Josiah Swanson

August 14, 2018

C.S. Lewis and the Truth about Pleasure

        If I could take time to study any idea in its exhaustion, it would be pleasure.  My understanding of this concept has really evolved over the course of my life.  It’s become of great interest to me.

        The thing that really got me reeling was the idea that some pleasures are good or true while others are bad or illicit.  This may be obvious, but how does one distinguish between the two types?  And, how does one measure the goodness or badness of a pleasure?

        If anything is universal, human desire for pleasure is.  Only as a Christian have I began to identify the mechanism at work in our longing for satisfaction.  C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite writers of the twentieth-century, has some beautiful prose on the idea.  In a sermon he preached during the Second World War, he began by stating that nineteen out of twenty good men would claim unselfishness as the most important of virtues.  Lewis said they had it wrong.  The most important virtue is love.  Unselfishness designates only a withholding from the individual.  It’s passive and not active.  “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial,” Lewis said, “but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”  Somewhere along the way, we decided that the desire of our own good and our hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing.

        A mercenary might fight or marry so as to attain some kind of reward.  But, a battle’s true reward is victory and marriage’s true reward is love.  And Lewis remarked, “the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consumption.”

        As I follow Jesus, I don’t (or I ought not to) seek specified rewards (besides, there are no specified rewards as per Biblical text besides the somewhat vague descriptions of heavenly riches, etc.), but I will follow Jesus until I discover that my reward in the end will simply be my following Jesus!  True pleasure will spring naturally from my following Jesus and, by nature, will not distract me from important matters.

        If the reader does not follow Jesus, I suppose these rules ought to work.  Although I cannot call them true pleasures in my use of the phrase, the reader’s pleasures will be found as he aims towards a specified target.  And, those pleasures will not distract him from accomplishing his task.  Rather, these pleasure will refresh the reader and rejuvenate him as he partakes of them.

        The concept of true pleasure can now begin to make sense.  But, what of illicit pleasure?  Illicit pleasure is that which distracts, that which is unfulfilling, and usually that which is instantaneous.  While true pleasure is pure, illicit pleasure is hollow.  But only once having tasted it do we discover how empty it was.  At first glance, an illicit pleasure seems quite like the real pleasure, with subtle exceptions, the most significant being the absence of the pleasure-Giver.  He won’t be found in the illicit pleasures.  And, regardless of the reader’s goal in life, the illicit pleasure would be void of long-term fulfillment.  The illicit pleasure claims to serve the individual here and now and is usually more sensually tempting than the true pleasure.  But, according to the Holy Word, in whatever way the illicit pleasure lacks, the true pleasure will deliver in its fullest and most pure form!

        Despite our ambivalence, within each of our souls is a desire for the true pleasure which can only be found in the heavenly pursuit.  This pursuit is often explained as being one thing or another.  Lewis touched on this.  “In speaking of our far-off country, which we find in ourselves now, I feel a certain shyness,” he said, “I am almost committing an indecency.  I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you–the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence…  We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared inner experience.  We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.  Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.  Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But all that is a cheat.  If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.  The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.  These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.  For they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

        Lewis tackles the concept from another angle in his last book, The Screwtape Letters.  This narrative follows a man as he is being tempted by a young demon.  The chapters unfold as the demon’s uncle councils the trainee and teaches him methods by which humans can be led astray, or at least distracted.  For, from the demon’s perspective, a distracted human is just as good as, maybe even better than, a human who is committed to doing evil.

        The young demon was doing a terrific job with his human patient until he allowed the man to do something which, unfortunately (for the demon), brought him so much closer to the Enemy’s (God’s) side.  “My dear Wormwood,” Screwtape wrote in response to his nephew, “it seems to me that you take a great many pages to tell a very simple story.  The long and the short of it is that you have let the man slip through your fingers.  The situation is very grave…  As you ought to have known, the asphyxiating cloud which prevented your attacking the patient on his walk back from the old mill, is a well-known phenomenon.  It is the Enemy’s most barbarous weapon, and generally appears when He is directly present to the patient under certain mode not yet fully classified…  On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends.  In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there–a walk through the country he really likes, and taken alone.  In other words you allowed him two real Pleasures.  Were you so ignorant as to not see the danger of this?  The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality…  How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet?  Didn’t you foresee that it would just kill by contrast all the trumpery which you have been so laboriously teaching him to value?  And that the sort of pleasure which the book and the walk gave him was the most dangerous of all?  That it would peel off from his sensibility the kind of crust you have been forming on it, and make him feel that he was coming home, recovering himself?”

        The evidence that pleasure (and pain for that matter) brings to the mystery of life does so much damage to all the materialistic explanations of the universe.  Although a man’s hunger for bread doesn’t prove that he will get to eat any, Lewis explained, it at least proves that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substance exists.  “In the same way,” he said, “though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.”

        No matter to whom this is written or what that reader believes, this advice is submitted: pick up a book and read, go on a walk to catch the evening air.  A lesson might be learned, perhaps the reader will notice something that hadn’t been noticed in time’s past.  And, maybe, just maybe, the demons will be squealing because he will find himself closer to his heavenly Father than ever before.