“We must extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved . . . are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself. . .” C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Imagine strolling downtown and asking passersby, “How would you define reasonable action?” The result will likely be many different accounts. One may run, “Scientifically-proven progress is reasonable.” “Progress” here is vague; nevertheless, this view emphasizes the forward march of humankind — possibly at any cost — following the philosophies of scientists. For science, if more than a methodology, must be the collection of professionals implementing its methods. A second claim might be, “It is doing what I feel is best.” Again, “best” needs defining, but this point posits personal feeling and desire as the basis of reason. Thirdly, there is the deference of the honest follower: “Our leaders know what is reasonable.” Leaders are often advantaged in many ways, but are they wiser? To assume so accepts Nietzschean power philosophy. This is popular, but also thought to be domineering and unsympathetic; after all, leaders can be wrong and cruel.

A fourth option is to associate reasonable action with Practical Reason — “the employment of reason in service of living a good life.”[1] C.S. Lewis says that “our duty to do good to all men is an axiom of Practical Reason.”[2] Distinct from Pure Reason, the faculty that does a math sum or recognizes, a priori, that bachelors are unmarried, Practical Reason is the association of reason with good behavior. If reason inherently includes a moral component, it will not so easily become subordinated to whim, pride, or cold calculation.

One may study detachedly the general trend of Practical Reason throughout the ages and attempt to live it out. But stories with compelling examples of living well will always be necessary for character formation. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader[3] so happens to be one of these very tales. Below, we will look at how this story can help the realization, “what is reasonable is also what is good,” dawn in the mind.

In Planet Narnia, Michael Ward chooses a Lewisian term which is helpful to our discussion. Lewis was fond of Donegal, Ireland, all his life,[4] so Ward deems donegality appropriate for “the spiritual essence or quiddity of a work of art as intended by the artist and inhabited unconsciously by the reader.”[5] He includes some of Lewis’s stabs at defining it as a story’s “peculiar unity of effect produced by a special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts’; ‘a state or quality’; ‘flavour or atmosphere’; ‘smell or taste’; ‘mood’; ‘quiddity.’”[6] A story’s donegality is no one element: it is the whole aesthetic gestalt experienced by the reader. It is more than the sum of its parts. A great symphony may move one to tears, but only as the complete symphony. If isolated from the whole, the movements, rhythms, and melodies would not produce the same effect.

Donegality is important to consider because Ward argues that VDT’s donegality is solar through and through. The imagery and symbolism of VDT create an atmosphere powerfully redolent of Sol (the sun). Ward says VDT has “indeed the most obvious of the seven Narnian donegalities:”[7] the book’s title nods to the sun’s rising — the dawn; the ship sails ever Eastward toward an increasingly large sun; and Caspian partakes of water which is like “drinkable light.”[8] Similar instances of solar imagery abound. Ward’s point is that the drenching of the story in sun-symbolism is meant to convey themes traditionally associated with the personality of Sol. One of these themes is the proper use of reason. Lewis’s poem, “The Planets” is a brief summary of the archetypal characteristics of the planets. Upon reaching Sol’s sphere, we discover,

When his arrow glances

Through mortal mind, mists are parted

And mild as morning the mellow wisdom

Breathes o’er the breast, broadening eastward

Clear and cloudless.[9]

Largely, Sol’s influence yields illumination, clearing up mental confusion (“mists are parted”), and nurturing an ordinate use of reason  (“mellow wisdom”). Therefore, VDT, baptized imaginatively in Sol’s rays, can encourage a life lived according to Practical Reason, which contrasts with the above three rival conceptions of reason.

The first, scientism — the view that the scientific method takes precedence in all pursuits of truth — is parodied in Eustace Scrubb, whom Doris Myers appropriately calls a “Boy without a Chest.”[10] His education has been purely modern given he “had read none of the right books.”[11] “He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.”[12] These books “had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”[13] One of his diary entries expresses detestation at the ship’s “primitive indoors” and complains of “no proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs.”[14] Eustace’s wholly modern education values hyper-sanitized social conditions and pragmatic policy over authentic community. Trusting science and technology over Practical Reason informs and stimulates Eustace’s uninspired outlook.

His early discontent with the crew reveals a clash of worldviews. The excitement of the Dawn Treaders crew relies mostly on their bare experiences upon the waves at nature’s mercy. They are more open than Eustace to the awe and wonder evoked by a closer connection with Creation. No 21st-century advancements are necessary for adventure when one may encounter the supernatural at every turn. Crucial for the crew is their spirits oriented toward a worthwhile goal — in this case, that of finding the seven lost Narnian lords. Splashing in the shallows of a modern outlook, Eustace is blind to the mystery of the transcendent, and he becomes upset. To calm his soul’s tempest, he must acquiesce to growing and maturing with the ship’s crew so as to learn (even if the hard way) the lessons he could have learned more easily by reading good fairy tales.

