From the Mundane to the Metaphysical: the Essays of C.S. Lewis

Like every other child raised in a Christian home, my introduction to Lewis came through his Narnia stories, and I still very much enjoy these stories, especially now that my oldest child can enjoy them with me. But as a teacher of college composition and writing classes, I have found his apologetic essays both delightful and instructive. One frequently overlooked dimension of C. S. Lewis’s talent as a writer is the careful attention he pays to form in the crafting of his essays. I have long admired “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” as being a particularly good examples of Lewis’s art. When I began teaching composition as a graduate student in 2003, I turned to this essay as a model of good writing and continue to use it today. Several colleagues, including my wife, have joined me in using this essay as an example of good writing that students willingly engage on many levels.  Why do this essay work so well? There are several reasons, but I think Lewis’s deft use of supporting evidence—or his ability to reinforce his thesis through variation and repetition—stands out as particularly skillful. And worth imitating.

The essay “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” illustrates Lewis’ skillful use of supporting evidence particularly well.  Here, Lewis confronts a frequent objection to faith—that religion is merely a comforting fiction we tell ourselves for protection against the grim reality of life. Lewis confesses that humans are pretty good at inventing such stories and likens the practice to Aesop’s fox, who comforted himself with the imagined sour grapes. In order to refute this persuasive argument rooted in human psychology, Lewis turns to his own experiences. The progression of his examples is a movement from the mundane to the metaphysical.

He demonstrates that experience alone is an unreliable teacher of reality by turning to such diverse yet analogous examples as smoking cigarettes, listening to gramophone records, and eating margarine. In his final example, he turns away from his own experience to a well-known scene in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The movement from the mundane to the metaphysical is also a movement from the more subjective (boys stealing cigars) to the universal (negotiating the movement between self-love and love of another).

In the first example, Lewis recalls how two “bad boys” stole cigarettes from their father. (Considering Lewis’s tobacco habit, it’s easy to infer who these two little boys might have been.) Only when the cigarette supply ran low did the boys resort to their father’s cigar stash to avoid detection. Because they preferred cigarettes, they viewed the cigars as merely a substitute for the better smokes. Lewis concludes that “the boys” were quite right so far as their own experience went, but if their own experience led them to conclude that cigars were an inferior place-holder for cigarettes, then their quite limited experience led them astray.

For the second example, Lewis recounts another experience of a child who is gathering information about the world. As a boy, he first heard orchestral music through a gramophone, which, owing to the technology of the time, collapsed all the individual sounds into “a single undifferentiated sound.” So when he first heard a live concert, and could hear each instrument, it seemed that he was not listening to “the Real Thing.” This he calls an even better example that the cigars/cigarettes misjudgment, for here, he really is confusing the reality with the substitute due to “miseducation.”

All this talk of “substitutes” reminds Lewis of wartime rations, so he recalls his experience of margarine: when he first began to eat it, he did not notice a difference, but as time wears on and there is no butter ever, only margarine, Lewis can hardly think of anything except that margarine is not butter. This, he says, is a different example than the other two. For in the first two examples, his early education and experience taught him to prefer the substitute and even view it as the reality. In the case of butter/margarine, Lewis is first acquainted with the real thing and can only stomach its substitute for so long.

Lewis quickly transitions from his own experience to an example drawn from Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost. Soon after her creation, Eve happens to view herself in a pool of water. Taken with her own beauty, she falls in love with her reflection. But then God makes her look up to see Adam. She initially resists loving him, for he is nowhere near as beautiful as what she has just seen, but God guides her to see that loving Adam is better than loving herself. Here is reality and substitute completely beyond the realm of cigars/cigarettes, gramophone/concert, and margarine/butter.

Love is so near a religious experience. Though tied to the senses, it goes beyond sensation to the soul. If we are speaking of religious experience to those who are skeptical about religion, then it is an extremely good idea to use love, which transcends subjective reality most forcefully. Only the most hardened materialist cynic would disagree. So this last example prepares the reader for Lewis’s next move. What seemed so easy and natural—little boys stealing cigarettes or wartime rations—led to another fairly easy example (his audience at the time would have been familiar with Milton and this scene in particular). But this final example allows Lewis to move to his most forceful point: at times, “all of those sensations which we should expect to find accompanying the proper satisfaction of a fundamental need will actually accompany the substitute” and if we can all agree that is the case, then “we should hold it quite unflinchingly from this moment to the end of our lives.”

The reader is caught. If he is convinced that Lewis was right about the little boy listening to the gramophone and then going to the concert, and if he is led to agree with Lewis’s assessment of Milton’s Eve, then he has suddenly agreed to believe something until the moment of his death. Experience can no longer be admitted as a completely trustworthy authority.

Thus, in this essay, Lewis captures something about reality and human nature in both the form and content of his argument—we all form judgments based on experience and tend to give too much weight to experience alone. Each reader understands those examples about mistaking reality for the substitute because he has had that experience himself. The human proclivity to trust experience, however, has only increased since Lewis. Nearly all my students have never been taught to examine critically the authority of their own experience. I think it is a good exercise for students of writing to write a paragraph in which they provide their own example of discovering that the reality was the substitute or vice versa. Nearly all students enjoy this exercise. For they are invited to share in a quality of Lewis’s writing that gives it universal appeal: we see ourselves—our reasons and experiences—reflected in clear, forceful prose. We see ourselves reflected and then are made to admit an uncomfortable truth. However, in the end, as in Lewis’s essay, the “uncomfortable” truth may turn out to be quite comforting. For, Lewis reminds readers “Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable.” Because our experience is unreliable, recognizing that reality ultimately helps the reader turn to a better teacher.  

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