Lewis the Young Philosopher, 1917-1919

By Adam Barkman - Ancaster, Ontario, Canada - Advent/Christmas 2010



Pop culture sensation C. S. Lewis was first a philosopher, then a theologian. While this thesis is still disputed by some, in recent years, quite a bit of scholarly attention has been given to Lewis the philosopher.


Lewis's conversion to Christianity was, in his own words, almost "purely philosophical” in nature. In an autobiographical note later in life, he wrote, "I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on thirty. Not an emotional conversion: almost purely philosophical." He explained to one inquirer, "My own history was so mixed up with technical philosophy as to be useless to the general [public]," and to another, "The details of my own conversion were so technically philosophical on one side, and so intimate on the other that they can’t be used in the way you suggest." It is a bit surprising, then, that while many Lewis scholars have discussed the Oxford Don’s conversion -- particularly his belief that myth and reason are reconciled in Christianity -- few have paid careful attention to Lewis's philosophical journey to Christianity.


Of course, Lewis himself is partly to blame for the fact that his journey to Christianity has been largely discussed by English professors and theologians and not philosophers. In the preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress, he described his philosophical journey only in broad and imprecise terms: “On the intellectual side my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity." Naturally, because this outline was intended as a non-technical sketch for general readers, he should not be faulted for inaccuracy. However, Lewis's philosophical journey was far more complex than he or others have made it seem, for he passed through not five philosophical phases but seven or eight: from 1909-1917, Lewis subscribed to Lucretian/Epicurean materialism; from 1917-1919, pseudo-Manichean dualism; from 1919-1923, Stoical materialism; from 1923-1924, absolute idealism; from 1924-1926, subjective idealism; from 1927-1929, absolute idealism (again); from 1929-1931, some sort of theism; and from 1931-1963, Neoplatonic Christianity.


Here, I would like to focus on Lewis's second, pseudo-Manichean phase, starting with his views on metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics, and then moving on to ethics and socio-political philosophy. In short, I wish to paint a picture -- warts and all -- of Lewis the young philosopher, from 1917-1919.



"Atoms dead could never thus wake the human heart of us"


After Lewis left Great Bookham for Oxford and, soon after, the trenches of France to fight in the Great War, he developed a taste for philosophy. Of course, prior to the war, he had read many philosophical treatises and books, which accounted for his absorption in Lucretian materialism from 1909 to 1917. However, it was really only during the war that he began to study philosophy seriously. In the fall of 1917, he wrote to his influential friend Arthur Greeves, who was already a serious Christian, "Philosophy or metaphysics is my great find at present: all other questions really seem irrelevant till its ones are solved. I think you should take it up -- its probing would at least save you from the intellectual stagnation that usually awaits a man who has found complete satisfaction in some traditional religious system."


The books that impressed Lewis the most between the years 1917 and 1919 were George Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution and Plato's Phaedrus, Phaedo and Republic. Lewis studied the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, John Locke, and David Hume in this period, but Berkeley, Bergson, and Plato exercised the greatest influence on his thinking, and resonated with his keen interest in myth and the occult at this time.

Berkeley, the eighteenth-century founder of subjective idealism (or "immaterialism" as he called it), is possibly the most underrated philosophical influence on Lewis, for, among other things, Berkeley was the first to get Lewis interested in metaphysical questions. As Lewis wrote to Greeves, "This week I have been reading the works of Bishop Berkeley, an eighteenth century country man of ours, & philosopher. Published under the title of 'Principles of Human Knowledge etc' in the Everyman. The part I have been reading is 3 dialogues written to prove the existence of God -- which he does by disproving the existence of matter. The reasoning is very subtle but not difficult."


Berkeley's idealist metaphysics, which states that things are either spirit or ideas in spirit (which entails that material things are simply ideas), provided Lewis the Lucretian materialist with an important challenge: how can we know that matter has existence independent of spirit? Moved by the force of Berkeley's arguments against matter, Lewis started to see that his simplistic materialism was flawed and in need of the spiritual. However, unlike Berkeley, Lewis couldn’t bring himself to subscribe fully to subjective idealism. Instead, Lewis rooted his thoughts in a type of metaphysical dualism that claims that there are two absolute principles: spirit and matter.


