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It’s All in Lewis, All in Lewis, Bless me!

The Resplendent Christian Platonism of C. S. Lewis

It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of evangelical Christians today recognize the name of C. S. Lewis. It is also no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of evangelical Christians today would not have the slightest familiarity with the idea of “Christian Platonism.” And yet, I have been tasked to write on the importance of Lewis’s Christian Platonism. This means that either (a) Lewis, for all the evangelical fame his writings now enjoy, remains a vastly underappreciated figure with depths most of us have not come close to exhausting, or (b) that I have my work cut out for me in turning such a clearly-spoken figure into a wax nose (for the clearer a person is with his words, the more difficult it is to put words into his mouth, and Lewis spoke with razor-sharp clarity). Trying to make Lewis out to be saying something he does not in fact believe is no easy task. If Lewis wasn’t a Christian Platonist, this article will not be easy to write.

In reality, I do have my work cut out for me, but not because of a dearth of evidence for his Christian Platonism. Rather, the ubiquity of signs we can point to in an attempt to get an appreciative look at his Christian Platonism is so overwhelming, mapping out a path forward can be difficult. Where to even begin? In the spirit of Lewisian clarity, perhaps we can begin with definitions.What does Christ have to do with Plato, that pagan philosopher who lived hundreds of years before Christ was born? Click To Tweet

What is Christian Platonism

Before we can examine the question of Lewis’s Christian Platonism, we should clarify what Christian Platonism even is. At first blush, the term can appear nonsensical. What does Christ have to do with Plato (427-347 BC), that pagan philosopher who lived hundreds of years before Christ was born? Jesus was a Jew who lived in first-century Palestine and claimed to be the Messiah of Israel’s Scriptures: Yahweh in the flesh. Plato was a Greek philosopher who believed in the eternality of matter and the pre-existence of the soul. Considered in this light, these two don’t seem to have much in common. Indeed, there are many ways in which Christianity and Platonism are at odds with one another, not the least is regarding the incarnation of the Logos. How so? To get at why this idea bristles so irritably against Platonism, let’s take some time to get Plato’s metaphysic before us.

For Plato, the world that you and I inhabit is the world of shadows—the objects and ideas with which we interact are partial and incomplete expressions of their true form in the world of Forms or Ideas. The true essence of a thing is not exhausted in its finite manifestation, the finite manifestation is rather a reflection of its perfect form which occupies a space somewhere metaphysically between the Good and the world of shadows. The difference between the world of Forms and the world of shadows is the difference between the world of Being and the world of Becoming—and the world of Becoming does not have existential autonomy, it derives its existence from the world of Being. This is the heart of Plato’s metaphysic, and so far, there are some things that can overlap with Christianity. But the notion that the divine would come from the world of Being into the world of Becoming would have been nonsensical and even repugnant to Plato. And yet, to insist on such is at the very heart of Christianity. The incarnation, then, affirms explicitly what Plato would have most stridently denied.

It would seem from this fact alone that “Christian Platonism” must be disregarded as an oxymoron. This would be a mistake, however, for the central insights of Plato’s metaphysic harmonize well with the biblical conception of reality. One Plato scholar, Lloyd Gerson, summarizes Ur-Platonism (i.e., pre-Platonism) as being marked by five things: antimaterialism (i.e., the denial that material reality is all there is), antimechanism (i.e., the denial that reality can be fully explained by nature’s mechanical functions), antinominalism (i.e., the denial that reality is comprised of atomized objects that are not essentially joined together. Such a notion would deny that there is any such thing as humanness, but merely individual creatures we call “humans” for categorical convenience. Antinominalism denies this), antirelativism (i.e., the rejection that knowledge or morality are relative to the individual), and antiskepticism (i.e., the rejection of the idea that truth about reality is impossible to grasp). As such, all forms of Platonism share at least these five characteristics. If Gerson is correct in this summary, it would seem as though Platonism and Christianity have a great deal in common.[1] Christianity, too, is anti- all those things!

