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The Philosophical Journey of C.S. Lewis
By: Glenn J. Giokaris
Clive Staples Lewis, born in 1898, is one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century. His stories of distant worlds and poetry have enthralled people of all ages. Additionally, and in many ways, more importantly, his novels of Christian context have made him one of the most successful Christian apologists. For that reason, there have been countless biographies and critics of his life and of his work. Yet, with all of these biographies, there is a noticeable gap that has been left unfilled.
As many people who have read the life story of C.S. Lewis realize, at one time he was an atheist. However, for the most part, that is all that anyone knows. In most cases, there is an unavoidable absence of material. He goes from an atheist in 1915 to a Christian in 1931 by way of fraternizing with men like J.R.R. Tolkien. Although this is indeed very true and in many respects very important in the conversion of C.S. Lewis to Christianity, it is not the complete story. Instead, it is important to view the conversion of C.S. Lewis within the context of the world around him. For Clive Staples Lewis was caught in a time of great philosophical debate at Oxford and England as a whole. Consequently, to better understand C.S. Lewis and his gradual conversion to Christianity, one must examine the philosophical battle between realism and idealism that was raging within Oxford. This battle eventually led Lewis down a road that caused him to reject both ideologies in favor of Christianity.
The Oxford system of study has been well noted throughout history. At the turn of the century in the 1900, it was the crown jewel of the British Empire. Its methods of teaching, its curriculum, and its continued distinguished world scholars contributed to its importance. As F.E. Brightman explained, "The English school system would seem to be to inspire you to ask questions related to your subject, and then through tutorial conferences and occasional lectures to indicate to you how you might find the answers to your own questions." Students were pushed to challenge themselves and to challenge the system in which they worked. Consequently, much philosophical and ideological debate was possible within the halls of Oxford.
When an Oxford graduate during the turn of the century spoke of philosophy, what he most often meant was the tradition that began with Plato and Aristotle later developed by Kant and Hegel and perfected by his own teachers. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, a movement incorporating moral philosophy and social criticism became the standard theory of thought, an Oxford form of idealism. It was this moral philosophy that was cited in defense of the ideals of self sacrifice and duty in support of a political system based on cooperative principles. This theory of thought came as a result of Plato being the most widely acclaimed philosopher and the Republic the most widely read philosophic work. Additionally Aristotle’s Ethics were incorporated into the philosophical framework. By the 1860s, Kant and other modern philosophers began to appear on examinations and by 1880, Kant and Hegel were the philosophers most widely studied at Oxford. It was at this point that the ideological framework of modern idealism was formed.
Through the work of Thomas Hill Green, the principles of modern idealism, became the basis for study at Oxford. Green’s idealism was based on the philosophy of the Absolute. However, in 1882 after only four years as the dominant figure of the head of Oxford philosophy, Green died. It was at this point that the philosophical theory of realism began to implant itself into the curriculum. Realism accords that the world we know consists of unalterable facts having no necessary relation to the knower, other beings, or God. A realist held that knowledge was caused by the immediate intuition of facts. For all practical purposes, realism believed that life could be explained and meaningful without the existence of an Absolute.
Realism began to encroach on idealism at Oxford in the 1890s. Leading the way for realism at Oxford was Cook Wilson. He believed that, "Logic was to be kept free of psychology, free from all dependence on the subjectivity of the thinker." By the 1920’s realism and idealism were involved in a struggle of thought. It is under these circumstances that the young C.S. Lewis was educated.
For most young men philosophical conflicts matter very little. However, Lewis was not most young men. He was an avid reader, a dreamer, and seeker. His philosophical outlook was intricately intertwined with what he called joy and for Lewis, the attainment of joy was the primary goal in life. However, as Lewis grew older his feelings of joy became less frequent. As a result, Lewis felt what he described as Sehnsucht, the German word for longing.
Lewis’ joy turned to Sehnsucht as a result of two occurrences. First in 1908, Lewis’ mother died of cancer. Her death exacerbated the distance Lewis felt from his father. Lewis explained that his father, "sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding as determined to misunderstand everything." Despite the attempts by his father to be a friend to his sons, Lewis began to recede deeper into unhappiness. Additionally, Lewis’ severe distaste for his English boarding school contributed greatly to his feelings of disconsolation and intensified his Sehnsucht. It was at this stage in life that Lewis’ search for joy lead him to abandon his childhood faith of Christianity and seek out other ways so that his "longing for joy" could be satisfied. Consequently, Lewis turned toward realism to provide the framework to fulfill his needs.
