C S Lewis and Boethius – a deeper look

Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of t...

Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I gave, at the Madison, Wisconsin C S Lewis Society’s conference, sponsored by the Bradshaw-Knight Foundation, a much fuller version of the take on Lewis’s “Boethianism” than the one I had originally tried out on the Medieval Congress CSL crowd at Kalamazoo. Here’s the Madison paper.

There’s more here on Boethius’s philosophical influence on Lewis, as well as a refinement on the ways in which Boethius seems to have influenced Lewis vocationally. I did, however, truncate the end from what I had prepared to give.  I’ll add my original pre-conclusion ending, which reflects on fortune and eudaimonism using Lewis’s last published essay, “We have no ‘right to happiness,'” after the paper proper.

Probably the author who influenced me most in my expansion of the Kzoo paper was Adam Barkman. Serendipitously, I discovered a few days before the conference that he was to give the paper right after me. It was an honor to get to know him and hang out with him at the conference. Everyone interested in Lewis and philosophy, or really, everyone seriously interested in Lewis from any perspective, needs to buy Adam’s book, C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life.

“Lewis the Boethian,” paper for Bradshaw-Knight CSL conference Oct. 2012, Madison, Wisconsin



He was a philosopher first, and then a master of literature, with his Christianity informing both.

He grew up surrounded by and saturated with books, and his greatest work demonstrates his amazing capacities of recall, organization, logic, and synthesis.

He was perhaps the best-educated man of his generation—and that generation found itself already gathering speed as it rolled down into a valley of forgetfulness and ignorance, heedless of the rich traditions that had nurtured its parents and grandparents.

He became to that dark generation a public intellectual and educator of huge popular impact—an impact that continued after his death.

His greatest pedagogical work he did not do in the classroom, but in writing fiction, poetry, allegory. He was at heart a popularizer.

He wrote accessible theological works of an orthodox sort—content to pass on, to those less erudite than he, the wisdom of tradition.

For him, however, that tradition most certainly included the best of the Pagan philosophers; he wove their wisdom into his writings; and indeed, he revered Plato, Aristotle, and their ilk so highly that some questioned his commitment to the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, many devout Christians who came after him called his name blessed (even “sainted”) and tried (with varying degrees of success) to repeat his arguments and make use of his literary techniques.

He was sensitive to people’s existential troubles and emotional states; in fact, when passing on the wisdom of the ancients, he started at just that point.

He was foremost a moral philosopher, not only in his treatises, but also in his imaginative work.

He took no comfort in the doctrine of predestination; as a moralist, he valued human free will too much to go with Augustine in that great African’s extreme monergism. And he understood that God’s omniscience does not create a situation where all our actions are determined.

He valued happiness highly, but he knew better than to rest his hope in earthly happiness or believe the world owed it to him.

But he was no fatalist: he knew that what from a human perspective looks like bad fortune is often, indeed always, the guiding, correcting, disciplining hand of God. His philosophy had more than a little Stoicism in it—the “stiff upper lip” needed in a troubled time. When the going got tough, he learned not to demand an explanation from God, knowing that the only answer he would get would be the one Job got. He learned to rest in the knowledge that God’s ways are higher than our ways. And as a remedy and salve for life’s ordinary pains, he learned to turn to prayer.

And when this great Christian philosopher-poet came to the attention of C. S. Lewis, it changed Lewis’s life.

I speak, as you know from your program, of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, who lived from 480 to 524 or 525 AD. But if my list of descriptors sounded like someone else, then I may already be starting to make my point. This paper will begin to unpack the nature of Boethius’s influence on Lewis—an influence suggested, I think, by some of the qualities in both men that I have listed. The paper starts simply, with the fact that when in 1962, The Christian Century magazine asked Lewis the question, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?”, the single medieval book this accomplished medievalist included in his top ten was Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

What, then, brought to Lewis’s mind Boethius—not Dante, whom he perhaps imitated more in his writings; nor Chaucer, whom he wrote about more; nor the great spiritual writers such as Julian of Norwich or Walter Hilton or the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, who shaped his spiritual life more and whom he recommended more to those seeking spiritual growth? What was the nature of Boethius’s influence on Lewis?

First, I will assume in what follows that Lewis’s debt was not limited to the holding of certain Boethian ideas. Like any good schoolchild, Lewis would have paid careful attention to the wording of the question the Century set for him. They had asked him not “Whose ideas do you admire the most,” or “who influenced your literary style?” Rather, they asked about the shaping of Lewis’s very vocation and philosophy of life. Those are deep sorts of influence, indeed. And I will take these two sorts of influence as a structure for what follows.

