Why You Can't Know C.S. Lewis If You Don't Read His Literary Criticism

As C.S. Lewis scholar Jerry Root is fond of saying, Lewis opens more than wardrobe doors and this is especially true of his literary criticism. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature is a collection of essays on diverse topics like the medieval cosmology, similes in Dante’s Divine Comedy and essays on the British poet Edmund Spenser and his epic poem The Fairie Queene. In fact the book is composed almost entirely of essays on Dante and Spenser. For Lewis, these were the artistic giants of the medieval age. Several of the essays in this collection were meant to be the beginnings of books which Lewis never got around to writing. 

I think that much of Lewis’s literary work was written as he says himself “to cure errors of misapprehension,” to act as a guide to a particular work that we might know something of the time in which the author was writing so that we would be better able to use what Lewis calls the historical imagination. The historical imagination allows us to place ourselves in the world of the story rather than bringing our modern world and sensibilities to bear on it in a way that would likely create a different work than the author intended. This is partly why Lewis wrote The Discarded Image, to enable people to read works of the medieval period with a greater understanding. 

In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis writes this: “When our aim is knowledge we must go as far as all available means—including the most intense, yet at the same time most sternly disciplined, exercise of our imaginations—can possibly take us. We want to know—therefore, as far as may be, we want to live through for ourselves—the experience of men long dead.” [1] And Lewis writes the essays in this book and others to help us get there. But think about that weighty statement, fraught with meaning: the most intense and sternly disciplined exercise of our imaginations. What does he mean by this? I think this gives us an understanding of what Lewis really valued when he read works of literature, of being able to see the world through others’ eyes, which he writes about at the end of An Experiment in Criticism.  

But in this book, he writes of two ways of enjoying the past and he likens it to two ways of enjoying travel. He describes an English traveler who takes his Englishry abroad and comes back with it unchanged. He mixes with other English natives and he stays at hotels that remind him of English ones. Lewis says that in the same way we can carry our modernity with us through all of our reading, preserving it intact. 

Alternatively, we can travel in a second way. We can eat the local foods and wine, take part in the local life and come back thinking and feeling as we did not think and feel before. This is why Lewis wants us to steep ourselves in the past, so that we can come to literary works more like a native.

I think that in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and in much of his literary critical work, this is Lewis’s main goal. He really does want to help us see things that we could not otherwise see, to enlarge our vision, to help us escape the narrow prison of self, to widen our understanding and to ultimately make us more human.

I would also say that Lewis’s body of literary critical work is largely ignored by most people. But it’s where many of his best ideas are germinated that then make their way into more mainstream works. Possessing even a rudimentary understanding of medieval cosmology as he writes about in this book, enables us to have a richer understanding of the Chronicles of Narnia as well as of the space trilogy. These works are difficult; you can’t rush through them. You’ve got to spend time with them. I’ve actually been reading through this book, and it’s slow going. I’m defining words, translating Latin or Italian phrases, taking notes in the margins and rereading because at times the text is dense and I’m unfamiliar with the works Lewis is writing about. But I’m seeing ideas develop and getting an appetite for reading these great works of literature. This brings me back to my initial point that Lewis opens more than wardrobe doors. If we let him, he will take us to works beyond himself. It’s his way of helping to enlarge our vision, of helping us be that traveler in a foreign country that comes back with his worldview changed. 

1. Lewis, C.S. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

Why You Need C.S. Lewis's Historical Imagination

Though we tend to think of it as a single entity, C.S. Lewis had a more robust understanding of the functions of the imagination. He identified more than thirty embodiments or nuances.  Similarly, the Eskimo or Innuit have 50 different ways to understand snow. Matsaaruti describes wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners and pukak for the powdery snow that looks like salt.  An understanding of sea ice is even richer, with 70 terms including utuqaq, ice that lasts year after year, siguliaksraq, a patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze or auniq, ice that is filled with holes.[1] We can imagine also that those living in desert areas might have a nuanced understanding of sand, or those flying planes might require different ways to describe air currents.

One of these distinctions is what Lewis termed the historical imagination. This use enables us to reawaken to or recover the essence of the art or literature of a particular historical period by imaginatively inserting ourselves into the experience of the time and inhabiting it as a native would, as if its worldviews and assumptions were true.