Does the apostle Paul not insist on that which is eternal and invisible being more real than that which is visible and transient (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)? Does he not claim that our heavenly dwelling is more real than our earthly tent (2 Corinthians 5:1-10)? Does he not assure us that our earthly, fleshy, and perishable bodies which are buried in death are raised as spiritual bodies that are more real by their spiritual character, not less (1 Corinthians 15:35-49)? Does the author of Hebrews not remind us that the earthly tabernacle is a shadow and a copy of the heavenly reality (Hebrews 8:5)? As Paul Tyson says, “the New Testament maintains that the Word of God is the non-material source of all that is tangible in the cosmos, that eternal realities are primary and material realities are derived from and depend on primary reality for their existence and that the reality of immediate tangibility is not the ultimate realm of reality.”[2] Such a description sounds remarkably Platonic.“Christian Platonism” is therefore that catch-all designation we give to the tradition that embraces central aspects of Plato’s metaphysic and places them in a Christian context—which is actually their natural home. Click To Tweet

Now, of course, this is not to say that either the biblical authors or early Christians would have insisted on calling themselves Christian Platonists. They saw themselves merely as Christians. The Neoplatonists (i.e., the Platonists who were around during the time of the early Christians) would have objected to Christians calling themselves Platonists, and Christians wouldn’t have been tempted to try. Yet they also saw no problem whatever with taking insights from Greek philosophy in general—and Platonism in particular—and appropriating them in the Christian worldview. For example, in The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa advocates for doing just this at a number of points. The most obvious place is in his allegorical reading of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, armed with Egyptian treasures. Says Gregory,

Our guide in virtue [Moses] commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.[3]

More explicitly, Augustine says it like this:

“If… the Platonists have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use.”[4]

“Christian Platonism” is therefore that catch-all designation we give to the tradition that embraces central aspects of Plato’s metaphysic and places them in a Christian context—which is actually their natural home. Plato’s conception of eternal Ideas, for example, is not far off from the truth, but whereas he places them in the barren wasteland of the ethereal “World of Forms,” Christian Platonism has brought them to their proper home in the mind of God. Within this tradition, we find figures like Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Owen, and yes, C.S. Lewis.

The vision of reality within this tradition stands in stark contradiction with the non-realist tradition of Nominalism, which leads inevitably to skeptical naturalism. Over and against the brutal conception of a cosmos fundamentally non-governed and random, where isolated facts bear no relationship with one another or any transcendent meaning, Lewis penetrated the immanent domain of modernity’s suffocating malaise with an irresistibly beautiful vision of an enchanted cosmos. Most readers of Lewis are unaware that this is in fact what he is doing. They do not realize that in his chastisement of chronological snobbery—or his high praise of transcendent Truth and Goodness and Beauty, or his revelry in Christianity as the Myth-made-fact, or his embrace of Nature and metaphysical hierarchy, or his imaginative storytelling in children’s fantasy novels—he was exploding the glass house of naturalism and erecting in its place a Christian Platonic cathedral, but that is precisely what he did (and, to the degree that his works are still widely read and heralded, what he is still doing).The vision of reality within this tradition stands in stark contradiction with the non-realist tradition of Nominalism, which leads inevitably to skeptical naturalism. Click To Tweet

Lewis’s View of Truth

We can be sure that Lewis was prepared to incorporate Platonic thought into his Christianity with philosophical self-awareness and consistency, at the very least, because of the way he viewed truth in general. Indeed, it is not simply that Lewis was prepared to concede that Christianity could tolerate certain ideas that did not originate with Christianity per se; Christianity’s ability to do this was a fundamental stress test. If real truth in pagan writings before the time of Christ could not harmonize with the claims of Christianity, this, for Lewis, would not be a sign of Christianity’s superiority, but rather its deficiency. This can be seen from the typical way in which Lewis addressed the so-called problem of “pagan Christs”:

But Christians also need to be reminded… that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there… For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.[5]

What is true here for pagan myth is also true of pagan philosophy. Here’s the point: in Lewis’s journey toward Christianity, he acquired genuine truth. What he needed was not a complete overhaul, as if every single thing he had learned and desired and enjoyed and admired up until that point were a complete lie;[6] he needed rather a point of integration. He needed a vision of reality that harmonized the many truths he had learned from philosophy, mythology, and the highs and lows of the human experience. The Christian faith was this point of integration—the harmonizing principle—for everything. This is why he can go so far as to say that the Incarnation of Christ “begins to illuminate the whole rest of the manuscript. It lights up nature’s pattern of death and rebirth; and secondly, her selectiveness; and, thirdly, her vicariousness.”[7] Or, as he says in a well-known quote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”[8]The Christian faith was this point of integration—the harmonizing principle—for everything. Click To Tweet

