C S Lewis and the ancient/medieval path of desire

Augustine, desiring.

Augustine, desiring.

Here’s a bit of Lewis material from the draft introduction to the “affective devotion” chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. This is the setup for the following post, which will delve more into what Lewis, following Boethius and the Neoplatonists, thought was our real desire, and how following it would make us more truly ourselves:

Lewis was a scholar of the medieval period, but his medievalism was much more than intellectual. He was medieval not only in his mind, but also in his heart. This we see not only in his youthful encounters with sehnsucht (yearning joy) while reading medieval Norse myths, or in his abiding affection for the passionate poetic vision of Dante, but also in his love for the way medieval people viewed the world and their place in it. As he said in The Discarded Image: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old [medieval cosmological] Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors.”[1]

At the center of this heart sympathy for the medieval way of seeing the world was a very particular understanding of how our emotions move each of us along our path to God. Significantly, in his apologetic writings, Lewis frames both his own movement toward faith and the usual human process of conversion as an Augustinian quest of desire. Augustine’s dictum “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee” and his cry, in the Confessions, “Inebriate me, O God!” arose from a Christianization of a classical philosophy called eudaemonism (from the Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia). Classical philosophers had asked, “What makes man truly happy?” Early and medieval Christian eudaemonists answered out of the ubiquitous scriptural language of reward: We are happy when God fulfills his promises and our desires by giving us his loving presence. According to Augustine, the key to happiness is to want the one right thing, which is God himself.

Lewis agreed, and he found pernicious and un-Christian the modern ethic of absolute abnegation of 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.”  Instead he argued that “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” Following Augustine, he affirmed that “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.”[2] In The Great Divorce, he insisted, “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.’”

Lewis, Boethius, and the Neoplatonic path of desire

This doctrine of desire emerged first of all from Lewis’s own experience of his path to salvation. But like all his experience, he applied to this one a strong set of philosophical and literary filters. When Lewis first wrote an account of his conversion, it was in unapologetically and passionately philosophical terms. This account was his early book The Pilgrim’s Regress. 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 through a kind of desire:

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.”

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

He adds to these two a third quotation, from Anglican theologian 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 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 the more accessible Surprised by Joy, this Platonic-Boethian language of desire and its fulfillment remained prominent.

[1] Lewis, Discarded Image, 216.

[2] Lewis, C. S., “The Weight of Glory.” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. W. Hooper (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996), 25-26.

One response to “C S Lewis and the ancient/medieval path of desire

  1. Pingback: The Pilgrim’s Regress | David's Commonplace Book

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