Not Quite Lewis – Questionable Lewisian Quotations (Conf. Paper)

The following is the text of the talk given by William O’Flaherty on “Not Quite Lewis: Questionable Lewisian Quotations) at the 2015 CSLIS Conference in late March, 2015. If you want to hear the audio (podcast) version you can visit this direct link


 

Not Quite Lewis: Questionable Lewisian Quotations

 Several books, like The Quotable Lewis and A Mind Awake, contain collections of memorable passages from the writings of C.S. Lewis. Some quotations are “short and sweet” and others include lengthier excerpts. These are excellent resources to find not only accurate quotes, but also the location of original sources. Today’s technology also enables even greater possibilities when it comes to finding memorable expressions. If you have the eBook version of any title you can easily search for what you want to locate. Beyond this, a person can merely go online and find quotations by Lewis and other authors and not even own a single book by them. However, there are drawbacks to living in our modern society. Not every quotation credited to C.S. Lewis found on Facebook, Twitter and other places on the Web is actually from him. At another conference a paper was presented focusing on falsely attributed quotes. (1) Therefore I want to discuss a different problem related to Lewis quotations. For this presentation I am primarily exploring statements that C.S. Lewis actually penned, but when taken apart from their context, results in interpretations that potentially distort what was originally meant.

There is actually a word for committing the crime of taking something out of context. It is “contextomy.” This infraction happens frequently in the political realm, but anyone can use a “straw man” argument. This is, of course, when one person “quotes” another to misrepresent them and make it easier to refute them or their supposed position. Contextomy is also committed in a “positive” sense, when a person quotes someone out of context as an appeal to an authority to make it seem an esteemed person supports their point of view. The latter and not the former is typically a reason for Lewis being taken out of context.

Lewis, of course, is not alone in being a victim of having something he wrote shared without consideration of its context. For example, consider a popular expression credited as being from Proverbs 23:7, “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he” (Allen, 13). This statement is closest to the King James Version, (2) however that’s not even the entire verse. At least the verses before and after are also needed at minimum to get the proper context. When you read them you find this is not a support for positive thinking. Instead, it is actually a warning to not always trust what others say because they might be thinking the opposite of the words they speak. (3)

What follows is an examination of four quotations by Lewis. All but one relate directly to the need of gaining a more accurate understanding by reading the context. The final one, while not suffering from contextomy, is similar in that the statement is “not quite Lewis” because its meaning is less than what he actually said.

HAPPINESS

Lewis penned many great lines in The Four Loves that challenge our thinking about what Scripture calls “a more excellent way” (King James Version, 1 Corinthians 12:31). However, the following expression does not mean what most people think and thus it should not be shared by itself.

Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. (The Four Loves 167)

This might sound like a call to shun earthly pleasures. Indeed, generally speaking one’s happiness should not be based on temporary things. The context, however, reveals a different meaning.

This quotation is found in the final chapter of The Four Loves entitled “Charity.” (4) Prior to this passage Lewis had been discussing his view on natural loves and how they may become rivals to loving God. He believes the greater danger is not being able to move from self-love to love towards others. Thus, our love has not yet risen to a level where it can even be a rival. In fact, he points out, “many people do not find it really difficult to hate their wives or mothers” (Loves 165) because they have not yet moved beyond self-love. So, Lewis suggests we must first learn to love people on earth before really able to love God.

That is the background of what Lewis was stating before he gives an example from St. Augustine’s Confessions with which Lewis disagrees. (5) The above quotation, found in the eighth paragraph in The Four Loves, is how Lewis summarizes a moral that he finds unsettling. In fact, just before it Lewis even proclaims that he rejects “at the very outset” (Loves 167) the reasoning he finds from St. Augustine on this issue.

In the section in question within Confessions, St. Augustine is mourning the loss of a friend and Lewis summarizes it by stating that he believed he should not have given his “heart to anything but God” (Loves 167). Had St. Augustine lived the way he thought, he could have avoided the pain he felt when his friend died.

