the imaginative conservative logo

Four Hearts 1969 by Jim Dine born 1935C. S. Lewis once complained that “Romanticism” was “a word of such varying senses that it has become useless and should be banished from our vocabulary.”[1] Apart from “the vulgar sense in which a ‘romance’ means simply ‘a love affair,’” Lewis distinguished a further seven kinds of things which are called “romantic.” The paradox is that those words that have had too many different meanings attached to them suffer from a degradation of meaning. If something means anything it begins to mean nothing!

Even were we to agree with Lewis in desiring the banishment of such words, the desire is beyond fulfillment. A language is a living thing. It evolves with use. But the desire is not only impracticable and unrealistic; it is also undesirable. The banishment of words from our vocabulary would necessitate an Orwellian control over the language. Lewis understood this, of course. He was speaking purely rhetorically.

The solution to the problem of solitary words having too many meanings is not their banishment from the language but our learning of the many meanings. The more this is achieved, the more is our ability to communicate enlarged, adding new layers of nuance. At the lowest level, this improved communication makes itself manifest in the employment of puns and the enjoyment of double entendres, whereas, at the most edifying level, it exhibits itself pyrotechnically in the dazzle and delight and the dash and dare of the greatest poetry, such as that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which the multiple meanings, impregnating each word with life-giving power, ascend to the heavens to which all true meaning points.

Having said this, and at the risk of seeming to contradict myself, I would d like to suggest that the word “love” has so many meanings that I am tempted to echo Lewis by saying that it “has become useless and should be banished from our vocabulary.” Like Lewis, I am being rhetorical, knowing that the desire is neither practical nor indeed desirable. Nonetheless, the protest must be made that “love,” in the sense in which it used by the modern world, has absolutely nothing in common with the sense in which it used by Christians. For the modern world, love is a feeling, an emotional attraction to someone or something. It is, therefore, fundamentally irrational, a mere mood. The feeling fluctuates. It can be ecstatic or excruciating. It can take us high or leave us low. It makes us red-hot with passion or it gives us the blues. It is, in the poetic fluttering of Bob Lind’s lyrics, only an elusive butterfly which, to misquote Rodgers and Hammerstein, flits and floats, fleetly flees and flies.

How does such an understanding of love compare with the love of the Christian? Since God is Love Himself, it or, more correctly, He, is neither irrational nor fleeting. On the contrary, He is the source and summit of all reason and is the one thing compared with whom all else merely flits fleetingly and flies. Modern “love” has nothing to do with this Divine Love. Indeed it is antithetical to it, or Him.

Put simply and definitively, Christian love is to love as Christ loved. It is to lay down our lives for our friends and our enemies. It is to die to ourselves so that we may live for others. It is not an irrational feeling but a rational choice. It is to choose to put aside our selfishness so that we can give ourselves selflessly to God and our neighbours. It is to accept suffering as Christ accepted suffering. It is to make the conscious and rational choice to do good, which is synonymous with love, and to avoid evil, which is synonymous with the absence of love.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailAll of this leads me back to C. S. Lewis and specifically to his book, The Four Loves, which seems to confuse the essence of love, which is always a rational choice, with the accidental qualities that are often associated with love, such as the feelings that might be attached to it. Thus Lewis distinguishes four different loves: affection (storge), friendship (philia), eros, and charity (agape). The problem is that he is putting the accidental quality of love, the feeling that may (or may not) be attached to it, with the thing itself. It is true that the type of “love” that we have towards our parents, our children, our spouses, and our friends will differ in terms of the feelings attached to them, but the love is not defined by the feeling but by the rational choice to give ourselves to the other person self-sacrificially. If we behave selfishly in our relationships with our parents, children, spouses, and friends, we are not loving them. If we are no longer “in love” (eros) with our spouse, true love demands that we continue to lay down our life for him or her; it does not give us the right to desert our spouse in favour of another with whom we now feel “in love.”

The problem at the confused heart of Lewis’s treatise on love is not so much the four loves, which forms the bulk of his argument, but the two loves with which he introduces it. Lewis distinguishes between Gift-love and Need-love, creating an unnecessary and ultimately erroneous dualism as the impetus for his reasoning. Gift-love is the self-giving, which I have argued is the essence of love itself which has its source in the dynamic self-giving of the Trinitarian God; Need-love is “that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother’s arms.”[2] This would seem an enticing and even a seductive argument. Most of us, after all, have experienced the love of a mother and have experienced as children the loneliness or fear which led us to our mother’s arms. Yet the need for love and the feelings attached to such need is not love itself but the need for it. The need for food will lead us to eat and the need for water will lead us to drink, but the need is not the food nor drink themselves but only the appetite for them. In the analogy that Lewis employs, the love is not in the need for the mother’s arms but in the mother’s arms themselves. And let’s not forget that the same “need-love” that sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother’s arms also sends older children, similarly lonely and frightened, into the arms of illicit sexual partners, or into the hands of drug-dealers and other dealers in “comfort.”

