C.S. Lewis, ‘Before We Can Communicate’

There is a lot of talk about BBC impartiality happening in the left/right twitter swamplands these days..  .. This short essay by C. S. Lewis  instantly springs to mind  every time I come across the slippery word ‘impartial’. 

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Before We Can Communicate

by C. S. Lewis

‘I have been asked to write about ‘The problem of communication’; by which my inquirer meant ‘communication under modern conditions between Christians and the outer world’. And, as usually happens to me when I am questioned, I feel a little embarrassed by the simplicity and unexcitingness  of the answer I want to give. I feel that what I have to say is on a cruder and lower level than was hoped for.

My ideas about ‘communication’ are purely empirical, and two anecdotes (both strictly true) will illustrate the sort of experience on which they are based.

1.  The Old Prayer Book prayed that the magistrates might ‘truly and indifferently administer justice’. Then the revisers thought they would make this easier by altering indifferently to impartially. A country clergyman of my acquaintance asked his sexton what he thought indifferently meant, and got the correct answer, ‘It means making no difference between one chap and another,’  ‘And what’, continued the parson, ‘do you think impartially means?’  ‘Ah’, said the sexton after a pause, ‘I wouldn’t know that.’

Everyone sees what the revisers had in mind. They were afraid that the ‘man in the pew’ would take indifferently to mean, as it often does, ‘carelessly’, without concern. They knew that this error would not be made by highly-educated people, but they thought it would be made by everyone else. The sexton’s reply, however, reveals that it will not be made by the least educated class of all. It will be made only by those who are educationally in the middle; those whose language is fashionable (our elders would have said ‘polite’) without being scholarly. The highest and lowest classes are both equally safe from it; and impartially, which guards the ‘middle’ churchgoers from misunderstanding, is meaningless to the simple.

2. During the war I got into a discussion with a working man about the Devil. He said he believed in a Devil, but ‘not a personal Devil’. As the discussion proceeded it grew more and more perplexing to both parties. It became clear that we were somehow at cross-purposes. Then, suddenly and almost by accident, I discovered what was wrong. It became obvious that he had, all along, been meaning by the word personal nothing more or less or other than corporeal . He was a very intelligent man, and, once this discovery had been made, there was no difficulty. Apparently we had not really disagreed about anything: the difference between us was merely one of vocabulary. It set me wondering how many of the thousands of people who say they ‘believe in God but not in a personal God’ are really trying to tell us no more than that they are not, in the strict sense, anthropomorphists and are, in fact, asserting, on this point, their perfect orthodoxy.

Where the revisers of the Prayer Book and I both went wrong was this. We both had a priori notions of what simple people mean by words. I assumed that the workman’s usage was the same as my own. The revisers, more subtly but not more correctly, assumed that all would know the sense of indifferently which they were guarding against when they amended it. But apparently we must not decide a priori what other people mean by English words any more than what Frenchmen mean by French words. We must be wholly empirical. We must listen, and note, and memorise. And of course we must set aside every trace of snobbery or pedantry about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ usages.

Now this is, I feel, very hum-drum and work-a-day. When one wants to discuss the problem of communication on a grand, philosophical level, when one wants to talk about conflicts of Weltanschauung and the predicament of modern, or urban, or crisis consciousness, it is chilling to be told that the first step is simply linguistic in the crudest sense. But it is.

What we want to see in every ordination exam is a compulsory paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English, Just turned; not adorned, nor diluted, nor made ‘matey’. The exercise is very like doing Latin prose. Instead of saying, ‘How would Cicero have said that?’, you have to ask yourself, ‘How would my scout or bedmaker have said that?’

You will at once find that this labour has two useful by-products.

1. In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity. It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original. And this we must just put up with.

2. You will also discover — at least I, a copious ‘translator’, think I have discovered — just how much you yourself have, up to that moment, been understanding the language which you are now trying to translate. Again and again I have been almost humiliated in this way. One holds, or thinks one holds, a particular view, say, of the Atonement or Orders or Inspiration. And you can go on for years discussing and defending it to others of your own sort. New refinements can be introduced to meet its critics; brilliant metaphors can seem to illuminate its obscurities; comparisons with other views, ‘placings’ of it, are somehow felt to establish its position in a sort of aristocracy of ideas. For the others are all talking the same language and all move in the same world of discourse. All seems well. Then turn and try to expound this same view to an intelligent mechanic or a sincerely inquisitive, but superficially quite irreverent, schoolboy. Some question of shattering crudity (it would never be asked in learned circles) will be shot at you. You are like a skilled swordsman transfixed by an opponent who wins just because he knows none of the first principles. The crude question turns out to be fatal. You have never, it now appears, really understood what you have so long maintained. You haven’t really thought it out; not to the end; not to ‘the absolute ruddy end’.

You must either give it up, or else begin it all over again. If, given patience and ordinary skill, you cannot explain a thing to any sensible person whatever (provided he will listen), then you don’t really understand it yourself. Here too it is very like doing Latin prose; the bits you can’t get into Latin are usually the bits you haven’t grasped in the English.

What we need to be particularly on our guard against are precisely the vogue-words, the incantatory words, of our own circle. For your generation they are, perhaps, engagement, commitment, over against, under judgment, existential, crisis, and confrontation. These are, of all expressions, the least likely to be intelligible to anyone divided from you by a school of thought, by a decade, by a social class. They are like a family language, or a school slang. And our private language may delude ourselves as well as mystifying outsiders. Enchanted words seem so full of meaning, so illuminating. But we may be deceived. What we derive from them may sometimes be not so much a clear conception as a heart-warming sense of being at home and among our own sort. ‘We are in sympathy.’ Sympathy is a good thing. It may even be in some ways a better thing than intellectual understanding. But not the same thing. ‘

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