Spurred on by Berkeley’s idealism, Lewis's epistemology wavered between the realist epistemology of his Lucretian materialism, which holds that things in a given domain exist independently of knowledge or experience of them, and Berkeleyan antirealism, which claims that all objects of thought must make essential reference to the thinker and the conditions under which the thinking occurs. Hence, in another letter to Greeves, in May of 1918, Lewis wrote: "If beauty were really in the tree, then two people who both had normal eyes would be bound to see the same beauty. But nothing is easier than to find two people one of whom would see beauty and other see no beauty in the same tree. Therefore the beauty cannot be in the tree but in some obscure and non-material point of view or relation between the mind of the perceiver and the sensations which the tree -- very indirectly -- causes in the mind."

With apparent inconsistency, Lewis followed Berkeley the antirealist in maintaining that secondary qualities, such as color, are the product of Spirit or spirits interacting with man’s spirit, and he also opposed Berkeley in claiming that the object itself and its primary qualities, such as hardness, really exist in the external world and not just as ideas in the spirit. 

In addition to Berkeley, Bergson played an important role in the development of Lewis's budding pseudo-Manichean dualism. Lewis’s dualism was of a different sort than Bergson’s quasi-dualism of the biological and the "spiritual" élan vital -- that mysterious element which, by guiding biological evolution, impels life to overcome the downward entropic drift of matter. However, the mere notion of dualism may have influenced Lewis's new metaphysics. Moreover, it is clear from Lewis's own testimony that he was deeply impressed by Bergson’s emphasis on the beauty inherent in the vitality of life.


Nevertheless, this important Bergsonian lesson was tempered by Lewis's growing interest in Platonic aesthetics, which taught the young philosopher to see Beauty as objective and as a synonym for Spirit. However, while Plato would have said that (material) Nature is beautiful insofar as it reflects (spiritual) Beauty, Lewis was deeply engrossed with Berkeleyan replies to Lockean epistemology. He concluded, in his correspondence with Greeves, that since we cannot know how sensations from the physical world can enter our minds, we have no right attributing any Beauty whatsoever to Nature qua the material, external world:         

"The thing in your last letter with which I most want to disagree is the remark about Beauty and nature; apparently I did not make myself very clear. You say that nature is beautiful, and that is the view we all start with. But let us see what we mean. If you take a tree, for instance, you call it beautiful because of its shape, colour and motions, and perhaps a little because of association. Now these colours etc are sensations in my eye, produced by vibrations on the aether between me and the tree: the real tree is something quite different -- a combination of colourless, shapeless, invisible atoms. It follows then that neither the tree, nor any other material object can be beautiful in itself: I can never see them as they are, and if I could it would give me no delight. The beauty therefore is not in matter at all, but is something purely spiritual, arising mysteriously out of the relation between me & the tree: or perhaps as I suggest in my Song, out of some indwelling spirit behind the matter of the tree -- the Dryad in fact.... You see the conviction is gaining ground on me...that Beauty is the call of the spirit in that something to the spirit in us" (Letter of May 29, 1918).


The "Song" to which he alluded appears in an earlier letter to Greeves, part of which reads, "Atoms dead could never thus/Wake the human heart of us,/Unless the beauty that we see/Part of endless beauty be,/Thronged with spirits that have trod/Where the bright foot-prints of God/Lie fresh upon the heavenly sod."

At this time, largely because of his antirealism in regard to secondary qualities, Lewis denied the beauty of Nature; and because he was relatively humble, he also denied that he himself was the cause of Beauty. Thus, he attributed the idea of Beauty neither to Nature nor to himself but to the living, vital Spirit or to some bond that connects living, vital spirits.   

Consequently, Lewis's elevated view of Beauty and the living, vital Spirit moved him towards a kind of Manicheanism or Gnostic dualism wherein "nature is wholly diabolical & malevolent and God, if he exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangement." As Lewis explained to Greeves:


"You will be surprised and I expect, not a little amused to hear that my views at present are getting almost monastic about all the lusts of the flesh. They seem to me to extend the dominion of matter over us: and, out here, where I see spirit continually dodging matter (shells, bullets, animal fears, animal pains) I have formulated my equation Matter = Nature = Satan. And on the other side Beauty, the only spiritual & not-natural thing that I have yet found.... You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist; and that we come in contact with the spiritual element by means of these 'thrills' [that is, the mysterious connection between an individual and an object of beauty, like a tree]. I fancy that there is Something right outside time & place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter’s great enemy: and that Beauty is the call of the spirit in that something to the spirit in us. You see how frankly I admit my views have changed" (Letter of May 29, 1918).

