Plotinus and C.S. Lewis on “Looking Along”

C.S. Lewis explained the anthropomorphism of the ancients in terms of psychology. How did they think about reality? He concludes that they did not think in terms of “literal” versus “metaphorical” but they thought of things in pictures. “Deep” meant “death,” “spirit” and “life” were synonymous, so “sex” and “love”, etc. Modern man categorizes all things in a bifurcated manner. We seek to either “look at” the object or “look along.” For example, Lewis recounts his experience of seeing a sunbeam through a hole in the roof of a toolshed. If he stood beside the sunbeam and examined it he thought of it in terms of its hugh, brightness, and so on. But if he stepped within the sunbeam he actually began to experience the effects which cannot be perfectly quantified. The problem with many modern scientists, says Lewis, is that they believe that “looking at” the sunbeam is sufficient for gaining a complete knowledge of that subject without actually experiencing or “looking along.”


As I was reading through Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus I found very interesting similarities between Lewis’s thought on beauty, myth, and metaphor and Plotinus’s beliefs concerning the Forms, Nature, and Life.  For Plotinus the Forms of things are like Hieroglyphs, which are little pictures of incarnate knowledge. He explains:

In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality …. Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.” (Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9, as cited in Hadot, p. 40.)

For Plotinus, like many others, these Forms are the life principle behind things which come to be when the Intellect contemplates itself. Man cannot know these forms as a scientist or metaphysician seeks to know the cause of a particular anomaly or thing. Rather, man must put aside the natural desire to know the cause, because there is no separate cause to be found. Contemplation must take the place of reflection.

hieroglyphsThe Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts. For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of its beauty …. It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and – as is fitting – submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe. (Enneads, III 8, 11, 26-33, in Hadot, p. 43.)

It is no wonder that Augustine liked Plotinus, who became for him a praeparatio evangelicae. All of this has a bit to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural. Even nature points beyond herself, being infused with a copy of God’s own beauty that calls us to look beyond to that Beauty that is desired for its own sake. Nature is inherently mythical. When we attempt to “look at” apart from experiences our gaze into the mirror will produce a mere reflection of ourselves.


The Telos of the City of Man: The Effects of Sin on Natural Law


Tower of Babel

Now there was need for man to receive a precept about loving God and his neighbor, because in thus respect the natural law had become obscured on account of sin:  but not about the duty of loving oneself, because in this respect the natural law retained its vigor: or again, because love of oneself is contained in the love of God and of one’s neighbor:  since the true self-love consists in directing oneself to God. (ST I-II, Q. 100, a. 5.)

This is important since many think that Thomas considered the faculty of reason to be unaffected by original sin. Further, we must remember that the natural law does not consist of innate propositional knowledge per se but is a reflection of creation working in a certain order.  Animals seek to fulfill their own natural inclinations toward the ends for which they were created.  Humans seek to order the passions in accord with reason for the purpose of achieving happiness.  Complete natural law must be Christian; not because faith takes the place of natural knowledge, but because the natural man will never order his passions toward the true telos, which is God himself, without divine guidance.  Of course no one’s nature will be perfected until that final end has been fulfilled, and so not even a Christian will function according to a complete natural law.  That is why we need divine revelation.  

But, does this leave us saying that the natural man’s use of practical reason is the same as that of the Christian? Yes and no.  The two may look identical.  We both live in the City of Man, acquiring the virtues that pertain to that city, and we both make mistakes – horrible ones at that.  However, there is also the “no” part of the answer.  If Thomas believed there was a need for man to receive a precept for loving God and loving one’s neighbor and that this precept did not contradict natural liberty but somewhat restored it (not w/out his grace of course)  then it seems that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity function in some way to restore the natural law.  Thomas says that when Adam lost his original justice he also lost the ability to easily order his passions by the use of natural law – reason directing the will to the right end.  

