C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Nostalgia

(or, “Why you sometimes feel like you can remember something, sometimes, from even before your childhood”)

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C.S. Lewis often wrote about (and alluded to) the sense of “nostalgia” that comes with beholding a beautiful landscape.

One of my recent backpacking trips

One of my recent backpacking trips. Observe the bursting sense of nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that the Christian argument from beauty/awe/nostalgia is one of the most difficult to convincingly express, yet one of the most powerful when properly understood. It shares some commonality with the Argument from Religious Experience, in that it relies on personal revelation rather than hard evidence (historical & scientific data) or soft evidence (formal philosophical arguments).

Rather than relying upon another person’s (oftentimes unreliable) testimony, however, the argument from nostalgia encourages self-reflection by identifying a peculiar sensation – almost like déjà vu, or a lost memory, or a half-forgotten dream – that seems to be shared by most people. C.S. Lewis described this sensation as follows:

“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

When I first encountered that passage, I remember being stunned. I had to re-read it several times. It almost seemed as if Lewis had ripped something from my own mind and memories, and put it to paper half a century before I was born.

The association between nostalgia and childhood is particularly intriguing. While childhood clearly isn’t the source of this particular type of nostalgia, the sensation seems to be strongest in the context of one’s childhood. Something to do with innocence, maybe? Lewis goes on:

“Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

And here is where we make the leap from “peculiar shared sensation” to “argument for Christian theism”. Lewis again:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those 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. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

Roger Scruton Quotes

“Deprive young people of a rite of passage into the social order and they will look for a rite of passage out of it…The effect of current policies has been to subsidize out-of-wedlock births, to remake marriage as a contract of cohabitation, and to drive religion, which is the true guardian of rites of passage, from the public sphere. Those policies have been embarked on with the best of intentions, but with a remarkable indifference to what we know of human nature.”

“When everything is permitted, it is vital to forbid the forbidder.”

“Popular culture today is bent on exalting the trivial, the indecent, the sarcastic, over the deep, the committed and the virtuous. It is difficult for us to envisage that Mozart’s music, in its day, was part of popular culture”

roger scruton

“The misuse of drink in our society is one aspect of the general misuse of pleasure…Public drunkenness, of the kind that led to prohibition, arose because people were drinking the wrong things in the wrong way.”

“We must recognize that liberty is not the same as equality, and that those who call themselves liberals are far more interested in equalizing than in liberating their fellows.”

“It is impossible for modern adolescents to regard erotic feelings as the preliminary to marriage, which they see as a condition of partial servitude, to be avoided as an unacceptable cost. Sexual release is readily available, and courtship a time-wasting impediment to pleasure. Far from being a commitment, in which the voice of future generations makes itself heard, sex is now an intrinsically adolescent experience. The transition from the virgin to the married state has disappeared, and with it the ‘lyrical’ experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher form of membership, to which the hard-won consent of the other is a necessary precondition. All other rites of passage have similarly withered away, since no social institution demands them – or if it does demand them, it will be avoided as ‘judgemental’, hierarchical or oppressive.”

“Beauty is assailed from two directions – by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life.”

“That is what religion promises: not a purpose, necessarily, but something that removes the paradox of an entirely law-governed world, open to consciousness, that is nevertheless without an explanation: that just is, for no reason at all. The evangelical atheists are subliminally aware that their abdication in the face of science does not make the universe more intelligible, nor does it provide an alternative answer to our metaphysical enquiries. It simply brings enquiry to a stop. And the religious person will feel that this stop is premature: that reason has more questions to ask, and perhaps more answers to obtain, than the atheists will allow us. So who, in this subliminal contest, is the truly reasonable one? The atheists beg the question in their own favour, by assuming that science has all the answers. But science can have all the answers only if it has all the questions; and that assumption is false. There are questions addressed to reason which are not addressed to science, since they are not asking for a causal explanation.”

Christianity and High Beauty (With Pictures!)

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

– JRR Tolkien, “The Return of the King”

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I rarely re-watch movies, and I practically never re-watch documentaries. But I’ve watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” twice now, and I’ll probably watch it again. You really ought to set aside an hour to enjoy it. At the very least, watch the first 3 minutes.

This post will draw somewhat heavily from Scruton’s documentary, but will also include my own thoughts – from more of a “hey-watch-as-I-attempt-to-relate-this-to-Christianity” perspective. Starting with:

1. Beauty in Nature

As alluded to in the Tolkien quote, I find it comforting that the beauty of the natural world is ultimately beyond the reach of man’s corruption. We might do our utmost to despoil the beauty of our immediate environment, but the sprawling majesty of the universe stands by unfazed.

I sometimes talk to atheists & agnostics who point to the sheer size of the universe, and claim that our smallness and apparent insignificance is evidence against the existence of God. I’ve always thought to myself, in response, “what better way for an infinite, all-powerful Being to express Himself to us, than to surround us with mind-numbing vastness and beauty?”

aquinas_unimpressed

When we look upon the night sky…a mountain landscape…a blazing sunset…a wind-whipped prairie…we stop to appreciate these things for their mere existence. They stir something within us, drawing our attention to a craving, within ourselves, for a Higher Beauty that nothing in this universe can quite satisfy.