With this acceptance of the Christian faith did come with it the necessary discarding of certain previously cherished ideas, but no love was ultimately lost in this kind of “intellectual repentance,” because those ideas never truly fit into a coherent vision of reality anyway. In accepting Christ, Lewis was able to do away with pagan and unbelieving ideas that were incoherent with reality anyway, and those that he kept were brought into their proper home in the Christian worldview. “And it should (at least in my judgment) be made clear,” writes Lewis, “that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But, on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.”[9] When Lewis became a Christian, the truths he had found from—and which previously sat uncomfortably within—rival religions and myths and philosophies took their rightful place under the lordship of Christ. They assumed their position in the orchestra of creation and contributed to the Triune God’s symphony of transcendent Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Boethius: A Christian Platonic Role Model

Lewis in fact had good role models in this endeavor. For example, one of Lewis’s favorite philosophers was Boethius (477-524). In his book, The Discarded Image, Lewis offers his readers an introductory crash course on Boethius and a brief summary of the 6th century philosopher’s most popular work, The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was a Christian Platonist of the highest order, and Lewis intimates this very point as he describes Boethius’s argument toward the end of The Consolation’s third book:

The argument now climbs to the position that the whole and perfect good, of which we usually chase only fragments or shadows, is God. In the course of proving this—though it needed no new proof either for Platonists or Christians—Boethius slips in, as axiomatic, the remark that all perfect things are prior to all imperfect things.[10]

Lewis goes on to say of Boethius in general, “I cannot help thinking that Boethius has here expounded a Platonic conception more luminously than Plato ever did himself.”[11] What he says of Boethius here, we can easily say of Lewis himself. Many readers will be familiar with this striking quote: “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.”[12] But too few of us appreciate the Christian Platonism of what he says immediately after this:

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 something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.[13]

This is as good an example of Christian Platonism as we can ask for. Lewis takes the insights of Plato on desire and pleasure as pointers to the Good, and identifies that Good as none other than the Christian God himself. And this explains why Lewis felt so liberated to write on so wide a range of topics. The fragmentation of nominalism has done a number on us (as it had even in Lewis’s time), and so when we meet a “man with a chest” like Lewis,[14] we do not know what to do with him.Lewis takes the insights of Plato on desire and pleasure as pointers to the Good, and identifies that Good as none other than the Christian God himself. Click To Tweet

In his own day, Lewis received considerable criticism for writing too broadly and not—as was the custom of his colleagues and countless academics today—writing strictly within the confines of his specialized disciplined. He refused to “stay in his lane,” not because he was a rebel or an iconoclast, tearing down the dividing walls of specialization for the sake of being disruptive, but rather because for him there were no walls. Lewis’s Christian Platonism gave him a vision of reality that harmonized everything. Every “lane,” for Lewis, connected at some point to every other, and his Christian Platonism gave him the liberty to explore all of reality at leisure.

Christian Platonism in Narnia

This all-encompassing vision of reality is also what allowed Lewis to create such an expansive imaginative world for his Narnian books to inhabit. In his excellent book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, Michael Ward has convincingly demonstrated that Narnia’s cosmology was essentially Medieval in nature. I’m not interested in rehashing out his arguments here, but rather in a similar fashion, I’d like to point out how Narnia’s metaphysic is essentially Platonic in nature. Now, wandering through the wardrobe into Narnia is dangerous business for the one who wants to tour that world in summary fashion. Time acts differently in Narnia, and what we intend to be a short jaunt could easily turn into a couple of lifetimes, and several paragraphs could turn into several books.[15] With Aslan’s help, we’ll resist the temptation to stay there forever, and simply take five examples, using Gerson’s five characteristics of Platonism as our cue.

Antimaterialism

Antimaterialism is found all over the Narnia stories, but my favorite example is in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The whole of this story is a seafaring adventure in which the protagonists sail toward the edge of the earth towards Aslan’s country. At one point, they arrive at the last island that exists West of the world’s edge, and there they meet the star, Ramandu. In the course of their conversation with Ramandu, we learn a bit about Narnian astrology: in Narnia, stars live out their days, burning in the heavens. When they have burned out, they return to the earth, old and worn, where they receive a fire berry from the beak of a bird that flies from the rising sun every morning. These fire berries have a restorative quality, and the stars who eat them grow a day younger with every berry. When the “Benjamin Button” effect has run its course, and the star-man has grown in reverse to become an infant, he returns to his place in the heavens to burn brightly once more. Now, all this is quite interesting on its own, but what I really want to call our attention to is the timeless lesson Ramandu teaches our protagonists (and us, if we would have ears to hear him):

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”[16]

This is an example of Lewis—through Ramandu—chastising what Joe Rigney calls “nothing-buttery.” A star is made of flaming gas, yes, but it is not “nothing-but” that. It means more than it is. To say this much is only possible in a metaphysic that is, like Platonism, antimaterialistic.