The clues to Lewis’s debt to Boethius are scattered throughout his writings. In The Discarded Image he gave 16 pages discussion to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. He said it was one of the most influential books in medieval literature, and added, “until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.” Furthermore, he noted it was the most translated book in the Middle Ages. Alfred the Great; Chaucer; and Queen Elizabeth I were among its translators. Its philosophical arguments and their allegorical form guided everyone from the Carolingians to Aquinas to Chaucer. (The latter, by the way, in Troilus and CRESS – i – da, had PAN – dar – us recount the entire argument of the Consolation.)

And then, probably Lewis’s loftiest endorsement of the Consolation: “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.” (Discarded Image, p. 75)

And for Lewis, Boethius was not some antiquarian taste, like collecting old spoons. He believed the great Roman still had important things to say to the people of his own day. Repeatedly in responding to letters seeking his advice, Lewis listed Boethius among authors beneficial to read. In an essay describing the ideal English school, Lewis recommended the reading of “the authors who have really affected us deeply and over long periods.” He pushed to the fore of this list “the Romans,” and especially “those . . . who enjoyed the same degree and nearly the same kind of prestige both before and after the Renaissance.” Ovid was among these. Virgil put in his appearance, naturally. But the greatest and first on Lewis’s list was Boethius.


The discussion of Boethius in Discarded Image and the references scattered about the Allegory of Love and various scholarly essays could, however, mislead us. They might seem to indicate that Lewis’s debt to the great Roman was primarily a scholarly one—a matter of sorting out influences and understanding lineages of thought. There is much to recommend this view. For one thing, it is consistent with how Lewis himself described his motivations when he first read Boethius in 1922: “I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics,” he wrote, “almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were ‘influences.’” C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsly (1944 essay reprint; London: HarperCollins, 2000), 440.

But there is in the Allegory of Love a clue to something else that Lewis found in Boethius—something that changed his life. In the Allegory, Lewis uses a certain glowing epithet for Boethius. He called him “the divine popularizer.” That single phrase clues us into a different sort of Boethian influence in the life of the 20th-century Oxford don—one that goes back to the wording of the Century’s question: which books shaped your vocational attitude, they had asked him.

In a 2010 essay, Samuel Joeckel explores Lewis’s vocation as a “public intellectual.” That is to say, “a figure who defends religious, political, or ideological beliefs in a manner that requires the expertise of a scholar, possessing the learning and critical acumen to engage with proficiency a wide range of complex issues, and the communicative skills of a journalist, capable of making those complex beliefs understandable to the layperson.” (44) Thus a public intellectual must be a “philosopher-poet”— possessing both subtlety and depth of rational thinking and the rhetorical skill to communicate that thinking powerfully and winsomely.

Significantly for both the case of Boethius and that of Lewis, Joeckel tells us that the public intellectual serves a “translative” function. To speak intelligibly to a diverse company, “patrician and plebian, bourgeoisie and proletariat, rich and poor, educated and semi-educated, specialist and nonspecialist,” he or she must use a language they all understand—the vernacular. Aside from the Consolation, the work of Boethius that most shaped the Middle Ages was his labor translating the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, which he read in their original language, into the vernacular of his day, Latin. And Lewis of course both was master of many languages and could “translate” the most complex philosophical ideas not just into clear radio addresses for the masses, but into the imaginative, concrete world of children’s books.

The public intellectual also, says Joeckel, stands at a time of radical cultural change. Certainly this was true of Boethius, to the degree that he has been interpreted[i] as the Last Educated Man standing against an encroaching barbarism. This image is made vivid, of course, by the nature of his end. This cultured philosopher was first imprisoned by barbarians—the Ostrogothic king Theodoric and, as Lewis put it, his “huge, fair-skinned, beer-drinking, boasting thanes”—until “presently they twisted ropes round his head till his eyes dropped out and finished him off with a bludgeon” (DI, 76). What a tempting symbol of the death of the old Roman culture and the dawning of the dark ages. Yet, Boethius’s death did not, in fact, terminate the influence of that classical culture—not by a long shot. The blood of this martyr was the seed of Christian culture. For Boethius was something unkillable: a 100,000-megawatt transmitter of tradition.

It is hard to think of an apter description, in fact, of C. S. Lewis. Though like Boethius, Lewis was not just a transmitter but also a thinker of great originality, when in 1954 Lewis described his vocation to the audience gathered at Cambridge University to witness his installation to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he turned to this function of cultural transmission.