But problems arise as we begin to think about enacting this recovery. Our access to the past is restricted. Between the present and any near or far distant historical time stretches an unassailable chasm of worldviews, thought-patterns, philosophical, scientific and religious beliefs, socio-behavioral structures and more to which we no longer give credence. Our contemporary knowledge base renders much of the past understandings of the world obsolete de facto, or so we think. How do we truly inhabit the past without understanding all that separates us from it? To bridge the chasm, divesting ourselves of our modern understandings seems a foolhardy if not impossible task.

            And yet, and yet . . . everything in the past has contributed to make us in some measure everything we currently are. Lewis writes that “humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.”[1] He also presents us with the darkly intriguing thought that things don’t pass away “without leaving indelible traces on our minds.”[2] Even so, there is still that chasm between the past and us. Lewis offers a solution to bridge this gap.

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries. . . I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.[3]

Lewis admonishes us to plunge right in, “to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.”[4] Though quoted in the context of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I believe Lewis would extend this understanding to any work of art or literature. It is the primary reason why he wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. These works of the historical imagination enable us to plunge right in to Milton’s poem, the love poetry of the Middle ages or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene by giving us background on the historical period which each one details. This allows us to approach the works with understanding and sympathy, regardless of whether or not the science is accurate or the religious beliefs are pagan. It also begins the process of enabling us to approach works of art without imposing our current worldview on them. We might even think of these works as travel guidebooks. The point is never that in order to understand, we must agree with or embrace the ideas of a certain time.

I think the metaphor of travel can be usefully applied to further understand and define the historical imagination. We have already seen how humanity moves ever onward without leaving anything behind.  To this I would add two ways, outlined by Lewis, in which we can enjoy the past. Here is the first:

Firstly, consider an English gentleman who travels to another country, staying at hotels that are like English hotels, complaining of tea that doesn’t measure up to English standards, and gathering with other English tourists. So it is in literature, if a man brings his modernity to bear on everything he reads. He only looks and sees the bits that resemble his own time.[5]

The second way is likened to the sort of traveling where one drinks the local drinks and eats the local food and consorts with the natives, seeing what their life is like from their own point of view, and returning from a journey with altered opinions and feelings. So it would be with older literature. It would require you to immerse yourself in the era, studying other works that describe the period to shine light on the literature you are reading. But Lewis holds up a cautionary finger. What may happen if you adopt this approach is that you will come to understand that your first reading of a historical work was not really historically accurate, but was modern insofar as you constructed it yourself out of modern preconceptions that you brought to the work.[6]

Many, if not all of us, approach historical works of art this way. Unless we intentionally study to understand what those who live in these times really thought and believed, we will never achieve the type of travel that allows us to consort with the natives. It is difficult work. To attempt to understand these principles, I read Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, followed immediately by Paradise Lost. Though Lewis’s knowledge was helpful in enabling me to understand the text from a different perspective than I would have brought without it, I felt no sense of immersion, nor much awareness of the medieval scholastic to be found in Mark Neal, to borrow from Lewis’s image. And yet Lewis feels that it is vital for us to make the effort through an intense and disciplined effort of our imaginations. He writes that “we want to know—therefore, as far as may be, we want to live through for ourselves—the experience of men long dead.”[7] We achieve this through the second mode of travel described earlier.

Why this strenuous effort of travel, of the historical imagination? And how can we achieve it? Lewis believes it is worth it simply for the enjoyment, but also because it leads us on to things that we could never meet in our own time, to “modes of feeling, flavours, atmospheres, nowhere accessible but by a mental journey into the real past.”[8] Elsewhere, Lewis suggests that his own eyes are not enough for him, that he would see what others have seen, what others have imagined, even how the world appears to the senses of animals such as a dog or bee.

Enjoyment or experience of past modes of thinking seems a bit of a thin compensation compared to the arduous labor we must undergo in order to access it. To those literarily or historically inclined, the reward might be worth the effort. But we are not all scholars. Notwithstanding, most of us already experience and use the historical imagination to varying degrees, though we are probably apt to label it ‘daydreaming,’ as we are probably apt to label all of imagination. I would suggest that this understanding runs parallel to and informs Lewis’s understanding.

