Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time

In one of the English classes I teach, the students are just starting to reach the level where they can read relatively simple novels, so I assign them a chapter a week of some novel, and one of our classes each week is devoted to discussing the chapter they’ve just read. Because of their limited English proficiency, and because they are housewives who are studying English mainly so as to be better able to help their children learn it, we generally read children’s stories. Currently, we’re working on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Generally our weekly discussions revolve around questions of vocabulary, grammar, and usage — but this past week we dealt with the 13th chapter, “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time,” which introduces the central idea of Aslan’s sacrificing himself to appease the law which demands the death of Edmund. All language questions aside, my students found it completely baffling — and I have to agree with them. While I’m a big fan of Lewis’s nonfiction and of the Screwtape Letters, I have to admit that this particular novel has a very poorly constructed plot.

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In the 13th chapter, it is suddenly revealed that, because of “the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning,” the Witch has the right to kill anyone who commits any act of treachery. In fact, executing traitors is not only her right but a requirement. She explains that “unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water,” and Aslan agrees that this is in fact the case. She also makes it clear that treason is treason, and that whom is betrayed is of no consequence. Anyone who betrays anyone has to be killed, or else the Emperor will destroy the entire country.

Prior to this chapter, there has not been the slightest hint that the Witch is an agent of the Emperor (whom Aslan also serves, and who is supposed to be one of the good guys) or that her special function is to avenge treachery. In fact, earlier in the story, the faun Mr. Tumnus betrays the Queen and is arrested for high treason and turned to stone — but his blood is never shed as the Deep Magic supposedly requires, and yet Narnia is not destroyed. (We know that merely turning a traitor to stone is not enough to satisfy the Deep Magic, because the Witch explains that she must “have blood.” Also, when she attempts to execute Edmund, she does not turn him to stone, which is otherwise her preferred way of punishing people, but tries to slit his throat.)

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Once the Deep Magic and its requirements have been revealed, Susan asks Aslan the obvious question:

“Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there some way to work against it?”

“Work against the Emperor’s Magic?” said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

The implication is that Aslan is unquestioningly loyal to the Emperor and accepts the Deep Magic and its requirements. Why this should be the case is not clear. We might assume that Aslan is unwilling to betray the Emperor because all traitors must be killed by the Witch — but of course later on in the story he does allow the Witch to kill him, so that can’t be his motive.

(Of course we readers know that Aslan is loyal to the Emperor because Aslan represents Jesus and the Emperor represents God, but I mean that within the context of the story his loyalty to the Emperor — who seems more like the Ancient Ones from The Cabin in the Woods* than like a proper God — is hard to explain.)

At any rate, for whatever reason, Aslan is completely loyal to the Emperor — and the Witch has a commission from the Emperor to execute all traitors. The Witch should therefore be confident that Aslan will not stand in the way of such executions, and in fact he does not. She confidently confronts Aslan and demands her pound of flesh, and he gives it to her (though of course he contrives to do so in such a way that Edmund is saved).

However, just pages earlier, the Witch does not seem so confident that Aslan will stand back and let her do her job. Despite wishing she could keep Edmund alive for a while to use as a bargaining chip, she decides she had better kill him immediately lest he be rescued and she lose her chance. She seems not to realize at this point that, should he be rescued, she can simply demand him back and Aslan will be forced to comply. Instead, she assumes Aslan will stand in the way of the execution.

“I would like to have done it [killed the traitor Edmund] on the Stone Table itself,” said the Witch. “That is the proper place. That is where it has always been done before.”

“It will be a long time now [that Aslan is back] before the Stone Table can again be put to its proper use,” said the dwarf.

This implies that Aslan will not allow them to use the Table thus — despite the fact that the Witch has a commission from the Emperor to do so and knows that Aslan is unwilling to oppose the Emperor’s wishes.