First, he framed the cultural moment: “We have lived,” he says “to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists.” As he had written almost a decade before in his book Miracles (1947),“All over the world, until quite modern times, the direct insight of the mystics and the reasonings of the philosophers percolated to the mass of the people by authority and tradition; they could be received by those who were no great reasoners themselves in the concrete form of myth and ritual and the whole pattern of life.” [Miracles (NY: 1947), 42.] But now the West had become cut off from its traditions, and the results, Lewis was sure, would be dire: “A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction.” [Miracles, 43]. As much as did Boethius, Lewis wanted to stand in the gap of that cataclysmic loss, to bring the tradition back to the people. He told his Cambridge audience, “I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours. . . . I read as a native texts [w]hat you must read as foreigners. . . . That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen.”

What, exactly, did Lewis feel was being lost in this new Dark Ages? Not “just” tales and songs, myths and poems, but the very wisdom that, following Barfield’s work in Poetic Diction, he felt was inextricably embodied in and inseparable from that lost literature. What wisdom? The Christian Gospel? Well, yes, that.

But more deeply, the particular complex, perceptive, philosophically sophisticated and morally robust appropriation of the gospel to the Pagan mind that Boethius epitomized. After all, Lewis said, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not. . . .”

In fact, this point about the wisdom of the Pagans is an important one that occurs throughout Lewis’s writings and joins him even more firmly to Boethius. In response to those who argue that the modern world is lapsing into Paganism, Lewis responded, in essence, “If only we would!” For there is wisdom in Pagan culture that we need (a “consolation” of philosophy). Lewis always felt more affinity for a thoroughgoing pagan pursuing virtue by Pagan lights than for a godless modern, and he returned again and again throughout his writing life to the wisdom of the ancients (as did Boethius—thus, he is Boethian in this). But alas, in this new Dark Ages, Lewis lamented, “The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Much ink has been spilled on the question of why Boethius, imprisoned, exiled, his goods scattered, and awaiting execution, turned not to the consolation of religion, but rather the consolation of philosophy. Certainly there are Christian elements in his book that none of his Pagan sources would have recognized: his recommendation of prayer and his portrayal of God in personal terms are just two. The first thing to say here is that modern scholarship has shown with no reasonable doubt that Boethius was a Christian, of an orthodox and a committed sort. The second is that Lewis, who taught philosophy before he taught literature, and who read the classics voraciously under Kirkpatrick before coming to Christianity, joined Boethius in feeling the power of such consolation.

That the Narnia Chronicles turn out, if we believe Michael Ward, to hang on an elaborate secret scaffolding of pagan planetary mythology, or that the Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity ransack Aristotelian virtue ethics and natural law theory for their ethical understanding, or that his favorite of his own novels, Till We Have Faces, was a reworked Pagan myth—L saw none of this as contradicting his Christianity. Like medievals from Boethius to the Beowulf author to Dante, L was a happy syncretist, at least in the typical medieval sense of “plundering the Egyptians” for usable material while maintaining a firm Christian intellectual framework (in Lewis’s words: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Ceasar. For one probable relic of Celtic religion  . . . a score of references to Mars and Venus and Diana.”) (DI, 8)

And indeed, as I think is true as well of Boethius, Lewis believed that it is within a Christian framework that the classical materials truly come into their own. As he wrote to Bede Griffiths: “[I]t is only since I have become a Christian that I have learned really to value the elements of truth in Paganism and Idealism. I wished to value [134] them in the old days; now I really do. Don’t suppose that I ever thought myself that certain elements of pantheism were incompatible with Christianity or with Catholicism.”[1]

In a 1944 address to the Socratic Club at Oxford, he made the point more emphatically: “Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. The Divine light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man.’ We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth” (“Is Theology Poetry?” addressed to the Socratic Club at Oxford, 6 nov 1944, Weight of Glory, 83).