Antimechanism

Under the lordship of Aslan, everything—even parties and revelry—has a nature. This nature is not mindless and mechanistic. It does not merely have a function, it has a telos. Click To TweetFor this feature of Platonism, we come to the book Prince Caspian. This story takes place over a millennium after the Pevensies first came through the wardrobe into Narnia. By this point in Narnian history, a foreign army has invaded the land and has taken a toll on the landscape. The talking beasts are in hiding and many parts of Narnia have grown wild and untamed. This, of course, changes with Aslan. When he arrives on the scene at the end of the book, he restores the kingdom to Caspian—an intellectual and spiritual heir to old Narnia—and under Aslan’s rightful lordship and Caspian’s faithful vice regency, the land flourishes. One powerful scene is when Aslan summons Bacchus (who is the name of the Roman god of wine and revelry—Lewis lifts him from Roman mythology and places him in Narnia) and a party ensues, wild and unpredictable. After all the ruckus is over, Lucy and Susan have a debrief of sorts that is very informative:

“I say, Lu”

“What?”

“I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bachhus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

“I should think not,” said Lucy.[17]

Under the lordship of Aslan, everything—even parties and revelry—has a nature. This nature is not mindless and mechanistic. It does not merely have a function, it has a telos. And without the governance of Aslan, it is unsafe and destructive. Watching what creatures (like Baccus and his wild girls) do is not enough to sufficiently teach us about reality in an ultimate sense. Nature in Narnia comes to itself when it harmonizes with the will of Aslan. This is why when Aslan liberates the town of Beruna and feasts with all the creatures of Narnia, their feast was particularized: the people got to eat delicious treats and fruit and cakes, and the tree people had their fill of loam and earth and soil. Narnian nature is not blind and mechanistic (just like our nature isn’t): it flourishes with Aslan’s blessing, and flounders without it.[18]

Antinominalism

For our example of antinominalism, we come to my favorite of Lewis’s Narnian classics, The Silver Chair. In this book, the three protagonists, Eustace Scrubb, Jill Pole, and the Marshwiggle Puddleglum, are sent by Aslan to rescue a kidnapped prince of Narnia. Before they leave, Aslan gives them four signs they are to follow. They were instructed to memorize the signs and say them over and over again to themselves. But because of laziness and disobedience, they miss the first three signs but are able to backtrack into obedience to the third, which was to heed a message carved into the side of a certain hill. The message was giant letters visible from far away, spelling the words, “UNDER ME.” On their way to the letters, our protagonists are chased by man-eating giants into a cave under the letters, and fall a great distance, ending up in an underworld—thus, they arrive “UNDER ME.” At one point, they speak with a strange Knight (who happens to be Rillian, the long-lost prince they were sent to rescue, under an enchantment) about their adventures, and they explain to him how they have finally gotten back on track of obedience to Aslan. Here’s a bit of the conversation:

“We had been told to look for a message on the stones of the City Ruinous,” said Scrubb. “And we saw the words UNDER ME.” The Knight laughed even more heartily than before. “You were the more deceived,” he said. “Those words meant nothing to your purpose. Had you but asked my Lady, she could have given you better counsel. For those words are all that is left of a longer script, which in ancient times, as she well remembers, expressed this verse:

Though under Earth and throneless now I be,

Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me.

From which it is plain that some great king of the ancient giants, who lies buried there, caused this boast to be cut in the stone over his sepulchre; though the breaking up of some stones, and the carrying away of others for new buildings, and the filling up of the cuts with rubble, has left only two words that can still be read. Is it not the merriest jest in the world that you should have thought they were written to you?” This was like cold water down the back to Scrubb and Jill; for it seemed to them very likely that the words had nothing to do with their quest at all, and that they had been taken in by a mere accident.