Glacier Ridgeline

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV)

2. Beauty in Things

If mountains are beautiful because they are created by God, then sculptures and poems are beautiful because they are created by people. Robert Frost creates beauty by describing a forest, even if the poem is, perhaps, eclipsed by the natural beauty of the forest itself.

Man is unique among creatures not only in his ability to appreciate beauty, but in his ability to willfully create beauty for beauty’s sake. In concurrence with Dr. Scruton, I would argue that for a thing to be beautiful, it cannot be created primarily for utility, or for mere self-expression. Beautiful things often possess these qualities, but they must be secondary.

“All art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.” – Oscar Wilde

sistine chapel mona lisa

Also: simply calling something beautiful doesn’t make it so! That kind of absurd relativism might be permitted in modern art museums, but not on this blog.

3. Beauty in People

At the risk of sounding repetitive, a person possesses beauty for the simple fact that they exist. This is best illustrated by the perplexing phenomenon of Otherwise Articulate Adults Making Interesting Noises in the Presence of Babies.

Infants are useless in the truest sense of the word. They’re essentially poop machines, incapable of providing us with any tangible service or benefit. Yet babies evoke an emotional response precisely because of their uselessness. When utility is stripped away, we find ourselves reveling in the mere fact of existence of another human person.

newborn infant

This also comes into play when contrasting feelings of romantic love with feelings of lust. The man overcome with romantic love desires nothing more than the flourishing and well-being of his beloved…even if it comes at his own cost…and even if he will never be able to personally take part in her life. He would gladly throw himself in front of a train, rather than see his beloved suffer pain, shame, or disgrace. He will daydream about performing acts of heroic sacrifice on her behalf (rushing into a burning building, diving in front of a bullet, etc.).

The man overcome with lust is primarily interested in how the other person can be of use to him. The object of his lust is an instrument to be used and discarded.

“Pornographic images reduce the person being lusted over to body parts only. There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.” – Pope John Paul II

I believe that the human experience of beauty provides strong inductive evidence for the central claims of Christianity (namely: the existence of High Beauty, original sin, and our subsequent inability to grasp this Beauty unaided). Three observations, in closing:

Firstly: We recognize beauty and know that it’s good…even if we have difficulty defining it.
Secondly: We perceive that our desire for beauty can be tantalized, but never truly fulfilled.
Thirdly: We yearn for Something, unseen, that can fulfill our unfulfilled desire for “more beauty”.

Apostasy, Virtue, Uselessness, and Morality

It turns out I have a bad habit of surfing the Christian blogosphere when I should be paying attention during lecture.

This means I have some catching up to do – academically speaking – before I resume my regularly scheduled blogging activities. It also means I have some really fascinating stuff to pass along:

1. The Problem with Ex-Christians (Sententias)
“Earlier today I was listening to Dan Barker talk about how he knew that he was a born again Christian. He went to all these church events and was heavily involved with evangelism–all the Christian things Christians do. Well, Dan Barker no longer describes himself as a Christian. He, and many people like him, are very emphatic when they say that they were once Christians and they actually were saved or born again. However, if anyone is going to claim to be an Ex-Christian they’re going to have to say that they never were saved to begin with…(continue reading).”

2. Sneering at Virtue and Beauty (the Ink Slinger)
“[We must] instill in our students the easy habit of sneering at virtue and beauty. I say it is an easy habit, because a little veneer of intelligence will usually suffice to persuade one that all the people in the world who lived before one’s time – say, all the people who lived before two in the afternoon on July 2, 1965 – were knaves an fools. They all believed the world was flat; they kept slaves; they burned witches; they smoked cigarettes; whatever easy stupidity or immorality can be pinned on them, we pin it. They cannot answer the charges themselves, and students ignorant of history can’t answer them either. So we talk glibly about traditional manhood and traditional womanhood, with a knowing wink – meaning brutality and idiocy. That such men and women, possessed of virtues we ignore, tamed a continent, is not to be considered…(continue reading).”

3. Humans are Useless (Bad Catholic)
“Beauty begets love. A flutter and twitch of female lashes can crush a man’s heart like a Bud Light can under a steamroller. A father who spends the day immersed in the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley returns by night with hugs for his children and a softer touch for his wife. Beauty begets love, as sunlight wakens sleepers, and I hope this an obvious experience, if not an obvious phrase…(continue reading).”

4. Jerry Sandusky and Ultimate Right and Wrong (ACWords)
“…in the ancient Greco-Roman world, homosexual relations between an older man and a boy (between 12 and 17) were completely acceptable. This was the age range that Sandusky happened to target. In other words, if Sandusky had done what he did 2000 years ago, no one would have thought much of it and we wouldn’t have found him guilty of anything. The rise of Christianity, with its Judeo-Christian sexual ethics, according to Wilker, was the main thing that ended up instilling a new morality so that most of us now view such acts with disgust….(continue reading).”