The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis
One of the more obscure books by C.S. Lewis, this short volume (of about 130 pages in the paperback I read) spends its time talking about four loves from a perspective that blends Lewis’ interests in literature, his Christian beliefs, and his canny observation of human behavior, and not least his own self-knowledge. In a sense, the book is a very extended discussion of a principle Lewis repeats often from Thomas a Kempis’ noted work , The Imitation Of Christ: “The highest does not stand without the lowest (9).” Feeling himself somewhat unqualified to discuss the highest parts of agape love, or charity, he spends his time productively discussing the more accessible reaches of the four types of love as described by the Greeks in approaching God or attempting to supplant what is proper love for God with unreasonable demands for supremacy. The result is a book that is both marked by considerable intellectual skill and also a great deal of humble personal reflection, and there is a lot of Lewis’ own life that can be profitably read into the indirect comments that are made.
The contents of this book are given very straightforwardly. The author first discusses his failed attempts to separate love into gift-love and need-love, which describe the disinterested way in which we give love to others in imitation of God and the way in which our love reflects our neediness and the need to fill our appetites. This did not lead him to reject any discussion of these distinctions, as he continues to discuss elements of these in the rest of the book, but he was led to ponder the difference between the nearness to God by likeness, in our possession of the image and likeness of God and our nearness to God by approach, by which we come closest to Him as children in a loving relationship with our heavenly Father and our elder brother Jesus Christ. He then moves on to discuss the likings and loves for the subhuman, like our fondness for pets or nature. The rest of the book is taken up in examination of the four types of love defined in Greek: storge (or natural affection), phileo (or friendship), eros (or romantic love), and agape (or charity). The three human types of love are examined in their glories as well as their dangers, the ways in which they combine with others and the way that they can be distinguished, and the author separates eros from what he terms as Venus, that is, merely sexuality, although he discusses the despotic claims of the first three types of love and the way that those despotic claims do harm to others.
The book, as a result, feels somewhat like a very learned theological or academic work and also like among Lewis’ most deeply personal works , like Surprised By Joy, in that the book combines elevated language and a clear rhetorical structure with the use of striking personal discussions that are worthy of some comment. For example, Lewis discusses his own appreciation of eros as a married middle aged man, discusses the tyrannical affections of his first common-law wife, the dangers of eros leading to all kinds of dishonorable behavior, as it did in his youth, and even in his adulthood with Joy, and the dangers of a group of like-minded friends (like the Inklings) becoming a society where each of them seeks the professional advancement of others, and the way that the death of friends, like Charles Williams, causes a loss in extended friendships because we lose the part of our friends that was brought out by other friends. Although this book is a very short one, it is a worthwhile book that reminds us of the complexity of love as it is experienced and conceived by human beings, and gives many ways that love has gone wrong in this present world, reminding us that only God has a right to serve as our lawmaker, as we cannot trust our domestic affections, cliquish friendships, or romantic passions to make us just judges in our lives. Although an unusual book, and likely a difficult one for readers not familiar with Lewis’ textual apparatus, this is a worthwhile book in our decadent times.
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