“Don’t you mind him,” said Puddleglum. “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant King caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them; including this.”[19]

What kind of metaphysic allows for a wide range of meaning, wherein fuller senses are real and not imagined? A realist—or, we might say, a Platonic—metaphysic. Click To TweetThis is one of my favorite illustrations to use when teaching hermeneutics. It helpfully showcases the concept of dual authorship and authorial intent (if authorial intent matters for meaning, how can we get at the meaning of the words “under me?” Is the meaning found in the authorial intent of the giant King in his communication to passersby, or in the intent of Aslan in his communication to Pole and Scrubb? The answer is yes, but you can only get a “yes” answer if you allow dual authorship to broaden the range of “meaning” beyond a single point).

But in front of the hermeneutical point is the metaphysical one. What kind of metaphysic comes with the insistence that a message can “mean” one and only one thing? A nominalist one of course. What kind of metaphysic allows for a wide range of meaning, wherein fuller senses are real and not imagined? A realist—or, we might say, a Platonic—metaphysic. In a nominalist framework, everything is flat, and objects and messages are distinct and separate, cloistered off from one another neatly. But in a Platonic framework, meaning can stack onto itself like a sweet, rich, thick, wedding cake. It is within this framework that a description of Aslan like this one makes total sense: “They turned and saw the Lion himself, so bright and real and strong that everything else began at once to look pale and shadowy compared with him.”[20]

Antirelativism

If we wish to see antirelativism in Narnia, we could pick any book at random, for antirelativism was, in many ways, a central driving motivation in everything Lewis wrote. Breathing in Narnian air is breathing in the air of objective values. You will not get far in Narnia with a sense of moral or intellectual relativism without getting (at the very least) a low growl from Aslan. But perhaps the best example we can point to is the character pair of Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew. Uncle Andrew is the quintessential alchemist: blending science and magic for the purpose of power and self-advancement. If we could use the example of Prince Caspian above, Andrew’s view of nature is the opposite of what we learned from Aslan and Bacchus. For Andrew, there is no such thing as teleology: nature is fundamentally malleable and is as good as it is useful. Asking what makes for flourishing doesn’t compute for his mind; he is far more concerned with asking what he can get out of nature. This, for Andrew, is the path to scientific progress and the greater good. Thus, he embraces an ethical pragmatism that he makes out to be a burden. Says uncle Andrew:

“Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys — and servants — and women — and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”[21]

Reality in Narnia has no room for such sophistry. Lewis is concerned to make sure that we know that right is right, wrong is wrong, true is true, and false is false. Click To TweetHis nephew, Digory, sees through this charade, however: “All it means,” he said to himself, “Is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”[22] What was easy for Digory to spot in Andrew was more difficult for him to spot in Jadis. She was beautiful and looked noble, which gave her tendency to grope for power—the same tendency as Andrew’s in essence—the veneer of respectability. But when she articulated her relativism with almost the same words as Andrew, the jig was up for Digory:

“I had forgotten that you are only a common boy. How should you understand reasons of State? You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny.”

Digory suddenly remembered that Uncle Andrew had used exactly the same words. But they sounded much grander when Queen Jadis said them; perhaps because Uncle Andrew was not seven feet tall and dazzlingly beautiful.[23]

Here’s the point: Lewis is clear throughout the book who the bad guys are. By putting the words of relativism into the mouths of Andrew and Jadis, he is telling us how we should think of relativism, regardless of where it’s coming from. Reality in Narnia has no room for such sophistry. Lewis is concerned to make sure that we know that right is right, wrong is wrong, true is true, and false is false.

Antiskepticism

Finally, to get a picture of Narnian antiskepticism, we return to The Silver Chair. I mentioned how our protagonists end up in the underworld, where they meet prince Rillian who is under an enchantment and does not know who he is. His enchantress is a witch called the Lady of the Green Kirtle. At one point the protagonists break Rillian’s enchantment, but before they can escape, the Emerald witch returns and they have to face her. Before their battle with swords, they face her in a battle of wits. With the help of a magical incense she sprinkles into a fire and a mandolin-like instrument she begins to strum gently, the Witch begins to try to convince her captors of a reductionistic vision of reality: according to her, there is no Narnia, no Aslan, and indeed, there is not even a sun. The sun is a make-believe projection of a lamp, exaggerated in a childlike exercise of the imagination. Aslan is not real, only little kittens—the whimsical fantasy of an overactive imagination creates a bigger version of the real thing. Where is the proof of these imaginary objects and places, she would like to know? All they can identify is that which is accessible to their five senses, which is confined to nothing but the underworld of which the Emerald Witch was lord. According to her, there is no world of Being, only the world of Becoming. There was no world of Forms, only the world of Shadows.Skepticism keeps you trapped in a musty and suffocating cave. Lewis, as a good Christian Platonist, was antiskeptical. Click To Tweet