(Incidentally, I can’t believe I never noticed the rather heavy-handed symbolism of the Stone Table before. That the same thing should symbolize both the Ten Commandments and the Cross seemed especially natural to my Chinese-speaking students, since the Chinese word for “cross” is literally “figure-ten.”)

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Of course the reason the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is incoherent is that it is an allegory of the Atonement, and the Atonement is a mystery. But while some people may find unexplained mysteries acceptable in theology, they certainly don’t make for very good fiction. The whole point of an allegory is to elucidate that which is being allegorized by turning it into a story people can understand — and that Lewis fails to do.

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*If you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods, don’t. It’s the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen in my life — and this is coming from someone who has seen both 2-Headed Shark Attack and Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid. However, the synchronicity fairies saw to it that I watched it the day after teaching “Deep Magic,” so I had to point out the obvious parallels. In the movie, the Ancient Ones are “giant evil gods” who will destroy the whole world if they are not periodically appeased with the blood of people who are drugged, entrapped into “sinning,” and then “punished.”

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When did dogs figure out pointing?

In “Transposition,” a sermon delivered during World War II and published in 1949 in Transposition and Other Addresses, C. S. Lewis refers to dogs’ inability to understand pointing.

You will have noticed that dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, you will no doubt find this a rather extraordinary thing to say. Dogs obviously understand pointing, even without any training, and it’s quite common to train dogs to respond to pointing as a command (for example, pointing to a doorway to tell the dog to go into the room indicated). No dog I’ve ever met would waste time sniffing my finger when I’d just pointed out a bit of food it could eat. Cats, yes, but certainly not dogs.

However, Lewis had already had no fewer than six dogs by the time “Transposition” was published (details here), so it’s hard to dismiss what he says about them. This isn’t Pliny the Elder we’re dealing with, reporting hearsay about animals he’d had no personal contact with. Lewis knew dogs well and must surely have known from direct experience how they respond to pointing.

Is it possible that Lewis was right, and that dogs have changed in the half-century since he wrote?

We know that dogs’ ability to understand pointing is a relatively recent evolutionary development. According to dog expert Stanley Coren (as quoted in a 2009 Bloomberg article), domestic dogs understand pointing but their wild conspecifics do not.

“Suppose I point at something — the dog recognizes that I’m indicating something in that direction and looks,” Coren said, referring to a 2004 experiment carried out by Harvard anthropologist Brian Hare, which focused on the increase in dog IQ from domestication. “They do this even if they’re eight to ten weeks old, whereas a wolf, reared since puppyhood in a human environment, would look at my hand,” explained Coren.

Is it possible that the change Coren alludes to could have happened within living memory, sometime after the Second World War? It would be interesting to comb old books for references to dogs’ understanding or not understanding pointing and try to infer when the change took place.

I suppose it’s also possible that geography is a factor. Perhaps the North American dogs studied by Hare and Coren have abilities which English dogs do not. (Iain McGilchrist, a Scot, also refers to dogs’ ability to understand pointing, but he seems to be drawing on the same American research as Coren, not on his own experience.) Most of my own experience with dogs has been in America, but I often see stray Taiwan Tugous (a local breed far removed from anything in Europe or America) and should be able to test their responsiveness to pointing.

If you have any direct experience with dogs and pointing, or if you know of any references to it in books, please leave a comment.

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How crazy do you have to be to think you’re God?

C. S. Lewis once wrote that if Christ was a mere man who believed he was God, he would be “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg” — that is, a complete lunatic who could not possibly be considered a great moral teacher or anything of that nature. In this essay, Peter Kreeft takes Lewis’s point a step further and claims that mistakenly believing oneself to be God is even crazier than believing oneself to be a poached egg — that Christ, if wrong, was literally as crazy as it is possible for a human being to be.

A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.

Is that really a fair measure of insanity, though? The gap between your beliefs (about yourself or anything else) and reality is a measure of how wrong you are, but being very wrong isn’t the same as being insane. To be insane, you have to be obviously wrong; your beliefs have to be inconsistent with, or at least completely unsupported by, the data directly available to you. Ontologically speaking, a man may have far less in common with God than with a butterfly or even a poached egg — but the fact that he is not a butterfly is still far more immediately obvious than the fact that he is not God.