Obscuring the divine light for many, the nature of modernity’s shadow in Lewis’s eyes is well enough known: Materialism, utilitarianism, subjectivism—all conspired to destroy the wisdom that had made it all the way from the ancients to the time of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. Now, especially in the face of cataclysmic world wars, even Oxford’s students were wondering to themselves, Why study philosophy? In his address “Learning in War Time,” Lewis gave the answer:

“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” And where is that good philosophy to be found? “Most of all . . . we need intimate knowledge of the past.” (28) Of course he recognized, and no doubt understood that Boethius also recognized, that there are limits to all merely human philosophy. But its power could be great nonetheless. In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis reflected:“[C]ulture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.” (23)

“There is another way,” he wrote, “in which it [that is, culture, especially literature] may predispose to conversion. The difficulty of converting an uneducated man nowadays lies in his complacency. Popularized science, the conventions or ‘unconventions’ of his immediate circle, party programmes, etc., enclose him in a tiny windowless universe which he mistakes for the only possible universe. There are no distant horizons, no mysteries. He thinks everything has been settled.”

A tiny, windowless universe. I am reminded of Chesterton’s definition of insanity: “The clean, well-lit room of one idea.” Our modern room is well lit by the bare bulb of science. But of what lies beyond, we see nothing. Like the children in the Silver Chair, trapped underground with the witch, we cannot even reason from the light bulb to the sun of heaven. For that, we would need to open the windows of culture. Lewis continues:

“A cultured person, on the other hand, is almost compelled to be aware that reality is very odd and that the ultimate truth, whatever it may be, must have the characteristics of strangeness—must be something that would seem remote and fantastic to the uncultured. Thus some obstacles to faith have been removed already.” (23)

What better description can we find than this of Boethius’s Consolation? Boethius the character starts the book grieving hysterically in the small, blind room of his own bad fortune. Slowly, gently, Lady Philosophy opens the windows, allowing Boethius to see that his happiness cannot and must not rest in the things on earth that fortune both gives and takes away. This is a Platonic insight as well as a Christian one: a classical philosophical foretaste of an important Truth given fully only in the Christian gospel. Lady Philosophy is bringing Boethius to a “pre-evangelistic” realization, by which, as Lewis says of culture in general, “some obstacles to faith have been removed already.” And remember, by the way, that Lewis first read the Consolation in 1922—nearly a full decade before his conversion to Christianity.

This pre-evangelistic realization of Boethius’s is a close cousin to the “argument from desire” so often used by Lewis—indeed, used as the framework for his artful story about his own conversion. It does, it must, start with the existential: the miserable reality of our own sense of the wrongness of the world and our own inability to find happiness in it. Then it slowly comes to conclude, as Lady Philosophy leads Boethius to conclude, that if one’s happiness rests only in earthly fortune, then that happiness can never be secure. I will return to this point in a bit.

Lewis concludes his essay about Christianity and culture with the assertion that “culture has a distinct part to play in bringing certain souls to Christ.” Without doubt, he would have said that one of these “certain souls” was himself. It seems almost certain that Boethius’s Consolation had a role in that philosophical journey, which is told in outline in Surprised by Joy and in great detail in the Pilgrim’s Regress. But whether it did or not, this vocational understanding that Lewis had of himself as a Boethian public intellectual, traditioner, and conduit of culture was surely made even more powerful by the fact that he shared Boethius’s faith and, like Boethius, adeptly wove that faith into the garment even of writings that seemed purely “cultural” – “philosophical” – “poetical.”

His relation to philosophy itself as quest, as “way of life”

Now I’d like to turn in more detail to Lewis’s debt to Boethius on the second matter in the Century’s question: philosophy of life. As I do so, I am acutely aware that I will be followed tonight by Adam Barkman, to whose book C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life this paper owes a significant debt.

But let’s start with a point about Boethius’s influence on Lewis that is so obvious we might miss it. That is: Lewis, like Boethius and like that poet’s great medieval protégée, Dante, had fallen in love with Lady Philosophy. Though tempted perhaps in his youth to read philosophy as an intellectual exercise, a “dabbling,” he soon turned the corner. You’ll remember the story he told on himself in Surprised by Joy, of how he one day made the mistake of referring to philosophy as “a subject,” and was pulled up short by Owen Barfield, who said with some heat, “It wasn’t a subject to Plato, It was a way.” Lewis thought philosophically because he wanted to come to answers that were important for his life. One must imagine, then, that when he began to read the Consolation, which begins with Boethius thrashing about in the thickets of theodicy, he decided pretty quickly that he had found a friend.

What would have appealed to Lewis even more was that Boethius was not only one for whom philosophy was “a way, not a subject,” but also, standing at the hinge point from the ancient to the medieval world, he treated the wisdom of the Pagan philosophers of the classical period on its own merits. Boethius did not find it necessary, even in his hour of greatest need, to apply to Plato, Aristotle, and the rest, a heavy-handed Christian filter to make it useful.

