C.S. Lewis: the anti-platonic platonist.
At the close of The Last Battle, the final book in C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, the old professor, Digory Kirke, observes that the heaven he and the other dead characters have reached is simply a better version of the places they knew in life. As they all move " [f]urther in and higher up" (154), finding ever more vibrant versions of familiar landscapes, he mutters, "It's all in Plato, all in Plato" (170).
Is it really? Yes and no. Lewis' fiction's relation to Platonic philosophy is as complex and partial as Lewis' relation to Kirke, whom we should not confuse with his author. At numerous points in his essays and letters Lewis takes care to distinguish his Christian faith from Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas. In The Four Loves, he calls St. Augustine's devaluing of human affections mere "neo-Platonic mysticism" (121). In a letter to a friend dated 1940, Lewis states, "Plato thought ... flesh and grass bad, and ... he was wrong" (Letters, 335). The Platonic illusion Lewis finds most dangerous is the fantasy that Christians can approach the good, which for Lewis is God, by turning away from the flesh and the grass and loving purely charitably--one might say platonically--as though they were not human and therefore by definition low and needy. The Christian's embrace of God requires, paradoxically, a humble and constant acknowledgement of his or her lack of and distance from Him. (1) It follows that Platonic ladders or stairways promising incremental approach to the highest and best are problematic images of true Godward experience as Lewis perceived it.
Yet, paradoxically, Lewis finds in Plato support for the idea that our closeness to God depends on our admission that we are in a sense far from Him. Lewis alludes frequently to Plato's Symposium's description of Love itself as a condition of neediness ("Love needs beauty ... and does not have it" [Symposium, 201B]). A notable example of this allusiveness occurs in Lewis' That Hideous Strength, where young Mark Studdock's first feelings of real love for his wife are illuminated by a memory of Socrates' teaching on this score. "Love, Plato says, is the son of Want," Mark thinks (360).
Lewis' use of one of the ideas voiced by Socrates, Plato's spokesman, to support his departure from another is characteristic of his selective approach to Plato. His very choosiness enables him, despite his reservations, to call on Plato's thought repeatedly in his speculative constructions of Christ, heaven, humankind, earth, and angels.
In what follows I'll address this paradox, addressing three questions: What parts of Platonic philosophy does Lewis use in his fiction? What problems, if any, result from his use of Platonic ideas in a medium Plato--or at least Socrates--found morally dangerous, namely poetry (interpreted broadly as the creation of imaginary worlds)? And can those problems be resolved in Platonic terms? The answers, briefly, will be: lots of Platonic parts, several problems, and yes.
First, what Plato is in Lewis' fiction?
In fact, the brand of Christian Neoplatonism found in Lewis' Narnia books, his adult space trilogy, his allegorical work The Great Divorce, and his late novel Till We Have Faces is as syncretic as that of (say) Sir Philip Sidney. In the words of William Johnson and Marcia Houtman, Lewis' "Platonism is highly selective and ... diffused," "filtered through St. Paul, Augustine, the Florentine Platonists, and the Christian Humanists" (76-77). (2) In Lewis' fiction we find ideas picked piecemeal from Plato where they serve plot and theme. Thus his space-fiction trilogy contains "daimones" such as the spirit which Socrates, in Plato's Apology and other dialogues, claims inspires his inquiries (e.g., Plato, Apology, 3 Id). In Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, these daimones are called eldils and include "Oyarsa," an angelic heavenly servant who assists the protagonist, Ransom, and is described by Ransom in Platonic terms ("Medieval Platonists were right to call angels Oyarsa" [OSP 153]). In Out of the Silent Planet Lewis models the threefold division of species on the planet Malacandra (hunter-farmers, philosopher-rulers, and artisan-builders) on categories seen in Plato's Republic (Book Four), and in this novel Lewis also borrows from the Platonic idea that books degrade knowledge, writing being, as Socrates says, "but a reminiscence of what we [already] know" in our souls and can uncover through dialectic (Phaedrus 278a). Platonically, the unfallen inhabitants of Malacandra disdain reading, preferring to know, and reaffirm what they know through conversation. A Platonic notion can also be found in Mere Christianity, where Lewis uses dance as an image of heavenly experience. As both Peter Schakel (27) and Roland Kawano (passim) have noted, the conceit derives from Plato's Timaeus.
