Idealism

I have just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, and feel a little perplexed about many things, doubtless because I was reading pages with less than the attention and concentration they deserve. I will have to read it a second time after a rest.

The first thing that strikes me in this autobiographical work is that he begins, not with abstract philosophy, but with his own experience. I have an eerie sense of familiarity with some of his school experiences at prep school and public school. The system I lived in was dramatically reformed since Lewis’ time before World War I. My junior-school (the one in Ambleside) teacher, Charles Hales, was only eight years younger than Lewis and believed in the old-fashioned methods (Thwack! Ouch!). He also taught me to write in proper English and reason logically. My own experience at St Peter’s was that fagging was reduced to a set number of tasks for senior boys and not taking more than half an hour in the morning. However, there was still a spirit of struggle for the highest status and competition reinforced by compulsory games like rugby. I am in occasional contact with our old alumni association, and it is a joy to see a different school based on individual achievement and character-building through positive teaching methods. The fagging and the old monitor-inflicted punishments of singular stupidity are gone, and I am impressed on seeing my School as it is now.

Nevertheless, Lewis lived in another world from mine, and finished up in the trenches in 1917, and luckily was only wounded by a shell that killed another soldier. His way of describing experience of life is definitely in Romantic terms, and he links this movement away from abstract Enlightenment philosophy and metaphysics to German Idealism, notably the school of Jena in the 1790’s in which Novalis had his part. The early twentieth century, like our own time, was overshadowed by materialism and “realism” in terms of thinkers in those days. The keynote was progress and the power of man to shape his own destiny and world. Really, I see little difference in the old arrogance of the British in India (and other parts of the old Empire) and the present-day intervention of the United States in Syria and other middle-eastern countries (Petro-dollar). Two world wars took the stuffing out of much of the positivist arrogance, but it returned in another form.

Lewis’ academic speciality was English literature, which of course implied knowledge of philosophy, and this was his angle of learning a new world view. We need feelings as well as empirical knowledge in our experience. Aesthetic experience would give us other values. He observed that Christians and Romantics wrote in a different way from materialists and realists.

The only non-Christians who seemed to me to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity.

His analysis of his own mind brings me to a new idea of defending Christianity, not through logical or factual proofs, but from the progress of realism to idealism and finally to the acceptance of the Christian revelation. There is much in human experience that we cannot express in words, something of which I have been aware as a child accompanying each sensation of smell and touch, sight and sound. And that feeling of longing and loving without knowing what we yearn for or love…

I was struck in no uncertain way as I read:

What I learned from the Idealist (and still most strongly holds) is the maxim: ‘it is more important that heaven should exist than that of any of us should reach it.’

All of a sudden, our approach to God is not in terms of our own life after death and all the concern about “being saved”, but a gratuitous knowledge and love of the Absolute. No longer to we look to the Church to negotiate between our sins, merits and indulgences! Lewis was at the same time concerned to retain his use of reason. Wisdom has always dictated that the truth is found between two opposing extremes – the in medio stat virtus of St Thomas Aquinas. There is realism and “realism”.

Perhaps Idealism is only one step on the journey to Faith, but our capacity for faith is marred by our experience of evil and the materialism and “reality” of our world. It is the ἔρως that motivates ἀγάπη, the experience that calls the soul to holiness. Both Lewis and I have experienced Sehnsucht very intensely, and surely we wouldn’t experience such longing if its object were futile, that the result would only be bitter disappointment. The idealist tends to believe the fairy-tale narrative of the happy ending. But, are not the Gospels also “good news” rather than the gloom of human wickedness and nihilism? Our world is fallen, but we long for a “new heaven and a new earth”.

Lewis wrote:

Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.

The longing of the Romantic Idealist is directed to what he knows not to be attainable on earth. It seems to me that Idealism is only an intermediate stage towards our knowledge of God and the object of desire and yearning. The same theme runs through St Augustine’s Confessions:

I was not yet in love, yet I loved to love…I sought what I might love, in love with loving.

To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.

It would be a mistake to pursue Romantic Idealism for its own sake and remain at that stage of our lives. It would also be an error to go the way of materialism and demythologising to re-interpret Christianity in that perspective. I will be continuing with a study of German Idealism because I see a potential for re-lighting a flame that has guttered and smouldered for centuries, and without which Christianity loses the savour of its salt. I think that another perusal of Reardon is going to prepare me for tackling some of the original works, or at least their translations into English.

C.S. Lewis is a remarkable milestone of the twentieth century in our Anglican tradition. Let us press on…

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2 Responses to Idealism

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Let us press on…” Very well in keeping with Lewis’s last chapter, there, entitled “The Beginning”, with an epigraph from St. Augustine (for which Arend Smilde provides a translation in his annotations at Lewisiana.nl: ““For it is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge . .. and another to tread the road that leads to it.” Augustine, Confessions VII.21) and a quotation at the end (again, thanks to Arend Smilde) after Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection II.21: “What so thou hearest or seest or feelest that should let thee in thy way, abide not with it wilfully, tarry not for it restfully, behold it not, like it not, dread it not; but aye go forth in thy way, and think that thou wouldest be at Jerusalem”.

    • I think you realise that I have stumbled into a long tradition of German and English mysticism that transformed itself into schools of philosophers after the Enlightenment, going right the way back to St Augustine and other Fathers of the Church! We are so often taken up by our church polemics and organisational concerns that we miss the real Mystery, Christ, going all the way through our history, indefectible and resisting all human sin. If this Lent has brought us this, then it will be the best Lent I have ever lived through!

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