The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis – Introduction

C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating and truly insightful philosophical treatise into the four key forms or versions of what we in the English-speaking world would simply refer to as ‘Love.’ He did this by drawing upon the vast richness of the literary world, especially those tales woven during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Lewis begins by differentiating between two potential functions of love: Gift love and Need love. In what follows, I’ll provide a multi-segmented summary of Lewis’s treatment of Love from a philosophical perspective.

Gift love is love that is given or provided freely, unconditionally, unwearied, and without any expectation of return; Lewis characterizes this as Divine Love because this is a kind of love that we receive from God (the most gracious and providential Being). God is perfect and is not for want, therefore this love is a gift from Him to us with no expectations. But…humans can give Gift love as well. It is not reserved just for God. In fact, Lewis argues that Gift love resembles the image of God (imago Dei). It is what God does. It is what Jesus does. And if we want to be more like God, we are to give Gift love to others in the same ways that God and Jesus do.

Need love, in contrast, is a kind of love that displays dependence and necessity upon another entity. We have Need love for God. We cannot provide Him with anything, but we require, we necessitate, His Gift love. Lewis notes that this is the case because humans are incomplete. Need love is built into the human condition. Need love often cannot give love back to the Provider, but that does not make it any less loving, according to Lewis. A mother gives her Gift love while her child has a Need love kind of relationship with her.

Next, Lewis distinguishes being near to God in image and being near to God in approach. He labels these “nearness-by-likeness” and “nearness-by-approach,” respectively. Nearness-by-likeness is defined by humans being rational, free-willed individuals that resemble God. Everyone shares these traits, exceptions withheld, but that is where the likeness ends. But then there are those who freely, continually, and wholeheartedly seek their “final union” with God. The members of the latter group are nearer by approach. They move past the general likeness, that shared image of God, which everyone has, and they seek to develop their relationship with God on a deeper level. Lewis uses the example of walking back to a village; at one point the traveler can clearly see the village, he is on a cliff and just a few hundred feet below him there is his home. The proximity represents the image of God that we all have. Now, the traveler cannot just jump down to the village, or he would die. Instead, he must make a prolonged trip through a mountain path that will take much more time. This option represents the nearness-by-approach. If the traveler wants to get home safe and sound, he must make this journey.

Lewis also notes that our loves, when properly motivated, i.e., when they are truly Gift loves, will make claims with a voice of authority, which he likens to a voice of the Divine. Lewis states that this is rightly so. When Gift love is what we are giving to and sharing with others, we are acting as Jesus did and as God would want. But Lewis notes that we must be careful in doing so for all love can be corrupted or built upon improper foundations which will only lead us to ruin.

Likings and Loves for the Sub-human:

First, Lewis divides up pleasures into two categories. The first is the kind of pleasures which would not be pleasures if they were not preceded by desire. An example of this kind of pleasure is being parched from mowing the lawn and going into the house to get a glass of cold water. The desire for hydration made the glass of water into a pleasure. Without that desire, without that thirst, the glass of water would cease to be a pleasure.

The second kind of pleasure is that which is enjoyable in and of itself. There is no desire, there is no longing, but when the object, event, or person comes in contact with us we are filled with an enjoyment and longing to share this pleasure with others. An example of this kind of pleasure would be the wine connoisseur wanting to share the best vintage wine he has tasted with others.

One could argue that while the first is selfish, the second is selfless. The former is known as “Need-pleasures” and the latter “Pleasures of Appreciation.” But Lewis doesn’t stop here. He goes on to note the linguistic differences when speaking of the two. He notes, “When Need-pleasures are in question we tend to make statements about ourselves in the past tense; when Appreciative pleasures are in question, we tend to make statements about the object in the present tense.” Lewis goes on to state that the Need-pleasures “die out” on us after they have served their purpose. The glass of water is no longer enjoyable once we’ve reached our fill whereas the best vintage wine is continually and constantly enjoyable. When we encounter Appreciative pleasures, we want them to last so that we may share them with others who might enjoy them as much as, if not more than, we do.

Lewis ties these distinctions into Need love and Gift love. The Need love, like the Need-pleasure, does not last after the need has been met. Conversely, the Gift love, like the Appreciative pleasure, is selfless and unconditional. Tied into this, we show our image of God when we experience Appreciative pleasures, want to share them with others, and declare the pleasures to be “very good.”

Gift love longs to be served while Need love longs to be served; Appreciative pleasures are those which demand to be shared with others while need-pleasures are those which we demand to keep to ourselves.

Next, Lewis goes in a different direction with his writings. He begins to argue against Natural Theology as championed by William Paley and his Argument from Design. He states that nature may help us to better understand certain words such as “beauty” and “glory” and so on. But he vehemently opposes using nature as a teacher. In this sense he is arguing against using the natural world to show God’s workings. He notes that the main problem is that nature can be used by any religious group to bolster their claims about ultimate reality.

“Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word “glory” a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one...And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the “love” of God would never, so far as I can see, have existed.”

Lewis argues that when we try to make nature have some kind of divine element, it will only end up disappointing us. We will grow tired of it. It will not give us the revelations and guidance that we desire from, and can actually get from, God.

Finally, Lewis focuses on patriotism. As is common knowledge, patriotism is not bad in and of itself. But it all depends on its use as well as the foundation upon which it is built. Lewis argues that any patriotism that is built upon the past adventures is doomed to fail for its very purpose is to demean other cultures. But if the patriotism is built upon pride, merely because the home or city or country is one’s own, then the patriotism is acceptable. ““No man,” said one of the Greeks, “loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.” A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degeneration…” Lewis closes this chapter by warning against patriotism being used to commit atrocities. He warns against waging Holy Wars that are not anything of the sort but are merely human conflicts.

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