But the most frequently invoked Platonic theme in Lewis' fiction is that with which I began: his presentation of virtues seen in nature as images or "flashes" of higher and more enduring heavenly qualities. As Lewis writes in an early essay, "Christianity and Literature," in The Seeing Eye, morally good fiction is guided by "the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent Form partly imitable on earth" (9). An exposition of this idea is found in Plato's Republic, where Socrates argues that works of art, objects of sense, and even ideas reflect, in increasing measure, absolute qualities which exist apart from and above them (6:510e). The "beautiful things" evident to sense are signs of a higher "Beauty itself" (5:476c). In Phaedo as well Plato writes, "All beautiful things are beautiful [only] by the Beautiful" (100d). In Lewis' Till We Have Faces, the Fox, a skeptical ancient Greek, ties Plato to his own dawning Christian vision when he speaks reverently of "other Greek masters than those he follows himself ... who have taught that death opens a door out of a little, dark room ... into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet" (73). In the Fox's description of the other Greek masters' teaching, the light of earthly learning pales next to the true sun, implicitly humanized and deified as the son whom "we shall meet." In Lewis the lower and preparatory order of light, beauty, and goodness is apprehensible even by animals, and not just the talking ones. We read in That Hideous Strength of Mr. Bultitude, a pet bear whose love for honey prompts a near-beatific vision of "endless green lands ... and hives innumerable ... and waiting there, or else walking, trickling, oozing to meet one, something or someone stickier, sweeter, more golden than honey itself" (307). As in Plato, the rudimentary vision--or, in Platonic terms, the apprehension of absolute good by means of its reflections--is something the soul remembers. When we meet beauty, we know it. As Socrates says in Phaedo, "learning is ... recollection" (73a). Thus early in That Hideous Strength Mark Studdock experiences a rare Platonic moment when the face of an elderly rentier in an English village reminds him of a long-forgotten aunt's affection. Behind the aunts affection stands, by implication, Love itself. The remembered vision, quickly dismissed, is at this stage of the novel unusual for Mark, a sociologist who generally fails to perceive value in any actual people he meets. "[H]is education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laborers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy was the shadow" (87). We see here that Mark usually gets it backwards, like the reader in Plato's Phaedrus who looks for knowledge in books rather than in his soul, or like The Republic's imitating artist who, painting the reflections of beauty he sees in nature, stands at a "third remove from the truth" (10:602c). Mark's paintbrush is a pencil, which he uses to fashion statistical categories, substituting figures for people.
Yet herein lies a distinction between Lewis' and Plato's notions about which secondary reflections are closest to the real. After all, though Socrates is suspicious of writing, he respects mathematics. In fact, in Book 6 of Republic Socrates places mathematical realities, grasped through pure reason, not below but above the natural, people-filled, emotion-inflected world mathematics interprets (510b-c). Perhaps Plato would approve of Mark's approach. In fact, Socrates makes clear that it is not the mathematician but the artist--specifically, the literary or dramatic artist, whom he calls the poet--who is most apt to misrepresent truth. Poets lie in two ways. First, they present an image of virtue so arresting that it's liable to be mistaken for Virtue itself, especially by the young, who "cannot distinguish what is allegorical from what is not," to quote Socrates (Republic 378e). Second, poetry, or fiction, presents speaking pictures of evil states of mind alongside images of the good, exposing audiences--or readers--to false modes of thinking. Socrates objects to heroes being presented, even by Homer and certainly by the tragic playwrights, as "so full of inner tumult as to have two contrary diseases in [their] soul[s], meanness and the love of money on the one hand, and arrogance toward gods and men in the other" (Republic 391c). These harmful representations are the worse in that they provide realistic impersonations of bad ways of being, either on stage or in a narrative's constructed dialogue. This is bad because "Imitations ... become part of one's nature and settle into habits of gesture, voice, and thought," corrupting their authors and enactors as well as the works' readers, auditors, or spectators (395d). Evil actions should thus not be "performed or imitated," but only described, and the evil voice never assumed (396a). For fictional representation to lead anyone toward the good, the poet's greatest powers of representation must be devoted exclusively to virtuous thought and behavior.
