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Blackwell Great Minds

Edited by Steven Nadler

The Blackwell Great Minds series gives readers a strong sense of the fundamental views of the great western thinkers and captures the relevance of these figures to the way we think and live today.

  1. Kant by Allen W. Wood
  2. Augustine by Gareth B. Matthews
  3. Descartes by André Gombay
  4. Sartre by Katherine J. Morris
  5. Charles Darwin by Michael Ruse
  6. Schopenhauer by Robert Wicks
  7. Shakespeare’s Ideas by David Bevington
  8. Camus by David Sherman
  9. Kierkegaard by M. Jamie Ferreira
  10. Mill by Wendy Donner and Richard Fumerton
  11. Socrates by George H. Rudebusch
  12. Maimonides by T.M. Rudavsky
  13. Wittgenstein by Hans Sluga
  14. Locke by Samuel Rickless
  15. Newton by Andrew Janiak
  16. C. S. Lewis by Stewart Goetz

blackwell great minds

c. s. lewis

Stewart Goetz



To David Charles,
Friend and Mentor,
Who first taught me the importance of philosophy of mind
for philosophy of religion


I am indebted to numerous people who helped bring this book to completion. Patrick Casey, Timothy Mawson, and Jerry Walls read and commented on the manuscript in its entirety. Patrick and Jerry “know Lewis,” and kept driving me back to reread this or that. Tim helped me clarify various points where Lewis’s work intersects with the contemporary philosophical scene. The criticisms and suggestions of all of them reminded me time and again of how important it is to have others read one’s work with a critical eye.

Some of the materials needed to write this book are unpublished, and Laura Schmidt of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College helped me locate what I could not find on my own. I am deeply indebted to her.

Anandan Bommen, Manish Luthra, and Susan Dunsmore each helped with the preparation of the manuscript, and Emily Corkhill and Marissa Koors wisely oversaw its production. Because of them, it is an absolute delight and privilege to publish with Wiley‐Blackwell. I am deeply grateful to my wife, Carolyn, who carefully proofread the manuscript.

Finally, I thank Deirdre Ilkson, who approached me about writing this book and commissioned it.


The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered, the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.

(Lewis 1942, 1)

C. S. Lewis distinguished between two kinds of readers, what he termed “the majority” and “the minority.” Members of the majority do not put much value on reading, do not think much about and are largely unaffected by what they do read, and never read anything a second time. Members of the minority are contrary in every way. They are constantly looking for periods of leisure and silence in which to read without distraction. For them, reading a certain work is an experience so momentous that the only standard of comparison is provided by experiences of love, religion, or bereavement, and, as a result, what they read is constantly and prominently before their minds. Minority readers will not infrequently read the same book ten, twenty, or thirty times over the course of their lives (Lewis 1961a, 2–3).

Lewis not only wrote about minority readers but was one himself, and what he wrote was read by other minority readers. For example, Sister Penelope of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin penned the following in a letter to Lewis in 1940 about his book The Problem of Pain:

I expected to enjoy myself reading it, & I have done so even beyond my hope. It made me bolt my dinner to get more time for it … & now that I have finished it, reading every word, & a good many bits twice over, I am longing to read it again. That, I think, is a peculiar quality of your writing: I am aching to re‐read both Pilgrim’s Regress & Out of the Silent Planet, tho’ I have already read the latter twice, once aloud; but this book outstrips even those …

(Lewis 2004b, 449–50)

Sister Penelope’s letter made clear that she was a minority kind of reader. For a time, however, the number of readers of Lewis’s books, whether minority or majority, was in decline. In 1957, Jocelyn Gibb, the managing director of Geoffrey Bles Ltd., which originally published many of Lewis’s less scholarly books, wrote to Lewis about the declining readership of his works: “Sales are not too happy at the moment … Your older books are falling off in sales which I suppose is bound to happen after some of them have been out for such a long time” (Lewis 2007, 869). But Gibb could not have been more wrong about what was bound to happen. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, George Marsden, a historian of American Christianity, writes that, since 2001, Lewis’s book Mere Christianity has sold more than 3.5 million copies in English and been translated into at least 36 languages (Marsden 2016b). Marsden adds that Mere Christianity is the book that educated Chinese Christians are most likely to have read after the Bible. And the British philosopher Anthony Kenny points out that by the end of the last century Lewis had become a cultural icon and patron saint of the evangelical wing of American Christianity (Kenny 2013).