This sort of appreciation for Pagan thought had deep roots in Lewis’s training as a scholar. From 16 to 18, he had studied with the former headmaster of an Irish college, William T. Kirkpatrick, who observed that Lewis read more classics than any boy he had taught. When he proceeded to apply for admission to Oxford, “E. F. Carritt, the University College don who interviewed him . . . said that Lewis was the best read applicant he had ever examined.”[2] This early training in the classics prepared Lewis to find in “old books” not only aesthetic pleasures but meaning for living. And before he became a professor of English literature, CSL was “an Oxford graduate looking for a fellowship not in literature or theology but in philosophy.” This was 1922, again the year of his first reading of the Consolation. Trying for that fellowship, by the way, he submitted an essay positing the existence of natural law, the subject of his later work The Abolition of Man.

Now, this “meaning for life” that philosophy provided did take a turn Lewis had not expected. As it turned out, Lady Philosophy in fact led Lewis to Christianity. (Though not by a direct or swift path. I think it’s fair to say, as Barkman does, that “Lewis’s early readings in Plato, Aristotle, and Boethius” had the nature of “a seed planted in Lewis’s mind that took years to develop.”[3]) First, we should see how unlikely that would have seemed to Lewis, who, “As a boy, he had been told by his school masters that Christianity was 100% correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was 100% wrong.” As Michael Ward reminds us, Lewis was already so convinced of the value of classical philosophy that he “found that this statement, rather than bolstering the Christian claim, undermined it, and he abandoned his childhood faith ‘largely under the influence of classical education.’”

An inauspicious beginning. Yet, when Lewis was asked to write the story of his conversion, he protested that he had come to Christian faith down such a thoroughly philosophical path, that any recounting of his journey could hardly be useful to the great mass of the population.[4] Despite that protest, when he first wrote that story, it was in unapologetically, and like the Consolation, allegorically philosophical terms, in his book The Pilgrim’s Regress. Not only does the Regress use allegory, as the Consolation does. But also, in fact, Lewis places on the Regress’s first page twin quotations from Plato and the Consolation, which together make the same point about how people on the path to truth proceed.

First Plato:           “This every soul seeketh and for the sake of this doth all her actions, having an inkling that it is; but what it is she cannot sufficiently discern, and she knoweth not her way, and concerning this she hath no constant assurance as she hath of other things.” (Plato)

Then Boethius:   “Whose souls, albeit in a cloudy memory, yet seek back their good, but, like drunk men, know not the road home.” (Boethius)

He concludes his opening triad of quotations with Hooker, whose quotation does two things: First, it provides a relatively modern English and indeed Anglican lens for the Boethian philosophical-religious quest he is about to narrate. And second, it surfaces the eudaemonism—the classical philosophy grounded in the desire for and pursuit of happiness—that came to the modern Christian West from Plato, through the Neoplatonists, via Boethius’s Christianizing version. Here’s Hooker:

“Somewhat it seeketh, and what that is directly it knoweth not, yet very intentive desire thereof doth so incite it, that all other known delights and pleasures are laid aside, they give place to the search of this but only suspected desire.” This is particularly reminiscent, for me, of Boethius’s late great protégé Dante, who in his Convivio, recounted his passionate early courtship with Lady Philosophy in language whose eroticism echoes the Song of Solomon.

As those in the room already know, this language of desire, of eros, would become crucial for Lewis’s developing Christian apologetic. Indeed, when he honed the story of his own conversion for a wider audience, in Surprised by Joy, in the process radically compressing his philosophical path, this Platonic-Boethian language of desire and its fulfillment remained prominent. Again, more on this shortly.

But a final comment to make here is that Lewis not only shared Boethius’s approach to philosophy as a way of life, he also saw Boethius’s Consolation as itself a consummate preparation evangelii. He says,‘[The Consolation of Philosophy’s] philosophy is a profoundly religious philosophy. It might be described as prolegomena to any of the great religions; it teaches the insufficiency of the world and points on the Eternal – after that the various religions can have their say as to the nature of the Eternal and the means of approaching it. We need not doubt that Boethius passed through this philosophy preliminary and reached that particular religion described in his De Fide.[5] I would add, he may well have come by the path described in the Consolation—by being gradually weaned away from the incomplete (and therefore tenuous, unreliable) earthly satisfactions of the desire for the source of all Good, God.