Lewis the Realist
At fifteen Lewis was the happiest he had ever been. His previous schooling had given him more pain than pleasure as most classmates were as Lewis described them, as having every motive but that of real learning. Thus, at the age of fourteen, Lewis sought intellectual training and freedom under W.T. Kirkpatrick, a dialectectician and independent tutor. Of his days under Kirkpatrick’s tutorship, Lewis recalls them with the fondest of memories. The stimulation of the countryside, ordered security, freedom to read and write, and the overriding mentorship of Kirkpatrick, combined to develop Lewis into a staunch realist.
Besides his academic freedom, among the many new freedoms that were presented before Lewis was his freedom from God. As it happened, Kirkpatrick was an atheist, a primary element of realism. Although Kirkpatrick did not openly encourage Lewis to be an atheist, Lewis was constantly reading and writing material that attacked the existence of God. Soon, Lewis was defying his Christian upbringing and writing his own poetry attacking God and the evil he felt that was incarnated in the Ruler of the Universe. The first stanza of his poem De Profundis written while studying with Kirkpatrick reads, "Come let us curse our master ere we die, For all our hopes in endless ruin lie, Good is dead. Let us curse God most high." Additionally, in a letter to his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis argued to Greeves that religion was nothing more than mans own invention without real foundation.
As Lewis continued to keep in contact with Arthur Greeves, the realist rational that was now ever present in Lewis’ thought continued to manifest its self. In one letter that was undated but most likely written in 1916, Lewis encouraged Greeves to be more assertive for what he reasoned to be truth. The topic of the letter centered around the novel by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and Greeves apparent lack of assertiveness in producing his own rational system of thought. Lewis scolded his friend for not trusting his own judgment. "I don’t like the way you say don’t tell anyone that you thought Frankenstein badly written, and at once draw in your critical horns with the of course I am no judge theory . . . you ought to rely on yourself [more] than anyone else." This letter also reveals that it was Lewis’ self-dependence was the very thing that drew him so devoutly to realism.
Lewis wanted the freedom to reason for himself; to determine what he felt was good or bad, what he thought was just or unjust, and the freedom to where to attain joy. It was this ability to reason that Lewis felt set humans apart from other beings of life. He rationalized that if humans have the capabilities, they should use them. In 1921 in a letter to his brother that included a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, he remarked that it was the "Hebrews who were the class A primitives." Lewis believed that because of the Jews’ history of constant oppression and their actions under this domination, they failed to use their own reason to find a better alternative. Instead they did what they were told and followed anyone who would promise them a better life. However, as Lewis’ need for reason and joy brought him to realism, it would be the very two things that would lead him away from that theory. First however, with realism as his guide and atheism his compasses, Lewis left the security of Kirkpatrick’s teaching in 1917 for Oxford.
For the next five years of his life Lewis would hold the realist philosophy as his own. He believed in what he saw, and did what he reasoned to be right. He was the epitome of realism. The grounds of Lewis’ personal commitment to realism were complex. Lewis the rebel, considered idealism the dominant philosophy, and therefore relished his association with philosophical heresy. Furthermore, as exhibited by Lewis’ previous actions, reason was a constant in his life. Realism, like Aristotle, satisfied his lifelong love for the objective: "I wanted nature to be quite independent of our own observation; something other, self-existing, indifferent."
Lewis’ philosophical intellect began to impress many of his professors. E.F. Carritt had identified Lewis as a highly promising scholar and when Lewis returned from the First World War in 1919 philosophically unchanged. Carritt persistently sponsored Lewis’ search for a career in philosophy. For three more years, Lewis dutifully studied and believed the theory of realism. However, in the summer of 1922, Lewis’ realism threatened collapse.
One of the first outward signs that Lewis began questioning realism and the belief that his own reason could not answer everything was upon the death of his boyhood tutor, Kirkpatrick. When writing to his father regarding the funeral Lewis described a feeling of uncertainty. It was this uncertainty that Lewis’ reason, grounded in the present could not answer. Instead, something more was needed. In describing what he saw at the funeral, "Lewis commented that the person is so real, so obviously living and different from what is left, that one cannot believe something has turned into nothing. It is not faith, it is not reason, just a feeling." This feeling of something greater that had never left him from his childhood was still very present with him in 1921. His search for truth and knowledge would now begin to lead him away from realism and towards idealism.
