C S Lewis on our REAL desire – channeling Plato and Boethius

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before beginning the research on Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I had often thought that there is something a bit exotic and strange about Lewis’s treatment of desire and salvation. Now I know what that is: he was a Neoplatonic Christian in a Boethian mold. This bit of the “affective devotion chapter” sorts some of that out, with the help of Canadian philosopher and Lewis specialist Adam Barkman.

Lewis’s reading of Boethius, quite a while before his Christian conversion, revealed to him a particularly Christian understanding of the role of our desires in the path to God. His knowledge of this tradition would lead Lewis to craft a form of a traditional apologetic argument for Christianity: the argument from desire.

Since Boethius’s book was one of the most translated, most influential books of the whole middle ages,[1] let’s look for a moment at how this influential argument from desire looks in the Consolation. Boethius the character in the allegory begins the book in a very agitated state. His fortunes have turned for the worse, he has been accused of political skullduggery, his goods have been confiscated, he is under arrest. And with the righteous fervor of a Job and the melancholy of a Psalm of lament, he says, “I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy.” How is it that the wicked can be enjoying themselves, and he, who has lived an upright life as a faithful servant of Theodoric, has had happiness snatched away from him?

Now Lady Philosophy spends much of the first half of the book convincing Boethius that the things he thinks will bring him secure happiness—money, fame, power, pleasure—are actually will-o-the-wisps, or pale shadows of true happiness. But she does not disagree with Boethius’s premise: that happiness is our proper end.

We see this in book III, which begins with Lady Philosophy singing an argument about the mutability and ultimate uselessness of all that is worldly. Boethius responds with a kind of rapt ecstasy: “She had stopped singing,” he says, “but the enchantment of her song left me spellbound: I was absorbed and wanted to go on listening.”

“You’re eager to hear more,” responds Lady Philosophy. “You’d be more than eager if you knew the destination I am trying to bring you to.” Boethius asked what this was, and she answered “true happiness.” She is going to move him from false happiness to true happiness—which is the proper end, the telos, of human beings, for which we yearn as the caged bird yearns for the woods.

Adam Barkman is right that what Boethius teaches us here; and it seems clear, taught Lewis; is a Christianized Platonic understanding of the purpose and end of human beings. The Platonists had taught that the real and perfect essence of each of us “first exists as an Idea in God’s mind.” This idea is “a Platonic form” which is also our end, our telos, our perfection, and thus also the “measuring stick by which all creatures are individually judged and measured.”

Even more important for Lewis’s reading and I might say ingestion of Boethius is that when created things are given existence – when God’s Ideas are actualized in creation – they are instilled with Platonic eros, which causes them to desire to be whole or to become like the Idea God has of them: ‘Everything,’ Lewis summarized in his copy of King Alfred’s translation of the Consolation, ‘desires to realize its own proper nature.’[2]

As Barkman shows us that Lewis himself argues in The Problem of Pain, “all creatures become more themselves – attain more happiness and are more fully actualized – the more they look to, and act like, God; that is, the more they exercise ‘creaturely participation in Divine attributes.’”[3] And Lady Philosophy will argue, this time drawing from the Neoplatonists more than Plato himself, that we can achieve that realization of our nature only through union with the sum of all good and the source of all happiness—God himself. Thus God is the true end of the desires that we pursue in partial and flawed ways through money, high office, fame, pleasure, and looks of beauty.[4]

[1] (Lewis’s own copy was one of many medieval translations, done into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred in the 9th century.)

[2] [n 102: CSL, marginalia in his edition of King Alfred’s Old English Version of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae, by Boethius, trans. King Alfred, ed. Walter John Sedgewick (Oxford: clarendon Press, 1899; The Rare Book Collection, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), 4.3]

[3] [n. 105: Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 496] [Barkman, 245-246]

[4] An important corollary of this teaching about human fulfillment, and one that owes something to Aristotle, is that the farther we get from God, the less human we become—indeed we become bestial. This Lewis shows us in the endragoned Eustace, as George MacDonald had in Curdie’s power to feel, at a handshake, the hoof or paw hidden within the hand of decadent persons. It is also the source of one of Boethius’s greatest students, Dante, who paints this principle vividly in the contrapasso of some denizens of the inferno, who appear there in various animal forms appropriate to their earthly sins.

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