The Friday Clive

From The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 29 May 1918. Note: Lewis's conversion to Christianity happened in 1931.  I love seeing the chronology of Lewis's thinking and believing.

"The thing in your last letter with which I most want to disagree is the remark about Beauty and nature: apparently I did not make myself clear. You say that nature is beautiful because of its shape, colour and motions, and perhaps a little because of association. Now these colours etc are sensations in my eye, produced by vibrations on the aether between me and the tree; the real tree is something quite different - a combination of colourless, shapeless, invisible atoms. It follows then that neither the tree, nor any other material object can be beautiful in itself: I can never see them as they are, and if I could it would give me no delight. The beauty therefore is not in matter at all, but is something purely spiritual, arising mysteriously out of the relation between me & the tree: or perhaps as I suggest in my Song, out of some indwelling spirit behind the matter of the tree - the Dryad in fact. You see the conviction is gaining ground that after all Spirit does exist; and that we come in contact with the spiritual element by means of these "thrills." I fancy that there is Something right outside time & place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter's great enemy: and that Beauty is the call of the spirit in that something to the spirit in us. You see how frankly I admit that my views have changed."


chris said…
hi Di,

thanks for the curious and starkly manichean passage. when i looked at it last week, i thought there was something odd about it that i couldn't quite into focus, so i didn't comment. but now i think i've got it: it's that in the passage Lewis seems to have a limited conception of the beautiful. there's a whole tradition--of which I imagine Lewis must have had some knowledge when he wrote the letter--according to which the natural sciences reveal an initially invisible beauty in the way all the smallest bits of the material world interact with each other, and compose the larger and directly perceivable bits of the material world. It's a kind of beauty you don't have a straightforward perceptual access to: you "get" it by "seeing" the beauty of the mathematics that describes nature at the most fundamental level, and also at higher levels. (so you see the beauty of the mathematical representation of how light is propagated, and also the beauty of the mathematical representation of how our visual system represents the world around us, given the inputs to our optic nerve.) anyone who had had experience of that kind of beauty would never say "so beauty is not in matter at all", much less think that the spiritual/beautiful and the material are enemies. the passage makes me think that Lewis must have had a very one-sided education (something that wouldn't suprise me, given the way (even now) the english educational system forces people to specialize prematurely in either the natural sciences or the humanities.)

--a kind of beauty we are aware of non-perceptually and in a way indirectly

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