The Platonism of Lewis and the Good Life
Everyone desires the good life. It would not be illogical to say that the attainment of the good life is the reason for which a person ever does anything. If a person chooses to wear a certain style of clothing, it is because he thinks it contributes to the good life (at least, his idea of it). If someone chooses this degree over that degree, it is for the same reason. If someone decides to marry, it is also for that reason. C. S. Lewis gives his readers a unique perspective on the good life in his Space Trilogy. He provides his readers with a conception of the good life as one that is full. The Space Trilogy is a work of heavenly literary beauty, and Lewis communicates many ideas in it, each of which are category-stupifying-ly glorious. But there is one idea that underlies all the rest, and it is this idea that is the key to living the fullest life.
Lewis colored all of his literary works with his own version of Platonism. For those who are unfamiliar with this philosophy, the central concept of it (and the one that is most pertinent to the argument of this essay) is Plato’s Theory of the Forms. This theory states that for every conceivable thing in the universe, there is a single definitive form of it in a spiritual world of the forms. For example, the cup in the spiritual world is the penultimate cup, the cup of all cups, the definitive manifestation of cup-ness. And so it is with every kind of thing in the universe.
An essential characteristic of these forms is that they are not made of matter, for matter to the Platonists was evil. The spiritual and immaterial was that which is truly good. The forms, therefore, must be spiritual and immaterial.
Lewis did something interesting in his version of Platonism. He agreed with Platonists that all things in the universe in some sense derive their nature from some kind of penultimate form of their kind. But Lewis disagreed with them on their belief that matter was evil and that the forms were spiritual and immaterial. According to Lewis, this world and its pleasures, loves, and relationships are what is vaporous. Their forms are the true, solid realities. As Douglas Wilson states, “In Plato the ultimate realm of the Forms was spiritual, ethereal, rational, and most emphatically not made out of stuff. But in Lewis, the further up and further in you go, the moresolid and real it is. The more material it is”
This idea manifests itself in an uncommonly beautiful way in the Space Trilogy, especially in the second book in the series, Perelandra. Consider the following instances: the first is of McPhee, when he has his first encounter with an angelic creature called an “eldil.” He notes something peculiar about the way it stood:
It was not at right angles to the floor. But as soon as I have said this, I hasten to add that this way of putting it is a later reconstruction. What one actually felt at the moment was that the column of light [the eldil] was vertical but the floor was not horizontal—the whole room seemed to have heeled over as if it were on board ship. The impression, however produced, was that this creature had reference to some horizontal, to some whole system of directions, based outside the Earth, and that its mere presence imposed that alien system on me and abolished the terrestrial horizontal (Lewis 16).
The second instance is of McPhee’s recounting of how Dr. Ransom, the protagonist, described his experience of interplanetary travel from earth to Perelandra (the book’s name for Venus) in the ice-like encasement that Maleldil sent him to travel in:
According to his own account he was not what we call conscious, and yet at the same time the experience was a very positive one with a quality of its own. On one occasion, someone had been talking about ‘seeing life’ in the popular sense of knocking about the world and getting to know people, and B. who was present…said something I can’t quite remember about ‘seeing life’ in a very different sense. I think he was referring to some system of meditation which claimed to make ‘the form of Life itself’ visible to the inner eye. At any rate Ransom let himself in for a long cross-examination by failing to conceal the fact that he attached some very definite idea to this. He even went so far—under extreme pressure—as to say that life appeared to him, in that condition, as a ‘coloured shape.’ Asked ‘what color,’ he gave a curious look and could only say ‘what colours! yes, what colours!’” (Lewis 29).
The third instance is the description of Ransom’s experience of drinking Perelandra’s water: “Though he had not been aware of thirst till now, his drink gave him a quite astonishing pleasure. It was almost like meeting Pleasure itself for the first time” (Lewis 32). The motif common to all these instances is that there is a more definite, truer reality behind what the character immediately experiences. Lewis is having his characters encounter the forms themselves of things that are normal to them: the horizontality of the floor, life, and pleasure. This is Lewis’ Platonism at work.
The key to the fullest life lies in Lewis’ Platonism. This is why Ransom lives the fullest life on Perelandra. His experiences are no longer vaporous as they were on earth. He no longer experiences pleasurable things. He experiences pleasure. He no longer lives. He experiences life. The fullest life, then, is in the very experience of the forms themselves.
“This all sounds like a grand idea,” some might be saying, “But what Scriptural basis is there for it? And how do we, in fact, ‘experience the forms?’” The satisfaction of these entirely legitimate questions is the next task of this essay. Scriptural support for this idea does, surprisingly, exist, and in an unexpected place: the doctrine of the logos. John 1:1 is the main verse for this doctrine: “In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word [logos] was with God, and the Word [logos] was God.” This is a very popular verse to quote these days, but it is curious that a true understanding of it is rare. Many Christians quote it frequently as a testament to the glory of Christ, even though they only have an unclear idea of what it really means. And this is a problem. John did not mindlessly throw in the word logos in the Greek to make the verse sound cool to twenty first century Christians. Neither did the Holy Spirit purposelessly inspire John to use the word. Every—every —single word in Scripture is there with an actual intent: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16a, emphasis mine). This forbids the mindless quoting of verses. For Christianity is not a mindless religion (see 2 Cor. 14, especially vv. 13-19)., and the Scriptures are not a willy-nilly hodgepodge of airy, inspiring phrases to post with a mountain vista on Instagram. The Scriptures are about real, tangible ideas that are meant to be concretely understood.