With all due respect to C. S. Lewis, to whom I am indebted as to few others, there are not two loves or four loves but only One. In a rational act of self-giving which springs from the rational heart of the Trinity of Persons Whom He is, the One Love gives Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is Love, and He shows us what love is, in who He is and what He does. This One Love is the source of all love, and all love, taking up its cross as the One Love took up His, leads us to the Father of Love Himself. This is the Happy Ending to which all love leads.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Afterword to the Third Edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, paperback edition, 1992), p. 200

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Collins/Fontana Books, 1963), p. 7

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. Joseph and I agree on a lot of things, but we’ll have to part company here. I like Lewis’ approach because Lewis is being far more human in describing what is, after all, a human phenomena.

    Who makes a ‘rational choice’ for any love? When a family adopts a stray dog as a pet, did they first sit down and enumerate various reasons, pro and con? The same is true of that uncle with an odd sense of humor or the friend that we never seem to agree with. Romantic love can be the oddest of all, often bringing together total opposites.

    Love often simply happens. It’s not the result of any calculated, rationale choice. I suspect Lewis is getting love right, while Joseph is confusing love with commitment, which does require at least a choice, rationale or not.

    I also like Lewis’ approach because it is so contrary to the typical one you find in many sermons. In them, eros is equated to lust and hence bad. Philia is seen as second rate because both benefit and hence to be gone beyond. And finally, agape is seen as the only really love and made as difficult as possible. Loving a cute pet, a helpful relative, and a charming wife is looked down on in order to sermonize about being nice to a jerk you hardly know. Sorry, but the Bible is filled with God and those acting for Him being a bit other than nice to jerks.

    Joseph seems to be returning to the old sermon model that Lewis rightly rejected.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Theism and Humanism: The Book that Influenced C. S. Lewis

  2. I think that the source of love is just One, but we can reflect and expand it like little mirrors reflecting the light of the sun. It´s a “rational choice” as long as we can accept or reject that Love that God is offering to us. Once accepted, the consecuences are not totally under our control, while once rejected, we wouldn´t probably be able to “love” another person further than our interest is telling us to do (p.e. to continue loving a wife when she´s old). Without Grace we could have eros but not agape.

    For Lewis, I think this idea was similar to how, in the opposite side, temptation works. Devil tempts us, but also uses us to temp other people. I think, as far as I´ve read him, for Lewis love, coming from God, tends to expand in a similar way.

  3. Lewis is describing four “aspects” of love, and Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” insists that Eros and Agape are indeed two of love’s aspects, which, though they seem contradictory, must always be united, for Love is one, as God is one. Benedict argues that while Eros without Agape tends to become mere lust, Agape without Eros becomes a kind of clinical, disinterested benevolence that ultimately does not value the other. If Lewis’ work helps redeem Eros for Christians (as Michael W. Perry implies it does in his comment above), it is doing a great deal of good. I’ve written more about this here –

  4. Joseph Pearce’s insistence that divine love be dispassionate rationality leads him to reject C.S. Lewis’ book “The Four Loves.” But doesn’t it also lead him to reject the depiction of divine love in the Four Gospels?

    In the final chapters of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” Dante the Pilgrim, after his arrival in Heaven, is given a series of theological exams before he is allowed to advance further in Heaven. Is that what Heaven is really like? Is that what God is really like? Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” was an endeavor to dramatize the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

    I think a reading of the writings of Thomas Aquinas can give one the idea that being Christian means being dispassionately good. But the person of Jesus, not philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, is the model for Christians. Jesus the person is the model of divine love. When we read of the life of Jesus in the Gospels, do we see someone who was rational and dispassionate?

    Was Jesus like a Stoic philosopher? In a famous episode in the writings of a certain Stoic philosopher, there is depicted an incident in which neighbors were critical of a father, a Stoic philosopher, whose young child had just died. This Stoic father wasn’t crying or upset at all. The father, being a good Stoic, defended himself by saying, “Why should I cry or be distressed? I knew he wasn’t immoral.” Is that the way Jesus acted? Jesus cried when informed that his beloved friend Lazarus has died. Was that rational? Jesus on the cross cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” Was that rational?

    The whole of the Gospels rebuke the assertion that divine love is rational, dispassionate and unemotional. Even the letters of Paul the Apostle rebuke that assertion. St. Paul’s New Testament letters are sock full of passion and emotions. We see in his letters joy, anger, determination, tenderness, and more. St. Paul was a scholar, but rational? Not really. Was St. Paul’s conversion event based on rationality? Hardly! St. Paul’s letters are nothing like the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

    Even Thomas Aquinas in his last day rejected his own writing after having a personal, private, strongly emotional mystical experience with God. He is reported to have said, “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed.” That’s divine love.

