Contemplating C. S. Lewis | On "First and Second Things"
I have been brainstorming for a new writing project for Jane Through the Seasons. It’s been going on and on and coming out empty. However, I believe I have stumbled on something in the form of C. S. Lewis’ essays.
Except for the Chronicles of Narnia, I have not read any work by Lewis. But I have come across interesting quotes attributed to him in several media. Thus I have been meaning to read his essays and was glad to find, recently, some audio formats on YouTube. Listening to these audios, I felt it would be interesting to write commentaries on some of them as a blog series. So there, accept this briefing as an introduction to this new series: Contemplating C. S. Lewis.
Let’s start with the essay, “First and Second Things.” In there, Lewis states: “Apparently the world is made that way…You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” This statement appears to me a rational observation. To achieve the secondary, the primary must first be attained. For instance, in order to write, one must know one’s letters.
For the repetitive, the predictable and such, the initial and its subsequents are simpler to align. But for the abstract, the spontaneous and such, what ought to be elementary and what ought to be secondary can be as mind boggling as the question of whether it is the chicken or the egg that comes first. It appears that these hard to structure matters of everyday life is Lewis’ concern. As he puts it “the question, what things are first is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone.”
Surely, it is sound argument that life precedes opportunity. For without life, what use is there of opportunity? The same argument follows for health, right? From such context, it may be derived that first things can be classified as essentials: life-enabling. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs supports this reasoning: the starving person, or the individual who feels unsafe in her society, or is love-starved may find the notion of self-actualization, ridiculous.
One could say then that the essential, i.e., first goods generate growth and aims for the greater good. Not knowing this, it is easier to trade the essential for the nonessential. If you knew nothing about diamonds and came across one, it is likely that you may not bother with it. Or if you do bother, you might fail to utilize it appropriately. In the same way, one must first and foremost learn for oneself what is alpha and how it differs from omega, in order to know how to always situate omega behind alpha.
Would you err and say Z before A even though you know A comes before Z? I think yes. Would you choose F to A even though you know A is premium? Of course, yes. It is what makes us human. But what does it mean to put the inferior before the superior in significant circumstances—be it in ignorance or self-delusion?
The limited perspective, often selfish, compared to the broader perspective which leans towards the selfless is likelier to put the secondary before the first because it does not comprehend the universal law that Lewis observers. The limited perspective assumes that secondary things can indeed be substituted for first things. Or that the secondary can thrive without the establishment of the first. In other words, a house would stand without a foundation to rest on. Thus as Lewis states, “To sacrifice the greater good for the less and then not to get the lesser good after all, that is the surprising volley.” And yet, should it really surprise one that in failing to establish, first, a solid foundation, the building one constructs, collapses?
Lewis offered the following analogies which further explains his perspective:
The longer I looked into it the more I came to suspect that I was perceiving a universal law…The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman––glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.
It needs not be said that the observation of any loved one or object would yield a similar result. It is an imperfect world, after all, and life is manifold. Thus as Blake states, “Less than All cannot satisfy man.” The question then is what can be considered “the dog” or alcohol in one’s life? What is it in one's life that one's fanatical attachment to generates one's deterioration?
The health of a human, I believe, has much to do with his mind and heart. What the mind and heart believe and value shapes the rest of the being. Being as we are, first and foremost individuals, the question of what ought to be first and second must then start within the self. To all things then, let’s ask: is this life-enhancing or life-sentencing, does this serve a greater good or is it merely a means to an end? Am I building on a good foundation?
J. A. Odartey
+ C. S. Lewis. “First and Second Things.” Read by Ralph Ralph Cosham, Blackstone Audio, Inc., 29 Apr. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPZ9-4DRAZ0.
+ Maslow, A. H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96. 29 Apr. 2021, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm.
+ William, Blake. “There is No Natural Religion [b].” The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor, 1988. 2.