This important Socratic instruction, if followed, would of course make mincemeat not just of Lewis' fiction generally, but of the most compelling parts of his fiction. Although Lewis deplored endlessly being cited on his own bookjackets as "author of The Screwtape Letters," there is a reason that that fictional correspondence between a demon and his nephew proved Lewis' best-selling adult work. Screwtape embodies its most affecting moral arguments in masterful simulations of the rationalizing delusions by which humans allow themselves to be separated from God. One example is the letter in which the devil Screwtape quotes a delightfully illegitimate defense of Christianity, then in his own voice encourages his diabolical nephew to propagate it. "'Only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations.' You see the little riff? 'Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.' That's the game. Your affectionate uncle, SCREWTAPE" (112). Here the imitation of ungodly thought is delivered in the impersonated voice of a devil intent on ensnaring souls. It is true, as Alan Jacobs notes, that performing Uncle Screwtape enabled C. S. Lewis within his fiction to employ "the didactic role ... that came easily to him" (169). But the didacticism is turned upside down, entirely subsumed by, and in service to, the fiction of deviltry.
Such anti-Platonic presentations-through-imitation of hellish thinking are the key moral component of Lewis' fiction generally. Examples, like devils, are legion, and I will here mention only four. First, on the junior fictional level, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis gives frequent voice to bad boy Edmund, whose gluttonous desire for candy given him by the White Witch leads him to betray his siblings and comrades, including the excellent Mr. Tumnus the Faun. "You can't always believe what Fauns say," he tells his sister Lucy, counseling her to distrust a proven friend. "Everyone knows it" (38). Subtler invocations of the mistaken voice occur in The Great Divorce, a work structured as a dialogue between redeemed "Bright People" and damned "Ghosts" on a day-trip to Heaven. This work gives ample freedom of expression to the various, often sophisticated arguments of the volitionally hellhound, such as this from a character Lewis calls the "Episcopal Ghost": "For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? 'Prove [Try] all things' ... to travel hopefully is better than to arrive." Though Lewis counters this hated piece of theological progressivism with an articulate and, by his own lights, godly response from the Episcopal Ghosts interlocutor--"If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully?" (37)--the dialogues structure is finally balanced equally between the disputants. The novel That Hideous Strength also gives voice to Lewis' despised progressives in various arenas--theological, sociological, and scientific--as in this letter the pre-redeemed Mark Studdock writes to a local newspaper, in which he defends the oppressive tactics of the ominous new research organization N.I.C.E. "If you hear anyone backbiting the N.I.C.E. police, tell him where he gets off. If you hear anyone comparing them to the Gestapo ... tell him you've heard that one before. If you hear anyone talking about the liberties of England (by which he means the liberties of the Obscurantists, the Mrs. Grundies, the Bishops, and the capitalists), watch that man. He's the enemy" (134). The fact that Mark, in agreeing to write this letter, is being obviously manipulated by various unlikeable characters does not change the fact that, like Shakespeare, Lewis is here giving a wrong character the kind of eloquent, first-person defense on which Socrates frowned.
What Keats might have called the "negatively capable" defense is most eloquent in Lewis' late novel Till We Have Faces. This book is framed as the brave, longsuffering, physically abused Orual's first-person accusation of "gods" whom, by novel's end, the reader recognizes as the Christian God, refracted and dimly perceived by Orual through pagan images. The entire book (a radical retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth) is thus an extended imitation of the thinking with which Orual rejects, until the end, her sister Psyche's embrace of the true godhead. Orual recounts the agonizingly logical, largely compassionate concern with which she and her tutor, the skeptical Fox, ponder Psyche's strange adventure in the wilderness and plot to "rescue" her from her new enthusiasm. The Fox says, "As I read it, some robber or runaway has found the poor child, half-crazed with terror and loneliness, and with thirst, too (likely enough).... He'd whisper to her that the god, the bridegroom, would come to her that night. And after dark, he'd come back." "It looks, Grandfather," Orual responds "dully," "as if you had read the riddle right" (144). Unlike the bratty Edmund, the pompous Episcopal Ghost, or the nasty administrators of the N.I.C.E., the Fox and Orual are deeply sympathetic characters driven by the best lights of reason, logic, and some love. Even Orual's final discovery that they were wrong--Psyche really did find God, and Oruals own jealousy corrupted that discovery--does not overcome our intellectual sympathy with her missteps throughout the novel, simply because her first-person narration so vividly re-presents her confusion and suffering, or what Socrates might call "inner tumult."