Should we say that the supernatural virtues only count for the City of God and therefore do not perfect man’s behavior in the City of Man?  I definitely think we should avoid the idea that just because a society is Christian or that by Christianizing culture in its various forms it will be better than the city of the noble pagans.  Should we force the bluebirds to sing Gospel? or paint crosses on all the rocks and trees? Nature does not need our help to be Christian.  This is exactly my point.  Nature is perfected by grace, the natural law by the supernatural virtues. Ransom raised Mr. Bultitude (a bear) up to a higher level of being – he didn’t just paint a cross on his chest (I’m referring to That Hideous Strength).  A twisted nature needs grace both to heal and perfect. The City of Man will become the City of God from the inside out.  If the natural law within a person becomes more perfect by being directed to God, the true end of all things, then I believe it should be our hope that this participation in the New Jerusalem will produce supernatural effects within our earthly city.  The whole universe is being sharpened and brought to a point.  The telos for the City of God ends with the vision of his essence.  The telos for the City of Man and the “natural law” that governs it ends in nothingness. When Merlin asked Ransom if they could not, as a last resort, look to the noble heathen for help against that hideous strength Ransom shook his head, “You do not understand,” he said:  

The poison was brewed in the West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now.  However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds:  men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven.  You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light.  The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus. (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, p. 290)

We should recognize the lineaments of man’s first abode that still remain in the City of Man but we should also be aware of its end and the goal of the reason of its citizen. 

“The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down.”


We tend to think about non-human intelligences in two distinct categories which we label “scientific” and “supernatural” respectively.  We think, in one mood, of Mr. Well’s Martians (very unlike the real Malacandrians, by the bye), or his Selenites.  In quite a different mood we let our minds loose on the possibility of angels, ghosts, fairies, and the like.  But the very moment we are compelled to recognize a creature in either class as real the distinction begins to get blurred:  and when it is a creature like an eldil the distinction vanishes altogether.  These things were not animals – to that extent one had to classify them with the second group; but they had some kind of material vehicle whose presence could (in principle) be scientifically verified.  To that extent they belonged to the first group.  The distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down; and when it had done so, one realized how great a comfort it had been – how it had eased the burden of intolerable strangeness which this universe imposes on us by dividing it into two halves and encouraging the mind never to think of both in the same context. (C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 11)

Nature Reaches to the Heavens

As he continued crossing ridges and gullies he was struck with their extreme steepness; but somehow they were not very difficult to cross.


He noticed, too, that even the smallest hummocks of earth were of an unearthly shape – too narrow, too pointed at the top and too small at the base.  He remembered that the waves on the blue lakes had displayed a similar oddity. And glancing up at the purple leaves he saw the same theme of perpendicularity – the same rush to the sky – repeated there.  They did not tip over at the ends; vast as they were, air was sufficient to support them so that the long aisles of the forest all rose to a kind of fan tracery.  And the sorns, likewise – he shuddered as he thought it – they too were madly elongated.  He had sufficient science to guess that he must be on a world lighter than the Earth, where less strength was needed and nature was set free to follow her skyward impulse on a superterrestrial scale. (C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, p. 49)

C.S. Lewis Puts Reason ‘Out There’

In so far as thought is merely human, merely a characteristic of one particular biological species, it does not explain our knowledge.  Where thought is strictly rational it must be, in some odd sense, not ours, but cosmic or super-cosmic.  It must be something not shut up inside our heads but already ‘out there’ – in the universe or behind the universe: either as objective as material Nature or more objective still.  Unless all that we take to be knowledge is an illusion, we must hold that in thinking we are not reading rationality into an irrational universe but responding to a rationality with which the universe has always been saturated. (“De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, p. 65)

Lewis does such a great job of displaying the contradiction of enlightenment thought. He makes nature sound so much better.  I was told a while back that Lewis says many things that mesh with what Van Til sought to do with his focus on presuppositions.  I definitely agree, with this exception:  where Van Til considered the standard mainly in terms of special revelation Lewis spoke of it as naturally implanted in man and assumed by the particularly human faculty of reason.  

He was a realist reader of old books – very much Medieval.  This can be seen in his utilization of imagination and his love of myth.  Without a proper view of nature one cannot have a proper love of myth. Detrimental to the Christian faith is this understanding of myth since, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” (Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock, p. 66) Myth allows one to come down from abstraction, speaking or thinking in the realm of facts, and experience those facts.  “It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.” (Ibid) The enlightenment bend toward solipsism is a rebellion against nature and therefore lacks imagination and appreciation for myth.  Only in the Christian story is nature perfected, not destroyed. Only with Christ does the myth become fact. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth:  Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” (Ibid., 67)