It functions through experiences that occur when certain landscapes or natural phenomena react powerfully on our minds and imaginations. G.K. Chesterton calls it being the “heir of the ages.” A useful term might be liminal space, a space where we feel as if we are on a threshold, an actual encounter with a particular place in which we access a certain receptivity that taps into our memory repositories and all of the images we have stored there to alter our immediate perception of reality. Particularly, the images of our imaginative experience gleaned through books or other media. This alteration of perception is an experience of the past, of the ages, in an almost tangible way. We feel, in some sense, as if we have crossed over. This all sounds very mystical, but in fact it isn’t.  Chesterton describes it in terms of being sympathetic to beliefs in which one doesn’t put any credence. He writes thus:

Nevertheless, there are some of us who do hold that the metaphor of inheritance from human history is a true metaphor, and that any man who is cut off from the past, and content with the future, is a man most unjustly disinherited; and all the more unjustly if he is happy in his lot, and is not permitted even to know what he has lost. And I, for one, believe that the mind of man is at its largest, and especially at its broadest, when it feels the brotherhood of humanity linking it up with remote and primitive and even barbaric things.[9]

He goes on to describe four stages in the spiritual story of humanity as discovered by historian Christopher Dawson. At each stage, he disavows belief in that particular stage, but is nevertheless sympathetic towards it in his imagination. For example, the first stage is that of the medicine man, one who could release the mysterious forces of nature. Now Chesterton says he cannot be content with this magic, but also that he cannot countenance, and indeed would not consider large-minded or imaginative those who have no sympathy with it. “It is quite natural to me,” he writes, “walking in the woods, to wonder fancifully whether whistling back the note of a certain bird, or tasting the juice of a certain berry, would release a glamour or give back a fairyland.” This, he writes, is being the heir of the ages.

I have had this experience myself, many times. Once, hiking along the edge of a forest in a sunken lane, my perception of the characteristics of the surrounding environment called forth a deeply imaginative response in which I felt as if I had just stumbled from the modern world into the remote past. And not just a historically remote past, but almost an apotheosis of a remote, deeply felt imagined past, where just about anything could happen. It was almost a tangible feeling of entering something utterly foreign. I want to suggest that when we experience this, we are using the historical imagination.

This is not a unique experience. I believe most of us experience it to varying degrees. Author Robert Macfarlane, who wrote about path walking in his book entitled The Old Ways, tells of a similar experience and indeed attempts to categorize this experience. He describes walking the Broomway, one of Britain’s deadliest paths. A map of the Essex coastline shows this footpath running straight out to sea. It has claimed the lives of more than one hundred people, because out on the Broomway, disorientation is likely due to weather: mist, rain, fog. The tide comes in quickly, faster than a man can run. Macfarlane describes the disorientation he experienced as he ventured far out on this path and all of the familiar landmarks vanished in the distance. The similarity in feature and color of sky and sea eradicated perceptual cues that led to disequilibrium. The author describes it this way:

My brain was beginning to move unusually, worked upon and changed by the mind-altering substances of this offshore world, and by the elation that arose from the counter-intuition of walking securely on water. Out there, nothing could be only itself. The eye fed on false colour-values. Similes and metaphors bred and budded. Mirages of scale occurred, and tricks of depth. Gull-eagles dipped and glided in the outer reaches of the mist. The sand served as the water’s ‘tain’, from the French for ‘tin’, being the lusterless backing of a mirror that makes reflection possible but limits the onward gaze, disallowing the view of a concept beyond that point.[10]

Macfarlane attempts to find a term to describe these kinds of experiences where we transition from a known world to a seemingly unknown. “They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.”[11]

Again, many of us would dismiss experiences like this, but that is partly because we have never had a nuanced understanding of the imagination. I maintain that these experiences, if we embrace them, are ways of using the historical imagination to be the heir of all the ages. They are not random daydreams. The argument could be made that we need not ascribe the category of history to these experiences, but I think we experience them as historical events, because we experience them in time. There is a dissociative power present that is akin to what we might term ‘time travel.’ And with these experiences, we feel a greater depth and texture to life and a greater sense of mystery. Now I would maintain that these experiences, while valuable, are a more undisciplined way to use the historical imagination.

