Christianity & Suspicion: C.S. Lewis & Sigmund Freud on Joy, Pleasure & the Rationality of Religious Belief

C.S. Lewis readingThe centerpiece of C.S. Lewis’ writings, indeed, what he considered to be the central story of his life,[1] was what he called Joy.  Lewis, the renowned Oxford literary critic and popular Christian author, described Joy as a longing for glory, Sehnsucht, as he sometimes called it.  For Lewis, “glory meant good report with God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things.  The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”[2]  Lewis’ most extensive treatise on Joy was a sermon he preached in the Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, entitled “The Weight of Glory.”[3]  He described Joy as “the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves….” He continued:

Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter….But all this is a cheat….The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.  These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.  For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[4]

It was this element of Lewis’ experience that set him against Sigmund Freud, Freudian criticism and psychoanalysis more than anything else.  For Lewis saw Joy as having to “be sharply distinguished from Happiness and Pleasure.”[5]  He clearly has Freud’s “pleasure principle” in mind when he writes in his autobiography, “Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy.  I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”[6]

Freud had no place for such an idea in his philosophy.  Indeed, Armand M. Nicholi notes, “…Freud’s view of happiness emerges as fundamental to his materialist view of the world, and certainly Lewis’s definition reflects his spiritual life.”[7]  Freud defined happiness in terms of sexual satisfaction.  He treats the subject at length in chapter II of his Civilization and Its Discontents.  “Happiness,” Freud writes, “…is a problem of satisfying a person’s instinctual wishes….What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been damned up to a high degree….”[8]  He sees sexual love as having “given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness.”[9]  Freud describes human existence as follows:

They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.  This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim.  It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.  In its narrower sense the word ‘happiness’ only relates to the last…. As we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle.[10]

The aim of life is “simply the programme of the pleasure principle,” the “search for happiness,” and, since the pleasure or happiness he has in mind is, at bottom, sexual, sex is, therefore, the end for which we do all things.  Of course, we do many things that do not seem sexual in nature, like playing ping-pong, or writing dry philosophical essays, or reading the newspaper.  But Freud believes these activities and pleasures to be merely sublimations of sexual desires.  Such sublimations are necessary due to the fact that straightforward sexual pleasure is by nature periodic, being sometimes socially unacceptable (as, for instance, in a board meeting or at Christmas dinner) and, as even the most profligate barfly has discovered, very often elusive.

C.S. Lewis pipesmokingLewis, on the other hand, believes that “The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water.”[11]  Thus, it is not at all surprising that Lewis should find Freud’s analysis to be woefully deficient.  But the question remains whether or not Lewis’s dissatisfaction can actually yield an argument against Freud’s views.

Lewis thought that it could. We find Lewis’s fullest statement of his argument against Freudianism in his essay, “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism.” It is worth quoting him at length:

I am sometimes tempted to wonder whether Freudianism is not a great school of prudery and hypocrisy…. Does not Freud underrate the extent to which nothing, in private, is really shocking so long as it belongs to ourselves?… The feeling with which we reject the psychoanalytic theory of poetry is not one of shock.  It is not even a vague disquietude or an unspecified reluctance.  It is a quite definite feeling of anticlimax, of frustration….
In general, of course, the fact that a supposed discovery is disappointing does not tend to prove that it is false: but in this question I think it does, for desires and fulfillments and disappointments are what we are discussing.  If we are disappointed at finding only sex where we looked for something more, then surely the something more had a value for us?  If we are conscious of loss in exchanging the garden for the female body, then clearly the garden added something more than concealment, something positive, to our pleasure.  Let us grant that the body was, in fact, concealed behind the garden: yet since the removal of the garden lowers the value of the experience, it follows that the body gained some of its potency by association with the garden.  We have not merely removed a veil, we have removed ornaments.  Confronted with what is supposed to be the original (the female body) we still prefer the translation—from which any critic must conclude that the translation had merits of its own.  Or perhaps “prefer” is the wrong word.  We really want both.  Poetry is not a substitute for sexual satisfaction, nor sexual satisfaction for poetry.  But if so, poetical pleasure is not sexual pleasure simply in disguise.  It is, at worst, sexual pleasure plus something else, and we really want the something else for its own sake.[12]

This passage is the most concise critique that Lewis leveled at Freud.  If sex is the underlying motive of all we do, if that is what we really want, then why is it that we are so disappointed when sex is all we find?  “What does not satisfy when we find it,” writes Lewis, “was not the thing we were desiring.”[13]

On Thursday we will turn to look at Alvin Plantinga’s response to Freud and Marx and his defense of of the rationality of Christian faith….

Marx, Nietzsche and Freud

[1] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 17

[2] Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” p. 15

[3] The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses

[4] Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” pp. 6-7

[5] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 17-18

[6] Ibid, p. 170

[7] Nicholi, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life p. 99

[8] As quoted by Nicholi, p. 100

[9] Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 33

[10] Ibid, p. 25

[11] Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 52

[12] Lewis, “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism,” in Selected Literary Essays pp. 294-295

[13] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 128


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