CS Lewis on blame

Over the weekend I started reading Letters to an American Lady, one of a few books by CS Lewis that I hadn’t gotten to yet. This book was published posthumously and consists of the letters Lewis sent an American woman—addressed as “Mary,” a pseudonym, in the book—over the course of about thirteen years, from 1950 until shortly before his death in the fall of 1963. While they never met, the correspondence was regular and warm and friendly, and ranges over a charmingly wide array of subjects.

(I was interested, for instance, in Lewis’s take on the coronation of Elizabeth II: “I didn’t go . . . I approve of all that sort of thing immensely and I was deeply moved by all I heard of it; but I’m not a man for crowds and Best Clothes.”)

In one of his early letters to Mary, a Catholic convert, Lewis, an Anglican, addresses the widespread perception that failings in the Church and erroneous beliefs among the faithful are always the fault of the clergy. In the middle of this reflection, he writes:

I am rather sick of the modern assumption that, for all events, ‘WE’, the people, are never responsible: it is always our rulers, or ancestors, or parents, or education, or anybody but precious ‘US’. WE are apparently perfect and blameless. Don’t you believe it.
— CS Lewis, May 30th, 1953

Hear hear. We could call this scapegoating, but that word has a surviving connotation of formality that I think Lewis was right to avoid evoking. That’s too grand; formally trying to assign blame in a rational way is too much work. The more pernicious habit is apathetic, inactive refusal to see any blame in oneself.

I began to add my own glosses to Lewis’s list of the blameworthy, but I think his words speak for themselves. He has perceptively listed almost all of the things we prefer to fix blame on, including the totemic magicians we elect, the wicked dead we prefer to remember with moral hauteur if at all, organic institutions or artificial systems that have broken down, or, failing all of those, anybody else. Our family. Our friends. Our neighbors. Our enemies. Especially the last, where we can make it stick.

Last week I ran into Walmart on an errand and passed by the little island of “inspirational” books that are always for sale there. Among the devotionals and self-help books and paperback Bibles was a book called Living Successfully with Screwed-Up People. I don’t want to malign a book I haven’t read, but if it doesn’t begin with a chapter about oneself, the reader, and one’s own screwups, the book has already failed.