–In other words, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort somewhere outside Nature–then all stories will end in the same way: in a universe from which all life is banished without possibility of return.”

Lewis believed, as I do, that there is something outside Nature: that there is a God, and that after death we will live on with him, and that a new creation will come after the final judgement. Whether we are right on that or not makes no difference to the fact that we all die, and that someday civilization will come to an end. The person who sacrifices a million men so that humanity may survive a little longer is as foolish and despicable as a person who sacrifices a thousand men so that he may survive another month.

Better instead to seek goodness, wisdom, and morality instead of longevity. In any case the man who sacrifices any of those three in exchange for life is a fool, for in the end life is a gift that he cannot keep. This seems like a morbid philosophy but on the whole I’ve found it incredibly freeing. It is an inspiring philosophy, one that reminds us what is really important, and really lasting. If one must choose between sacrificing his life or sacrificing his soul then he must pick his soul. His life will be taken from him either way.

We can find this philosophy expressed in Lewis’s essay “First and Second Things.” In it Lewis talks about how Nazi Germany fundamentally misunderstood Nordic mythology. He writes that “The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. ‘I am off to die with Odin’ said the rover in Stevenson’s fable, thus proving that Stevenson understood something about the Nordic spirit which (Nazi) Germany has never been able to understand at all. The gods will fall. The wisdom of Odin, the humourous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder, will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.”

The man who holds to the right and dies fighting is to be envied. He has given up his human life, which is inevitably taken from us all, to preserve his humanity. I hope to live my life in the same way.