There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis' "negatively capable" presentations of misguided characters, just as there are Biblical sources for many things in Lewis that I have called Platonic. St. Paul, perhaps appealing to Greek Platonists, says we see God in "a glass darkly," not yet "face to face" (I Cor. 13:12, KJV), (3) and, for Mr. Bultitude, heaven is Biblically described as "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Jer. 11:5, KJV). More to the present point, Christ's parables invite us to imagine the experiences of a rebellious son and an unjust steward, among other wrongdoers, and supply convincing dialogue. Christ as "poet" is here appealing to those who "ha[ve] ears to hear" (Luke 8:8) to recognize themselves in the unjust characters and humbly repent. An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative. Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce "fear and pity" (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)--compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible ends to which hamartia has led (as when Sophocles shows Thebes smitten with plague as a result of Oedipus' sins). Philip Sidney invokes this Aristotelian idea when, in the 1595 Defense of Poesy, he justifies the presentation of tragic action by reminding readers of its moral framing. "[I]f evil men come to the stage, they ever go out ... so manacled as they little animate folks to follow them" (961). Lewis' negative impersonations, then, have both Biblical and classical justification, as he well knew. Still, what I have undertaken here is to align Lewis' thought specifically with that of Plato, with whom Aristotle famously differed on this point.
To this end, I suggest it was less Plato than Socrates with whom Aristotle differed. For Plato himself creates dialogues in which the "wrong" point of view is given ample voice (as in The Great Divorce), and is not always successfully corrected by Socrates. (4) A famous example involves Thrasymachus the Sophist, who barges into Socrates' tutorial in the first book of Republic, dominates the conversation with his own proof of Socrates' errors, and, though answered by Socrates, never admits he's wrong. Plato's exposure of Thrasymachus's errors is in fact not left up to reasoned argument, but assisted by the tools of poetry. Sophistry is convicted by simile. The Sophist "gathers himself together like a wild beast about to spring," coming at the group "as though to tear us to pieces" (336d), "pour[ing] a mass of close-packed words into our ears as a bathman might a flood of water" (344d). Plato dramatizes rather than simply reports Thrasymachus's failure to engage in dialectic, in defiance of Socrates' own later warnings against dramatizing evil. Lewis' tactics in this sense are less Socratic than Platonic, although he mixes poetic dialogue with Socratically recommended description where he deems direct explanation most necessary, chiefly in his books for children, who "cannot distinguish what is allegorical from what is not," to recall Socrates' phrase. Thus the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe gives us '"You can't always believe what Fauns say,' said Edmund, trying to sound as if he knew far more about them than Lucy" (38).
This sentence, wherein Lewis describes the immoral behavior even while he impersonates the wrongful voice, shows that like Socrates, he knows children need help recognizing mimetically represented wrongdoing. However, comments in Lewis' prose writings show his far greater concern with the other Platonic poetic problem: the danger that readers and authors will substitute fictional representations of the heavenly for the real heaven, and fanciful representations of God for God. Such a reader or author is like the deluded man in Republic who "believes in beautiful things but not in Beauty itself" (476c). As Lewis says in The Four Loves, "If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there" (140). The problem of fiction itself becoming a demonic substitute for heaven--demonic because it's a substitute--is particularly acute for literary persons, who, Lewis acknowledges in the essay "Christianity and Literature," characteristically confuse what is really good with a pleasure-giving representation of what is good. Thus is "[b]rass" ... mistaken for gold more easily than clay" (The Great Divorce, 97).