Lewis the Idealist
With the success of realism that had characterized the first part of the twentieth century, a change of ideology away from realism was rare. As Lewis earned more accolades for his studies and oratory skills on behalf of realism, his foundation began to give way. Lewis began to see that if aesthetic experience was valuable then values must exist. Lewis was also surprised to discover that the best writers were Christians. "The only non-Christians who seemed to me to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity." Lewis was however, no where near believing in a God and even farther from the belief in the Christian doctrine. However, it was here that Lewis reveals his childlike romanticism, as a small thought of an Absolute that would eventually lead him to Christianity.
Although Lewis was not consciously considering Christianity as a viable answer to his questions, his shift away from realism left him in a state of uncertainty. Lewis concluded that the mind was, "no late phenomena . . . the whole universe was in the last resort mental; . . . our logic was participation in the cosmic logos." Lewis’ next step came as his reality conceived in a unified whole became less indifferent and based more in the absolute that is taught by idealism. In his journal entry dated the eighteenth of October, 1922, Lewis commented that the Bible produced, "very definitive teaching from the Gospels; the writers had apparently seen something overwhelming but could not reproduce it." Although this does not reflect his consideration of Christianity, it does validate his belief in idealism.
Lewis reflected on the conversion toward idealism twenty years later and commented that, "What I learned from the Idealist (and still most strongly holds) is the maxim: ‘it is more important that heaven should exist than that of any of us should reach it.’" It was now in 1923 that Lewis once again believed in a single Absolute. However, although Lewis began to agree with many of the idealist arguments, he could not fit comfortably with the idealistic framework. For Lewis above all else, valued his reason. In 1924 Lewis stated that the problem with Green’s school of idealism was that, "the self has disappeared under his dialectic, and we are left with nothing but ideas and impressions." This situation of flux continued to remain in his life and by the mid-nineteen twenties Lewis could find no philosophical home. The structure that he had known for seven years had crumbled under the weight of the Absolute and yet the idealistic framework did not provide enough room for reason. It was this situation that Lewis found himself in when on May 25, 1925; Lewis was elected to a fellowship position at Magdalen.
As Lewis continued on the road that he would later call a natural process, he was forced to define his philosophical position more clearly. In 1925 when Lewis came to Magdalen College, he was much more of an idealist than a realist. He no longer was atheist but was convinced as the idealist doctrine prescribes, "that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that out logic was participation in a cosmic logos." It was also in Magdalen College that Lewis had suddenly found himself surrounded by men who believed what the realists had taught him to suspect. Worse yet, many of them were religious.
The real fear for Lewis was that, "If you seriously believed in even a ‘God’ or "Spirit’ as I admitted, a wholly new situation developed . . . I was to be able to play at philosophy no longer." In the summer of 1925 it was this very serious situation in which C.S. Lewis found himself. In retrospect, Lewis understood the process. "On the intellectual side my own progress had been formed from ‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity. I still think this is a very common road, but I know that it is a road very rarely trodden."
In this context, the first two stages of Lewis conversion were complete. Lewis had left the philosophy that he thought could afford him the most opportunities for joy for a belief in the Absolute. However, for Lewis, something was still incomplete. There was something missing. Life could not be understood or conceptualized by using one or both of these frameworks. Instead, Lewis was forced to search beyond these two ideologies and what he came to was Christianity.
Lewis as a Christian
By 1926 Lewis was at the center of the battle between realism and idealism at Oxford University. Realists surrounded his past and his present found him surrounded by the idealists of Magdalen College. Although Lewis held the fellowship that he had longed for, he felt as though the, "literary conversation in the common room at Magdalen College is (by comparison [to the outside world]) nothing because one remains in the charmed circle of ones own set and caste; there is nothing to refute the accusation of being out of this world, of playing with things that perhaps derive a fictitious value from the chatter of specifically formulated groups." Lewis in 1927 began to long for something more than could be found in halls of Oxford or the doctrines of philosophers.
On January 10, 1927, after one of his walks around the hills outside Oxford University, Lewis in his journal remarks at what he calls, "A most extraordinary afternoon. Most of the sky was a very pale creamy blue . . . near the sun the sky simply turned white itself . . . I got into a tremendously happy mood." It was the first time that Lewis had described joy as a result of a natural process since the viewing the rolling hills surrounding his home childhood home in Belfast.
