All That is Not Eternal: A Summary of the Four Loves

[Ed. note: the following excerpt is adapted from The Four Loves: C.S. Lewis’s Theology of Love. The entire essay can be found in C.S. Lewis, Life, Works, and Legacy, Vol. 4 edited by Bruce L. Edwards, (Praeger Publishers, Wesport, CT, © 2007). The excerpt is the conclusion of my analysis of Lewis’ work, The Four Loves, (Orlando, FL, Harcourt Brace & Company © 1960)]

Anyone who reads C.S. Lewis should come prepared to think, to reason and to learn. This is especially true for those who know him primarily through reading his fiction. As an author of non-fiction Lewis is a demanding writer. Those who are muscular enough to stay with him will be rewarded. He may be demanding, but he is not disrespectful. If reading Lewis can be compared to the hikes which he loved famously, then the reader must be prepared for Lewis to outpace even the most erstwhile of hikers. The good news is a book allows you the leisure to catch your breath. In time, if you can catch up with and stay with him stride for stride, you will develop the necessary mental stamina to think, to reason and to learn.

I can attest to the benefits gained from this form of literary and mental aerobics. Quite honestly, The Four Loves is not easily “hiked” through in one reading. Neither is it easily hiked through after a second or third reading. The particular edition which I read to write this essay is now nearly illegible — so full are its pages with underlines, notes and various other diacritical marks; all the result of many hours spent reading the text. I was asked to read The Four Loves and to offer comment using pastoral insight. This being the case, let us move to the task at hand.

One wishes Lewis had written more clearly at times, but the harder the hike the greater the benefit gained from the exercise. In making his readers think more Lewis trains them in the art of following his argument – even when he digresses. Even so, Lewis’ worst digressions are still better than most authors clearly and cogently stated theme.

Those familiar with The Four Loves know it is more a philosophical than a theological treatise about love. This does not mean it does not have theological merit. It does. The natural loves permeate our culture just as they did in biblical times, just as they did in Lewis’s day. It is remarkable and a testament to Lewis’ skill as a writer that what he says—even though it was written in 1960— The Four Loves still speaks with a contemporary and trenchant relevance. Although it can be difficult to follow the line of Lewis’s argument, the careful reader, the one who takes his or her time to cogitate the text, will find great reward in great thought.

Trained as a preacher to find a unifying theme, or big idea, present in a biblical text, I attempted to do this with The Four Loves. The premise by which Lewis wrote The Four Loves is best summed up in the oft quoted statement, “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”[i] This statement, often taken out of context, applies first to the natural loves before it applies to anything else.

The natural loves are Affection, Friendship, and Eros. Included among these are also the Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human. Since the natural loves are natural they are not eternal. Hence they are eternally out of date. They are destined for decay unless they are transformed into becoming modes of Charity.

Separated from Charity the natural loves promise what they cannot deliver. They create a desire which they cannot ultimately satisfy. When the natural loves are pursued apart from Charity, the Love which is Eternal, the pursuit is for that which is eternally out of date. Borrowing from his knowledge of mythology Lewis compares the natural loves to gods run amok. When the gods run amok they meddle in human affairs unconcerned about the consequences brought about by their intrusion into human affairs.

Thus, when Affection, Friendship, and Eros become gods they become demons. Although there is too much of the mortal in them, they contain just enough of the divine which allows them to masquerade as gods. Not to bless, but to tempt, deceive and mislead into ruin.

In contrast, Charity is unnatural and therefore is, in the best sense, inhuman. Charity is love that is not of this earth. Charity comes to us from God in Heaven. Charity is the Divine Agape which intrudes into our existence for the sole purpose of making us aware that the longings, the cravings created by the natural loves can be satisfied, but not by any love that is natural. To bolster his argument, Lewis quotes Augustine’s maxim, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our heart has no rest till it comes to Thee.”[ii]

The Four Loves is a philosophical proof of the inadequacy of the natural loves to bring us near to God. Only Charity can do that. It was not Affection, not Friendship, and not Eros that John says motivated God to send His Son to earth to die. It was Love. It was Charity (Agape). Here it is wise to let Lewis have the last word.

“I have included two Graces under the word Charity. But God can give a third. He can awake in a man, towards Himself, a supernatural Appreciative love. This is of all gifts most to be desired. Here, not in our natural loves, nor even in ethics, lies the true centre of all human and angelic life. With this all things are possible.”[iii]

You think about that.

[i] Ibid., 137.

[ii] Ibid., 138.

[iii] Ibid., 140.

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