The apostle John, then, meant something with the word logos when he used it of Christ. Given the Greek culture he was living in, there is only one thing he could have meant that his audience would have understood. In Greek philosophy, the logos was “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning” (Logos: Philosophy and Theology). It was, in other words, the structuring order of the universe. John’s audience, being Greek-speakers and living in a world over which Greek philosophy had the predominant influence, would have been familiar with this idea. If they were not, the opening verses of his gospel would have made no sense to them, which would nullify any purpose in writing them. So when John calls Christ the logos, the only reasonable understanding is that he is calling Christ the order that underlies and structures reality.
Scripture hints at this idea in other places as well. In Colossians 1:17, Paul says of Christ that “in him all things hold together.” As the structure of a building holds it together, so does Christ hold the universe together. The author of Hebrews also gives some expression to this idea, saying of Him that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3b). Upon reading these verses in light of John 1:1, their meaning is evident.
Plato’s Theory of the Forms and the idea of the logos as the ordering structure of reality have an interesting relationship to each other. The easiest way to understand it is by analogously conceiving of the logos as a house. In the same way that the doors, walls, windows, tables, rooms, floors, porches, etc. are parts of the house, so are the forms parts of the logos. As the house-ness of the house emerges from its having all the parts that make up “house nature,” so does the ordered-ness of the logos emerge from the forms. But this is not to say that there is an essential distinction between the forms and the logos. Any supposed distinction is only apparent, and must be present for the sake of comprehension. The forms are because the logos is, and vice versa.
The reasoning behind this relationship is the fact that order emerges from definition. For the activity of defining is really an activity of describing, and description necessitates that an underlying order be present. If chaos and nonsense were what underlied it, description would be impossible. So if Plato’s forms are definitions on a universal scale (for the forms are the penultimate definitions of every thing in the world), then a universal order must be present. This order is, of course, the logos, which makes it reasonable to conclude that, because Christ is the logos, and the logos and the forms exist mutually, the forms exist in Christ.
And this is Lewis’ whole point with his version of Platonism, his Christian Platonism. All things in this world are vaporous and incomplete. But the true forms of all loves, pleasures, and relationships are in Christ, in God: “[F]or Lewis, the spiritual is solid and the physical is ephemeral. The heavenly is clear, the earthly is murky” (Wilson 500). The true form of the love between a husband and his wife is the love between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:26). The true form of the pleasure in eating a good meal is the pleasure of obeying God (Jn. 4:34). The true form of the relationship between parent and child is the relationship between God the Father and the Christian (Eph. 1:5). The fullest life, then, is in God and in communion with Him.
“But I find this full life in God and in communion with Him to be impossible in this world,” some might say, “For even as a Christian I struggle with a sinful nature, and this makes my love for God often cold and my service to Him often riddled with failure and weakness.” This is true. The Christian’s sin impairs his experience of the full life. Sin returns him to a vaporous existence (temporally, that is) because, by his sin, he separates himself from That Which is Truly Real. This sad fact forbids that Christians should ever in consistent perfection experience the full life in God.
But praise be to Him that this is only true on this side of glory. In heaven, and eventually in the new creation, the church’s life—indeed, her very act of existing—will be full. All will be truly real and solid.
We see [this] in The Last Battle. At the conclusion of that book, after Narnia ends and they all turn to explore their new surroundings, they discover that they have not lost the real Narnia, but instead have come into the real Narnia. What they had thought was reality was simply a slight foreshadowing of the substantial reality that was going to be forever and ever. And the farther in they went, the more real it became. (Wilson 499)
And so it will be for the church. In that day, she will live in an unceasing experience of the forms of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Love, Joy, and Pleasure because she will be unceasingly face-to-face and in communion with the Form of the forms, the very logos Himself. It cannot be otherwise— an arresting truth!
Lewis’ Christian Platonism is the key to the fullest life. It leads the Christian to find the good life in the Logos and in communion with Him. Some may find referring to Christ as the logos to be irksome, for it would seem, then, that Christ is some grand impersonal order. But it is not that Christ is an impersonal order. It is that the order is a Personal Being. The logos is not Christ. Christ is the logos. And the logos loves. Indeed, the logos “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). That the very structuring order of this beautiful universe should become flesh, should become a man to come and die for the sins of a people who did nothing but disorder His creation—it is too much, too wonderful, too glorious.
- Perelandra by Douglas Wilson from Omnibus VI: The Modern World
- Perelandra: A Novel by C.S. Lewis
- Logos: Philosophy and Theology from Encyclopaedia Britannica