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.