Consider the following three (hypothetical) people and their beliefs about themselves.

  1. Anthony believes that he is entirely composed of matter operating according to deterministic laws of physics, and that his “soul” (if that word is even appropriate) is “made of lots of tiny robots.” (The phrase is from Daniel Dennett’s translation of an Italian newspaper headline about his philosophy.)
  2. Brian believes that he is an immortal, non-physical spirit temporarily inhabiting a physical body, and that his spiritual part is supernatural and not subject to the laws of physics.
  3. Christopher is completely normal physically. However, he is firmly convinced that he has no hands and that his arms terminate in horse’s hooves. He believes this even when he is using his hands, which he can do just as well as anyone else. When other people insist that he does not have hooves and that his hands are perfectly normal, he thinks they are just trying to avoid hurting his feelings.

Whatever the truth may be about the soul and its relation to the body, it’s clear that either Anthony or Brian (or, most likely, both of them) must be deeply and fundamentally wrong about his own most basic nature, whereas Christopher’s error concerns only some relatively trivial anatomical details. Nevertheless, we probably all know people who hold views like Anthony’s and Brian’s and consider them perfectly sane — or at any rate far saner than Christopher, who is clearly barking mad.

Now some people may believe — or think they believe — that Anthony’s denial of his own metaphysical free will (which, in their view, he uses every day) is every bit as insane as Christopher’s insistence that he has no hands. It is therefore important to keep in mind that the question under consideration is not whether a particular belief is a “crazy” one, but whether a person holding that belief can be assumed to be so severely mentally ill that none of his teachings on any subject could be of any value to us. If Anthony or Brian (whichever one seems crazier to you) had written a book about, say, biology or economics or parenting — or even about moral philosophy or religion — would you feel justified in dismissing it as the ravings of a lunatic? (The question is supposed to be a rhetorical one, and I hope you got the right answer.)

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Let us take it as axiomatic that Christians are not (as such) literally insane. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Christian creed is false, it is obvious that such people as Newton, Dante, and St. Thomas have much of great value to teach us. (See my essay about that here.)

Christians believe that Christ is the Eternal and Omnipotent God. They believe that in spite of the fact that he started his career as a baby, increased gradually in wisdom and stature, and needed to eat and drink like ordinary mortals — in spite of the fact that he died like an ordinary mortal, his last words being “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — in spite of the fact that, after promising to return within the lifetime of his first-century disciples, he disappeared for 2,000 years and counting. Many Christians believe even “crazier” things about Christ — for example, that he and his Father are both one and not one, or that bread and wine can literally be his body and blood.

Christians believe all this, and yet, even if we assume it all to be false, they are still sane and perfectly capable of being great moral teachers. Is it really so different is someone falsely believes such things about himself? It seems different — it seems that any sane person would know the truth about himself in a way that he could not know it about another person — but I’m not so sure that it is.

At first glance, the Catholic’s belief that, despite his lying eyes, the bread and wine in front of him are actually the body and blood of Christ, seems to be on the same level as Christopher’s insistence that his hands are actually horse’s hooves. It’s not, though, because the Catholic’s belief is qualified in a way that makes it consistent with what he experiences: the bread is supposed to be flesh only in essence, while its “accidents” remain that of ordinary bread. Christopher’s belief about his hands has no such asterisk, which is what makes it more truly mad.

Similarly, no sane person is ever going to believe that he is simply God, but only God in human form. If Christ believed that he was God, but a God who had condescended to live and die as mortal, would it really be so obvious that he was wrong? So obvious that the belief would mark him as a raving lunatic and disqualify him as a great moral teacher? What aspects of his experience would be inconsistent with that belief? It would be an unusual belief, to be sure, an eccentric belief, but nowhere near the poached-egg level of madness. And if we assume that Christ was in fact a rather extraordinary mortal with seemingly “supernatural” abilities, and that he had been told by his mother that he had no biological father — well, then his belief that he was God hardly even seems all that eccentric anymore.