This brings us back to Lewis’s notion of the historical imagination allowing us to experience modes of thinking and feeling we otherwise would not access. In those experiences described previously, we could be said to inhabit a time with a set of feelings commensurate to it. We are acting and thinking as if it were true. This is what Lewis would ultimately like us to achieve with the historical imagination, to act as if what we are experiencing is true, even if by reason alone, we know better. And the discipline is how we apply this apprehension to actual historical works of art and literature. The goal is to develop this perception, to be able to use the imagination to experience the world “as if,” not to dismiss it as fanciful.

Lewis offers us an additional incentive, perhaps the most important one, to use the historical imagination: “To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an Eighteenth-Century Londoner while reading Johnson.”[12] It would appear that Lewis does not believe we can enjoy our full humanity without using the historical imagination. This is a strong statement. But it does not seem that Lewis expects everyone to achieve this with the same degree of success. He makes this clear by the phrase “so far as in you lies.” If history is not lost, as Lewis maintains, if indeed our present worldviews are built on the past, then an understanding of that past would logically enlarge our understanding of our own humanity as well as that of others. Thus we approach a closer approximation of truth which is the ultimate goal, not only of the historical imagination, but of any imaginative endeavor.




[1] Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. p. 1 

[2] Ibid

[3] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. p. 62-63

[4] Ibid. p.64

[5] Lewis, C.S. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. p. 2

[6] Ibid. p.3

[7] Ibid. p.2

[8] Ibid. p.3

[9] Chesterton, G.K. Avowals and Denials. p. 82

[10] Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. p. 62


9 Ways to Cultivate a Beneficial Imagination, With Some Help From C.S. Lewis

If you think imagination is only for artists or creatives, think again. I believe we're all artists in one way or another, with gifts that can be enhanced and developed through imaginative growth. These ideas offer some hints on how to access the imagination in a world that doesn't often value or encourage its beneficial growth or see it as a viable source of information about truth and reality equal to what reason can provide. Like anything else, the imagination atrophies if it is not used well. I believe our collective imagination has atrophied to the point where we no longer trust it and relegate it to the realm of make-believe. Author C.S. Lewis had a different understanding that allowed imagination an equal place on the scale with reason. And it is this understanding that I believe is vital for us to recover. 

1. Value the Imagination.

C.S. Lewis possessed a nuanced understanding of the imagination. That is, he believed it was not simply one thing or one entity. It had facets, like a gemstone, and each facet provided a different way to understand reality. Our culture sees imagination as the realm of make-believe, that world of children and stories, but ultimately false. Lewis didn't believe this was the case. He believed that the imagination could be used for both good and evil, but ultimately, if rightly used, it enabled us to understand truths about reality in a way reason could never provide. This was especially true for Lewis in matters of faith. Our starting point must be to believe that the imagination offers us more than simply make-believe, that somehow the history of art and creativity point to something more than merely the imaginary.

2. Throw Your Phone Into the Ocean. 

I stole this one from writer Austin Kleon. His idea is more directly related to reading, but the principle applies to imagination as well. If we turn off our devices from time to time, it puts us in a more receptive and less distracted mood. When we aren't receiving tons of stimuli from our phones, our minds are free to wander, to be more open to possibility and creativity. 

3. Slow Down.

Our hyper-connected and hyper-busy culture doesn't encourage us to climb up on a rock above the current and let the world go by. Others might think we are old-fashioned, and we ourselves might think we are being left behind, but this is simply one of the deepest habits of the digital mind. Constant change is the new constant. If it doesn't move, it dies. Constant movement is antithetical to reflection and the space to allow creativity to flourish. Why not take a couple hours on a day when the sky is full of great cloudscapes to simply lie on your back and stare and drift. Often times the best ideas come to us when we step outside of the stream. C.S. Lewis used to walk for miles in the country or spend hours upon hours reading. Charles Dickens did the same thing. In fact, Dickens would do much of his writing while walking these great distances.

4. Look Carefully. Listen. Focus.

Separate from the expected. Wonder. Dive more deeply into something you're interested in. Look at the common things you take for granted. A tree contains a great number of mysteries. A telephone pole has the story of its life stamped on its side. A stop sign has eight sides for a reason. These are trivial examples, but when you look more closely at any given thing, you begin to see a deeper story and greater revealed truths. Developing a beneficial imagination means allowing for not only freedom, but the discipline of focus. Lewis called this type of seeing or looking the satisfied imagination. This type of imagination found delight in the familiar and the mundane.

