Vocation in a Time of Coronavirus: Reflections from C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, after an entire day spent reading anxiety-inducing articles and watching real-time maps of the spread, after loading up on quarantine supplies, and unable to banish a storm of doomsday hypothetical scenarios from my head, a passage from a C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” flashed through my mind:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal… We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased… 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. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

That night I read the entire piece and found myself greatly fortified by it’s cool reason in the face of fear and anxiety—it reminded me of Wendell Berry’s remark that when you’re scared the best thing to do is try to make sense out of what’s scaring you—and the perspective it gave me on life and vocation in times of crisis, fear, and danger. Within a week, all on-campus classes and activities were canceled, we converted to an online format, and, when I had to assign the first reading for my senior Humanities and Vocation seminar, I chose “Learning in Wartime.” The response from my seniors was astounding. It was, in fact, the single best response I have ever gotten from students to a reading on the topic of vocation. They seemed in particular to resonate with three aspects of the sermon.

First, as a largely Christian group of students, they were braced by Lewis’ observation that every human life is always lived under the prior and more pressing reality of eternity:

[Every] Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology… If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

That every life is lived every moment on the brink of death and eternity is something that my students “know” conceptually, of course, but the current circumstances have made that knowledge much more real to them (the ever present possibility of death is, of course, a reality for those who are not people of faith). Unless they’ve had some kind of prior experience with it, death is a difficulty reality for most healthy, active 18-22-year olds to truly grasp. Facing circumstances that make mortality and privation very real possibilities for themselves and loved ones brought home the wartime wisdom of Lewis’ piece in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

And this was good for them, vocationally speaking. Reading “Learning in Wartime” helped them see that times of crisis, danger, and fear, and threats to life are a kind of vocational refiner’s fire that burns away impure motivations, skewed priorities, and false vocations. Such times also call forth courage and fortitude, and in responses about the effect of the piece on their understanding of vocation, my students expressed greater resolve than ever in their chosen paths.

Along with this clear-eyed wisdom about mortality and the human condition, my students responded powerfully to Lewis’ argument for the validity of pursuing vocations in times of crisis. Lewis sets out to respond to the view “that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity.” In addition to theological arguments, Lewis simply points out that, historically, humanity has always carried on the work of culture, even in the worst of circumstances:

If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun… Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

Most of my students have never experienced anything close to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Neither have I, to be honest. So, for many of them, this is the first time they have had to carry on in the face of such difficult, anxiety-inducing cultural and global circumstances. And, for many students, it’s not just the economic difficulties or fear of sickness. They are stuck at home in circumstances that are unusual and difficult. Many have never done online courses, and now they are taking five or six. They might have other siblings at home, perhaps many siblings, making for cramped quarters and aggravations. They might have parents out of work, or parents and siblings who are sick. Many of my students are now themselves out of work. Some have probably never heard of wartime rationing, but now they have to start to think about how to go without, which is not something most Americans have a lot of experience with. They spoke openly of aimlessness, depression, loss of resolve. And yet they spoke with courage and resolution about keeping going and staying focused.

Some of that resolve and courage came from Lewis’ argument that all vocations are worthy and sacred if done in the right sprit:

The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.” This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life… An appetite for [beauty and knowledge] exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

Several students felt fortified by this passage because it never really occurred to them that God didn’t make their appetite for, say, fiction writing, in vain. That the humble pursuit of genuine desire can be undertaken with confidence in this time or in anytime, was eye-opening for many of them. What was especially moving to me was that, since Lewis also speaks of wartime duties, of obligations to neighbor and country, many students wrote of a recognition that responding courageously to the needs of others is its own kind of vocation.

Many students also expressed gratitude for Lewis’ discussion of the “three enemies” that the scholar encounters during wartime—excitement, frustration, and fear.

“The first enemy is excitement—the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense,” Lewis argues, “is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work.” The second enemy is frustration, “the feeling that we shall not have time to finish.” The last enemy is fear, which I’ve touched on in my opening quotation, wherein Lewis reminds students remembering our mortality can be good for us.

Paul Anderson, “The Enduring Legacy of C.S. Lewis.” Relevant Magazine. November 2013.

All in all, the response by my students to “Learning in Wartime” was an outpouring of mature, courageous insights about the need to persist in vocational pursuits, to rise above fear to help others, and to keep their minds focused, all combined, I believe, with an unexpected recognition that comparatively unimportant things like creative writing, philosophy, history, linguistics, can and should be pursued and valued in times of crisis. Students also expressed that the piece helped them see that responding courageously to the needs of others in these times and all times is also a vocation. Students often disagreed with Lewis, and some had trouble with the density of the argument at a few points, but, by and large, I think “Learning in Wartime” is a good thinking partner for students as they wrestle with all sorts of direct and indirect questions about employment, purpose, and meaning in these uncertain times.


Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.

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