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.

There is one method of dissuading us from inordinate love of the fellow-creature which I find myself forced to reject at the very outset. I do so with trembling, for it met me in the pages of a great saint and a great thinker to whom my own glad debts are incalculable.

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.

I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and selfless protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason. “I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.” Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards, God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it. –C. S. Lewis (The Four Loves, pgs 110-112)

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5 responses to “C. S. Lewis Out of Context”

  1. Boon Peng Phng says :

    (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.) – Yes, this post. Aren’t you taking Augustine’s teaching out of context based simply on one line?

    • Meg says :

      Hi there, Boon.
      I’m not sure what to think about your comment. I’m still trying to decide if you are a troll or if perhaps you misunderstood or didn’t read my post in it’s entirety. Since you went as far as to link me to a copy of St. Augustine’s sermons, I’m gonna go with the second and third options and reply to your comment.

      First of all, I’m wondering, did you read my post in it’s entirety? If you had, you would have seen that I never quoted St. Augustine and that this post doesn’t actually contain a single line from St. Augustine’s teachings. It does, however, contain a passage from C. S. Lewis’s Four Loves in which C. S. Lewis discusses and paraphrases what he believes to be “a method of dissuading us from inordinate love of the fellow-creature” outlined by St. Augustine in his Confessions. I assume that is what you are talking about.

      Whether or not C. S. Lewis is accurate in his understanding and interpretation of what St. Augustine is saying is certainly debatable. I, myself, just went and looked at my copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions and read the passage C. S. Lewis is referring to. I was surprised to find that C. S. Lewis probably made a mistake in assuming that the friend St. Augustine was discussing was indeed Nebridius, it seems instead to have been some other unnamed friend; however, his interpretation of St. Augustine’s point still seems be a valid one and while it’s up for debate it is also a conclusion that can be inferred from the text.

      Having said that, my post wasn’t really about St. Augustine, at all, but rather how C. S. Lewis’s paraphrasing of St. Augustine was taken out of context and also wrongly attributed to C. S. Lewis, as a sentiment he wished to express. It’s funny and a bit ironic that the very same thing seems to have happened now, to me, with my post about context; i. e., my post is being taken out of context and C. S. Lewis’s paraphrasing of St. Augustine is now being wrongly attributed to me.

      While I would be open to deliberating on and debating what St. Augustine really meant and whether or not C. S. Lewis’s interpretation is really accurate, I’m not really interested in doing so with someone who doesn’t seem to understand the very basics of my post.

      I’m not exactly sure what kind of “guidance” you’re looking for, but I’ve added an extra paragraph to the beginning and ending of my C. S. Lewis passage to give it even more context and hopefully help you better understand what C. S. Lewis is saying. If after giving everything a thorough read you still feel I, personally, am taking St. Augustine out of context in this post, and would like to discuss it further, then I’d like to request that you please first explain in detail exactly how, where, and why you believe that to be the case. Thanks and have a pleasant day.

  2. Boon Peng Phng says :

    I googled this for reference and sincerely look forward to your guidance on the matter. Have a pleasant day.


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