Provocative titles are meant to, well, provoke. I have always considered C. S. Lewis’s little 1952 book of essays entitled The World’s Last Night (Harcourt) to be one difficult to forget. It takes its title from the last essay in the book, itself redolent of Christian apocalypse. Why does it provoke? Lewis was one of the few writers willing and able to take the question of “our last night” in this world both intelligently and seriously. Clearly, the world’s last night did not mean simply an accidental day in which the cycle of time just stopped ticking. It meant rather a moment in which all was completed according to a plan that has been progressing since a beginning in time. It was a night (or day) when everyone who ever lived on this planet would be involved through a judgment.
Other forms of apocalypse exist. Marxism was largely apocalyptic. Much of modern science, likewise, when it seeks to cure all evils and rectify all disorders, has more than a touch of it. The relation of “black” magic to “white” magic is not as distant in purpose as we sometimes like to think. I had also just read an account of the goal of the new Caliphate in the Islamic State. It seeks to complete the true mission of Islam, which is to make the whole world subject to Allah, to his unchanging law to which all are converted or dead, where no places of exile or escape are left, no monuments of alien belief or unbelief left standing. This is, perhaps, a darker inner-worldly form of the world’s last night.
The essay prior to the last one in the Lewis book was entitled “Religion and Rocketry,” itself rather a provocative title. These essays obviously reflect Lewis’s space trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—in which the differing eschatological statuses that we might conceive for man’s destiny are pictured in the form of the lives of races on other planets. The earth is the “silent” planet in the universe because it contains a fallen, but redeemed race of finite human beings. We can conceive of a race that did not fall in the first place, or one that fell and totally rejected any offer of subsequent redemption.
Near the end of the rocketry essay we read: “Christians and their opponents again and again expect that some new discovery will either turn matters of faith into matters of knowledge, or else reduce them to patent absurdities. But it has never happened. What we believe always remains intellectually possible; it never becomes intellectually compulsive” (92). These words are carefully chosen. All through the modern world, we have seen a series of scientific inventions or philosophic/political theories that promised the end of faith with its replacement by the new theory or invention. When things were sorted out with time and experience, it turns out that the cure-all theory or invention itself was not the final answer.
“What modern Christians find it hardest to remember,” Lewis wrote in the last essay, “is that the whole life of humanity in this world is also temporary, temporal, provisional” (110). The human race, moreover, comes into being and departs from it not all at once but one at a time. Obviously, we could conceive “the world’s last night” and mankind’s destiny in it to be unrelated. Indeed, this separation would be necessary if we held that the origin of the world is simply chance, with no further meaning. We might also imagine that somewhere in the universe there is a huge sidereal object that is on a course that will eventually crash into earth leaving nothing but ashes. Or the sun will burn out. Nonetheless, the world’s last night usually implies some relationship existing between the human race itself and its intelligent origin.
We hear a good deal of talk from what are sometimes called the “earth sciences.” They tell us that our real task is to hand on this planet to later generations. On this basis, we have all sorts of laws about the conservation of everything from alpacas to zinnias, from saving the forests to saving the oceans. A new morality has developed that judges us not in terms of our sins or our final personal end but in terms of what we hand down to future ages, about whom, in fact, we know nothing.
“The idea which here shuts out the Second Coming from our minds,” Lewis wrote, “the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience…. It distracts us from our real duties and our real interest. It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters” (104). This approach attempts to play off the last men who do not exist with all those who went before who did.
But a good deal of the human race has already died, maybe as many as 90-100 billions of our kind. How many more to expect, we know not. Those who died before us left enough for the seven billion of us living now to prosper. As to resources, we tend to forget that resources are not just things but ideas. It seems odd, in any case, to be worried about some future last night or day, unless we think that we will be there or that the only people that count are those still alive at this last night, whenever it falls. This view seems to make the lives of those who live now or who have gone before us relatively meaningless. They have no meaning in themselves. Our only meaning is that we knowingly or unknowingly pass something down to the last men.
We need to remember, Lewis tells us, “that what may be upon us at any moment is not merely an End but a Judgment.” Lewis thus puts together the two notions of End (or last day) and Judgment, that is, following Plato, an accounting for our deeds, not at some future ending but at our ending, not forgetting that our ending falls into the order of the whole of mankind that is implied in the world’s last night.
Some moderns talk as though duties to posterity were the only duties we had. I can imagine no man who will look with more horror on the End than a conscientious revolutionary who has been, in a sense sincerely, justifying cruelties and injustices inflicted on millions of his contemporaries by the benefits which he hopes to confer on future generations: generations, who now, as one terrible moment reveals to him, were never going to exist (111).
We do not really know if there will be “future” generations, or how many, or their level of life or technology. We merely project a present theory on the future and force the world to live by it whether it is true or not.
So in this context, the “world’s last night” also serves to rescue, in Lewis’s view, the very dignity of each person who has lived on this planet by taking his life, as lived, seriously enough to be judged—and judged as in fact belonging to that drama or plan that is inherent in our cosmos and its relation to man.
We shall not only believe but we shall know, know beyond doubt in every fibre of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are…. We shall perhaps even realize that in some dim fashion we could have known it all along. We shall know and all creation will know too; our ancestors, our parents, our wives or husbands, our children. The unanswerable and (by then) self-evident truth about each will be known to all (113).
“The world’s last night,” as I said, provokes. Lewis’s conclusion is very Platonic. Plato was concerned that the world was made in vain if all the crimes committed in this world were not punished and all the good deeds unrequited. This is what the “world’s last night” is about. It is the revelational response to Plato’s concern. “The self-evident truth about each will be known to all.” Evidently, we are already present at the “world’s last night.” We are not tools for some ideological myth of perfection down the ages that may never happen.
Father Schall reflects on a provocative essay by C. S. Lewis on the End and suggests that a true apocalyptic actually rescues the dignity of each human being.