C. S. Lewis Out of Context

Came across this C. S. Lewis quote on a popular Facebook page today.

Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.

My first thought was, Oh, nice, they’re quoting C. S. Lewis. This was immediately followed by, Wait a minute. Isn’t that quote from the The Four Loves and wasn’t C. S. Lewis paraphrasing St. Augustine and disagreeing with him?

Yep, C. S. Lewis out of context. The point C. S. Lewis was actually making was this:

IMG_1638rsTo love at all is to be vulnerable.

What bothers me is how the first quote is now floating around the interwebs as a pithy aphorism by C. S. Lewis–garnering tens of thousands of likes (God knows how many dislikes) and thousands of shares, less than 20 hours after it was posted–when what C. S. Lewis was really saying was the complete opposite. Thanks, internet!

The only reason C. S. Lewis even said, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose” was so that he could disagree with the sentiment. And the point he was making wasn’t about happiness, it was about love. Sadly, people who see this quote and disagree with it, as C. S. Lewis did, could end up thinking, as one commenter put it, “That’s B.S., C.S.” 😦 when, in fact, they are probably the ones who, most likely, agree with what C. S. Lewis was really saying. Ah, the irony!

Some quotes can be taken out of context or given new meaning and they still work, with respect to the author. Not this one. In this case, context is everything. (By the way, if you, dear reader, have come across any quotes similarly taken out of context, I’d be interested to hear about it. Feel free to post in the comments below.) I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Here is the quote in it’s full context. It’s long, but if you read to the end, you shall be rewarded with wisdom. 🙂 The last paragraph is one of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes. Actually, if you have the time and opportunity, I  heartily recommend that you read The Four Loves. It’s C. S. Lewis at his finest and chock full of original thought, profound insight and wisdom.

 In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Of course this is excellent sense. Do not put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to this appeal, I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because, so to speak, the security is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a friend — if it comes to it, would you choose a dog — in that spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love Himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic “apathy” or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he “loved”. St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine – St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died. (Philippians ii, 27.)

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. –C. S. Lewis (The Four Loves, pgs 110-112)

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