Lewis believed, in other words, that the Consolation and the classical philosophical wisdom to which it pointed, while not themselves the evangelium, start a reader down the road to that fuller truth. From a boyhood in which he was told that philosophy and faith were absolutely incompatible, Lewis came to believe that “the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for paganism.’” “If paganism could be shown to have something in common with Christianity,” Lewis concluded, “‘so much the better for paganism,’ not ‘so much the worse for Christianity.’” In his fine essay “The Weight of Glory,” echoing Lady Philosophy’s insistence on the insufficiency of worldly goods, Lewis said: “. . . [Y]ou and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice [that is, our sehnsucht, longingfor that which truly satisfies but which we recognize lies beyond this world]; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth” [precisely what Lady Philosophy sets out to show the distraught B is not the case!]. “And yet,” he concludes, “it is a remarkable thing that [8] such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere.  . . .” (“The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory, 8-9.)

The role of desire and happiness (eudaemonism) in that journey and in our Christianity—especially our ethical lives as Christians

Now I want to return for a moment to that key theme in the Consolation of the role of desires and happiness in that philosophical journey which leads to God.

The preface to the third edition of Pilgrim’s Regress may prove a good contextualizing device for the relationship between affect and intellect in Lewis’s thought: he affirms both, while cautioning of the pitfalls of both; I take it to be doing that (and more) in his distinction between “North” and “South” in that preface and throughout the book.

See also his serious (and I take it, Aristotelian, virtue-ethical) treatment, in The Abolition of Man, of our affective lives as something that must receive a moral shape if we are to behave ethically. He further argues that training in moral virtue is a matter of training the aesthetic judgment for practical purposes. And he adduces Coleridge, Traherne, Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Confucius (25-28) as people who taught that it is possible to have just sentiments–that is, responses to nature and events that are appropriate to the object or situation–but that such responses are not natural. They have to be learned, and students learn them through training that emphasizes the creation of habitual responses. And what faculty must be trained in that learning? The emotions, passions, desires. Here is Lewis:

“The head rules the belly through the chest–the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest–Magnanimity–Sentiment–these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” (34)

Conversion from earthly, partial desires to the one final full, happiness-producing desire (for God)

In the Abolition he contents himself with making the case for natural law, observing that that moral law is not the exclusive domain of Christianity, but belongs to everyone, as its axioms may be found in all the world’s great cultures and religions (which he enumerates in the appendix to that work).

But Lewis’s reading of Boethius, quite a while before his Christian conversion, revealed to him a particularly Christian (to be more precise, an Augustinian, Neoplatonic, and eudaemonistic), understanding of the role of our desires in the path to God.

Fully formed, that understanding would later become the basis in Lewis of his particular formulation of one traditional apologetic argument for Christianity: the argument from desire. Put simply, this argument insists that the very fact we find ourselves yearning for a happiness beyond what the world can provide (a yearning configured by Lewis as “joy” or romantic sehnsucht) indicates that such otherworldly happiness must exist—as the thirst of a man in the desert indicates that he is the sort of creature that requires water, and that such a thing as water exists to slake his thirst.

How does Boethius handle this notion of desire for an otherworldly good? In a nutshell, Boethius the character in the allegory begins the book in a very agitated state. His fortunes have turned for the worse, he has been accused of perfidy, his goods have been confiscated, he is under arrest. And with the righteous fervor of a Job and the melancholy of a Psalm of lament, he says, “I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy.” How is it that the wicked can be enjoying themselves, and he, who has lived an upright life as a faithful servant of Theodoric, has had happiness snatched away from him?

Now, again, Lady Philosophy spends much of the first half of the book convincing Boethius that the things he thinks will bring him secure happiness—money, fame, power, pleasure—are actually will-o-the-wisps, or pale shadows of true happiness. But she does not disagree with Boethius’s premise: that happiness is our proper end. That is the classical teaching of eudaemonism.

We see this in book III, which begins with Boethius’s expression of a kind of ecstasy at Lady Philosophy’s argument—in song form—about the mutability and ultimate uselessness of all worldly goods: “She had stopped singing,” he says, “but the enchantment of her song left me spellbound: I was absorbed and wanted to go on listening.”

And here at the beginning of Book III, Lady Philosophy says her goal is eudaemonistic. “You’re eager to hear more,” she says. “You’d be more than eager if you knew the destination I am trying to bring you to.” Boethius asked what this was, and she answered “true happiness.” She is going to move him from false happiness to true happiness—which is the proper end, the telos, of human beings, for which we yearn as the caged bird yearns for the woods.