Paradoxically, Lewis both exposes and seems to commit this moral error in The Silver Chair, another novel in the Narnia series. In one episode, Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, the Narnian prince Rilian, and the children Jill and Eustace are briefly persuaded that the cave in which they are trapped is the only reality that exists. Like the cave-bound prisoners in Plato's famous myth, their illusion is supported by artistically fashioned simulacra of the outside world. The Witch who imprisons them, while playing enchanting music on a fiddle, tells them their idea of the sun must derive from the lamp that illuminates the cave. "[Y]ou can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world," she says. "There is no Narnia" (157). Here the Witch attempts to make her listeners substitute a brass imitation, derived from art, for the golden reality of the sun. Yet Puddleglum defeats her argument not with logic or reason, nor with the Platonic argument that nature itself is a step closer to the real than her imitations, but with a defense of the poetic imagination. "Suppose we have only ... made up ... all those things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.... Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.... Four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow" (159).
Whose side is Puddleglum on? Not Socrates'. Indeed, despite the likeness of his situation to that of Socrates' cave-prisoners, Puddleglum is not, like the one prisoner in Plato's allegory who escapes to see the sun, arguing the real world's superiority to its imaginatively fashioned simulacra. Instead, he is speaking in favor of the simulacra, and it's the Witch who speaks with Socratic voice. As Donald Glover writes, "fairy tale and make-believe are in her warped vision Plato's imitation of an imitation" (170). But Socrates does find fiction to be an imitation of an imitation, which suggests that Socrates' view--which disdains the works of fancy--is warped! Perhaps Puddleglum is on Philip Sidney's side, for like Sidney, he prizes the "golden world" of the poetic imagination over the "brazen" offerings of nature (957). Puddleglum can have it both ways. His play-Narnia turns out to be the real one. But Narnia isn't real. It is made up. So, whose side is Lewis on?
Lewis, it appears, is also on Sidney's side, though here again he appears to be on Plato's as well. For Plato's dialogues rely on a variety of myths to communicate truth, despite Socrates' professed doubts about poetic imitations. Thus we might finally ask whose side of the debate Plato is on. For Republic alone gives us the myth of the cave and the myth of the ship, and concludes with the lengthy myth of Er, in which a man's soul travels to Heaven to choose a new soul.
Two observations may help us resolve the apparent contradiction between Socrates' warnings against poetry and Plato's use of poetry--and, of course, between Lewis' suspicions of and embrace of fiction. First, we may note in each case the mythmaker's reminders that their stories are mere illustrations, to be discarded when not useful. (Appropriately, Lewis titled his great inquiry into medieval Platonism The Discarded Image.) Thus Socrates concludes his account of the cave-prisoners by insisting that "[T]his whole image ... must be related to what we said before," subjugating the elements of the myth to its symbolic referents. Similarly, Lewis prefaces The Great Divorce with the claim that "the transmortal conditions" of the book "are solely an imaginative supposal.... The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world" (viii). In like vein, he gives That Hideous Strength the pointed and reductive subtitle A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. He closes the Narnia series, in a sense, by denying the final reality of all of its stories. They are not the "real story" (184). That one's only starting now, beyond Lewis' final page.
We may also observe that the seductive power of imitations in both Plato and Lewis is contained and even undermined by the very multiplicity of poetic images and myths found in both authors' works. (5) We are less likely to root our faith in a particular image of God or the good when an author gives us such an appealing variety, and thereby makes manifest his own contrivings. (As Touchstone says, "The truest poetry is the most feigning" [Shakespeare, As You Like It, 3.3.19-20].) Lewis gives us not only Aslan and Narnia, but the eldils of Deep Heaven, as well as Malacandra, Perelandra, and the shining mountains of The Great Divorce (though, admittedly, these look somewhat like Narnia). There is also the classical heaven envisioned in Orual's last vision: a "fair, grassy court, with blue, fresh sky above us," and "a bath of clear water in which many could have swum and sported together" (Till We Have Faces, 305). In Narnian Heaven, as noted, reside family members and married parents just as the characters knew them in life, only more so. None of these imagined heavens has any Biblical authority, and indeed Christ himself expressly denies one facet of the last (see Matt. 24:38). But as Sidney and Lewis both claimed, literary imagination, not knowledge, is the tool we are given for seeking heaven. Only works of the imagination can move us toward God, by giving us flashes of that virtue which, if we could see it whole, would, "if the sayings of Plato and Tully be true," leave us "wonderfully ravished with ... love" (Sidney, 966).
