From 1942 to 1955, C. S. Lewis was president of the Socratic Club at Oxford University. The Socratic Club was a student and faculty club dedicated to constructive debates between Christians and non-Christians. It was in this club that Lewis debated Elizabeth Anscombe in 1949. Stella Aldwinckle was the founder of the Socratic Club at Oxford University.
Memories of the Socratic Club
By Stella Aldwinckle
I. The Story of the Patched Shirt
St. Hilda’s has been reconstructed so I don’t suppose any of you know the old entrance to the main house with the enormous hall that ran from the front door and around the corner past a long staircase and ending in a double JCR.1 We were booked to have our Socratic meeting in that double JCR. I got there at about ten past eight for an eight-fifteen meeting. When I opened the door, there were so many people around the door you could hardly get in, and when you got inside, you couldn’t move at all. Someone asked the Bursar whether she could let us move into the dining room, because the double JCR had been full for a long time and the hall passage was absolutely packed with people. So all the paraphernalia were moved, and then the crowd surged into this dining room, and still there was standing room only. The only people who got seats were the two speakers and myself as chairman up on the dais. It was stiflingly hot, of course. And after about ten minutes Professor Joad2 peeled off his jacket (very sensibly), and looked much better. So I leant over to C. S. Lewis, who was the other speaker, and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you take off your jacket also?’ And he leant back to me and said in a whisper, ‘Because my shirt is patched.’
It’s a funny story, but I also felt very moved by it, because here was a man who must have been earning thousands of pounds a year, and yet he has his shirt patched so that he could give the money away.
II. The Socratic Club
The objective of the Socratic Club was to have an open forum for both atheists and Christians. It was a very lively club, and we used to go on talking under the street lamps until two or three in the morning.
Some people, of course, were much readier with their questions than others, and sometimes, I think, freshers would be a bit nervous about piping up. But I can remember as though it was yesterday, I was in the chair and people were sitting (as always) on the floor, and on my right, sprawled on the floor, was a young fresher. He joined in the discussion rather a lot, and I thought to myself: that young man is going far. His name was Bernard Williams.3
Over the years, the club became more technical. I suppose that was because we had so many dons: we hardly ever had a paper from someone who wasn’t a don or a professor. They got interested in strictly philosophical questions, and that’s how it started drifting. I think it’s a great pity myself; it might have been a good thing to ask some undergraduates who weren’t reading philosophy to present papers. But of course it was a pleasure to have such distinguished speakers. Austin Farrer was one of the outstanding ones. Mascall4 used to come a lot, and Dorothy Sayers, too, came and gave us a paper.5 Among Lewis’s fellow Inklings, Owen Barfield came and gave us a paper, just the one.6 And I think Charles Williams did, though I’m not absolutely certain of that.7 Our furthest traveller came from France: the philosopher Gabriel Marcel.8 He came and talked to us, but I must admit that we didn’t have to pay all his fare, because we were sharing him with someone else.
I know that many people appreciated the Socratic very much. In fact, Professor Grensted,9 who was professor of Christian philosophy at Oriel, reckoned that the Socratic Club was the most important thing that had happened in Oxford during the war. He judged it was so important to have tackled the issues: to bring out agnosticism and atheism instead of having a rather hush-hush attitude to it, as it had been before the war. Between the wars, it was very much the case that people with an attitude of that sort hid it. But I think the climate is changing now, because of the threat of nuclear war. People changed rather from being cocky agnostics to being rather listless ones.
III. C. S. Lewis at the Socratic Club
C. S. Lewis himself always came. He came to every meeting, eight meetings a term, unless he was actually ill or had to attend something in London. His support was simply wonderful.
In meetings, he was never ever dogmatic or domineering. He would listen sympathetically to the other person’s point of view and would comment helpfully, not antagonistically. Because, you see, we weren’t debating. In a debating society you are out to score points and to win the votes. But we were Socratic, that is, we wanted to get to the truth of things, and to follow the argument in good faith and good temper wherever it went.
IV. The End of the Socratic Club
The Socratic Club lasted for more than twenty-five years. In fact, we had a sherry or claret party for our twenty-fifth anniversary, to which Elizabeth Anscombe came. But the intellectual climate changed very much over the years. Agnosticism grew a great deal, and people developed the habit of having very small little meetings in their rooms, simply inviting a few friends. So the club dwindled, and when Lewis got a professorship at Cambridge, it fell off, partly because he wasn’t there. Basil Mitchell, our second president, then still at Oriel, carried on very eloquently, but of course he had not exactly the gifts that C. S. Lewis had had that made such a difference to the meetings. At our last discussion about the club, he said, ‘Oh well, I don’t think the climate is any longer suitable or inviting to support such an endeavour. We’d do better to close it down.’ And I agreed with him. Then he murmured something about ‘perhaps in the future there might be a time when we could begin again.’
1 This is a condensed version of a Q&A given on 24 January 1984. A JCR or Junior Common Room is a campus space set aside for undergraduate socializing.
2 C. E. M. Joad (1891–1953), English philosopher and broadcaster.
3 Sir Bernard Williams (1929–2003) became one of the most significant English moral philosophers of the twentieth century. Williams began his career as a Prize Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and was later Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, before returning to All Souls for his final years.
4 Eric Lionel Mascall (1905–1993), University Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Christ Church, University of Oxford.
5 ‘Poetry, Language, and Ambiguity’ on 3 June 1954 (with Austin Farrer).
6 ‘The Nature of Meaning’ on 11 February 1952.
7 ‘Are there Any Valid Objections to Free-Love?’ on 2 March 1942.
8 ‘Theism and Personal Relationships’ on 16 February 1948 (with L. W. Grensted).
9 L. W. Grensted, D. D. (1884–1964), Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oriel College, University of Oxford.