Monday, February 21, 2005

Truth Over Friendship

C.S. Lewis is a wonderful writer and usually right about what he says. So despite his being an ally in the struggle against modern looonacy, it is not possible to excuse his abuse of "nature." In chapter 1 of The Four Loves, he writes,

If you take nature as teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. (19)
But nature can only fail to teach if she is purely passivethe "classical modern" or "nature as matter" use of the wordand she is not purely passive. As we have seen, nature possesses an inner activity of her own. Of course, Lewis is here arguing largely with Romantic nature worshippers, like Wordsworth, who profess a love for nature that is really self-involved sentimentality. Fine. But then Lewis writes,
Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. (20)
One might expect that a Christian (and particularly a Protestant) like Mr. Lewis would have in the course of his studies come across this line from St. Paul's letter to the Romans (1:20):

For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen—his everlasting power and also divinity—being understood by the things that are made.

The opposite of the bad isn't always good: half-truths are more insidious than lies, so the devil mixes good in with the bad. In fact, merely opposing the devil effectively gives him control (remember Custer at the end of Little Big Man). In order to reach the truth, it is not sufficient to reject the excesses of modernity. The conception of nature is one instance in which Mr. Lewis's contrarian strategy has betrayed him.
Notes

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (New York: Harcourt, 1988), ch 1, p 12.

Little Big Man, 1970, dir. Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman [a morally cynical film; not highly recommended]

From a biographical point of view, it is interesting that Lewis published The Abolition of Man in 1943, and The Four Loves in 1960 (from lectures recorded in 1957). In the former, he edges to the limit of his understanding of nature as matter, while in the latter, he seems to have fully reverted to the modern zeitgeist's reductionistic understanding.

1 comment:

MC said...

Does he ever explain where he did learn about that God of glory and infinite majesty?

I suppose nature can only teach those willing to learn. If a man only sees nature and not the Word behind it then I think he will indeed be taught very little. He will project himself on nature and not see God at all. Being fascinated by the "inner activity" of nature does not of itself lead one recognize God.

So what does nature teach if anything?