C.S. Lewis and Arguments

Lewis’s book ‘The Abolition of Man’, of all his books that I’ve read, has proved to be the most interesting to me, not necessarily because of its content (which is brilliant) but because of how Lewis engages with his topic, which is moral relativism – keeping this in mind, I’m going to focus on the form of his argument as opposed to the content here.

Lewis adopts a tactic that is, by all appearances, without academic integrity. His target is moral relativism, yet he doesn’t cite a single contemporary proponent of moral relativism. He doesn’t merely refrain from attacking easy targets, which any responsible philosopher should do – he refrains from attacking any target at all, easy or difficult. There’s no survey of the literature, no discussion of various religions in relation to moral philosophy, no engagement with the pragmatists, nothing. Instead, he singles out a single school textbook on the subject of reading and writing that was sent to him free of charge in exchange for a review.

Why does he go about it in this way? Why not go after the big, well-read, sophisticated schools of thought? I suspect that Lewis realized that relatively few people are actually influenced by such schools of thought – the ivory tower. Sure, some people are – but Lewis’s target, after reading through the book, becomes clear: it’s not bad philosophy, or philosophy he disagrees with, it’s bad popular philosophy. The dumbed-down kind of things one hears such as ‘Einstein proved it’s all relative, man’. This dumbed down pop moral philosophy is Lewis’s target.

Now, is it legitimate to attack popular philosophy, ignoring the sophisticated ideas of the ivory tower? One could think of the arguments of the new-atheists – a standard rebuttal is that the arguments concern a dumbed-down conception of god, and not (to give one example) the god of classical theism. Well, that may be true – but is it invalid? Lewis used, it could be argued, popular philosophy to launch a deep, powerful critique of positivism/scientism’s ethics – and his argument was anything but dumbed down.

So the question is, I suppose, is there an obligation to engage only ivory-tower positions, or can popular conceptions be engaged as a springboard to larger and deeper arguments that do, in fact, pertain to the ivory-tower positions? Another question: what’s the relation of ivory-tower positions to popular viewpoints? At what point does one get to say, ‘well, you’re just attacking an unsophisticated conception of X’?

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Joy, Longing and Nostalgia

C.S. Lewis is pretty well-known for his ‘argument from desire’, which is more or less a take on certain aspects of Platonic philosophy. Nostalgia and joy (or sehnsucht, or longing) for Lewis are indicators of our other-worldiness. Our desires and longing for beauty reflect our desire for the Divine, beauty itself. That small nostalgic ache we get at the end of a beautiful symphony or as a sunset fades is a desire for something ‘which no natural happiness will satisfy.’ Sensible beauty serves to awaken a much deeper longing for the beauty of the absolute.

Augustine makes a similar point in with the famous opening phrase of his ‘Confessions’: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Pascal says similar things as well. Beauty, the experience of the beautiful, our desire for the beautiful, is a reflection of our desire for the absolute, for beauty itself. Lewis makes another point that when we have summoned into glory, that old ache will be healed. We’ll be made whole again. (A quick Google search will yield a large number of quotes made by Lewis on this topic that are worth reading)

‘The beautiful is unquestionably a transcendental orientation of the mind and the will, because the desire it evokes can never be exhausted by any finite object; it is an ultimate value that allows one to make judgements of relative value, and that weds consciousness to the whole of being as boundlessly desirable. whether or not there is actualy such a thing as an eternal beauty beyond the realm of the senses, the effect within us of beauty’s transcendce as an ideal horizon, toward which the mind is habitually drawn and apart from which the mind would not be open to the world in the way that it is. And that, in itself, is enough to render the physicalist narrative of causality profoundly dubious.’ (David Bentley hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 285)

Now, obviously, this isn’t an argument of any kind – nor is it ignoring the physiological/biological aspects of nostalgia, which, incidentally, is a fascinating study. Think of this as simply some musings on the transcendent nature of the experience of beauty.

On Art

What is the role of art in the Christian life?

Taking a Tolkien/C.S. Lewis angle, I would say that one large part would be that we create as part of our having been fashioned in the image of a creator God. Creating is part of what we do, part of what makes us human – specifically, creating stories and myths. For Tolkien and Lewis, our creation of stories and myths points to our innate longing for God – Lewis points this out in his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ when he’s discussing the many other divine stories that exist in other cultures.

If Lewis/Tolkien are right, and I believe they are, then creating stories is a profound part of our being – a part of our being that comes as a result of being fashioned in the image of a Creator.

‘We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.’

― J.R.R. Tolkien

C.S. Lewis on Foreknowledge, Time, and Eternity

‘Eternity is quite distinct from perpuity, from mere endless continuance in time. Perpetuity is only the attainment of an endless series of moments, each lost as soon as it is attained. Eternity is the actual timeless fruition of illimitable life. Time, even endless time, is only an image, almost a parody, of that plentitude; a hopeless attempt to compensate for the transitoriness of its ‘presents’ by infinitely multiplying them. That is why Shakespeare’s Lucrece calls it ‘thou ceaselss lackey to eternity’ (Rape, 967). And God is eternal, not perpetual. Strictly speaking, he never forsees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not forsees) your tomorrows acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not infringe upon its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting.’ (C.S. Lewis, ‘The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature’ p. 89)

Christian Desire

‘We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition  when infinte joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’

– C.S. Lewis, ‘The Wight of Glory,’ pp. 25-26

The Scriptures are no strangers to desire; indeed, the Song of Solomon is an ode to an erotic ecstasy between two people who desire each other for no reason other than they simply love each other. As Lewis so keenly noticed, it is not the strength of our desire – that is an integral part of our humanity. Rather, it is the object of our desire that is wrong. We are created with a desire for God and His utterly infinite splendour, glory and joy, but we go astray by trading that joy for simple toys that ultimately won’t and can’t satisfy what we really want – and, as Lewis again noticed, the whole unhappy story of humanity is humanity doing precisely that.