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The Servile Man and the Free Mouse

“Are you a man or a mouse?” Perhaps C. S. Lewis had that question in mind when gave form and utterance to one of the most regal and noble of beasts in all of Narnia. No doubt when the Lion of Aslan came bounding in to his mental landscape, so too followed gallant Reepicheep, swinging into view like a swashbuckler down from the high mast of his imagination.

The irony cannot be lost on us, though. Reepicheep’s very existence is one continual rebuke to any human in proximity who lacks virtue. Lewis believed that men had souls, and that it was the business of education to form virtue in those souls. In this sense is Reepicheep a kind of tutor. He was vehemently opposed to utilitarian education, even then glimpsing the smartly dressed educational innovators emerging like dragons from their lairs; in his day the utilitarian beast was already slouching towards Bethlehem to “slay the little childer” once more. But by this time the Herodian blades had begun to take the form of lessons in English. His remonstration remains present in many of his works. The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, however veiled in the garments of narrative, contain no less potent arguments than those contained in his lectures. Let us examine one scene.

Only the humanely educated author C. S. Lewis could have given so sharp and subtle a rebuke of utilitarianism in the Narnian stories. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis places this rebuke on the lips of the most pious and honor-bound beast in all Narnia, the “martial mouse” Reepicheep. The irony of having a mouse reprove the men, hardy sailors no less, is a recurring delight, but its educational pertinence is often overlooked. Lewis, knowing that education should propagate virtue in the soul, raises the question of usefulness in the activities and adventures of man. As the Dawn Treader proceeds towards the unknown of Dark Island, Lord Drinian disguises his fear by asking what appears to be a very sensible and advantageous question. But with this question, Lewis offers his characters and readers a subtle test of virtue:

“But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?” asked Drinian.

“Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours.”[1]

The crew, King Caspian included, groans and grumbles at these words, but it is only because they know that the mouse is manlier than the men.

We would be wise to apply Reepicheep’s words to our ongoing discussion of leisure and schola, which is the soul and noble activity of a proper education, as Josef Pieper makes plain. In Planet Narnia, Dr. Michael Ward, argues that this particular scene reveals Lewis as a “staunch defender of liberal education.”[2] In noting the planetary influence of “Sol” in the Dawn Treader, Ward, quoting Lewis, reminds the reader that “Sol ‘makes men liberal,’ and that liberality is a theme played in various keys throughout the book.”[3] The exchange between Drinian and Reepicheep is especially important for educators, as it illustrates liberality “in the sense of ‘liberal study,’ the pursuit of knowledge that (as Newman wrote) ‘stands on its own pretensions.’”[4] Ward quotes Lewis here, who in Studies in Words cites Cardinal Newman’s Scope and Nature of University Education. “Free study,” writes Lewis, “seeks nothing beyond itself and desires the activity of knowing for that activity’s own sake. That is what the man of radically servile character…will never understand. He will ask, ‘But what use is it?’”[5] Lewis rightly draws out the historic associations that leisure shares with freedom and liberality, but what is equally incisive is how he exposes the relationship between utilitarianism and slavish morality. Just as earnest study of the liberal arts makes men liberal and free, so the utilitarian approach to education makes men slaves. After all, imitation is inescapable; we are what we study. In light of this, we might well characterize leisure and schola as Lewis’ “free study,” which cannot abide the servile ethic of utilitarianism. “Thus Drinian is rebuked,” writes Ward, for “his question betrays an illiberal, utilitarian trait in his character.”[6]

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Collier Books, New York: 1977) 152.

[2] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2008) 113.

[3] Planet Narnia, 112.

[4] Planet Narnia, 113.

[5] C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 127.

[6] Planet Narnia, 113.

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