The compelling argument has been made that Lewis himself only moved from what Alan Jacobs calls a "purely intellectual" to a heartfelt conversion to Christianity by surrendering to the ravishing power of stories (130): both the stories he read and, finally, the stories he felt compelled to write. Robert Boenig speaks of the "emotional wish" Lewis expressed in all his writings "to inhabit a ... world in reality, not just in imagination" (53), but such emotion--again, as Sidney knew--is prompted by the skillful rendering of fanciful worlds, and the desire thus prompted to enter them leads to the search for the means to enter them, or rather, to enter the world to which they are portals. (In Surprised by Joy, Lewis famously describes how his desire for unearthly joy was first stirred by his exposure, when a boy, to Nordic myth.) Three, centuries before Lewis' foray into Christian apologetics, Sidney presented a caution against such works of moral philosophy, arguing in The Defense of Poesy that with regard to goodness, the philosopher only "showeth you the way" and "informeth you of the particularities, as well of the tediousness of the way," while the poet--the practitioner of fancy--"doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter it" (962). Although many readers find Lewis' prose writings as "sweet" as his fiction, Lewis himself did not. In his biography of Lewis, Jacobs describes the author's own painful proof and grudging validation of the Sidneyan suspicion of philosophy, arguing that Lewis turned fully from apologetics to fiction in order to slay what he himself, quoting one of his critics, called "the expository demon" (qtd. in Jacobs, 243). Lewis ended a talk given in Wales in 1943 with the confession, "I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one's own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate" (qtd. in Jacobs, 229).
The comment reveals a profound and paradoxical truth. Proofs that are merely intellectual--"mere" Christianity in a pejorative sense--are finally less true than fairy tales rooted in a morality of the heart. Jacobs brilliantly demonstrates that the condemnation of defensive intellectual argument which ends Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces is also a championing of the emotional power of imaginative creations (Jacobs, 240-43). I stress the plural here--creations (or what Alister McGrath, in a recent Lewis biography, calls "supposals")--to point, again, to the fact that the representations of an unseen but beloved reality are, by imaginations very nature, fecund, plural, and multifarious. A variety of wholesome fictions is like the numerous ponds, all portals to otherworlds, in the Wood between the Worlds in The Magicians Nephew. Whereas (as Orual finally admits) dialectical argument is "[o]nly words, words, to be led out to battle against other words" (308), (6) the play of literary image against literary image is no competition, but a growing, many-threaded tapestry, or many-leaved tree. By means of story variations, Lewis hoped, flashes of godliness may be glimpsed, entertained, and ultimately seriously pursued. The seductive power of Lewis' account of Ransom's journeys in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, which include Ransoms conversation with Christ, is properly limited by those accounts' juxtaposition with Lewis' other accounts of heaven, just as the knobby, multifarious appearances of Ungit, the carved stone image of Aphrodite in Till We Have Faces, prevent worshippers attributing to the goddess any particular face. (7) Still, the roughly shaped stone offers an access to her that a rock in the woods doesn't. Here again Lewis differs with Socrates, who argued that the gods should be represented in an unchanging form, as they are in reality "least likely to have many shapes" (381b). For Lewis, it is because God is one incomprehensible person that His representations must be manifold. Imitations are here validated by their diversity.