Things are looking bleak for our characters until Puddleglum acts in a heroic fashion. Like a true Platonic philosopher, determined to escape the shackles of the world of shadows and ascend to breathe in the refreshing air of the higher world of Forms, Puddleglum stomps out the fire with his bare foot, disrupting the magic of the witch’s incense, and offers his antiskeptical manifesto:

“But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland.”[24]

This was enough to rally the support of his comrades. And again, there is no question what Lewis wishes to commend and chastise here: skepticism keeps you trapped in a musty and suffocating cave. Lewis, as a good Christian Platonist, was antiskeptical.

If we needed any more convincing that Lewis’s Narnian metaphysic was essentially Platonic in nature, we need to look no further than his final book, The Last Battle, where earth and Narnia are shown to be expressions of the “further up, further in” reality of Aslan’s country. It is Professor Digory who sums up the philosophical point with one last lesson for the Pevensies and their friends:

“Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but [then] he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”[25]

Conclusion

More important than calling Lewis’s vision of reality a Christian Platonic one is the need to call it beautiful. Click To TweetIn this piece, I’ve attempted to demonstrate that C.S. Lewis was, in fact, a Christian Platonist. But more important than calling Lewis’s vision of reality a Christian Platonic one is the need to call it beautiful. We might feel inclined to argue with Lewis and the illustrative figures who stand with him in the Christian Platonic tradition in his vision of the world, but wouldn’t we prefer (if we were honest with ourselves) that he was right? The flat cosmos of nominalism may be more convenient for moral relativists, but I struggle to imagine how it can in any way be deemed lovelier than the richly furnished cosmos of Christian Platonism. I can think of no better apologist for this worldview than C.S. Lewis.


[1] Lloyd P. Gerson, From Plato to Platonism (Cornell University Press, 2013), 9-19. Hans Boersma helpfully summarizes this in Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (IVP Academic, 2021), 42-43.

[2] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times (Cascade Books, 2014), 84.

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (HarperCollines, 2006), 63.

[4] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine (Prentice Hall, 1958), ch. 26., 76.

[5] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Become Fact” in God in the Doc, (Eerdmans, 1970), 59-60.

[6] It is worth mentioning that the Canons of Dort would agree with Lewis on this. See Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article IV.

[7] C.S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle” in God in the Doc, 83.

[8] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2001), 140.

[9] C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics” in God in the Doc, 102. Emphasis added.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 85.

[11] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 89-90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2001), 136-137.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 137. Emphasis added.

[14] This is a riff off Lewis’s notion of “men without chests,” which he describes in The Abolition of Man (HarperCollins, 2009), which is also a good example of Lewis’s appropriation of Platonic thought. He is leaning on a Platonic anthropology which distinguishes between three parts of the soul: the rational (corresponding to the head), the spirited (corresponding to the chest), and the appetitive (corresponding to the belly).

[15] In addition to the Ward book I mentioned above, two other excellent books on Narnia are Joe Rigney, Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes and Pen Press, 2013), and Douglas Wilson, What I Learned in Narnia (Canon Press). Also, while it is not a book on Lewis’s chronicles exclusively, Louis Markos has some excellent insights from his time in Narnia in Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis (Downers Grove, 2010).

[16] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dwan Treader, (HarperCollins, 1994), 115.

[17] C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (HarperCollins, 1994), 85.

[18] For another example, we can call attention to the people of underworld in The Silver Chair, who live close to the surface of the earth instead of down toward the core only because of the Emerald Witch’s enchantment. As soon as she is dead and their enchantment is broken, they return to their proper habitation.

[19] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (HarperCollins, 2000), 82.

[20] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 129.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, (HarperCollins, 2000), 11.

[22] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, 11.

[23] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, 36.

[24] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 98.

[25] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (HarperCollins, 1994), 105.

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is associate professor of theological studies and director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019) and Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, forthcoming). You can follow Samuel on Twitter.

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