Monday, May 27, 2013

C. S. Lewis's Argument from Desire and the Crisis of Meaninglessness

On this rainy day in Chico, I'm working on the third chapter of my upcoming book, C. S. Lewis in Crisis, and this is the opening section of that chapter. Since it's a draft--and thus incompletely articulated--let me know what you think. There's still time to make it better.

Speaking with a friend as I described my work on this book, we mused about dissatisfaction in life. Since we both love books, he recounted an experience of discontent: “You know when you see that title that you just know is going to be perfect.  It’s going to be the next ‘thing.’ You can hardly wait to have it in your hands. So you order it on Amazon and when it arrives it’s just not what you thought it was going to be. It’s an anticlimax. You sit with it for a bit. You wish it were different. And then you remember: no earthly event or thing seems as good as the expectation…. Greg, I think that experience is the basis of Lewis’s argument from desire.” 
      Admittedly, this is a tame example of discontent with the things of this world. And yet this experience of disgruntlement can bubble into a crisis… at least according to C. S. Lewis. If we continue to seek meaning in this world, we will never be satisfied. We will move from one experience, or even thrill, to the next.
      Lewis knew this sense of poignant longing. He described this as the search for joy, which forms the major theme of Surprised by Joy. “Joy” for Lewis represents an intense longing for something more. Sometimes he employed the German term Sehnsucht, which is “longing,” “yearning,” or more broadly, a form of “intensely missing.” Lewis described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly. (I cite this as a reminder that Lewis’s imagination was always decidedly literary):
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
      Lewis knew personal moments of such intense longing. For example, there was a moment of poignancy that Lewis remembers from his childhood (in what he calls, the “very early days” of childhood). His brother, Warren, and he constructed a toy garden on the lid of a biscuit tin. There beauty led him to Sehnsucht.
That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did. It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant…. As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called ‘the Green Hills’; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery window. They were not far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing—Sehnsucht….
I am stuck on this phrase “my imagination of Paradise.” This early experience of joy or Sehnsucht formed what he would later imagine in his books at the fulfillment of life, in other words, Heaven. Later this experience of joy and longing came from a literary source: It occurred when Lewis read his favorite Beatrix Potter book, Squirrel Nutkin. By this own admission—and the content of his autobiographies Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim’s Regress—Lewis valued these experiences above everything else and spent his early life searching for it. This forms the basis for the apologetic argument from desire.
      But he also realized that joy, by its nature, cannot be fulfilled here. Here, in his childhood, Lewis found an ache for something more. The desire did not last long, but it sent him on a lifelong journey, according to his autobiography. Indeed it was this discontentedness that produced a crisis, which ultimately led him to desire God. Lewis had to resolve this crisis for himself. Is there something beyond this world? The fourth and fifth century BC Greek philosopher Plato had to resolve this crisis too: He did so by asserting the existence of the world of the Forms, beyond all we see in the material world. And in some ways, Lewis loved Plato, probably more for the sense of longing that his philosophy evokes. But Plato gave Lewis philosophical exposition for this longing. To many readers, Lewis never fully resolves the Platonist strains in his thought with Christian belief. But he did resolve that either way his atheistic materialism—as the last argument presents—is incomplete. Once we discover that fact, Lewis argues, we know there is something more.
      Although I will focus on the places where Lewis discursively addresses joy, Lewis also employed his considerable imaginative abilities to depict this longing. The Pilgrim’s Regress makes the case that there is something beyond. He never fully leaves this concern. By the time Lucy goes through the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe about twenty years later, Lewis has used his powerful imagination to depict what this movement to something beyond looks like.
      Some, of course, give up search or consider that the quest is futile. Some base this on scientific insight. Consider Lewis’s phrase in "Is Theology Poetry?": the “meaningless flux of the atoms.” Similarly, Harvard astronomer Margaret Geller believes that it is pointless to mention purpose in our universe: “why should it have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there?” And, if the world and thus our place in it, derives its entire meaning from its physicality, then Geller is quite correct.
      Just a few years before Lewis began formulating this argument—first in 1931, in The Pilgrim’s Regress—the famous philosopher Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed a similar longing.
The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite—the beatific vision, God—I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life… it is the actual spring of life within.
Russell, however, decided there was no solution, except the searching. As C. S. Lewis took on what he describes in Surprised by Joy as the “New Look” with its implicit “realism” and scientific atheism, he struggled to include his longing for something more, a longing that he discovered through his literary studies. Another way to put this—as Lewis himself did—is that rationality found itself in the death throes with romanticism. Lewis discovered a resolution in his Christian faith.
      At this point, I need to be careful. In the full context of Lewis’s work—or “oeuvre,” to sound a little more elevated—the relationship between “joy” and God is curious. Joy in itself, as Lewis defines it, is simply a marker. On the very last page of Surprised by Joy, he says the subject of joy “has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian.” He continues—and I’m adding some italics:
[T]he old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.
The “state of my own mind” fades away in the light of Heaven. Lewis’s subjective experience has the limited value when God’s objective fulfillment arises. It is like a flashlight in the dark when the sun rises.
      This second apologetic, C. S. Lewis’s argument from desire is simple, yet potent because I have found this discontentment with the world and the desire for something beyond it to be well-nigh universal: We have a desire for something that cannot be satisfied by this world. But our hunger demonstrates that we need something beyond this world.
      Imbedded in his comments on the theological virtue of hope, Lewis writes this:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
This citation is embedded in Mere Christianity’s section on our hope for Heaven to which I return below. But it is worth noting from the outset, that joy and hope are pointers to God’s fulfillment.
      To be a bit more systematic, it is helpful to analyze the argument from desire, this second apologetic. It is an argument that works on two premises:
1.     No natural desire is in vain
2.     There exists in us a longing that nothing on earth satisfies
The conclusion flows from these premises:
3.     Therefore something beyond is calling us through them.
      In order to grasp the progression of this argument, I will first outline that desire—and thus pleasure—can be trusted as a good. Then I will fill out more fully the three principal places that Lewis addresses the argument from desire, “The Weight of Glory” sermon, the brief but packed chapter “Hope” in Mere Christianity, and finally “Heaven” in the Problem of Pain. I conclude with an evaluation of this apologetic, especially on the question of whether it delivers what it promises.


