Schansberg: Not one but Three Historical Figures Died Nov. 22, 1963
by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.
Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of three highly influential people: Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. Although Kennedy — in his life and especially in his death — is the most famous of the trio, all three had an impressive impact during their lives and in the decades since.
All three have ancestral roots in Great Britain: Kennedy was a third-generation Irishman; Lewis was born in Ireland and lived in England; Huxley was from England. Kennedy was a war hero whose family connections, wealth and political aspirations led to holding office in the U.S. House, the Senate and the White House. His assassination at age 46 is considered one of the most memorable moments in 20th-century American history. Huxley and Lewis lived into their 60s, didn’t have memorable deaths and are not as well known — but have arguably had a bigger influence on the world.
Huxley was an author whose most famous novel, “Brave New World,” is routinely rated in the Top 100 of all time. The work covers topics from eugenics to a state-enforced class system, from the massive use of prescription drugs to euthanasia. Alongside George Orwell’s dystopian novels, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” Orwell and Huxley have served as prophets of a technological, totalitarian and bureaucratic society. The thoughts behind these books have influenced generations of readers in a way that is difficult to measure.
Lewis was a literature professor whose prolific writing ranged from academic to popular. He used a wide variety of genres: children’s literature, science fiction, allegory, poetry and non-fiction Christian “apologetics.”
Lewis’ work has always had popular appeal. “Mere Christianity” is merely a series of radio addresses given on the BBC during World War II. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. And the “Chronicles of Narnia” — a seven-book series that combines children’s stories with strong Christian references — have been a staple of family reading for decades, selling more than 100 million copies.
More recently, his work has been a significant player in pop culture. Max McLean has had a long and successful run with his one-man play version of “Screwtape Letters.” And some of the Narnia books have been the subject of high-budget films. (The first was “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”)
Lewis’ books on apologetics are more influential than ever. From the “modern” logical approach of Mere Christianity to the “post-modern” narrative approach of “The Great Divorce,” Lewis showed remarkable literary range as he tried to make the Christian faith reasonable and compelling — for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Lewis’ emphasis on “mere” Christianity is also important — focusing on the “mere” essentials of the faith, with its resulting pluralism and strong unity.
The religious views of all three men were also interesting. I became aware of this coincidence of deaths through a neat little book by Peter Kreeft, “Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death.” Kreeft writes as if recording a discussion between the three as they await Judgment. For Kreeft, Lewis represents biblical Christianity; Kennedy represents “cultural Christianity” or a tepid deism; and Huxley represents a combination of agnosticism and pantheism.
As for Kennedy, beyond his status as a historical figure and a cultural touchstone, his political impact was also significant. From one angle, we can see echoes of Kennedy in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Both were effective with television and popular with the general public. And Kennedy’s muscular (if not always effective) anti-communist foreign policy and “supply-side” economics served as precursors to Reagan’s policies.
Kennedy reduced corporate income-tax rates and cut personal income-tax rates dramatically across the board. (Kennedy reduced the top tax bracket from 91 percent to 70 percent; Reagan then reduced it from 70 percent to 28 percent.) As Reagan, Kennedy noted that in the presence of high tax rates, “the soundest way to raise revenue in the long-term is to lower rates.”
Likewise, Kennedy’s most famous inaugural address line — “ask not what your country can do for you” — points to fiscal conservatism and relatively small government, at least by today’s standards. Tellingly, in a December 1958 TV interview, Eleanor Roosevelt said that she would do all she could do to prevent a “conservative like Kennedy” from being the party’s nominee. In these arenas, Kennedy’s distance from the bulk of today’s Democratic party is noteworthy.
But in other ways, Kennedy was a precursor for those who led the charge for larger government and greater executive branch power. Using techniques made famous by subsequent presidents, JFK (allegedly) got the IRS and the FBI to target and wiretap groups that were hostile to his administration’s goals.
In a speech to the National Press Club as he campaigned for president in 1960, Kennedy argued against “a restricted concept of the presidency.” Instead, a president “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office — all that are specified and some that are not.” Kennedy imagined a president who would “build more schools” (an interesting role for the federal government!), “be the center of moral leadership” and who “alone . . . must make the major decisions of our foreign policy.” As such, Kennedy’s vision for a more powerful presidency governing a more expansive government has been prophetic as well.
As we approach Nov. 22, we should give consideration to the work of all three men. Kennedy’s short presidency left a mixed legacy, and his assassination is still the subject of sensationalism. But the lives of Huxley and Lewis have a more enduring legacy that should receive more careful reflection.