At this crucial point, Lewis’ new philosophical structure had failed. What followed was the abandonment of idealism that transformed from pantheism to the belief in God. It is at this stage in Lewis’ life that so many biographers have taken up pen and paper to discuss his conversion. From 1930, Lewis’ thoughts and actions concerning Christianity are well documented. The first sign of his possible conversion was noted in a letter sent to one of Lewis’ closest friends in June of 1930, Owen Barfeild. "Terrible things have happened to me. The ‘Spirit’ or ‘Real I’ is showing an alarming tendency to becoming much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery." Now settled with his belief in a God, Clive Staples Lewis’ was now firmly on a road headed towards Christianity.
What Lewis needed to comprehend, at least in an intellectual sense, was the realization that the myth of God is a refraction of the one great myth that fulfills every literary anticipation. This was the idea that Tolkien and Hugh Dyson, another Christian and professor of Reading at Oxford University had explained to Lewis as they strolled along Addison’s Walk Magdalen on the night of September 19, 1931. Lewis had insisted myths were lies but Tolkien responded, "they are not . . . We have come from God, . . . and reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal-truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making . . . can man aspire to the perfection he knew before the fall." This conversation lead Lewis to see that the relationship between the images of literature and the myth of truth was such that myths inevitably led to a point where myth comes together with God to form reality. Eleven days later, C.S. Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves, "I have passed from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ-in Christianity…My long night walk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it."
The conversion of C.S. Lewis had been an intellectual pilgrimage. It was a long road along which he had been progressively been convinced of the truth of Christianity. The final push had come from the realization that there was reason in imagination; that the great literary themes themselves constituted a rational testimony to the myth of truth. However, for Lewis, the journey did not stop with his attainment of Christianity. Instead, he used his amazing literary talents to explain what he had found. The literary work most closely related to his journey to Christianity is told through The Pilgrim’s Regress written in 1933.
The Pilgrim’s Regress provides a great allegorical statement of his own conversion. Although the novel is one of the least read of his books, it provides a framework for analyzing Lewis thoughts regarding the process that took him from being an atheist to Christian. John, the character in the novel whose boyhood Sehnsucht created by a vision of the Island in the West that led him safely from Puritania through Zeitgeistheim to Mother Kirk (God), is Lewis. The story represents Lewis’ own moral struggle for what he reasons to be right. More broadly, the book was titled a "regress" because it traced Lewis’ return to the Christianity of his youth.
The primary theme of the novel is reason. For reason is the most important virtue of Lewis’ life. As his past shows, he was a contentious man. He believed in argument, in disputation and in the dialectic of reason because he believed that the main business of life was the bold search for truth. However, to understand what Lewis means by reason in The Pilgrim’s Regress is to have some insight into a his classical rationalist outlook. For reason as he uses the word does not refer to what is logic, but the experience through which all mankind gains access to an ultimate ground of truth and discovers personal responsibility to an Absolute. It is in this way that Lewis has described his own conversion to Christianity.
Throughout the novel, Lewis also uses characters such as Wisdom and Contemplation, which are the allegorical representations of philosophy. Through allegory Lewis describes how philosophy must not be seen as the answer to life, just merely a possible lens through which to view it. According to Lewis, the truth is not found in philosophy, but in God. "Everything is the Spirit’s imagination, and therefore everything properly understood, is good and happy." It is this that Lewis hoped to convey to the reader. Lewis writes this from experience stating in the 1943 preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress that, "I myself have been deluded by one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each one of them earnest enough to discover the cheat." It is this that Lewis hoped to convey to the reader.
Eventually, after some initial failure of sales, the book had the desired effect that Lewis had hoped. In a review in the December 8, 1935, issue of the New York Times Book Review the critic referred to The Pilgrim’s Regress as, "A modern man’s intricate journey through the worlds of thought and feeling and desire; his passionate search for truth . . . a picture of genuine mystical experience, rationalized by philosophy."
The journey that C.S. Lewis had begun in boyhood had finally come to an end. Led by the joy that had never really forsaken him and unshakably certain of the efficacy of reason, Lewis’ spiritual pilgrimage would have a profound effect on all of Christendom. Through this journey it is important to note where C.S. Lewis’ reason and search for joy lead him. For the conflicting ideologies that Lewis experienced as an undergraduate at Oxford and as a fellow at Magdalen College, shaped Lewis in a way that would allow him to reason the Christian ideals of the Inklings including J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves. These and other contacts and occurrences pointed him toward Christianity. For the point that is often forgotten through the many stories of Lewis’ life is the debates of philosophy that captured his mind during the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. Although it was Lewis overriding search for truth that lead him to Christianity, the system of Oxford, and the ideologies of realism and idealism contributed greatly to the life of C.S. Lewis, the Christian.
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