Anonymous said...

I like the Bertrand Russell quote. I think it is significant to Lewis' writing that he found more pleasure in the creation of "worlds to live in" than stories of action (which made his sci-fi slow reading). I think, rather than just trying to describe this desire, we can see the seed of this discontent in what we do. The human tendency to "dominate nature" expresses something unique about humans, and our dissatisfaction with the world the way it is. The qualities most uniquely "human" are those of becomes a creative drive toward a "better world"...which is why most kids have ipads and dogs and cats are at home without the desire to create them. We never tire of fantasy and market shelves of fantasy worlds. Humans are always trying to "overcome the world" so to speak.

Bruce Ellis Benson in Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship “The Greek word for ‘call’ (kalein) is clearly etymologically connected to the Greek word for ‘beauty’ (kalon). . . . what makes things beautiful is precisely that they call out to us. The beautiful enchants us; it makes us want to look; it makes us want to listen.... While the principle meaning of [the Greek mousike] specifically refers to tones, rhythm, dance, and words, it’s much more than that. In ancient Greece, to practice mousike was also to be a scholar or philosopher. Even more broadly, it can simply mean ‘the cultivation of the soul.”

Cultivation of the soul, seems to be the cultivation what makes us more human and less at home in this world. As Chesterton pointed out: The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being.; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth...He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple.He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture...It is not natural to see man as a natural product..."

And Lewis again, on our channelling this desire into science: "We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams...the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, ...To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected...But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real....The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost."

You may find this article on how Ann Rand hated Lewis interesting:

-Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

My Reflections said...

Bill, I always enjoy your comments and the connections you make with other authors. I think what I've been realizing is how much Lewis went way beyond philosophical reasoning to do his apologetic work. It is no more clearly articulated than in this "argument from desire." Maybe that's one reason that Ayn Rand (who strikes me as constantly somewhat dyspeptic) became so livid. Truth, for Lewis, is more than just affirming "A=A."

Meredith Murrietta said...

This was great!
Interesting to compare Lewis' view of discontentment with the world to Philippians 4:11-12. Paul found contentment in all situations due to God's providence and sovereignty. But we also see Paul state his longing in Philippians 1:23 to be with The Lord outside of this world. Is there a difference, then, in types of discontentment?
We are instructed to not be a part of this world and its ways, but to live in and by Christ. Is Lewis' longing satisfied by Christ on this earth, or is it only satisfied upon death?
Very excited for your book.