Lewis admits that this idea does appeal to his personality. He confesses he is “a safety-first creature” (Loves 168) and he wishes to avoid suffering to the point of not giving his love to any but God. Yet, he goes on to warn “who could conceivably begin to love God…because the security (so to speak) is better?” (Loves 168).  Additionally, Lewis points out that “one must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates” (Loves 168).

Thus, when reading this isolated quotation from Lewis, it appears he is just warning a person about not relying on temporary pleasures for happiness. Yet, in context, one finds Lewis used the statement as an example of a very specific sentiment with which he does not agree.

STAGNATION

Quoting an author’s fictional works is sometimes dangerous if you are trying to prove a point. The character making the statement could be saying something very different from what the writer believes. Of course, anyone familiar with Lewis would not make that mistake, would they? The following quotation might fool even the serious Lewis reader when it is isolated:

Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation? (The Great Divorce 40)

This quote seems to advocate progress, or moving forward. Indeed, it actually does, but then, is such change always beneficial? What if one continues to press on in the wrong direction? Stopping and considering the error (stagnation to the outside observer) is the wisest action.

In the fifth chapter of The Great Divorce the statement is made by a character identified as an “Episcopal Ghost” (Divorce 38). He met up with an old friend, Dick, who is a Spirit already in Heaven. Both held views on Christianity that were less than orthodox, but Dick had changed his views before dying and became, as the Ghost said, “rather narrow-minded” (Divorce 34).

Dick observes that his buddy is not yet in Heaven because he is still “an apostate” (Divorce 35). This leads to an objection that the Ghost was merely sharing “honest opinions,” but Dick challenges the notion that his views were really “honestly come by” (Divorce 36). Rather, he (and Dick at the time) “found [themselves] in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful” (Divorce 37).

Then about midway through this chapter the Ghost rejects the thought that ultimate truth is found in Christ. Instead he believes there must always be a continual search for truth. Just prior to the quote about stagnation, the Ghost proclaims,

’For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not?’ (Divorce 40).

Ironically, Lewis had this Ghost share a quote out of context to defend his position. Dick, the Spirit, challenges him to rediscover “what inquiry was for” (Divorce 41) by asking questions to find an answer, like he did as a child. “Become that child again: even now” (Divorce 41) is implored by Dick. This is met with “Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things” (Divorce 41).

As a result of realizing the circumstances for this quotation about stagnation one realizes the folly in isolating it. The perspective of the character warning against it lacks the ability to be satisfied with any answer.

BETTER THINGS AHEAD

What would you say to those facing a new situation and not sure how it might turn out? Would it be any different from what you might say to someone who was near death? It may seem like an odd question because the obvious answer is yes. That’s why sharing this next quotation alone is a concern.

There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. (Letters to an American Lady 114)

This passage originates from a letter Lewis wrote to Mary Willis Shelburne. She is more commonly known today as the person identified in the 1967 book Letters to an American Lady. (6) The correspondence in question, dated June 17, 1963, is also available in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3. As you might be aware this was written just five months before Lewis died.

Shelburne, according to Walter Hooper, the editor of the third volume of letters, “was a patient in the Casualty Hospital, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC” (Collected 1430). Interestingly enough, this widow, who relied on so much encouragement from Lewis, would go on to live another twelve years! At the time, however, things did not look so good for her. In fact, Lewis challenged her thinking about possibly dying in the early part of the letter by stating “Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer?” (Lady 114).

At the end of that same paragraph he says “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind” (Lady 114).

There are a few places online that share these two sentences together and it does provide additional context than the more often seen statement. Yet, even both of them can easily be taken out of context as well.

As a Christian one understands that Heaven is a place we should prefer to be in. This, however, does not mean we seek death to be with Christ. Lewis acknowledges the fear Shelburne is experiencing in other parts of the letter not shared and that is a key component missing when just isolating the passage. Thus, Lewis is encouraging her to not be afraid of dying at a point where she very well may be.