Although Eustace has allowed scientism to sculpt his sentiments, his hostility toward the Dawn Treader’s milieu begins to cool as he increasingly adheres to Practical Reason. An understanding of charity is integral to his transformation. He begins to serve his shipmates and is less self-absorbed: his temporary exile into dragonhood becomes, in St. Paul’s words, “a thorn in the flesh,”[15] spurring him on to good deeds. He flies over the island, procuring “provisions for the ship;” he was “anxious to help;” and “he was a very humane killer” of animals for food.[16] As befits Sol, Lewis’s language grows clearer as he describes Eustace’s moral alteration: “It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy.”[17]

Another Dawn Treader voyager, Lucy, is also tempted by a scientistic view of the world when the magician’s book presents her with the opportunity to utilize magic to achieve her own ends. A particular incantation can make her beautiful “beyond the lot of mortals,”[18] but she resists with Aslan’s help. Myers explains that “Lucy models the practice of proper restraints on magic (or, by extension, the near-magic powers of science and technology).”[19] Lewis thought that science and magic, in a sense, were twins: they both offer open avenues toward inordinate control over nature and other men.[20] Thus Lucy’s resistance to magic’s allure aptly parallels a wise resistance to the glittering promises of scientific progress. When wielded by fallen human nature, some scientific powers possess a dangerously high potential for more harm than good. Commenting on the scientism of modern culture, John West writes, “In the age of science, almost anything can be taken seriously, if only it is defended in the name of science.”[21] However, the indispensable realm of “ought” is what Lucy wisely concedes to. Being, as the Zaleskis put it, an “ideal of faithful reason,”[22] Lucy understands that possession of power does not automatically justify its arbitrary use.

The second claim mentioned above comes from the proponents of personal feeling and offers another bid for reason’s hand. From a bird’s-eye view, the Dawn Treader’s voyage is a metaphor for putting reason before appetites: waves are often a symbol of man’s tumultuous passions, and to be buffeted by them is to relinquish reason’s control. In contrast, the crew stays their course, regardless of storms or difficulties. Reepicheep is probably the best example, given his inexorable march toward Aslan’s country. His resolve is such that no circumstance will persuade him to abandon his principles. Determined to “sink with my nose to the sunrise,”[23] he exemplifies a rational pursuit, unhindered by whim. In the ship that is someone’s soul, often desire dawdles to submit to reason’s rudder; but with hard work, feelings will come around to follow eventually. Reepicheep’s pure conscience and clear aims have solidified into a disposition as consistent as the rising sun. Further, his matured virtue allows his wisdom to overflow encouragingly into Eustace, who found it “very dreary being a dragon.”[24]

Practical Reason is also featured in Edmund’s shrewd investigation at the pool on Deathwater Island. Ward points out that Peter’s knightliness is emphasized in Prince Caspian to suit the tale’s martial donegality.[25] The same principle works under Sol’s influence, where Edmund, “the only one of the party who had read several detective stories,”[26] displays clear, objective thought over emotion. Reason is critical to detective work, which includes intense investigation and detached application of logic. By process of elimination, Edmund rules out possible fates for the owner of a solitary suit of armor. His helpful analysis at the pool with the Midas Touch counters Reepicheep’s impulsive suggestion to dive in and prevents him and the others from unwittingly becoming forever-submerged, golden statues.[27]

Our third substitute for Practical Reason is authority per se. Not uncommonly, citizens trust the judgment of their presidents, prime ministers, or kings simply by virtue of their offices. Everyone trusts authority of some sort, so it is pivotal to clarify that the ad verecundiam fallacy indicates an improper or unjustified authority. Recall, in VDT, the vexingly repetitious replies of the Dufflepuds on the Island of the Voices. Myers notes, “Their constant rejection of their natural lord, Coriakin, does not free them; instead, it puts them completely under the power of the Chief.”[28] The Dufflepuds think it is reasonable to follow a rogue authority credulously and completely. Good authority, for example, does not seek to control minds, but encourages free thinking. Conversely, by following an inferior authority, the Dufflepuds virtually have lost all their independent thought. They now only parrot their leader or repeat misled maxims: “That’s our chief. You can depend on what he says. He’s telling you the truth, he is,” and “Keep it up, Chief . . . You’re talking like a book.”[29]

By snubbing their true authority, they forfeit authentic freedom and succumb to fear. The Dufflepuds are so mortified by Coriakin that they force Lucy to approach the magic book for them and remove the invisibility spell. They resemble the youngsters in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy who huddle together in fear, bereft of rules:

Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.[30]

Legitimate liberty requires law derived from Practical Reason. As with Chesterton’s analogy, if moral boundaries keep moving, or disappear altogether, fear easily becomes predominant. This causes hesitancy and eventually paralysis of will and action. However, when moral boundaries are firmly established in one’s life, virtue can blossom, roam free, and become habit. Awareness of a boundary causes confidence in planning and moving within it, which is a necessary component to human flourishing.