    Joseph Pearce titled his memoir “Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love.” I suspect that Mr. Pearce could have used this subtitle instead: “My Journey from Rational Hatred to Rational Love.” I suspect that Mr. Pearce was very rational in his racism back in his youthful days as a white supremacist activist. I have read Mr. Pearce’s memoir, and I recall that in those days Mr. Pearce was a very informed and scientific racist. Racists of the kind that Mr. Pearce was are very logical and rational in their views. They quote statistics. They know evolutionary theory. They know sociology. They know history. They have a very rational, systematic and complete view of human existence. My speculation is that, upon becoming a Christian, Mr. Pearce sought out and found a form of Christianity would provide him with another very rational, systematic and complete view of human existence. He found that, I think, in the Catholic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. I am very glad that Mr. Pearce abandoned racism and became a Christian. But I wonder if his devotion to rationality isn’t hindering his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    So what is divine love then, exactly? How can it be defined? Perhaps too much laboring to define it can obscure it and impair the spread of it. There’s the famous line from “The Imitation of Christ” that says: “I would rather feel compunction, than know how to define it.” Perhaps love of God and love of neighbor are not acquired by rational analysis or choice, but rather are “caught” (by the elect, not by everyone) by hearing the Word of God preached, by seeing the Word of God obeyed even in the face of severe obstacles and persecution, & by seeing obedience to the Word of God bearing good fruit in family life and work life.

    Pilate, in his meeting with Jesus, was asking for some rational basis for Jesus’ actions. Jesus made no attempt to give Pilate the rational basis that his classical Greek education no doubt led him to demand. By contrast, Socrates, in his speech at his trial, gave an abundance of rational explanation. Jesus was no Socrates, and vice versa.

    Joseph Pearce has written a lot about writers such as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Shakespeare, Belloc, Oscar Wilde, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. But where is his book on Jesus Christ? I almost feel that Mr. Pearce may have spent so much time studying writers on the periphery that he has missed out on the greatest writer of all time: God Himself. How well does Mr. Pearce know Jesus, the person? How often does he quote Jesus rather than Chesterton or Tolkein? Jesus is not a grand system with glorious historical and civilizational pedigree. He’s not a system at all. Jesus is a Person.

    Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est)

    • Barto, you make some excellent points, and I totally agree with you on the love of Jesus and Paul being much more than what you call “rational”, by which you seem to mean cold or intellectual or merely logical, something devoid of emotion or passion.

      However, i know Joseph Pearce personally, and while you and I may both think his view of love in this article needs to be more expansive, so as to include Eros as well as Agape, it is not fair to imply, as you do, that Joseph is not Christ-centered, or that by quoting great Christians he is somehow slighting Jesus Christ. Joseph Pearce is, on the contrary, one of the most genuine and devout Christians I know.

      I would also suggest that the term “rational” is not the right word to describe what you’re describing. It is not “irrational” to weep at the death of Lazarus. It is not “irrational” for St. Paul to write passionately to his churches. What is rational goes well beyond mere dispassionate logic. We use our rational capacity when we appreciate art or music or literature, for example. It is a mistake to think, as many do, that the mind is divorced from the soul, or the head from the heart. Jesus was the most complete man who ever lived (in addition to being God), and He showed us the fullness of what it means to be human. He showed us that love and the emotions and “passions” (sufferings) that go with it are entirely holy and eminently “rational” in the true sense of the word.

  5. Love not me for comely grace,
    For my pleasing eye or face,
    Nor for any outward part,
    No, nor for my constant heart,—-
    For those may fail, or turn to ill
    So thou and I shall sever:
    Keep therefore a true woman’s eye,
    And love me still, but know not why,—-
    So hast thou the same reason still
    To doat upon me ever!

    – Anonymous (1609)

    My main confusion with Mr. Pearce’s essay is the use of the word ‘rational’. And maybe I misunderstand the word, but when one says that Christ’s love is rational, my immediate response is to then ask “okay, then why does he love me? What is his rationale behind this Love?” And try as I may, I just can’t arrive at a satisfying answer. I can offer up no claim to merit Christ’s love. All I know is that, like the little children’s song, the bible tells me that he does. The bible tells me that God is Love, that God is good, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” But the why doesn’t seem to be there. As the anonymous poet above recognizes, a Love that has any hope of lasting does not rationalize or need a reason, it just does, or as the apostle Paul puts it, Love simply is; it is patient, it is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast.

    As sinful people, we may find ourselves rationalizing our way to acts of love, saying to ourselves “if I want to act in love towards my wife I must be more patient with her and treat her kindly.” But in those moments when we are living out of love we will inherently treat one another kindly, if we are full of love it would be quite impossible to do otherwise.

    When asked why we give to the poor we may rightly point to scripture and say; “because Christ told me to care for them.” That answer is by no means inadequate or wrong. We are told many times to imitate Christ, to imitate the apostles as they walk in love, that through this act of imitation this love might eventually catch a hold of our own hearts.

    But when we have the rare chance to meet someone who truly abides in love, and we ask “why do you love this your enemy?”, I imagine the answer will quite simply be “because I love him.” That, or a look of confusion, a shrug, and “I know not why.”

    You can’t ask why about love.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: