I just finished reading Arend Smilde’s article “Horrid Red Herrings: A New Look at the ‘Lewisian Argument from Desire’ – and Beyond” in the current issue of the Journal of Inklings Studies. It took me a long time to read because I kept getting distracted by looking things up, both in Lewis and in his sources.
On the one hand, I think Smilde (and Norbert Feinendegen, whose work he is using) are right to dismiss the idea that Lewis is presenting a syllogistic “argument” for the existence of God in the famous passages in which he speaks of unfulfilled desire as a pointer to something beyond this world. On the other hand, what he’s doing in those passages seems to me to be an important and valuable example of aesthetic apologetics, a different kind of “argument” that appeals to the imagination rather than to reason. As he himself says, in such passages he is trying to “weave a spell,” which is different from constructing a proof, but still potentially powerful epistemologically. Smilde agrees with this, at least as a possibility. He suggets that Lewis is working with an idea of “convergence” that requires more exploration.
My first reaction to the article is to think that an important missing piece in understanding those desire passages is the idea of final causation, an idea that was self-evident to reflective people prior to the scientific revolution. When pre-Enlightenment people talk about desire, they are typically talking about final cause. When we post-Enlightenment people think about desire, or goal, or teleology, we understand those concepts in terms of actions of the human subject. But pre-Enlightenment people were more apt to understand the human person as the object who was being acted upon, being drawn toward a goal or telos by means of the awakening of desire. When we think about the purpose of human life, we tend to think about goal-setting and strategic planning and setting a course – actions that we perform. When they thought about the purpose of human life, they tended to think about God’s “magnetic mercy” (see “Footnote to All Prayers”, one of my very favorite Lewis poems). Thomas Aquinas says that final cause can be understood in terms of Beauty, since the Beautiful is that which draws or attracts. In that construal, the causal agent is Beauty, and we are the ones being acted upon.
One of Lewis’s possible sources for the idea that “Nature does nothing in vain” is Thomas Browne’s Religio Midici. Lewis was referencing Browne in letters to Greeves and to his brother already in 1927. Browne includes a quick overview of the four causes at the beginning of the second section of the Religio, privileging final cause as connected to God’s Providence. The very next paragraph begins: “Natura agit nihil frustra” i.e., “Nature does nothing in vain”. I’m not claiming Browne is Lewis’s only source for that idea; as Smilde notes, it’s an oft-repeated theme in various sources that Lewis knew well. I just want to point out that at least one of Lewis’s sources makes explicit that the assumption behind this little proverb is the reality of final cause.
The problem with final cause is that it’s not detectable using the tools of science, and so in the 20th century it was fashionable for scientists to declare that it didn’t exist, that there is no such thing as teleology. This would seem to be a reason why Lewis would be careful not to present a teleological understanding of the world as any sort of proof, since he certainly knew that in our day such an approach would be seen as irrational. Of course, the fact that scientists dismiss something as irrational doesn’t mean it really is irrational. I myself find final cause to be beautifully rational. (I also think that the doctrine of predestination is made much more comprehensible when understood in terms of final cause rather than efficient cause, but that’s a post for another day.)
One chapter in my sabbatical book is on desire and final causation, so I’m sure I’ll be returning to this subject. For now, I have a paper written during my grad school days (a long time ago!) on aesthetic teleology in Charles Williams, Simone Weil, and C. S. Lewis; it’s posted under Resources. I know a good deal more about teleology and final cause now than I did then, but I still find that paper entertaining.