Even in the unfallen worlds of Lewis' space trilogy, art can convey truth despite the fact that art threatens, when idolized, to obscure what is real. The unfallen Lady in Perelandra is almost contaminated when the devilish Un-man shows her her own face in a mirror, and thus encourages her to regard herself as something seen, like a dramatic character (144). Here she risks entering the realm of artifice, and becoming her own secondary and inferior image. Yet in the same novel, God communicates with her husband, the unfallen King, through a divine artifice, taking him deep below the earth to a cavelike theater and "showing [him] in a darkness what was happening to the Queen," thereby prompting him toward a secret moral choice regarding her (225). Lewis believed that art could foreground and make possible moral choices, in ways that exposure to nature and even reasoned discussion could not. "Nature does not teach," he writes in The Four Loves (21), and in Out of the Silent Planet, he writes, "Ransom ... saw that our only chance was to publish [his account of heaven] in the form of fiction" since it "would certainly not be listened to as fact" (153)--would, in other words, not be taken seriously when presented seriously. Fiction conveys truth by forging "emotional, not intellectual suggestiveness," Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend in 1958 (Letters, 476). Though the sense of holiness thus conveyed is only something like holiness and "not the same" as holiness, "it is better than unlike," he writes in The Seeing Eye. "Imitation may pass into initiation" (31).
That Lewis believed literary representation was better than raw experience at providing this Godward initiation is suggested not only by his own expressed suspicion of the moral value, at least to the apologist, of Christian apologetics, but by a passage near the close of The Last Battle. There Lewis compares his dead characters' first real sight of Heaven to the moment one "turn[s] away from a window" overlooking a real landscape to "ca[tch] sight of the sea or the valley ... in the looking glass. And the sea ... or the valley in the mirror" are "just the same as the real ones: yet ... deeper, more wonderful" (170). Nature mediated is nature improved, made more real than the real. It is appropriate to Lewis' ideas about fiction's power that up to this point in the stories, the children have entered Narnia not first through natural landscapes or conversations about God, but through constructed artifacts: a set of rings, a wooden wardrobe and, in The Voyage of the Dawn Trader, a painting of a boat hung on the wall, each of which functions like Alice's looking glass. Like Paul and like Plato, Lewis thought the glass in which we saw darkly was better than no glass at all.
Western Michigan University
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--. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Martin, Thomas L. Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000.
Nussbaum, Martha. "The Speech of Alcibiades: A Reading of Plato's Symposium." Philosophy and Literature 3.2 (Fall 1979): 131-72.
Plato. Five Dialogues. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.
--. Phaedrus. Trans. B. Jowett. London: Echo Library, 2006.
--. Plato's Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974.
--. Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
Schakel, Peter J. Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds. Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 2002.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Sick, David H. "The Daimones of C. S. Lewis." Literature and Theology 22.2 (2008): 151-61.
Sidney, Philip. The Defense of Poesy. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 953-73.
Walker, Andrew. "Scripture, Revelation, and Platonism in C. S. Lewis." Scottish Journal of Theology 55 A (February 2002): 19-35.
(1) Thus David Allreds claim that "Lewis tries to make worldly people ideal in preparation for the next life" seems wrong.
(2) See also Walker.
(3) Although the King James Bible has "through a glass darkly," Lewis' Greek was doubtless good enough for him to know the better (if less poetic) translation of Paul's sentence, which speaks of looking not through a piece of dark glass but into a cloudy mirror. The (Catholic) New American Bible renders the line, "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror." The translation is not only more accurate, but one Lewis might have found more appropriate to his fictional reflections of God.
(4) Plato's reliance on poetic method to enhance Socrates' arguments has been noted by numerous scholars, like Jill Gordon, whose recent book is entitled Plato's Turn to Poetry: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato's Dialogues. In an earlier essay, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum also points to Plato's use of literary elements, cautioning readers against confusing Plato's voice with that of Socrates in Symposium, where Socrates is only one of several characters endowed with plausible voices.
(5) Here again Nussbaum's essay is instructive.
(6) The Hamlet echo--"Words, words, words" (Hamlet (2.2.192)--may be intentional with regard to this theme. Thomas L. Martin notes that Lewis defended Hamlet against the charge of some critics (consider T. S. Eliot) that the play was a failure because none could agree on its meaning, saying that it was a success simply because "most people are enchanted by it" (quoted in Martin, 126), and that everyone really likes the same thing about Hamlet but are just looking at different parts of that thing. "In Lewis' view the play can only, Platonically, have one good" (127). Literary works are myriad refractions of something unified. The more reflections, the more pleasurable points of access to the real.
(7) David Sick makes a similar point in "The Daimones of C. S. Lewis."
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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