The quotation as it is most commonly shared is more likely to be viewed as a nice motivational message. As such, it appears appropriate for those facing a new job or finishing school. In context, however, it is clear Lewis is not focusing on any earthly successes. As a result the complete meaning of what the “better things ahead” are is lost when the statement is secluded.

NOT JUST LITERATURE

All serious readers of Lewis know his regular job was not defending the Christian faith. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford and held the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. But, today the general public knows him more for his creation of the Narnia stories. This next quotation does not appear to have any potential misunderstanding in light of his ability to excel at including hints of Christian elements in his fictional works.

The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature. (goodreads.com)

What could be wrong with this statement by itself? Instead of being a passage that merely needs a context, this quotation misrepresents something Lewis wrote. While this is a very good sentiment, Lewis actually said something even better.

Lewis spoke to a variety of groups in addition to being heard on the radio. While never published during his lifetime, he read what we know today as “Christian Apologetics” sometime around Easter 1945. This paper was presented to some Anglican youth leaders and priests. No doubt you can guess the theme addressed by Lewis.

It was during this talk that Lewis admits he is going off topic when he makes the following statement:

What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent. (“Christian Apologetics” 93)

Some may be surprised that he spoke this over five years before any Narnia story was published. However, by this time two of the books in his famous Science Fiction trilogy had been released.

Thus, the quotation frequently seen online is a poor paraphrase of what Lewis actually stated. It says less than what Lewis meant. While the rewording makes a great point, Lewis advocated much more than Christians writing quality literature. He encouraged Christians to write well in all subjects.

CONCLUSION

Four quotations were examined to determine if their meanings are easily understood in light of their context. All but the final illustration were statements Lewis actually made. While many short quotations by him stand alone very well, it is vital to realize there are those that do not. The examples given in this paper obviously do not mean there is any problem with what Lewis wrote. Instead it reveals the importance of reading the material in context to ensure a proper understanding of them. Additionally, there is a danger, as in the last quotation shared, that statements found online may actually be a poor paraphrase of something Lewis penned. As a result, those wishing to help others enjoy the wit and wisdom of Lewis should always use caution when sharing quotations. Locate the passage from a reliable location and consider taking the time to review it first from its original source before passing it on.


End Notes

1 See “What Lewis NEVER Wrote: Quotes Misattributed to the Oxford Professor Don” at http://library.taylor.edu/dotAsset/d7f9196c-4a68-40d3-9a6a-4c4b3ba856ca.pdf

2 The King James Version actually says, “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

3 Modern translations typically reveal this meaning clearer.

4 The chapters are not numbered in most editions, but it technically is the sixth in the book.

5 The passage Lewis is addressing is from Confessions IV, 10.

6 At the time of publication only her first name was given.

 

Works Cited

Allen, James. As A Man Thinketh. Rockville, Maryland. Arc Manor, 2007. Print.

Augustine, Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Kilby, Clyde (Editor). A Mind Awake. N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich. 1968. Print.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 2001. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3. London: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

—. The Four Loves. N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960. Print.

—. God in the Dock. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Print.

—. The Great Divorce. N.Y. MacMillan. 1946. Print.

—. Letters to an American Lady. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967. Print.

Martindale, Wayne and Root, Jerry (Editors). The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton, Illinois. Tyndale. 1990. Print.

O’Flaherty, William. “What Lewis NEVER Wrote: Quotes Misattributed to the Oxford Professor
Don.” Taylor University. 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2015 http://library.taylor.edu/dotAsset/d7f9196c-4a68-40d3-9a6a-4c4b3ba856ca.pdf

“Quotes from C.S. Lewis” GoodReads. n.p., 2015. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/673149-the-world-does-not-need-more-christian-literature-what-it

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