Barkman is right that what Boethius teaches us here; and it seems clear, taught Lewis; is a Christianized Platonic understanding of the purpose and end of human beings. The Platonists had taught that the real and perfect essence of each of us “first exists as an Idea in God’s mind.” This idea is “a Platonic form” which is also our end, our telos, our perfection, and thus also the “measuring stick by which all creatures are individually judged and measured.”

Even more important for Lewis’s reading and I might say ingestion of Boethius’s Consolation is that when created things are given existence – when God’s Ideas are actualized in creation – they are instilled with Platonic eros, which causes them to desire to be whole or to become like the Idea God has of them: ‘Everything,’ Lewis summarized in the margins of his copy of King Alfred’s translation of the Consolation (thank you, Adam Barkman, as I have not been able to get to UNC to read that copy)‘desires to realize its own proper nature.’[6]

As Barkman shows us that Lewis himself argues in The Problem of Pain, “all creatures become more themselves – attain more happiness and are more fully actualized – the more they look to, and act like, God; that is, the more they exercise ‘creaturely participation in Divine attributes.’”[7] And as Lady Philosophy will argue, this time drawing from the neoplatonists more than Plato himself, that we can achieve that realization of our nature only through union with the sum of all good and the source of all happiness—God himself. Thus God is the true end of the desires that we pursue in partial and flawed ways through money, high office, fame, pleasure, and looks of beauty.

[As a footnote, an important corollary of this teaching about human fulfillment, and one that owes something to Aristotle, is that the farther we get from God, the less human we become—indeed we become bestial. This Lewis shows us in the endragoned Eustace, as George MacDonald had shown it in Curdie’s power to feel, at a handshake, the hoof or paw hidden within the hand of decadent persons. It is also the source for one of Boethius’s greatest students, Dante, when he shows us the contrapasso—that is, a sort of homeopathic punishment–of many inmates of hell, who appear there in various animal forms appropriate to their earthly sins.

To see how thoroughly Lewis absorbed the eudaemonism of Boethius, we need only to begin reading his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  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 most 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 and the staggering nature of the rewards promised 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 infinite 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 an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.[1] A more Boethian account of the human quest for happiness is hard to imagine.


In the last few minutes, I want to turn from eudaemonism to fortune:

One of the ways Lady Philosophy leads Boethius out of his brown funk and into the light of truth is to show him that, properly speaking, there is no bad fortune. Though from an earthly perspective, fortune wavers back and forth, blessing evil men and cursing good ones, from a divine perspective (which, granted, we are not given to have, but may come partially to share as we are gradually sanctified on earth) there really is no such thing as bad fortune. In everything that happens to us, we are made stronger and brought closer to God, if we allow it. God uses tremendous evil as an instrument of tremendous good. And indeed the good who experience supposed “misfortune” are already enjoying more and more the reward of sharing in the divine nature, and those evil men we envy for their supposed “good fortune” are already experiencing the evil of their own sinful decisions in their own bodies as they regress into beastly states.

We have mentioned, under that heading, the endragoned Eustace in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. When Reepicheep comes to talk to Eustace, he does so, as Michael Ward points out, in Boethian mode, relativizing the seeming goods and evils of the Wheel of Fortune (an image that the TV game show, and all of Western culture, owes to Boethius):

112:  “‘He would explain that what had happened . . . was a striking illustration of the turn of Fortune’s wheel, and that if he had Eustace at his own house in Narnia . . . he could show him more than a hundred examples of emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, lovers, astronomers, philosophers, and magicians, who had fallen from prosperity into the most distressing circumstances, and of whom many had recovered and lived happily ever afterwards.’ [n. 38: “VDT (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), 81-82.]”

Lewis turns this Boethian insight to pastoral use in his letter to Mary Neylan, Mar 26, 1940:

“The Christian view would be that every psychological situation, just like every degree of wealth or poverty, talent or stupidity etc, had its own peculiar temptations and peculiar advantages, that the worst could always be turned to a good use and the best [could] always be abused to one’s spiritual ruin. In fact ‘all fortune is good’ as Boethius said.”[8] “This doesn’t mean,” continues Lewis, “that it [would] be wrong to try to cure a [psychological] complex any more than a stiff leg: but it does mean that if you can’t, then, so far from the game being up, life with a complex, or with a stiff leg, is precisely the game you have been set.” (374)