5. Explore the Path Less Traveled.

Robert Frost was right. Practice directed serendipity. Discover what you didn’t know you wanted and needed. Begin with no idea of the end. Minimize the rational and logical. Author John Stilgoe writes, “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind.” Allow yourself to wander, to drift. This could be a physical wandering, a mental wandering or a digital wandering. The important thing is to begin with something intriguing and then let it take you on a journey with an unknown destination. Who knows what you'll find.

6. Kill the Critic.

Don't create and analyze at the same time. I can't tell you how many times my internal critic has quelled an idea before I even had time to think about it. Unfortunately, the critic will always have a voice, but the goal is to create regardless of what it tells you. Let it babble in the background while you continue to create. Once you learn how to tune it out, you'll be able to develop ideas without judgment. The critic will come in handy after you've had time to flesh out your idea, but not before. 

7. Go Analog. 

Our imaginations have been hijacked for so long by the onslaught of digital technologies that we often feel lost without them. They have become our brains. As difficult as it can be to separate, it is a necessary exercise from time to time. You will access a different facet of your imagination by rediscovering pen and paper and glue and colored pencils and a pair of scissors. Writing by hand activates a different part of your mind than typing on a computer keyboard. 

8. Share with Others.

Imagination shared in community can be a great thing. Even if it's a spouse or one other friend, sharing ideas not only helps us to think more accurately about what we've created, but can enable someone else to see something differently. We are limited by our own understandings, and we need the eyes of others. And others can spark ideas in ourselves that we would never have thought of. Lewis was part of a famous group of men called the Inklings who gathered regularly in Lewis's rooms smoke pipes and share their creative works with each other and receive feedback.

9. Trouble Getting Ideas?

Borrow someone else's idea and let it be the starting point. Then improve on it and create your own take. C.S. Lewis himself did this when he rewrote the myth of Cupid and Psyche and published it as Til We Have Faces. Even in The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis was drawing on all sorts of myths and outside sources. Author Austin Kleon believes that all art is theft. We simply borrow what others have done and add our own viewpoint. 

Want to know more about C.S. Lewis's imagination? Click below to get two free chapters from The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis.

5 Big Ideas From C.S. Lewis You Should Know About

I just arrived home from Oxford where I was teaching American students in a study abroad program about imagination and theology in the writings of C.S. Lewis. We read excerpts from selected texts and my goal was to enable the students to leave the class knowing just a few things; not a huge assemblage of facts they would quickly forget, but several key ideas that were vital to Lewis and that are repeated over and over again in his work. This post takes a look at five of these ideas.

1. We must wake up.

Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory that "you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us."[1] He also writes in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer that to apprehend God, "the real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."[2]

The true perception of reality around us is not something at which we are very adept. We notice but we don't actually see. Familiarity breeds contempt in all of our lives. A tree is just a tree. But in our unawareness, or sleepiness, we aren't even aware of the need to see the tree. G.K. Chesterton rightly notes that "there is a law in the darkest of the books of life and it is this: if you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time."[3] But that thousandth look requires awareness of our sleepiness and just about everything Lewis writes is an attempt to get us to this point of awareness which is the first step to waking up. Perceiving reality more clearly re-enchants the familiar, and allows us to see all of the material world charged with God.

2. God and reality are iconoclastic.

We are proficient at making idols in our lives. We fashion them around relationships, institutions, events, our past, our future, our job, our longings. We think the idol will deliver the happiness or fulfillment we seek if we can just attain what we long for. Lewis writes that all reality is iconoclastic. It will break every idol we make of it. We can choose to live in the fantasy and worship the idol, but it will break our hearts every time. We must be able to attain the point of living in reality, of choosing the real over the ideal. It is only in this place of radical acceptance that we can begin the work of waking up.

No change in this life comes without disequilibrium, and paradoxically, in the difficult times when we see reality as it is, we experience the most growth. Similarly, Lewis says that God is the great iconoclast. "Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter."[4] Because God is outside our experience and because as an infinite being he shatters the category of definition, we can't use words to describe God the way we can material reality.

