Andrew M.H. Alexander

C.S. Lewis on excitement as immaturity

South Lake Tahoe. 13 August 2020

I’ve been thinking about my dilettantism, which I’ve struggled with since I was a teenager, and its consequences for my career.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, writes about the fallacy of expecting the thrill of new love to persist in long-term marriages. It’s not an original point, but it is an important one:

People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realising that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last.

He generalizes this beyond just marriages:

The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there. Does this mean it would be better not to learn to fly and not to live in the beautiful place? By no means. In both cases, if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest. What is more (and I can hardly find words to tell you how important this is), it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and become a good pilot will suddenly discover music; the man who has settled down to live in the beautiful spot will discover gardening.

This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go—let it die away—go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follows—and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life. (110-111)

Nine years ago, in the Great Hearts faculty survey, I wrote:

There was a conversation in the faculty office a few months ago: if you knew you would forget everything at the end of the day, would you still read Kant? Dickerson said no—reading Kant is difficult and not particularly pleasant; if you’re not going to learn anything lasting, what’s the point? Fink said yes—the mere process of reading, while difficult, is enjoyable. I said that I’d actually prefer to read Kant that way—because then it would be new and fresh and weird and strange, every time. Of course, the goal then isn’t wisdom, which can only be attained through sustained and repeated reading. The goal is a visceral, intellectual thrill—the mental equivalent of riding a rollercoaster.

Lewis returns to this theme in Mere Christianity several chapters later:

… The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us. Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one.

(1) The Fool’s Way—He puts the blame on the things themselves. He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after. Most of the bored, discontented rich people in the world are of this type. They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman (through the divorce courts), from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is ‘the Real Thing’ at least, and always disappointed.

(2) The Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man’—He soon decides that the whole thing was moonshine. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘one feels like that when one’s young. But by the time you get to my age you’ve given up chasing the rainbow’s end.’ And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, ‘to cry for the moon.’ This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to society. It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior to what he calls ‘adolescents’), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably.

That Lewis describes the first worldview as belonging especially to “bored, discontented rich people” hits close to home. And I am reminded of Obama’s line from 2007 about avoiding the danger of “swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism,” which seems like the dichotomy Lewis is outlining here.

Lewis goes on to say that the second way to live, the way of Obama’s bitter realist, “would be the best line we could take if man did not live forever.” But, being a Christian, Lewis believes that people do live forever, and thus there’s a third way. The true, Christian way, Lewis writes, is this:

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. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same. (135-7)

I guess this is basically Socrates’s position. (Christianity adopts it, adding the nuance “never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings.”)

(page numbers from the HarperCollins deckle-edged paperback edition, 2001)