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Actually, this whole discussion is less hypothetical than I have been making it sound. The fact is that I am personally acquainted with a man who believes himself to be Jehovah incarnate, and he’s a very intelligent, creative, and insightful person with a keen if somewhat unconventional moral sense. (In fact, in his moral discourse I often find the same combination of astute insight, earnest benevolence, and biting sarcasm that is so characteristic of Christ himself.) I wouldn’t call him a great moral teacher, but it’s quite easy for me to believe that someone like that could be such a teacher. I haven’t bothered myself too much over the question of whether he should be considered “insane,” but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I’m forced to conclude, either that you can believe you’re God without being insane, or that you can be insane and still be an insightful moralist. Either way, the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” trilemma crumbles.

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The Argument from Desire

I’ve recently read two discussions — one by philologist Edward M. Cook (of Ralph the Sacred River), and one by Christian apologist Peter Kreeft — of what is being called the Argument from Desire. Then, by a strange coincidence, John C. Wright also came out with a post about it while I was in the process of composing this one.

The argument, though not the name, comes from C. S. Lewis, who summarizes it as follows in the tenth chapter of Mere Christianity:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This is not strictly speaking an argument for the existence of God, but for an undefined something which is beyond all known human experience. As Kreeft puts it, “What it proves is an unknown X, but an unknown whose direction, so to speak, is known. This X is more: more beauty, more desirability, more awesomeness, more joy.” Still, if even this much can be proved — if we have reason to believe in something beyond this world which is nevertheless intimately connected with human desires and interests — it gives us at least a starting point from which to theologize.

Of course no one would argue that every human desire — including my desire for an ansible and a cloak of invisibility — implies the existence of an object that would satisfy it, only that we are not born with vain desires. Lewis’s argument only applies to natural, innate, instinctive desires, so the first question that arises is how to distinguish these from artificial ones. Kreeft proposes the following criteria:

  1. We generally “recognize corresponding states of deprivation” for natural desires, but not for artificial ones. “There is no word like ‘Ozlessness’ parallel to ‘sleeplessness.'”
  2. Because natural desires come from our shared human nature, they “are found in all of us, but the artificial ones vary from person to person.”

Kreeft’s first point seems not to favor Lewis, who was so far from seeing his unsatisfied desire as a state of deprivation analogous to sleeplessness that he actually dubbed it “Joy” — not the desire for Joy, mind you, but Joy itself. As far as Lewis was concerned, his desire was not for Joy; it was Joy. The desire was itself intensely desirable. In that respect it seems more like an artificial, fanciful desire than a natural, biological one. Are intense hunger, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and so on ever joyous experiences? Wouldn’t it be odd if they were? Fantasizing about the land of Oz, on the other hand, can be rather pleasant.

The second point is also problematic, since so many obviously fanciful desires are nevertheless near-universal. As Wright (who, despite his Lewisian sympathies, finds this particular argument weak) puts it, “Who has not longed to fly to the stars . . . to speak to the trees and rivers and hills, . . . or peer into the thoughts of another, or live his life?” And who has not felt Lewisian Joy, the “desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” a persistent longing which is no less intense for being vague? All of these must be in some sense “natural,” since they come so naturally to us, but it hardly follows that there must exist something which can satisfy them.