We must tell stories and engage our imaginations. Jesus told parables, extended similes and metaphors to explain these spiritual realities. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed. Like yeast. Like treasure hidden in a field. Like a merchant looking for fine pearls. It is nearly impossible to grasp God with our reason, and reason is the region where we live. Therefore any understanding of God we have must be provisional. We must allow him to continue to break the understanding we have to enable better and clearer understanding to take its place.

3. Atmosphere is important.

What does Lewis mean by this? In reading a story, the feeling or sense or quality of immersion that allowed a reader to imaginatively inhabit it was chiefly important to Lewis. To bask in the story itself without analyzing it was the goal. He writes about why we return again and again to certain books. He says it "is like going back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for its. . . what? for itself, to a region for its whole atmosphere--to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness."[5]

In the same way he read James Fenimore Cooper's books for the quality of "redskinnery" as he describes the world of the native Americans or the sense of the deathly he received from H. Rider Haggard's novel King Solomon's Mines. For Lewis, the experience was most notable in reading, but I think it could be experienced many ways. For example, watching films again and again or traveling repeatedly to a well-loved place. When we experience something by simply basking in its atmosphere and not attempting to define it, Lewis says that we can receive certain truths about reality in a way we cannot if we stop to think about what we're doing.

For Lewis there are two ways of seeing anything: looking at, or looking along. One is seeing, the other experiencing. We cannot do both at the same time and either one gives us a different understanding. Lewis writes that we live in time and have longings for how a thing will be or what we will feel, but then once we get there, time goes on and we haven't achieved what we really were looking for.

For example, when I visit Oxford, I always have the goal to get the true feel of the place, to somehow enter into its atmosphere in a way that will let me into something I feel excluded from. But it never happens. I get there and I have responsibilities and I never seem able to find what I'm searching for. And the object of this search isn't even very well defined. Lewis writes that we are always searching for the nonsuccessive in a life of successive moments and that sometimes, in art that is done well, we can get close to grasping our longings in a way not normally available to us. But we do this through a work of art or a place's "atmosphere," by inhabiting it and letting it work its magic on us. 

4. All of our longings have an end.

Our need to capture the nonsuccessive in a life of successiveness is really a picture of our often ill-defined desires and longings. We think a certain thing or person or place or event somewhere in the future will finally satisfy us, that we will finally arrive and be living the life of which we currently feel deprived. Lewis writes, "the belief that the very formula of universal process is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate. . . is perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world."[6] It is the idea of universal evolutionism.

Our experience suggests otherwise, though this myth of universal progress is so ingrained in us that we find it difficult to accept the idea that it doesn't actually exist. Lewis writes extensively of his longings, what he calls joy, and the quest that ended in his understanding that all of his longings were ultimately a longing for God, and that the things which produce the longing are merely reminders, not the thing itself. Understanding this and reminding ourselves again and again when we try to fulfill our longings with things apart from God is one of the ways in which we begin to wake up.

5. We must see with others' eyes.

At the conclusion of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis writes,

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.[7]

In order for us to wake up, to identify the true end of all our longings, to engage in beneficial iconoclasm, we need others. Lewis writes that we live in a narrow prison of self. We have to have others' visions and understandings of the world or we will never expand our own understanding. So we need Lewis, we need the great works of literature and film and art, we need our friends and families. It is easy for us to get trapped in our own narrow understanding, to remain comfortable and not engage with unfamiliar and uncomfortable ideas. Humility and willingness to listen to others enables us to overcome these obstacles.



[1] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. "The Weight of Glory." New York: The            Macmillan Company, 1949. p. 5.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. p. 101.

[3] Chesterton, G.K. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The Collected Works of G.K Chesterton. Compiled by Denis J. Conlon. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. p. 227.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. p. 109.

[5] Lewis, C.S. Spenser's Images of Life. Ed. Alastair Fowler. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. p. 115.

[6] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. "Is Theology Poetry?" New York: The            Macmillan Company, 1949. p. 90.

[7] Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. p. 140.

5 Things To Learn From C.S. Lewis's Autobiography

1. Our Longings Are Often Misplaced

Lewis writes frequently about longing and the experiences that triggered it for him. These are not simply the longing for earthly pleasures, but nameless, unidentifiable and intense experiences of longing that could be triggered by just about anything. Lewis describes how these longings were triggered by a tiny garden his brother had built on the lid of a biscuit tin, Norse myth, Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin, works of poetry and certain illustrations in books. He identifies these experiences as joy. Lewis later understands that we must not confuse the longings with what the longings actually point to. All our intense desires or joys are not longings to get back to a particular thing itself, but are merely the vehicle or conduit for some object beyond. Lewis eventually understands this object to be God. 