On top of all this, Lewis's new pseudo-Manicheanism deeply affected his views on myth and the occult. While at Oxford and in the trenches, he was torn between myth and occult spiritualism on the one hand and Lucretian materialism on the other. During the war, he chose to read little in the way of myth, preferring, as we know, to read books on philosophy. However, while this increased attention to philosophy might have swayed Lewis's divided mind in favor of materialist philosophy against myth and occultism, this was not at all the case, as is evident in his 1919 poem "The Philosopher," which reveals his desire for a philosophy that can be reconciled with myth. Lewis's love of myth was in fact allied with his new interest in non-materialist philosophy in a struggle against his former materialism, the ultimate result of which was the formation of Lewis's new philosophy, pseudo-Manichean dualism.


The importance of myth in Lewis's pseudo-Manichean dualism is seen in his association of Satan with (material) Nature and Beauty with Spirit, which seems to have derived from his familiarity with Norse mythology, and not only from the anti-materialist philosophers he was encountering and his own wartime experience of seeing the carnage of physical Nature on a monumental scale. In the Norse myths, the world (that is, Nature) was created from the flesh of the evil frost giant Ymir, against whose children the heroic gods struggled. The theomachy of Norse mythology offered Lewis a concept of cosmic warfare which was complementary to that of Manicheanism and his own real life experience of war.

Lewis’s mention here of "Beauty" is also significant. Although Lewis would later distinguish between Beauty and Myth, he didn’t do so at this time. Consequently, he saw his feeling of "Joy," which is a kind of Platonic eros or desire for Heaven, as a desire for Beauty and the beauty inherent in myths. Thus, when Lewis pitted Satan and Nature against Beauty and Spirit, he was using these pairs (in addition to other things) as metaphors for his own inner struggle between Lucreatian materialism and his love of myth.



"One thing you may find in me now -- a vein of asceticism, almost of Puritan practice without the Puritan dogma"


So far we have seen that Lewis came to reject his former Lucretian materialism due to Berkeleyan metaphysics and epistemology, Bergsonian and Platonic aesthetics, and a growing attraction to myths and the occult. Now, if Lewis had been a perfectly consistent follower of a single philosopher or school, it would be easy to locate his ethical and socio-political theories during his pseudo-Manichean phase; for instance, we might be tempted to see him as a divine command theorist like Berkeley. However, Lewis never consistently followed one particular philosophy, and so the only approach open to us is to examine his ethical and socio-political beliefs during his pseudo-Manichean phase as being relatively unrelated to his metaphysical, epistemological and aesthetic beliefs.


During his Lucretian materialist phase, Lewis was a eudaimonist in regard to ethics, meaning that he thought happiness to be the ultimate justification for ethical behavior. However, since he was a Lucretian or Epicurean, he defined happiness as pleasure, where the greatest pleasure is simply the avoidance of pain and suffering. Thus, for the most part, Lewis the Lucretian materialist was a hedonist.

Nonetheless, when Lewis went off to fight in World War I, he had four ethical experiences which shook his hedonism and propelled him toward a manlier version of eudaimonism and a duty-first, deontological ethic, as seen in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

First, Lewis the budding pseudo-Manichean dualist appears to have been simply charmed by moral goodness when he read some essays by G. K. Chesterton. He reported many years later in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

"Strange as it may seem, I liked [Chesterton] for his goodness. I can attribute this taste to myself freely (even at that age) because it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself. I have never felt the dislike of goodness which seems to be quite common in better men than me. 'Smug' and 'smugness' were terms of disapprobation which had never had a place in my critical vocabulary. I lacked the cynic’s nose, the odora canum vis or bloodhound sensitivity for hypocrisy or Pharisaism. It was a matter of taste: I felt the 'charm' of goodness as a man feels the charm of a woman he has no intention of marrying."