We see authority adhering to Practical Reason when King Caspian demotes Gumpas, the governor of the Lone Islands. Gumpas has become a paper-pusher who indifferently maintains either unjust practices (slavery) or lazy apathies (failures to pay taxes).[31] Gumpas, immersed in facts and figures, puts materials before men. By withholding tribute, he has severed himself from Caspian, whose rule is legitimate since it follows natural law and is appointed by Aslan. Caspian is a virtuous leader, and his kingship “contrasts the bureaucratic justice of our modern world with the justice of the king under the law.”[32] Rightful royal offices play an important role from the beginning to the end of Narnia’s timeline. The Great Lion anoints Frank and Helen as the first “King and Queen of Narnia, father and mother of many kings that shall be.”[33] The divine line persists through Tirion, the “last of the Kings of Narnia,”[34] and even in the golden-gated garden in The Last Battle, the kings and queens retain their regal titles.[35] Due to the nature of Caspian’s appointment and policy, his deposition of Gumpas is a proper application Practical Reason.

Lewis argues that the majority of people in ages past have intuited Practical Reason. A healthy conscience will prompt voluntary submission to good authorities. Throughout history, authority is thought to be an irremovable, essential element of human society. Eradicating it would be akin to removing someone’s brain and expecting him to function properly. One need not scour obscure (or even only Christian) sources to find support for rightful rule. Lewis quotes Plato,

Has it escaped you that, in the eyes of gods and good men, your native land deserves from you more honour, worship, and reverence than your mother and father and all your ancestors? That you should give a softer answer to its anger than to a father’s anger? That if you cannot persuade it to alter its mind you must obey it in all quietness, whether it binds you or beats you or sends you to a war where you may get wounds or death?[36]

The Dawn Treader crew are not merely following their passions, gallivanting on the open seas, and labeling it true liberty. They are questing under a formal authority, which, when taken seriously, becomes — paradoxically — the most free and jovial of enterprises. The crew’s joy stems from following good authority, built on Practical Reason, which is indispensable to their unity and common good.

VDT is a sunny homage to the best way to live, and it provides a shining, lighthearted, hopeful solution to the dead-end alternatives mentioned above. A bearing directed by scientism, whim, or illegitimate authority will inevitably drift into injustice. Reasonable action, if it is to be consistent and good, must be grounded in Practical Reason. VDT does not stop at adventure, but satisfies the imaginative hunger produced by reason in the wrong place. The story can be viewed as an guide for undergoing spiritual struggles and emerging victorious since it is, in a way, a call to action which requires reliance on a standard. The sailors must employ Practical Reason or the vessel’s prow will flounder in its progress toward the peace of the lily-covered Silver Sea and the joy of Aslan’s country. Like physical or moral dangers in one’s life, any perils en route could have spelled disaster for the crew. But the compass was never neglected, the right path not rejected. Therefore, when this Sol-centered tale seemed at its darkest, light conquered fear in the form of an albatross that “offered good guidance” to Drinian and comforted Lucy with, “Courage, dear heart.”[37]

Citation Information

Jason Monroe. “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the Rehabilitation of Practical Reason.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 139-150.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///the-voyage-of-the-dawn-treader-and-the-rehabilitation-of-practical-reason/


[1] Christopher Toner, “Medieval Theories of Practical Reason,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 28, 2018, https://www.iep.utm.edu/prac-med.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in The Essential C.S. Lewis, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988), 445.

[3]VDT” from now on.

[4] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 75.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 108.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 532.

[9] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (Orlando: Mariner, 1992), 13.

[10] Doris T. Myers, C.S. Lewis in Context (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1944), 145. The reference is to Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, where “Men Without Chests” are those untrained in virtuous habits.

[11] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 463.

[12] Ibid., 425.

[13] Ibid., 464.

[14] Ibid., 437.

[15] 2 Cor. 12:7, NABRE.

[16] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 471.

[17] Ibid., 476.

[18] Ibid., 495.

[19] Myers, C.S. Lewis in Context, 144.

[20] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 457.

[21] John West, “The Magician’s Twin,” in The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, ed. John West (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 24.

[22] Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 387.

[23] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 524.

[24] Ibid., 471.

[25] Ward, Planet Narnia, 96.

[26] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 482.

[27] Ibid., 482-483.

[28] Myers, C.S. Lewis in Context, 144.

[29] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 488.

[30] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books, 2014), chp. 9, iBooks.

[31] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 449.

[32] Myers, C.S. Lewis in Context, 143.

[33] Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, in The Chronicles of Narnia, 699.

[34] Ibid., 675.

[35] Ibid., 764.

[36] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 461.

[37] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 511.