The different ways we respond to the threat of nuclear war tell us which one of the two Western worlds we inhabit.
As I write, Vladimir Putin is acting like a cornered animal. His army is reeling. Hard-liners like Greg Yudin are pushing him. “We have to scare [Ukrainians] into submission, and in order to do that, we have to be really, really violent.” Nuclear weapons fit that category.
How then should we live? Set aside the rest of the world. How about Americans? As several experts on the subject have noted, there really is no such thing as limited nuclear war. A nuclear attack on Kyiv can quickly mushroom into an attack on New York City. How then should we live? C. S. Lewis had an answer: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night…”
That’s how folks in the Middle Ages lived. If we live as they did, Lewis said, “The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies but they need not dominate our minds.”
In other words, Lewis felt we shouldn’t exaggerate “the novelty of our situation.” Human nature hasn’t changed. Rather, our new circumstances “remind us forcibly of the world we are living in and which, during the prosperous years… we were beginning to forget. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
And what sort of realities did Lewis have in mind? How about what he called “the greatest of all divides” that ever occurred in the Western world, the Great Divide? I wrote a seven-week series on this in 2020. Click this link to familiarize yourself with it. Lewis said this divide separates us from “the Old Western order,” the air that Western folks breathed for over 2,000 years, right up until the end of the Middle Ages. He then told his Cambridge students, “Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet: are meeting this room… I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours.”
I do too. You can as well, but you have to start with Lewis’ “settled conviction that in order to read Old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired reading modern literature.” Lewis did this by reading a wide array of ancient writers, pagan and Christian, including Boethius.
Boethius was a Christian as well as a Roman Senator. He died in A.D. 524 just as the Roman Empire and classical world was crumbling. He sought to preserve as much of the classical heritage as possible, showing how it harmonized with Christian thought. Boethius’ project seemed doomed when he was thrown in prison on trumped-up charges. Awaiting execution, he penned Consolation of Philosophy, getting his work down to its essence.
In Consolation, this includes Boethius meeting Lady Philosophy, an old woman he at first doesn’t recognize as his nursemaid of old. She has come to comfort him. Like Boethius, she’s undergone many trials with many opposing philosophers trying to overthrow her. Boethius never likens her to Lady Wisdom who was present at creation, but the consensus among historians is that Christian philosophers like Boethius rooted the feminine personification of Wisdom in biblical literature such as Proverbs. Lady Philosophy embodies Lady Wisdom, as philosophy means the love of wisdom.
Boethius does liken Lady Philosophy to Lady Fortune of Greek religion. She gives Boethius some sage advice, spinning her great wheel, the Wheel of Fortune, telling him that his unjust imprisonment has at least awakened him to the true nature of reality: “You imagine that fortune’s attitude to you has changed; you are wrong. Such was always her way, such is her nature.” In other words, bad things happen to good people and vice versa.
Recognizing this can awaken us to the true nature of reality: we live in a fallen world. This was the atmosphere of the ancient world that Boethius breathed. He was the “divine populizer,” Lewis wrote, and Lewis sought to be a British Boethius, recreating the atmosphere of the ancient world (the old Western order) in modern vernacular.
Which brings us back to how we respond to the threat of nuclear war. Lewis felt everyone in the old Western order was familiar with Boethius. If you’re familiar with the game show “Wheel of Fortune” but unfamiliar with its origins in Boethius and Greek thought, you live in the new Western order. You’re native to this side of the Great Divide.
Second, how would we respond if a nuclear bomb explodes in, say, New York City? 9/11 wasn’t a nuclear attack but it was devastating. We were awakened to living in a fallen world. This yielded a brief spasm of interest in Christianity (church attendance went up for a year or so). Then, as prosperity returned, we began to forget about a fallen world. Interest in Christianity declined (rapidly I might add). Today, attendance levels are well below pre-9/11. Does this indicate we inhabit the new Western order? Does this mean most of us are native to this side of the Great Divide? I’m afraid so.
I close with a comment: All this might seem to be much ado about nothing. So what if I live on this side of the Great Divide? Well, if you do Lewis felt you’ll likely miss the main picture in scripture as you cannot imagine the old world in which the Bible was written.
That’s worth thinking about.
 C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” in Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 73-74.
 C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” 75.
 C. S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” (1954), 13.
 Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2022), 12.
 Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1., in Theological Tractates, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester, Loeb Classical Library 74 (Harvard University Press, 1973), 177.
 C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford University Press, 1958), 46.