Though I am a professional philosopher (I teach philosophy as a subject at the university level) and a lover of books, I was for much of my life a majority reader when it came to the works of C. S. Lewis. I had read a few of them in part, and even fewer in whole. And most certainly, I had not reread them. However, as Lewis wrote, “[t]he two sorts of readers are not cut off by immovable barriers. Individuals who once belonged to the many are converted and join the few” (Lewis 1961a, 6). About a decade ago, I crossed over from the majority into the minority readership of Lewis, having devoured several of his works in a short period of time. Like Sister Penelope, I enjoyed them in a way that I could not have imagined. While the books by Lewis I was reading were not written for a professional philosophical audience, what particularly intrigued me about them was that they were obviously authored by a philosophical mind. It was as a philosopher that I began to buy, read, and, yes, reread, anything and everything written by Lewis.

As a minority reader of Lewis, it did not take me long to discover that there was a significant body of secondary literature about him and his thought. “Having read [my] way so far into his mind … ” (Lewis 1954, 414), I found one thing in particular about this secondary body of work very perplexing: while it had been the philosophical character of Lewis’s thought that had initially impressed me, very few of those writing about Lewis and his work recognized and discussed him in terms of the philosopher that he was. Most seemed intent on disregarding or were simply unaware of what Lewis himself had stressed, which was that he had “had a philosophical … education” (Lewis 2001c, 20). Indeed, Warren Lewis, his brother and only sibling, wrote that “the study of philosophy was to him as inevitable as death will be” (W. Lewis 1982, 161).

Given the prevailing failure to acknowledge Lewis as the philosopher that he was, I have written this book for the purpose of giving him the philosophical attention he deserves. At many points, I have been tempted to interject my own views of matters that Lewis addressed. Dorothy L. Sayers, who was a contemporary of Lewis and an influential literary figure in her own right, understood this temptation all too well and wrote the following to him in 1948:

There is to‐day far too little straightforward interpretive criticism. Everybody insists on doing “creative” criticism—which means that the critic simply uses his author as a spring‐board from which to leap off into an exposition of his own views about the universe … [W]e need the pure interpreter, who will sit down before a poem, or whatever it is, with humility to it and charity to the reader, and begin by finding out and explaining what the author actually did say, before he starts to explain what the author ought to have said and would have said if he had been as enlightened a person as his critic. A friend of mine, after toiling through several unintelligible books about modern poetry, said plaintively: “I want a critic who will say: ‘This is a poem about a bus; this is what the poem says about the bus; this is the conclusion the writer draws from his observation about the bus; I think he has said it well (beautifully, badly, etc.) for the following reason.’ After that he can say what he likes, and I shall know where I am.”

(Lewis 2004b, 885)

Although Lewis was a first‐rate critic in his own right and not shy about expressing his own views, he wrote in response to Sayers that “I am absolutely with you about criticism: or, should I say, absolutely with you in feeling that we have far too much criticism and far too little commentary” (Lewis 2004b, 886). So with the observations of Sayers and Lewis’s answer to them as my guide, I have for the most part resisted temptation and authored a straightforward descriptive account of Lewis’s philosophical views. I hope I am justified in thinking that what I have written has a bit more life to it than “this is a poem about a bus; this is what the poem says about the bus … ” My thinking this is in part explained by the fact that I often quote Lewis in the course of the exposition of his views. Whatever one might think about the quality of Lewis’s philosophical thought, no one can reasonably deny that he was a gifted writer of prose. As Owen Barfield, one of Lewis’s closest friends from their undergraduate days together at Oxford, remarked, years after his friend’s death, just about everything Lewis wrote was “so easy to read, because so simply and lucidly written … ” (1989, 11). Interestingly, Barfield went on to explain this quality of his friend’s written work in terms of the role Lewis’s philosophical thought had played in his development as a writer. But while much of what Lewis authored was simply and lucidly written, Lewis himself once pointed out in personal correspondence that he had two ways of writing, “one for the people (to be used in works of popularized theology) and one that never aimed at simplicity (in scholarly or imaginative works)” (Lewis 2004b, 797). So Lewis’s own words serve as a bit of a corrective to Barfield’s comments about the simplicity of his friend’s works and forewarn any reader of them that some of what he penned is not all that straightforward and easy to understand. Hence, at many points, I have had to reread what Lewis wrote, not as a minority reader but for the purpose of understanding his philosophical convictions so as to be able to convey them to readers of this book.