Lewis also reported that at this time, he met fellow soldier Laurence Johnson, who was "moving toward Theism" and who Lewis believed was a man genuinely devoted to doing what is right:

"The important thing was that [Johnson] was a man of conscience. I had hardly till now encountered principles in anyone so nearly of my own age and my own sort. The alarming thing is that he took them for granted. It crossed my mind for the first time since my apostasy that the severer virtues might have some relevance to one’s own life. I say 'the severer virtues' because I already had some notion of kindness and faithfulness to friends and generosity about money -- as who has not till he meets the temptation which gives all their opposite vices new and more civil names? But it had not seriously occurred to me that people like ourselves, people like Johnson and me who wanted to know whether beauty was objective or how Aeschylus handled the reconciliation of Zeus and Prometheus, should be attempting strict veracity, chastity or devotion to duty."

Although Lewis's moral life was poor at this time, he did know, from his readings in Plato and possibly Aristotle, that moral education often begins with first doing the right thing, and then later acquiring the right motive for such. As he wrote in Surprised by Joy:

"I had taken it that they [chastity, duty and so on] were not our subjects. There was no discussion between us on the point and I do not think he ever suspected the truth about me. I was at no pains to display it. If this is hypocrisy, then I must conclude that hypocrisy can do a man good. To be ashamed of what you were about to say, to pretend that something which you had meant seriously was only a joke -- this is an ignoble part. But it’s better than not to be ashamed at all. And the distinction between pretending you are better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive. I was, in intention, concealing only a part: I accepted his principles at once, made no attempt internally to defend my own 'unexamined life.' When a boor first enters the society of courteous people what can he do, for a while, except imitate the motions? How can he learn except by imitation?"

As a result of this, during his pseudo-Manichean dualist phase, Lewis put particular emphasis on chastity and courage.

Lewis also at this time began to see the beauty of morality qua morality when he read William Morris: His Work and Influence, in which morality appeared neither as arbitrary or the inscrutable will of a divine being, nor as simply a set of pragmatic rules set up by society, but rather as a kind of art, the proper performance of which leads to genuine loveliness and uprightness. As he explained to his friend Greeves: "Hitherto I had always thought there were only two possible views of morals: either, if you believed in a religion, that they were a god-imposed law; or, if you did not, that they were merely rules for convenience -- 'The rules of our prison-house' as Blake called them. This man [William Morris] gives a third possibility which is very interesting -- regarding them as a kind of art, an object to be pursued for its own beauty."

Lewis went on to say that although the book was neither exciting nor original (he had probably read, or was in the stages of reading, Aristotle’s Ethics), nevertheless it changed his understanding of morality.


Interestingly, Lewis also shared with Morris -- who subscribed, too, to a manly version of eudaimonian ethics -- a deep admiration for Norse mythology, and especially for a vision of the heroic gods' fighting bravely, despite being fully aware that ultimately they would fail in their battle against evil. Earlier, Lewis the Lucretian materialist had identified with the Norse trickster god, Loki, but at this point Lewis admired the Norse gods generally.


The destruction of Lewis's Lokian persona was also assisted by Lewis's greater appreciation for the heroics of the common man who fought in the war. Exposed to many very ordinary men, who, like the Norse gods, fought honestly and bravely for a good higher than the self or the self's desire for freedom from pain, Lewis felt it was no longer right to withdraw into himself, into the self-satisfying spaces of his own mind and imagination.


Thus, Lewis’s ethics began to develop from a soft hedonism which only focused on the avoidance of pain into a nobler ethic that at times seemed excessively ascetic. As he wrote to his friend Greeves toward the end of the war, "You accuse me of talking, 'as your own father might talk': and perhaps that is one thing you may find in me now -- a vein of asceticism, almost of puritan practice without the puritan dogma. I believe in no God, least of all in one that would punish me for the ‘lusts of the flesh’: but I do believe that I have in me a spirit, a chip, shall we say, of universal spirit; and that, since all good & joyful things are spiritual & non-material, I must be careful not to let matter (= nature = Satan, remember) get too great a hold on me, & dull the one spark I have."

Some might be tempted to see Lewis's new ethics as coming from his philosophical interest in Berkeley, but this would be a mistake, for Berkeley's ethics, which rejected universals and hence also the existence of the universal moral law, were divine command ethics -- ethics no different than those espoused by the church in which Lewis had grown up. While there were several other sources for Lewis’s new ethical theory -- certain elements in Plato and others like him, his wartime friends, certain elements in Schopenhauer, Romantic poets with Gnostic leanings, and so on -- it seems clear that Lewis’s pseudo-Manichean, dualist ethics were opposed to the hedonism inherent in eudaimonian ethics. Such ethics, Lewis had come to believe, were the symptom of a cowardly will -- one that could be bribed with feel-good, but ultimately false, answers:  

"I can feel otherwise about the lusts of the flesh: is not desire merely a kind of sugar-plum that nature gives us to make us breed, as she does the beetles and toads so that both we and they may beget more creatures to struggle in the same net: Nature, or the common order of things, has really produced in man a sort of Frankenstein who is learning to shake her off. For man alone of all things can master his instincts" (Letter of May 29, 1918).