In my own life I have certainly confused longings with what the longings pointed to. The scent of certain flowers brings back memories of childhood and with them the desire to go back and recapture those feelings, those experiences. But Lewis says that if we could go back, even what we were feeling then would simply be a memory of something even more distant. Because we are made for another world, all our lives we have desires which this world cannot fulfill. Our task is to understand that these experiences actually point to our desire for God and not to make idols of them that will never satisfy us.

2. Reason and Imagination Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Our reason and imagination both work together to give us a fuller understanding of truth and reality. For the first half of Lewis's life, these two parts of his mind were sharply divided. He understood the world through his reason alone, even though his imagination was perhaps the more vital entity. He believed that the life of the imagination, which he loved, was simply imaginary. Everything he believed to be real he saw as meaningless. Only once he converted to Christianity did he find that the two parts of his mind were reconciled in Christ and that the imaginative part could provide an additional understanding of truth that reason alone could not. 

From the time we are children, we are trained for the most part to believe that the imagination is simply "make believe." Lewis suggests that our task is to wake up to a fuller understanding and experience of the imagination as a vehicle about the true nature of reality and God.

3. We Must Not Engage in Chronological Snobbery 

As a materialist, Lewis prided himself on the blind acceptance of the current intellectual climate and a rejection of everything in the past. Lewis's friend Owen Barfield helped him to understand that just because a particular model or worldview was held hundreds of years ago doesn't mean that it is obsolete now and cannot influence or teach us. One must discover why a model or position is no longer held. Many of the climates in the past could provide truth, but were lost to the future simply because they went out of fashion. Lewis calls this chronological snobbery. We must always be willing to ask questions before making any judgments about the past and its ways of understanding the world. Our current model will likely be ridiculed and dismissed by people 200 years from now. This doesn't mean it has no value.

4. The Imagination Contains Distinctions

In order to effectively describe his experience, Lewis categorized the imagination, dividing it into three parts.

1. Reverie, Day Dream, Wish-Fulfilling Fantasy. This is the type of imagination where we think of ourself as the hero of some drama we create, or of how our world would be if we were unimaginable beautiful. It is focused on the self. Lewis beautifully illustrates this in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy is looking through the magician's book of spells and comes on a spell "to make one beautiful beyond the lot of mortals."

2. Invention. Things we create in which we do not play a part. Lewis's creation of animal land was an example. He criticizes his own creation of animal land for not having any poetry or romance. This does not mean that this distinction cannot contain romance.

3. Experiences of Joy. Lewis views this as the highest distinction of imagination. It is the experience of longing, what Lewis call sehnsucht, associated with an object we can never possess in this world. It might also be translated as "intensely missing," or "unsatisfied desire." It is the experience described in the first point at the beginning of this post. 

While we cannot will experiences of joy to happen, we can appreciate distinctions of the imagination and engage in those that are beneficial and avoid those that are negative and harmful.

5. We can Find Balance in the Roughness and Density of Life

Lewis had initially been educated through a study of the classics, that is, the great literature of the ancient world. Even prior to his conversion to Christianity, when he later began to read English literature, he describes how among all the writers he read, only the Christian writers such as John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Browne, Samuel Johnson, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser wrote material which contained depth and could be trusted. The writings of George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire and others, Lewis called "tinny," thin and too simple. "The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books," Lewis writes. What did he mean by this? I understand it to mean that these writers simply did not account for the way life is actually lived by human beings with all the attendant emotions, fears, desires, hopes, sorrows, joys etc. The Christian authors wrote about the full range of human experience. Why should we care about this? Because the roughness and density of life doesn't shy away from ambiguity or complexity. It doesn't hold up one perspective as the be all and end all. It allows for other perspectives and new insights. It looks at the world through the eyes of others, not simply through the eyes of the world as it is for me. It doesn't turn away from the evil or the ugly, but neither does it glorify it. It provides a balanced approach to understanding and living life.

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