As I stated in the previous paragraph, I have for the most part resisted the temptation to engage in criticism of Lewis’s thought. For the most part, but not totally. In the spirit of a sympathetic but not servile presentation of Lewis’s views, I have occasionally succumbed to temptation and injected some critical remarks of my own because I believe Lewis would have appreciated and perhaps, upon reflection, even agreed with them. I say this because I have been reminded from my rereading of Lewis’s personal correspondence (he was a prolific letter writer) about how grateful he was for good criticism and, when he was persuaded, openly acknowledged his change of mind.

I also mentioned a moment ago without explanation that I quote Lewis frequently in subsequent chapters. My primary reason for quoting him often and sometimes at length (Lewis himself had a “gift for quoting” (Sayer 1994, 243)) is to make clear to readers that I have not misread him. Philosophically, Lewis was his own man. As the Lewis scholar Michael Ward has recently commented, Lewis “was to a certain extent a ‘Free Thinker’; he wasn’t trammelled by expectations and conventions in the same way that most of his contemporaries were” (Ward 2016, 44). And another serious student of Lewis, Adam Barkman, describes Lewis as “a lone thinker” (2009, 12). Yet, many try to pigeonhole him as a “this” or a “that,” when in reality he was neither.

Here, for illustrative purposes, it is helpful to consider the issue of knowledge. In his book The Allegory of Love, Lewis wrote about Edmund Spenser that

[he was] writing in an age [the sixteenth century] of religious doubt and controversy when the avoidance of error [was] a problem as pressing as, and in a sense prior to, the conquest of sin: a fact which would have rendered his story uninteresting in some centuries, but which should recommend it to us.

(Lewis 1936, 334)

Recall now Kenny’s point, which I mentioned a moment ago, that Lewis has become the patron saint of the evangelical wing of American Christianity, which itself exists in an age that, not unlike Spenser’s, is preoccupied with doubt, avoiding error, and, most generally, whether and how we can know. While Lewis was certainly theologically orthodox, he was just as certainly philosophically deeply at odds with a view of our ability to know that a significant segment of the evangelical community espoused and continues to maintain in response to the spirit of the age. As I will make clear in Chapter 2, Lewis believed in the fundamentally unimpaired quality of reason, and he argued that our philosophical views begin with reason because they can begin nowhere else. Contrary to Lewis, the evangelical wing of American Christianity was and remains heavily influenced by what it calls “presuppositionalism.” In simplest terms, presuppositionalism is the view that one’s ability to know is impaired (often explained in terms of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) and, because it is, to avoid error one must have in place certain intellectual commitments before one can know. For many evangelicals, one must rely on what they think of as Christian or biblical presuppositions (regularly referred to as the biblical or Christian worldview, or what God has willed or said as revealed in the Bible) to support one’s foundational claims to know and to have reasoned well.

As readers and interpreters of Lewis, evangelical presuppositionalists mistakenly portray Lewis as one of their own. For example, in his short book about Lewis’s view of education, entitled C. S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education, Louis Markos writes:

Lewis … insisted that all conclusions be traced back to their foundational assumptions and presuppositions … Lewis … believed … in the importance of following an argument wherever it leads … All was open for discussion, though Lewis himself looked to the Bible and the Christian creeds as touchstones for measuring truth claims.