Desires, after all, do not exist to be satisfied; they exist to motivate behavior. Often the behavior elicited by a desire will result in its satisfaction (e.g., hunger motivates eating, and eating satisfies hunger) but this need not always be the case. Take for example the proverbial method of motivating a donkey to move by dangling a carrot in front of it, where the donkey’s desire serves its purpose (making the donkey move) even if it is never satisfied. In fact, the minute you actually let the donkey eat the carrot, it will stop walking and the purpose of the desire will be frustrated. You should only let it eat the carrot after you have reached your destination and no longer want the donkey to move; if you want it to keep moving indefinitely, you should never let it eat the carrot. Creating a desire serves to make the donkey move; satisfying the desire serves to make it stop. (Of course this is a highly artificial example, but in principle there’s nothing to stop nature from doing something similar.) So in thinking about desire and satisfaction, we need to keep in mind two important points — important enough to be bulleted:

  • To understand why a given natural desire exists, the correct question to ask is not what would satisfy it, but what evolutionarily useful behavior it serves to motivate.
  • Other things being equal, we should expect a desire to be satisfied only when, and only for so long as, the behavior it serves to motivate is no longer useful.

If there were some behavior which it were evolutionarily beneficial for us to perform only once, or only a specific finite number of times, then we could expect to find a natural desire which could be satisfied in the fullest sense of that word — we reach the intended goal, the desire is completely and permanently quenched, and we move on to other things. Mission accomplished. It’s hard to think of any clear examples of this in the real world, though, which is perhaps only to be expected. The evolutionary project — ensuring that copies of as many of our genes as possible continue to exist for as long as possible — is inherently open-ended, a race with no finish line, and we might expect a similar open-endedness in the desires which were created to serve it.

More typically we find that our natural desires can be satisfied, but only for a time. The satisfaction is temporary, and the desire is quenched and rekindled, quenched and rekindled, in a cycle that can continue indefinitely. We eat, we drink, we sleep — but hunger, thirst, and fatigue are never banished for long. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. This is a confusing state of affairs if we see satisfaction as being the purpose of desire, but it makes perfect sense if we keep in mind that desires exist to trigger behavior and satisfaction exists to turn it off. When the body needs fuel, the desire to eat is turned on; when it has enough, and eating more would actually be detrimental, the desire is turned off — satisfied — but only until fuel supplies begin to run low again.

The on-again off-again nature of hunger is explained by the fact that eating regularly is evolutionarily useful but eating until you burst is not. But what if there were a behavior which, unlike eating, was always useful and never needed to be turned off? Well, in that case we would expect that behavior to be motivated by a desire which could never be satisfied. The most obvious example of this in nature is our desire for life itself. Nature has given most of us an insatiable desire to go on living indefinitely, not because immortality is actually on offer, but to motivate us to extend our finite lives for as long as we possibly can. Other ways of coping with our unacceptable mortality — having children, trying to bequeath something of lasting value to posterity, and so on — also tend to serve evolution’s ends. So long as we keep chasing the carrot of eternal life, pulling our wagonload of selfish genes behind us, the desire serves its purpose, even if satisfaction remains forever out of reach.

Lewisian Joy isn’t as straightforward as a desire for immortality — it’s a vague desire for a certain je ne sais quoi — and so the behavior it serves to motivate is less easily characterized. However, I suspect that it still does serve to motivate broadly predictable patterns of behavior. Someone who is motivated by Joy is likely to seek, as Kreeft puts it, “more awesomeness” — where our idea of awesomeness will tend to be drawn from our other, more straightforward (and more clearly evolutionarily useful) desires. The inchoate longing for “something more” is not as open-ended as it might seem, since our human nature will predictably direct it towards certain goals (such as power, wisdom, and beauty) rather than others (such as trying to ensure that the number of turnips in the world is prime). Given how clever our species is, and how good we are at finding ways to cheat evolution by satisfying our desires without reaching the goals for which those desires were created (see my post on the Genie scenario) — Joy may be a broadly effective way of keeping us from resting on unearned laurels.

I’m getting into just-so-story territory here, but all that’s really necessary to counter Lewis is to come up with an explanation for vague unsatisfiable desires which, however hypothetical and ad hoc it might be, is at least less far-fetched than his own “most probable explanation” — namely, that there must exist some “other world” than the known universe and that it was for this hypothetical world that we were “made.” And, that, I think, is a pretty easy standard to meet.

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