Thoughts on C. S. Lewis' "The Four Loves"

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My long absence from this blog has been – in addition to my lack of time due to school – the result of the general purposelessness of its existence. I’m not working through a cookbook, following particular world events or assigning letter grades to animals like the panda or the musk ox. So there is nothing to drive me every week to sit down and write. I also undergo a slight existential crisis every time I push “publish.” What are the ramifications of this dispersion of my thoughts to the cyber world? What if someone reads them? Worse yet, what if no one reads them? Or, what if someone reads them but doesn’t care. Or, worse yet, what if I write them and don’t care? That, and my general perfectionism seems to surface every time I do write – I am content to chip away at a single written project rather than every week produce a neat four paragraph progression of profundity. I imagine that my writing reflects the sanctification process under which I’m going: never nearly complete, but moving in that direction. But I am determined to attempt what for me is very nearly impossible, that is, keeping a regularly updated blog; and this is partly inspired by the faithful (and interesting) blogging of my dear friend, and also by the fact that I am now done my studies and thus have the time and energy and hopefully the need for a creative outlet.

All this to say, one of the things I hope to do over the course of this summer is to read a number of books that have been sitting on my bookshelf for the past few years, and to write down a few (hopefully brief) comments about them here. And I am excited have finished the first book today, C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves. It’s a little scary how good it felt to read through an entire book, albeit only 128 pages, in a few days, and not to have to turn around and write a term paper on it. How I enjoyed it! And for me, Lewis is always a good one to get back into since he is a good balance of readability and challenge, comfortable familiarity and thoughtful provocation.

The Four Loves

Although I have read most of Lewis’ writings, this little book had thus far eluded me. I found it at a used-bookstore a while ago and added it to my collection, but had to wait to actually pull it down from the shelf (half of it devoted to Lewis). As I mentioned above, the book is a good balance of enjoyment and intellectual provocation. You won’t find any dryads or lions bounding through the pages, but Lewis can’t escape his tendency towards story-telling, and in his elaboration on the four loves (which he divides Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity) he explores the nuances and ramifications of these loves by many a hypothetical scene or situation. Also, he is constantly referring to works of literature and quoting briefs snippets or aphorisms from these texts (but he is obviously from a different intellectual climate since references and even the speakers are rarely appended to these quotes; this is a little infuriating, although it goes the other way when the text proves familiar to me and I feel a little flattered to be on the “in” with Lewis by recognizing his reference to Julian of Norwich and the world as a hazelnut). 

His general pattern in his chapters on the first three loves is to define what he means by them, clarify what he does not mean by them including countering certain ideas about them, highlight their goodness and beauty, and explore their perversion and insufficiency. This latter part reminds me a lot of his methods in The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, even though these are both two completely different genres; what he does is to paint the subtleties of these loves corrupted (since it is in the subtle rather than the overt evils that much of the danger lies), and allow the reader to compare them with him or herself and recognize any of our own similar tendencies. He also spends two chapters on useful preliminary stuff, including “nearness to God” and the difference between “nearness by likeness” and “nearness by approach.” This makes it a highly practical little book, because it isn’t content to point out simply the potential for human similarity with our Maker, but also the deep need to approach God, that relational and experiential and doctrinal crux. The final chapter, on Charity, could do with a bit more elaboration, which Lewis both acknowledges and dismisses by saying “And with this, where a better book would begin, mine must end” (128).  I think he could have written a bit more, and wish he had, but there are other places to glean from his insights on Charity, such as Till We Have Faces or That Hideous Strength, and of course there are other authors. The only other negative that I might mention, Lewis can hardly be faulted for. His book shows the marks of his time, and although I am by no means a feminist, there are moments where the tone (rather than the content) of his vignettes is a little uncomfortable in its depiction of women, or at least, the female stereotype. But maybe the men will feel the same way about the male stereo-typing. Still, I love Lewis and certainly cannot let that keep me from the very good, very insightful, very edifying content of his book. It is good, I think, to hold most cultural things in loose hands, while holding onto the truth doubly tightly.

One quote I appreciated for its bluntness, as it proves both funny and convicting at once, and with it I will push “publish” on my first post in a long time. But let yourself ask the question as to whether you ever approach God in the way caricatured at the end of the paragraph.

(On Christian love towards God, largely as Need-love. Lewis here points out the absurdity of trying to hide our need of God in how we relate to Him.)

But man’s love for God, from the very nature of the case, must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Need-love…. I do not say that man can never bring to God anything at all but sheer Need-love. Exalted souls may tell us of a reach beyond that. But they would also, I think, be the first to tell us that those heights would cease to be true Graces, would become Neo-Platonic or finally diabolical illusions, the moment a man dared to think that he could live on them and henceforth drop out the element of need…. It would be a bold and silly creature that came before its Creator with the boast, “I’m no beggar. I love you disinterestedly” (Lewis 9, emphasis mine).
Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. Great Britain: Fount Paperbacks, 1982.

The book which I have since taken off my bookshelf must, of course, belong to one of my other favourite authors. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun is up next on the reading list!


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