The thing that is most pastoral about this insight Lewis teaches us in his brief review of Boethius’s thought in the Discarded Image. When he comes to Lady Philosophy’s famous extended argument about the “wheel of fortune,” Lewis calls it biblical (consistent with passages in Job and John) and also “one of the most vigorous defences ever written against the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which ‘comforts cruel men’ by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards and punishments, or at least wishing that they were. It is an enemy hard to kill….” (p. 82)


I have been able in this paper only to open a small window into the “Boethianism” of Lewis. But my own exploration of this theme has suggested the truth of Barkman’s insistence that “Lewis’s metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and literary style all owe something to the Last of the Romans.” (55)

The ending I didn’t use in Madison:

This picks up again from the last paragraph before the conclusion, above:

The thing that is most pastoral about this insight Lewis teaches us in his brief review of Boethius’s thought in the Discarded Image. When he comes to the wheel of fortune, Lewis calls it biblical (consistent with passages in Job and John) and also “one of the most vigorous defences ever written against the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which ‘comforts cruel men’ by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards and punishments, or at least wishing that they were. It is an enemy hard to kill….” (p. 82)

In the end, this insight also contextualizes Lewis’s, and Boethius’s, eudaemonism. Partly from their Christian faith, and partly from Plato himself, they point beyond merely human definitions of happiness. We may well not be happy in a given moment, or week, or year, from an earthly perspective. But that is no indication of our progress toward the true happiness found only in God. Lewis makes the point memorably in the last article he published, “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness.’” He was correcting the proofs for this article on Friday, Nov 15, 1963, just a week before his death. The article opens with the tale of how a neighbor woman responded to the situation of two adulterers who left their spouses for each other: “After all, they had a right to happiness.” (317). Then he comments, in Boethian vein:

“I went away thinking about the concept of a ‘right to happiness’. At first this sounds to me as odd as a right to good luck. For I believe—whatever one school of moralists may say—that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.” (318) This is in no way inconsistent with Lewis’s Christian eudaemonism. It is merely a reframing of Lady Philsophy’s insistence that the things we call happiness are not the real thing. Those pseudo-sources of happiness have a quite horrifying tendency, in fact, to lead us away from our truly happy telos in God. One might say, “He (or she) who lives by Fortune, dies by Fortune.” The thing is to stop insisting we have a right to be happy through ordinary human means—money, fame, and the rest—and to seek it in the one place where it will unfailingly be found: in God.

The irony here is that, in Boethius’s argument, it is bad, not good fortune that may most unerringly bring us to true happiness. “good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens. With her display of specious riches, good fortune enslaves the minds of those who enjoy her, while bad fortune gives men release through the recognition of how fragile a thing happiness is.” Then later: “Adverse fortune frequently draws men back to the true good, like a shepherdess with her crook,” then finally: “In deserting you, fortune has taken her friends with her and left those who are really yours.”

[1] (letter to Dom Bede Griffiths: Rostrevor, Co. Down [4 April 1934] –Letters II, 133ff).

[2] (James Patrick, “The Heart’s Desire and the Landlord’s Rules: C. S. Lewis as a Moral Philosopher,” in The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, ed. David Mills (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 1998), 78).

[3] Barkman 109?

[4] Barkman:          “Whenever Lewis was asked to write about his conversion to xnty, he always pointed out that his, like Justin Martyr’s, was ‘almost [a] purely philosophical [conversion]’ which came about as the result of a philosophical journey,[n. 2: “I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on for thirty. Not an emotional conversion: almost purely philosophical,” C. S. Lewis, “Autobiographical Note,” prepared by the Macmillian [sic] Company in 1946 (The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College), 1.] thus, to one inquirer, he wrote, ‘My own history was so mixed up with technical philosophy as to be useless to the general [public],’[n. 3: C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Volume II; Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 568 [April 12, 1943].] and to another, ‘The details of my own conversion were so technically philosophical on one side, and so intimate on the other that they can’t be used in the way you suggest.’[n. 4: Ibid., 575 [May 20, 1943].]

[5] C. S. Lewis, review of Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Works, by Helen Barrett, Medium Aevum 10, no. 1 (February 1941): 33.], cited in Barkman, 176

[6] [n 102: CSL, marginalia in his edition of King Alfred’s Old English Version of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, by Boethius, trans. King Alfred, ed. Walter John Sedgewick (Oxford: clarendon Press, 1899; The Rare Book Collection, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), 4.3]

[7] [n. 105: Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 496] [Barkman, 245-246]

[8] [n. 172: Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, book IV, prosa 7.]” (Letters Vol ?, 374)

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