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Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

25 JULY, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo & Trafalgar.' Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

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18 JUNE, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the Three Ways of Writing for Children and the Key to Authenticity in All Writing

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“The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”

“I don’t write for children,” the late and great Maurice Sendak said in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” J.R.R. Tolkien had memorably articulated the same sentiment seven decades earlier, in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children,” and Neil Gaiman eloquently echoed it in a recent interview. But perhaps the greatest and most ardent advocate for this notion was C.S. Lewis.

In the spring of 1952, Lewis delivered a magnificent and wonderfully dogma-defiant talk at the Library Association titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” eventually adapted into an essay and published in Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (public library).

Lewis begins by outlining the trifecta of approaches:

I think there are three ways in which those who write for children may approach their work; two good ways and one that is generally a bad way.

I came to know of the bad way quite recently and from two unconscious witnesses. One was a lady who sent me the [manuscript] of a story she had written in which a fairy placed at a child’s disposal a wonderful gadget. I say ‘gadget’ because it was not a magic ring or hat or cloak or any such traditional matter. It was a machine, a thing of taps and handles and buttons you could press. You could press one and get an ice cream, another and get a live puppy, and so forth. I had to tell the author honestly that I didn’t much care for that sort of thing. She replied, ‘No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.’ My other bit of evidence was this. In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, ‘Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.

The lady in my first example, and the married man in my second, both conceived writing for children as a special department of ‘giving the public what it wants’. Children are, of course, a special public and you find out what they want and give them that, however little you like it yourself.

Illustration for Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Darning Needle' by Maurice Sendak, 1959. Click image for details.

Lewis counters this with the first of the two “good ways,” which may bear a superficial resemblance to the “bad” but is in actuality fundamentally different. This is the way of storytellers like Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose published work “grows out of a story told to a particular child with the living voice and perhaps ex tempore” — in Carroll’s case, little Alice Liddell, and in Tolkien’s, his own children. While this, too, may be a case of giving a child what he or she wants, the fact that it is a particular child means the author makes no attempt to treat all children like a “special public.” Lewis writes:

There is no question of “children” conceived as a strange species whose habits you have “made up” like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller. Nor, I suspect, would it be possible, thus face to face, to regale the child with things calculated to please it but regarded by yourself with indifference or contempt. The child, I am certain, would see through that. In any personal relation the two participants modify each other. You would become slightly different because you were talking to a child and the child would become slightly different because it was being talked to by an adult. A community, a composite personality, is created and out of that the story grows.

He follows this with the final “way” of writing for children, that of his own preference:

The third way, which is the only one I could ever use myself, consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form.

[…]

Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age… I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.

Illustration for the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Japanese artist Takeo Takei, 1928. Click image for details.

But Lewis’s most powerful point has less to do with the particular art-form of children’s literature and more to do with a broader cultural pathology. In discussing the fate of fantasy and fairy tales in society and in the hands of critics, he touches on our general tendency to treat adulthood as superior to childhood, a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down and seeing immaturity as a negative quality. Lewis writes:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But then into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

He extends this to how we evaluate our creative and intellectual “growth” over the course of life:

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed.

Illustration for The Fairy Tales of E. E. Cummings by John Eaton, 1965. Click image for details.

Just like every generation reports the alleged death of the novel, Lewis argues that “about once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale.” In a passage especially prescient in our age when fanciful untruths like creationism are still taught in classrooms, Lewis writes:

[The fairy tale] is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations…

This distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

Lewis concludes with a beautiful and urgently important sentiment that applies as much to writing for children as it does to all writing, especially in our age of questionable motives for the written word, and perhaps most of all to life itself. It’s a poignant reminder that everything we put into the world is invariably the sum total of our lived experience and our personhood, and our journey, to attempt to sculpt the end result into something different would be not only an act of hypocrisy but also, inevitably, a guarantee of mediocrity. Lewis writes:

I rejected any approach which begins with the question ‘What do modern children like?’ I might be asked, ‘Do you equally reject the approach which begins with the question “What do modern children need?” — in other words, with the moral or didactic approach?’ I think the answer is Yes. Not because I don’t like stories to have a moral: certainly not because I think children dislike a moral. Rather because I feel sure that the question ‘What do modern children need?’ will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask ‘What moral do I need?’ for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children’s stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.

Indeed everything in the story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind. We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children: differing from our child readers not by any less, or less serious, interest in the things we handle, but by the fact that we have other interests which children would not share with us. The matter of our story should be a part of the habitual furniture of our minds.

All of the writing in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories is absolutely fantastic, spanning everything from the nature of storytelling to why writers should read criticism of their own work to the role of science fiction in society. Complement it with Lewis’s letters to children on the secret of happiness and the only three duties in life.

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18 MAY, 2012

C. S. Lewis on Why “School Stories” and Media Distortion Are a More Deceptive Fiction Than Fiction

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“Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t,” Mark Twain reflected on the osmotic balance of truth and fiction, which has long fascinated famous authors.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis — he of great insight on the motives of duty and the secret of gaiety — articulates with extraordinary astuteness the counter-intuitive truth about fact vs. fiction, increasingly timely in today’s opinion culture where we need, more than ever, the critical thinking necessary for teasing apart agenda and opinion from truth.

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of Literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories*. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’ … To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author’s point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (what is harder) his belief.

* See Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, which seeks to teach children how to fight myth with science.

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