(2015, 6, 18–19)

However, as will become obvious in subsequent chapters, Lewis thought that foundational truth claims did not need touchstones by which to be measured. They were simply known to be true. Thus, in discussing our supposed knowledge of the goodness of God, Lewis acknowledged that “some will reply, ‘Ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognise good when we see it’,” to which he replied “But God Himself does not say we are as fallen as all that” (Lewis 2007, 1437). More generally, Lewis reasoned that if one needed to depend on presuppositions (which, by hypothesis, could not themselves just be known to be true, because they would then no longer be presuppositions) in order to know foundational truths, then what justification could one provide to explain one’s reliance on those presuppositions? If one reasoned to a presupposition from something one knew, one would have needed a second‐order presupposition to validate the reasoning and knowledge which one took respectively to be valid and true and, thereby, supportive of that first‐order presupposition. Lewis believed there could be no principled way to stop this regress.

Markos rightly goes on to maintain that:

[whether Lewis]was writing literature, teaching it, or criticizing it, [he] kept his eye firmly on the work itself, instructing his students and his readers to pay attention to what the work was trying to do and trying to say rather than to impose on the work their own … presuppositions.

(2015, 27)

Thus, Lewis would have instructed us regarding his own work that we should receive it by fairly and squarely laying our minds open to what he wrote and letting it do its work on us. We ought to get ourselves and our views out of the way (Lewis 1961a, 12, 13, 19). In terms of presuppositionalism, we should be careful not to presuppose that Lewis was a presuppositionalist.

So while the theological embrace of Lewis by evangelicals is understandable, it is nevertheless the case that he philosophically parted ways with most of them when it came to questions about the integrity of reason. Lewis thought that Jerusalem (religion) had much to do with Athens (philosophy), but he was convinced that in terms of what we know, one had to start with unaided reason in Athens (without what Christian theologians term “special revelation”) and journey to Jerusalem. And while Lewis held that what the biblical authors wrote contains many foundational truths, he believed that when those writers avoided error, they often did so without presupposing anything.

In one of his scholarly books entitled The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote:

[it is] [t]he business of the natural philosopher … to construct theories which will “save appearances” … A scientific theory must “save” or “preserve” the appearances, the phenomena, it deals with, in the sense of getting them all in, doing justice to them.

(1964, 14)

In writing this book, I have sought in a systematic way within limited space to get in and do justice to the main ideas in Lewis’s settled philosophical thought. George Sayer, a student of Lewis’s in the mid‐1930s, recounted his first meeting with Lewis in Oxford. As he approached the door to Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College, he came upon a man standing outside who was waiting to see Lewis:

“Are you a pupil come for a tutorial?” he asked.

“No. But Mr. Lewis is going to be my tutor next term.” …

“You’re lucky in having him as your tutor,” he said …

As I walked away [after my meeting], I found the man that Lewis had called “Tollers” [he was J. R. R. Tolkien] sitting on one of the stone steps in front of the arcade.

“How did you get on?” he asked.

“I think rather well. I think he will be a most interesting tutor to have.”

“Interesting? Yes, he’s certainly that. You’ll never get to the bottom of him.”

(Sayer 1994, xvii–xviii, xx)

I am sure I have not gotten to the bottom of Lewis. But I am just as sure that I have gotten below the surface of him in terms of his philosophical views. In getting below the surface, I hope I have managed to avoid committing what Lewis described as “the one sin for which, in literature, no merits can compensate; [that of being] rather dull” (Lewis 1954, 363). Lewis and what he thought were most certainly not dull, as the brief overview of his life and the explanation of the sense in which he was a philosopher in Chapter 1 will begin to make clear. After this overview and explanation, I plunge headfirst in the remaining chapters into the task of setting forth the particulars of Lewis’s philosophical ideas. My presentation of them reflects their ordered philosophical importance in Lewis’s mind. Thus, I start with longer chapters on Lewis’s views of reason, happiness, morality, and free will, and end with shorter treatments of his views of dying to self, God, and the problem of pain. If one does not understand his views of the former, one will have a more difficult time understanding what he had to say about the latter.

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

(Boswell 2008, 446)