This starkly ascetic, manly ethic developed further during Lewis’s next, Stoical materialist phase. However, it is interesting to note that when Lewis remembered the time between his pseudo-Manichean dualist phase and his Stoical materialist phase, while penning The Problem of Pain, he surprisingly did not acknowledge his own moral improvement which occurred during the war: "When I came first to the University I was nearly without a moral conscience as a boy could be. Some faint distaste for cruelty and for meanness about money was my uttermost reach – of chastity, truthfulness, and self-sacrifice I thought as a baboon thinks of classical music." In fairness to the facts (pace Lewis’s description of himself), Lewis's moral life was maturing continally throughout all of his youthful, philosophic phases.


As for the socio-political dimensions of his philosophy at this stage, he seems in fact to have abandoned an earlier interest in politics, rooted in his boyhood, during this period. When Lewis, an Irishman, was very young -- under the age of eleven -- he appears to have been interested in politics. In addition to penning an essay in 1908 on the pros and cons of Irish Home Rule, the boy Lewis wrote numerous stories about Animal-Land, which, imaginatively combined fantasy and politics. These stories owed a considerable amount to Lewis’s politically-minded father. Nevertheless, after Lewis’s mother died, Lewis became less attached to his father and (perhaps as a corollary) less interested in politics. As he wrote to Greeves during the war, "if a man talks to me for an hour about golf, war & politics, I know that his mind is built on different lines from mine." Indeed, while we can only guess what Lewis’s only realist novel, simply entitled The Ulster Novel (1918), would have been like if he had finished it, we do know that throughout the latter part of his Lucretian materialist phase, Lewis maintained that if he were ever to become interested in politics, he would "probably become a nationalist" -- that is, a supporter of Irish Home Rule.


Despite his disinterest in politics, Lewis the Lucretian materialist and Lewis the pseudo-Manichean dualist did comment on the political theory he was reading at the time -- namely that found in Plato's Republic, which in fact he came to loathe. The first canto of Lewis's epic poem "Dymer," which he started to write in 1916, is a passionate attack on Plato’s political and educational system. Lewis's problem with Plato's ideal state was not that Plato had a low opinion of the average man’s competence -- Lewis agreed with that, even in regard to the Irish). Rather, Lewis believed that the Greek philosopher didn’t leave enough room for individual freedom, such as the freedom to choose a vocation, to choose one's spouse, to own property, to read what one likes, and so on. Quite possibly born of his disgust with colonialism and his support for Irish independence, Lewis the romantic philosopher could not tolerate the kinds of restrictions Plato put on the citizens of his republic; indeed, throughout his first three philosophical phases, Lewis's distrust of political totalitarianism was palpable; hence, in various places in his writings he expressed some opposition both to monarchy and, perhaps more surprisingly, to the collective rule of the many. His ultimate concern in politics following World War I, according to a note fron his diary, was the battle of "civilisation against barbarism."



Further up, further in

Throughout this essay I have tried to bring into view pop philosopher C. S. Lewis's generally unnoted phase, as a young man, in a philosophy called pseudo-Manichean dualism. The task has not been easy, since his thinking between 1917 and 1919 sorely lacked coherence. Nevertheless, we have here an interesting portrait of Lewis the young philosopher, on his way to a remarkable Christian conversion, as he struggled both with his own thinking, his moral commitments, and his relationship to the world and to his fellow men in society.


To find out how Lewis's thinking developed from here -- from his pseudo-Manichean dualist phase to his Stoical materialist phase and beyond into the maturity of his thinking as a Christian -- I would direct the reader to David C. Downing’s book, C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert (InterVarsity Press, 2004) or to my own study, C.S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life (Zossima Press, 2009).




Nota bene: This article has been adapted from a chapter in the author's book, Through Common Things: Philosophical Reflections on Global Popular Culture (Hamden, CT: Winged Lion Press, 2010).